This evening, Profs. David Ruderman (University of Pennsylvania) and Steven Vanden Broecke (University of Ghent), co-lectured on “God and Nature: Jews, Christians and the Challenge of Early Modern Science. A Textual Dialogue”, as part of the UCSIA / IJS – Chair on Jewish-Christian Relations. David Ruderman presented us with a “Sermon for Rosh Hashanan that falls on a Sabbath” in which Azariah Figo (1579-1647) takes as his starting point the world as increasingly shaped by the scientific eye, and with the 1564 proposal for the foundation of a Jewish College at Mantua (a project that never came about). He pointed to three crucial features of Jewish communities in their response to the changing world of early modernity: (a) the natural world as an important resource for religion and spirituality; (b) the need not only to embrace nature, but also to improve it; (c) the covenantal relationship in which, if God can create, also human beings are called to create. Steven Vanden Broecke focussed on the Calvinist Philips Lansbergen’s (1561-1632) “Reflections on the Daily and Annual Course of the Earth. As Well as on the True Representation of the Visible Heavens, in Which Are Unveiled the Wondrous Works of God”. This works fits in the growing distrust of the senses (“popular errors”): if human beings want “to properly honour God with reason”, they should trust, not their direct perception of the world by their senses, but scientific reason. Only then will they be able to enter into communion with the visible and the invisible heavens.
Both lecturers showed great, fascinating and challenging erudition in their presentations. I was struck by the creative way in which the authors they discussed assimilated the growing scientific outlook on the world towards clarifying and deepening religious attitudes and the relationship to God. Maybe what most stimulated me is the Jewish idea that human beings may have to improve God’s work. Science and technology, at that moment of history and in Western Europe, at least in the examples given, were part of the religious endeavour. Of course, today’s situation – most certainly in the secularized parts of Western Europe – is very different, but Jews and Christians alike can most certainly learn from these early modern authors that their faith articulation may gain by taking serious consideration of the scientific outlook.
On March 7th, Profs. David Rudderman and Peter Stallybrass will co-lecture on “How Jews and Christians Read the Opening Chapters of the Book of Genesis. A Textual Dialogue”. Something to look forward to.