The wisdom Europe needs

December 14, 2008

• European leaders came to an historic agreement in Brussels last week to limit co2 emission levels to help save the environment.

• Just a few days earlier, Christian scientists and philosophers met to discuss the relationship between faith and science at the University of Leiden in Holland. 
• Also near Leiden, in 1642, two philosophers met in a castle to discuss this same topic-the interface of science and faith. Europe’s future, including that of her environment, would depend on which of these men’s views prevailed. 
• It still does.

French philosopher René Descartes, sometimes called the Father of Modern Philosophy, spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He had been lodging in Endegeest Castle for several months before his visitor arrived for their four-hour discussion. Descartes’ famous statement, Cogito ergo sum, was to mark a fresh beginning in Western thought based on rationalism. His dualism separated the physical from the spiritual, science from religion. 

Jan Amos Comenius, although exiled from his homeland at the time, also brought with him a reputation as one of Europe’s leading thinkers. He would earn himself the title Father of Modern Education and is today one of the Czech Republic’s national heroesComenius had developed a holistic or integrated philosophy called ‘pansophy’, meaning ‘all wisdom’, taken from Colossians 1:28: We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.

Wisdom for Comenius was more than simply knowledge of things. It involved knowing the relationships between all things. It meant knowing the right decisions to improve conditions and circumstances. It was the ‘fullness of the right knowledge’.

Respect & Reservation

Both men had prepared for their meeting by reading at least some of each other’s works. They approached each other with respect and reservation.

Comenius proposed a philosophy of unity with distinct but not separated fields of science, while Descartes objected to the integration of non-rational knowledge with science. 

The two men cordially exchanged arguments without convincing the other. They continued to hold different views on man and his world. The Frenchman, a practising Catholic, saw man as an observer of the world from the outside. The Czech, one of the last bishops in the Ancient Moravian Church, understood man as an inseparable part of something that had been a harmonious whole until disrupted by the Fall.

Comenius continued to criticise a science free of moral values which would result in the fragmentisation of the essence and existence of man. He foresaw accurately that separation of faith and natural science would lead men to ask what could be done rather than what ought be done. The Cartesian reductionist approach merely asked for causes, not meaning or destination, he objected.

Ring of gold

‘He who improves in scientific knowledge and thereby declines in moral knowledge, will end up in decline rather than progress,’ he wrote. Quoting from Proverbs 11:22, he said learnedness without virtue was ‘like a ring of gold in a pig’s nose’. 

How different Western history could have been had Comenius’ pansophy prevailed!  Today we find ourselves facing drastic measures to correct problems arising from Cartesian dualism. 

The scientists and philosophers who met recently in Leiden believe the answer lies in Comenius-style wisdom, integrating faith and science. Twenty-two Christian scholars complied the book, ‘Geleerd en gelovig’ (something like, ‘Scholars and believers’), presented to the Dutch Prime Minister on the occasion of the Veritas Forum.

Jan Peter Balkenende suggested that faith and science today were actually closer than often presumed. Both involved a search for truth that existed but could never be fully known. Faith didn’t make you better a scientist or politician, said the prime minister, but raised different questions. Take the environment debate, for example. We seek all sorts of technical solutions. But the question how to steward God’s creation and pass it on to the next generation, for him personally, had a spiritual dimension. 

‘That doesn’t make me a better politician morally,’ he admitted, ‘but it does shape my way of thinking.’

I, for one, think Europe would be a better place with more of this pansophy.

Till next week,

Till next week,


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