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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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Augustine's scale of values, plus Pseudo-Dionysius' hierarchies of being combined with the great chain of being to form the basis of the Medieval synthesis. The natural world was valued in its relation to supernature, and contemplated as a symbol of the transcendent (fire symbolized the soul's longing to rise to God, for example). The world was the fallen world of sin, a proposition which leads some historians to see dualism at work. Nevertheless, it was not a metaphysical dualism. The world was not sinful because it was alien to the spirit, but fallen from grace through human will. Moreover, it still stood in relation to and derived valuation from its ontological relation to the divine. An elaborate sacramental system grew out of the need and desire to "have a society which is guided by the present reality of transcendent divine character." Boethius (d. 524), Cassiodorus (d. 580), and Bede (672-735) laid down the principle of nature as a consistent system obeying a verifiable set of laws, and understandable through reason. Lindberg argues that this view of nature as "meaningful order revealing God's purpose" enabled the re-emergence of science. This "meaningful order" was embodied in the supernatural ontology. At this point, there was also in influx of pagan magic, to which the Church closed its eyes. Science, in the "dark ages," consisted of some Aristotle, Pleny, Boethius, Cassiodorus, and a few classical mannuels and encyclopedic works.



In the early medieval period (the "dark ages") there does seem to have been a dualistic attitude toward nature, with transcendence of the spirit over matter outweighing an interest in nature. Nevertheless, this dualism is not necessarily linked to the supernatural ontology per se, but could easily be the remnants of gnostic influeces. Moreover, the church, under influence Bede, sought to preserve knowledge of the natural world. From the 5th to the 10th Christianity enabled the survival of ancient learning, through preservation of the "quadrivium," in monastic life (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, sometimes with medicine added). The earliest known presentation of the quadrivium was the work of Isidore of Seville (d. 636). "In the seventh century an efflorescence of scholarly activity took place in the British isles, and Isidore's encyclopedic efforts were complemented with those of Bede (d. 735)...the scientific activities of Bede's age formed part of a widespread missionary program. The spearheads of the program were the monasteries." Nevertheless, the monasteries were passive recorders of learning, not active students of science. The culture outside the monasteries was basically oral, but a true revival of the liberal arts came in the Carolingian Renaissance, in the eighth century. Most of the Carolingian contributions to science amounted to copying texts, but the Hortulus of Theodulph of Orleans made original contributions to the study of botany. Moreover, John the Scot, the most celebrated thinker of the age, advanced the notion of "man" as the microcosm of the universe. This notion placed humanity in a position of antinomy, between nature and God, but it also served to create a relation of dialectical connection between the two. It was a reflection of the ontological relation between God and nature. The Carolingian period deteriorated into a century and a half of administrative chaos and confusion.





By the 10th century, economic forces combined with religious attitudes to create a new set of values, altering the human relationship to nature and the divine. Economic forces, such as the growth of cities, freed rural populations from agricultural life and created an artisan class. Gerbert of Aurillac (Rheims 972), helped to popularize the astrolabe, and algerism (arabic numerals) thus making a real contribution to trade, which was increasing dramatically. "There emerged a new set of values which--for better or worse--regarded the transformation of this world as sufficient for salvation in the next." As Lindberg documents, From the 10th to the 12th centuries, a new movement spread through Europe: the combination of monastic life and efficient economic production, the Cistercians being the most notable example. This prodo-capitalism brought with it exploitive attitudes toward nature, not because the ontology of supernature led to a juxtopossion of spirit and matter, but because the imperatives of economic production created the need to contorl nature. As White points out, however, these same force also brought with them an interest in understanding nature.




The seeds of Renaissance were planted in the 10th century, they came to full flower in the 12th century, and with them, a vital upsurge of interest in nature. The 12th century saw some very complex developments, because it brought not only a Renaissance, economic expansion and the rise of scientific study, but also a religious reformation. The movement included reform of Church corruption, as well as a mystical sense of the divine. Schiebinger makes the point that monastic institutions afforded women a measure of power, education, and scientific study. She mentions Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who was "the most notable medieval woman author on medicine, natural history, and cosmology." She was also one of the most notable mystics of the middle ages; a major leader of the reform movement. Hildegard, through her studies of the natural world, transformed static Greek science into mystical symbolism.




