Project (2003-2005)

From Knowledge and Faith to Science and Religion: The Jesuit Way to Modernity

Rivka Feldhay's project was on a book manuscript about the Jesuit cultural field in early modernity. The book consisted of four sections:

  1. The Jesuit order was the historical agent who took upon itself the task to re-construct Catholic religious identity after the Protestant Reformation. This view is well anchored in the historical literature on confessionalization that suggests seeing both Reformation and Counter-reformation as parallel processes of collective identity construction. The Jesuits’ point of departure was a cultural field traditionally defined by faith on the one hand and knowledge on the other, complementing and illuminating one another. Hence the first section of the book deals with a reconstruction of the concept of faith in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, which was the textbook read in all Jesuit teaching institutions as the basis for their course in theology. The aim in this section of the book is to follow closely the re-interpretation of “faith” in the commentaries of the Summa written by two prominent Jesuit theologians: Franciscus Toletus (1533?–1596) and Gregorius de Valencia (1549–1603), in the last part of the sixteenth century. Thomas says that “faith is between knowledge (scientia) and opinion (opinio)”. Rivka Feldhay showed how this definition is re-interpreted while faith is being more or else identified with Church authority. This act of re-interpretation has deep impact on the cultural field, whose unity, embodied in the rich and dialectical concept of faith has been broken into three separate domains of knowledge, namely, (theological) science; applied science (moral theology); and history (biblical exegesis). In addition, those emotional, spiritual, mystical, and pastoral activities that also form aspects of Thomas’s notion of faith are now identified with practices of confessionalization, and are being differentiated from the realm of “knowledge” (scientia). This development already preconditions the transition from faith to religion in the modern sense consisting of a quasi-autonomous body of knowledge on the one hand, and collective identity on the other hand. Some parts of this section of the book were also published in Science in Context (2007) as a paper resulting from Department II’s project "Knowledge and Belief."


  • The second section dealt with Jesuit mathematicians’ attempts to develop a discourse on mathematical entities to justify their claims about the scientific status of the mathematical disciplines against some philosophers of the Society who claimed that “the mathematical disciplines are not proper sciences." In this section of the book a detailed reconstruction of the various strategies by which mathematics constituted itself as a science that enjoyed a quasi-autonomous status from the science of theology is presented. It also shows how Jesuit mathematicians succeeded in buttressing their authority vis-à-vis the philosophers of the society. This section is partly based on a paper entitled “The Use and Abuse of Mathematical Entities: Galileo and the Jesuits Revisited” published in P. Machamer (ed.), A Companion to Galileo, Cambridge University Press 1998, pp. 80-146.
  • The third section focuses on various practices of science teaching in Jesuit schools. As an example of formal teaching Rivka Feldhay analyzes an unknown manuscript of a course in mathematics that was given in the Jesuit college in Würzburg. As an example of informal teaching Feldhay deals with the public use made by Jesuits of “entertainment problems” in mathematics. Here Feldhay concentrates on a problem that was formulated by Jesuit mathematicians as emerging from the study of Archimedes. It deals with the conditions of possibility of the motion of the Earth either by natural motion as a result of the instability of its center of gravity, or artificially by an [imaginary] machine that would exercise enough power to lift it. This section is partly based on two published papers: “Mathematical Entities in Scientific Discourse: Paulus Guldin and his Dissertatio de motu terrae”, in L. Daston (ed.), Biographies of Scientific Objects, University of Chicago Press 2000, pp. 42-67 and “On Wonderful Machines: The Transmission of Mechanical Knowledge by Jesuits”, in Science and Education, 2006, vol. 15.
  • The fourth section deals with practices of confessionalization, among which Rivka Feldhay chose the practice of the spiritual exercises on the one hand, and the practice of school theater on the other. The part on school theate is based on a series of papers that were given in various conferences and scientific meetings, but never published.
  • The general argument of the book project is that by the end of the seventeenth century a place was prepared for “science” to become a separate socio-cultural category. At the same time, Catholicism recognized itself as a “religion”—comprising both a differentiated body of knowledge and collective identity constructed through a set of practices designed by an authoritative Church. Thus, traces of the modernity that defines itself through science and religion and the tension between them are already found in the structure and dynamics of the cultural field, as it was reconstructed by Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.