Athens and Jerusalem: Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval Synthesis of Reason and Faith

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The beautiful St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland

 

… Sacred doctrine is food and drink since it feeds and gives drink to the soul.  For the other sciences only illumine the intellect, but this illumines the soul.”

(Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews 5:12)

Philosopher Peter Kreeft notes that “the medievals had a passion for order, because they believed that God had a passion for order when He designed the universe.”[1] Medieval scholars were preoccupied with discovering this order and then synthesizing it with the truths of Scripture. Because of the common grace spoken of in texts such as Romans 1 and Acts 17, all truth was God’s truth to them, even that which comes from pagan philosophers and poets. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas epitomized this “inclusive habit of mind” that sought to bring back into Christendom all that is good, true, and beautiful.[2]  In particular, Aquinas excelled at harmonizing human reason and divine faith, displaying a keen intuition as to where they stand apart and where they overlap. Kreeft notes that he “combined faith and reason, without confusing them” by establishing that there “are some truths that are known by faith alone, like the Trinity, and some that are known by reason alone, like natural science, and some that can be known by both faith and reason, like the existence of God and the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul.”[3] Not unlike today, the challenge was defining the boundary line between Divine Scripture and human philosophy, a challenge made all the more difficult by the inevitable fallibility of the ones surveying their borders. In his book A Shorter Summa, Peter Kreeft writes that in a humble style that comes directly to the point, with logic that is refreshingly clear and grounded in common experience, Aquinas “fulfilled more than anyone else the essential medieval program of a marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the Biblical and the classical inheritances.”[4] As mentioned, one such synthesis is represented in Aquinas’s resolution to the apparent paradox between the existence of human free-will and the divine sovereignty of the Unmoved Mover. The way in which he was able to resolve the riddle without compromising either shows us that Aquinas’s spiritual sight was truly stereoscopic: he was able to see “two different pictures at once” without sacrificing one for the other.[5]  As a result, Thomas Aquinas was able to see more while remaining within orthodoxy’s borders. Through him, our sight is likewise broadened in that he shows us a way forward in resolving our own conflicts between faith and reason.

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Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

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“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”[1]

I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.”[2] “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”[3]

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Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos

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Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Celestial Rose – seeing the universe from a spiritual point of view

In his essay, “First and Second Things,” Lewis wrote that “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”[1] In fact, he continues, if you put second things first, you will end up getting neither. The thing that strikes one most when studying the differences between the Medieval Model and our own is the inversion of first and second things between the two. The medieval mind took for granted that the world, though complex, was ordered. They looked to first things to help them discover its structure, two of which were God’s goodness and Mankind’s sinfulness. Taking these as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, they constructed their cosmology. Modern man has debunked these first things and begins with himself: cogito ergo sum. The consequences of this inversion reverberate throughout our cosmology, creating a very different reaction to the universe as compared to the medieval stargazer. Lewis writes that it is precisely this inversion that has led to the emptying and “desiccation of the outer universe” that characterizes our model, not the scientific discoveries of our more technologically advanced age.[2] He calls the inversion a result of a “great movement of internalization and that consequent aggrandizement of man,” something that is the subject of his book The Abolition of Man.[3] In other words, we have dispensed with the hierarchy of the medieval model and have put mankind into a first-place in our world, crushing everything into a “flat equality.”[4] Therefore, it is not so much its details but the Medieval Model’s ordering of first and second things that can speak wisdom into our current age and illuminate where we have gone wrong. The medieval observer’s respect for authority and recognition of Mankind’s place within an objective hierarchical order provide powerful correctives for our modern age. It reveals how our distrust of authority, our hunger for autonomy, and our worship of radical individualism have shaped our own model of the universe in such a way that it has shrunk to the point where “the parts seem greater than the whole.”[5]

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Models, Madness, and Topsy-Turvy Land

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“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” ― G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Thanks to studying the Medieval Model of the cosmos (via C.S. Lewis, a professional medieval scholar at both Oxford and Cambridge), I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest.

That self-consciousness started with Adam and Eve, by the way.  SELF-consciousness.

Scientifically limited as their Model was, the Medievals started with Christ Jesus and the Gospel and worked downward from there. We are always looking out in their universe – out into a brightly-lit festival of celestial beauty and harmony. It’s a cosmic dance that welcomes and comforts. Our world of sin and fallenness is on the outside looking in like a cold beggar peering into a warm, fire-lit parlor. Compare this to the cold and inhospitable vacuity of our modern model. It’s completely inverted!

Cosmos versus space – think of the difference between those words. The former humbles us in the gentlest, most welcoming of ways. The latter (our view), humbles through fear with its eternal silence and infinite spaces. This is the difference between starting with God and starting with man when it comes to cosmic model (and worldview) building.

God humbles more gently than man humbles.

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Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome.[1] Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.”[2] He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[3]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths.[4] As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.[5]

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The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages”

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Candlemas (BL Additional 49598, f. 34v) from A Clerk of Oxford BlogA Candlemas Miracle: ‘a light to lighten the English’ 

 

“We are delighted to know about the ignorance of medievalism,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News in 1906, but “we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge.” Our ignorance is perhaps best betrayed by the continuance of the term “the dark ages” in our imaginations when we consider the time period spanning from the fall of the Rome (about 410 A.D.) to the start of the Renaissance (1485 A.D.). The image of darkness persists despite the fact that “this derogatory opinion … has now been almost totally abandoned by professional historians in favor of the neutral view that takes ‘Middle Ages’ simply as the name of a period in Western history, during which distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made,” writes historian David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science. Every age has its myths, even our modern one, and none is more entrenched than the belief that this period, which saw a flourishing of Christianity in the West, was one of oppression and ignorance, in which blind faith supplanted reason in all areas of life. It is as if the Renaissance arose out of the medieval vacuum, creating itself from nothing, a cosmic singularity, unleashing Reason from the vise-grip of autocratic bishops and malicious monks. A more accurate picture is what is sought here. Who were these medieval believers and what lessons might modern Christians living in a post-Christian culture learn from them with regards to preserving and perpetuating the faith in a rapidly changing society? Looking specifically at England, I contend that we have much to learn, from the stabilizing force of the monastery, with its community structured around the Divine commission to love God and neighbor, to the ways in which medieval Christians respected, protected, and preserved the past. In the end, a more accurate picture should emerge out of the darkness that shrouds the time. Perhaps then we will be recalled to the reality that we are indebted to the medievals for many of our modern institutions: “that Parliaments are medieval, that all our Universities are medieval, that city corporations are medieval, that gunpowder and printing are medieval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are medieval.”

Wisdom from the early Medieval Christians of England:

Ethics: The Rule of St Benedict and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Scholarship: Medieval Synthesis and  Modern Fragmentation

Conclusion: Unity and Humility