The most strightfarward example of mystical nature symbolism is, as White says, the ant was a lesson to the lazy, fire symbolized the spirit's desire to rise toward God, "the view of natuare is artistic rather than scientific." A more complex form of nature sybolism is dealt with by William Inge, the entire last chapter of his famous Bampton lectures was entitled "nature-mysticism and symbolism." The host in holy communian, and the sacraments in general, become symbols of the divine. In the same way, all of nature becomes such a symbol. Fairweather argues that the most powerful example of the harmony of nature and supernature is the incarnation itself; the transcendent in the immanent, divinity in humanity, logos in flesh. In Hildegard's vision of the creation of the world, animals, fire, planets and stars symbolise human nature in harmony with the divine. She saw animal heads appear around a human figure and rays of light from the seven planets illuminated them. The meaning was explained to her in another vision as follows, as she states:




On this world God has sourrounded and strengthened humans beings with all these things and steeped with very great power so that all creation supports the human race in all things. All nature ought to be at the service of human beings, so that they can work with nature since, in fact, human beings can neither live nor survive without it.




A host of German woman, contemporaries of Hildegard, deserve mention: among them, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude the great of Helfta, and Gertrude of Heckborn. All of these figures used nature symbolism to illumine understanding of the divine. The German mystics, far from denigrating nature, were so enchanted by it that they are often charged with pantheism; Meister Eckhart being one of the primary examples of this type of mystic. In the southern mediterranean, St. Francis brought in a new understanding of the relation to nature. Francis put nature on equal terms with humanity, "he opened up nature with respect to its ground of being, which is the same as with man." Contrary to the popular image, however, St. Francis was not a "nature mystic," that title fits Eckhart much better. Francis did not divinize nature, nor did he romanticize it. Instead, he democratized it, putting animals, trees, the stars, and the planets on the same level as humanity (his hym to "brother sun, sister moon"); all creatures beloved of God. There is a story for example, probabbly myth, which illustrates Francis attitude toward animals. A hunter was about to kill a wolf which had become a killer. Francis stood in the way and said, "don't harm brother wolf." On the other hand, he did preach to animals, on the assumption that as creatures of God they loved God and enjoyed hearing the Gospel. He also began an active engagement with life in the world, rather than contemplation in the monastery. His new order, along with their female counterparts, the Poor Clares, began a medieval poverty movement which threatened to reform the whole Church. For this reason, and because he did change the attitude toward nature, Tillich calls him "the true father [parent we could say] of the Renaissance."




The entire relationship of humans to nature was being re-thought, not to the exclusion of the divine, but based on and related to the divine in a different way. Through the works of John the Scot, the word "universitas" came into more common parlance, meaning, that nature was seen as a whole (a universe, a united diversity--a uninted and harmonious whole made up of many smaller parts). Theologians, artists, poets, and other thinkers "reflected that they were themselves caught up within the framework of nature, were themselves also bits of this cosmos they were ready to master." Nature came to be valued, not merely as a symbol of the spiritual, but in its own right (as with St. Francis). God had always been present in the world, but now God infused nature with divine being. "To conceive the world as one whole is already to perceive its profound structure--a world of forms transcending the medley of visible and sense-perceptible phenomena. The whole penetrates each of its parts; it is one universe; God conceived it as a unique living being, and its intelligible model is itself a whole."




A new relation between nature and God led to the realization of nature's beauty in its own right, and to scientific curiosity. The study of nature was not divorced from the spiritual, however, but the two were inter-related. The search for natural causes began in many monasteries: at Tours, Orleans, Paris, but most notably at Chartres and Saint-Victor. There was a reaction against the search for natural causes, not out of denigration of nature, but on the grounds that God is the final cause of all things, one need not seek further. William of Conches denied that the search for causes detracted from the Glory of God, the search for natural causes was the great work of the believer. He charged his opponents with "placing more reliance on their monkish garb than on their wisdom." The major proponents of the new outlook at Chartres were William of Conches, Adelard of Bath, Bernard Silvester, Hermann of Carinthia, John of Salisbury, and most notable, Gilbert of Poitiers.




These men wrote scientific treatises, they defended a naturalistic outlook which placed natural order interest in the natural order above the miraculous, but, they did so from within a framework of faith. Adelard distinguished between the creative acts of God, and the autonomous forces of nature, while Andrew of Saint-Victor argued that before recourse to miracles, one must seek out natural explanations. Hugh of Saint-Victor argued for a historicizing exegesis which declined allegorizing, thus moving interpretation out of the realm of nature as symbol, and into the realm of naturalism and history. This was not, however, the autonomous machine of a latter age. These theologians still operated under the categories of Greek metaphysics, nature was still infused with essence, and each aspect of the chain of being stood in relation to its next highest component, and was drawn toward the divine through supernature, which held it all together as whole in God.




