Many years ago I rashly volunteered to teach a 7th-8th grade Sunday school class at a rural and somewhat fundamentalist church, and, on my first Sunday on the job, was tasked with teaching the first three chapters of Second Samuel, which includes one of three accounts of the future King David presenting 200 Philistine foreskins as the bride price for Saul’s daughter Michal. Fortunately none of the kids had read their Bibles beforehand, so I did not feel compelled to explain the passage. I have since used it in arguments with Christian fundamentalists as an example of a Biblical passage whose relevance to spirituality and salvation is tenuous at best, one that no modern preacher would touch with a ten foot pole.
Perhaps I spoke to soon. Recently, reading a letter of Peter Damian (1007-1072), Benedictine monk, church reformer, and canonized saint, I encountered a commentary on the episode of the Philistine foreskins as an illustration of simony, and it seemed relevant not only to ecclesiastical appointments in the 11th century, but to the process of appointment and advancement in the sciences in American universities. If that seems like to wild a leap of speculation, consider at least that for many people in the West science has become the new religion, and that there are distinct parallels between a medieval bishop, supposed advocate for the spiritual well-being of the masses and defender of ecclesiastical purity, and a modern tenured professor or department head, who becomes the gatekeeper determining who is allowed to pursue a scientific career, what are legitimate objects of scientific inquiry, and what results are disseminated under the imprime of a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.
Simony is defined as the sale of ecclesiastical offices. The term refers to Simon Magus, a first -century figure who fell afoul of Saints Peter and Paul when he attempted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit. His downfall is frequently depicted in medieval art. In Damian’s day, the task of appointing bishops fell to secular noblemen, some of whom were quite corrupt and lacked any motivation to further the physical or spiritual well-being of the people they governed. Paying large sums of money and/or serving the lord’s corrupt ends became the only avenue for entry into the higher echelons of the church hierarchy.
Damian used the example of the Philistine foreskins to illustrate the principle by which continued service to a corrupt lord is actually worse, spiritually, than a straight cash payment. In the case of the cash payment, the aspirant could have gotten the wealth by honest means, and once he had bought the office, he was a relatively independent man. The man who had obtained his position by enabling the interests of a corrupt Lord, on the other hand, earned the office through malfeasance and was expected to continue toeing the line. David’s motives for marrying Michal (influence, inclusion in the royal succession) were not inherently bad, but he used his military prowess in the service of a king who had, in the words of scripture, “abandoned God.”
Until well into the nineteenth century, becoming a scientist was pretty much a career objective limited to men of independent means. Academic positions did not pay very well. The purer the science, the less likely it was to produce a saleable product in a reasonable time frame. Although the cost of tuition was not necessarily high, the cost of withdrawing from the labor force for the time required to get an advanced degree discouraged people of modest means. On the plus side, many scientific disciplines did not require a huge amount of capital on an ongoing basis, so independent researchers had a better chance of succeeding.
At present, in the United States at least, entry into a scientific career is in theory open to anyone with the ability and the drive to invest a huge amount of labor into a path that offers no guarantee of success for the laborer. The work that graduate teaching and research fellows, postdoctoral fellows, and people on the lowest rungs of the faculty ladder expend goes disproportionately towards enhancing the power, prestige and wealth of a small number of people at the top. The person on the bottom labors to increase knowledge and to make discoveries that benefit humanity, and hopes someday to gain enough autonomy to realize that vision. That’s how science is supposed to work. That’s how most people seem to assume science works.
Both academic science departments and government laboratories have become heavily dependent upon government grants for their continued existence. The ability to bring in money has become the main criterion for hiring into tenure-track positions and promotion in academic ranks. The granting agencies are under strong pressure from corporate interests to favor lines of inquiry that strengthen the corporate bottom line, and, conversely, to suppress anything that calls into question a lucrative paradigm. The dependence upon grant funding also favors costly, technology-intensive branches of science over more traditional method of observation.
A result of the very long unpaid or inadequately paid period of apprenticeship, during which survival is dependent on adhering closely to programs established at the higher levels of the hierarchy, is training in avoiding independent thought, especially avoiding noticing when the results of research are not serving the general public. It would be remarkable indeed if any great proportion of people who succeeded in such a system, upon finally achieving a position of relative security, miraculously recovered the idealism they were forced to shelve two decades previously.
I was three years into a PhD program in ecology at Cornell University when I dodged the request to teach seventh graders about Philistine foreskins, and I was still excited about the prospect of finding solutions to pressing dilemmas through observation of the natural world. More than forty years later, I can still get excited, at least momentarily, by a fleeting glimpse of synergy between that experience and the writings of an eleventh-century theologian who is currently under an even deeper shadow in academia than his contemporaries, because of his attacks on sodomy. I have given up all hope that it is anything but an armchair exercise.
“Peter’s conflict with Simon Magus,” by Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Public domain.