Curiosity about nature shifted, from wonder at the amazing (such as comets), to curiosity about regular order. The word "Nature" was spelled with a capital "N," and nature was personified and presented in a sophisticated and literary fashion. Alan of Lille wrote The Complaint of Nature, in which nature is personified as the goddess. Nevertheless, "to exalt these powers of Nature was not at all to detract proudly form the omnipotence of God,...and Alan's Nature was herself made to proclaim this fact: `His working is one, whereas mine is many; his work stands of itself, whereas mine fails from within...and in order that you may recognize that my power is powerless in contrast to the divine power, know that my effect is defective and my energy cheap.'"




With so much attention upon nature, and humanity's place in it, an old idea re-emerged in new form. The theme of "man as the microcosm" of the universe was re-introduced (taken from the Timaeus by John the Scot in an earlier age). It was echoed in 1125 with the Elucidarium of Honorius of Autun. From that time on it had a wide diffusion through European monastic centers. William of Saint-Thierry based his physics on it, and it spread through Cistercian centers, taken up by a new generation after 1150. Hildegard of Bingen used the physics of William of Saint-Thierry in the construction of her theological symbolism. The scholastics also drew upon the Hermetic corpus as a source of the macrocosm/microcosm theme, which became so important latter in Renaissance alchemy, and humanism, and as a direct result of its revival in the monasteries. The concept of the macrocosm in the microcosm was part and parcel of the supernatural ontology. It was a picture of the harmonious relation between immanent and transcendent, nature and supernature. On the other hand, it was a new picture of these relationships. Humanity is placed in an antinomy, humanity is both an image of the world and an image of God. The tension is found between nature, which operates as God's ordered creation, and the radical distinction between God and creation.




These ontological developments set up developments in the next century which would not only create the most sophisticated and elaborate expression of supernatural ontology, but at the same time, would sow the seeds of its own negation. Renaissance autonomy and humanism flow directly out of the ontological formations in the 12th and thirteenth centuries. The revival of Aristotle, due in large part to the conquest of Moorish Spain, would not only feed scientific knowledge, but submerge the ontological influence of the Timaeus as well. The major proponents were Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and in French vernacular literature, such as that of Jean de Meun. Of course, the greatest of these was Aquinas. Due to a complex situation, the attempt to prove the existence of God, and to prove the Trinity through reason, had become a major issue by the 13th century. This attempt flowed directly out of the theme of humanity as microcosm. It is also related to theorizing about the limits of reason and course of scientific study.




If human nature still bore some trace of the Imago, human reason must be capable of decerning God. "Conversely, only if the state of nature were now devoid of the superadded gift of grace, could one contend, on Christian grounds, that certain mysteries of the faith...were beyond the reach of nature and of reason." This controversy was predicated upon the Augustinian notion of the relation between nature and grace. Before moving on to try and demonstrate the proofs for God (which are of no concern here), Aquinas first worked out a position on theological method. It was the development of that position which begins the autonomous life of reason and nature apart from grace. He argued that in other sciences argument from authority was the weakest. Not so in theology, however, because one is arguing from divine revelation. Thus, Aquinas' position was not based on empistemological concerns, which he side-stepped, but on doctrines of creation and redemption, on the relation between nature and grace (that is to say, reason is given though nature, revelation through grace). Aquinas was not separating nature and grace, but explicating their relation to one another. "Grace does not abolish nature, but completes it." Ultimately, for Aquinas, reason and faith will agree on final points of truth.




Aquinas bound together knowledge of truth on different levels, through the relation of nature to grace. In so doing, he developed a position of autonomy, but not one of alienation. Nature is capable of certain effects, unaided by grace. But, grace completes nature and raises it to the level of the divine through supernature. Through reason one could conclude that there was a creator, but only through revelation could one know the Trinity. Human reason could know some things unaided, but it was not capable of knowing all things. This completion of nature means that human nature can be exalted, energized supernaturally, and sanctified (the eastern orthodox concept is called 'deification'). It is only through grace that humans are able to know what God is, but that God is can be gleaned from sense experience of the works of nature.




Perhaps the greatest literary expression of Aquinas' views on the relation of nature and grace, are found almost a half century latter, in Dante. Even though literary scholars have long held that "`the Thomism of Dante is an exploded myth,'" Dante is clearly at home in the world of medieval Latin theology, and places into Virgil's mouth words which evoke Aquinas' distinction between that which can be revealed by nature, and revelation by grace. "So far as reason plead can I instruct thee; beyond that point, wait for Beatrice; for faith I here need." Only so far as reason is concerned can nature enlighten Dante, for matters of faith, the divine is required. Although, since the question was in regard to the nature of love, this answer tells us as more about Dante's notions of romantic love (a divine matter) than it does about Thomistic epistemology. Nevertheless, Virgil's answer is an interesting counterpoint to the rather unintelligible experiment Beatrice works out for Dante in order to demonstrate to him the nature of the moon.






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