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Month: November 2016

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 25): Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Proofs” for the Existence of God

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 25): Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Proofs” for the Existence of God

I want to note that what much of what is contained in this post was covered in a few previous posts I wrote in my series about Richard Dawkins. Still, for what should be obvious reasons, I wanted to have this material at this point in this series as well. Enjoy.

Thomas Aquinas is most famous for his “five proofs” for the existence of God. Taking his cue from Aristotle, Aquinas looked at the reality of nature and existence and argued that it is entirely reasonable and logical to come to the conclusion that there is a God. We will now briefly touch upon these five proofs.

Proof from Motion
aquinas-motionContrary to what you might think, “motion” here does not mean literal moving from point A to B, like a car travelling from Chicago to New York. Rather, “motion” needs to be understood in terms of change. Hence, Aquinas argued that the very fact that things in the natural world undergo change points to the existence of God. As stated earlier, this has to do with the concepts of potentiality and actuality. Simply put, Aquinas argued that nothing can undergo change unless it is “put in motion” by another. For example, a car engine has the potential to run so that the car can leave Chicago and go to New York, but it can’t turn on itself. It’s potential must be “turned on” by someone or something else. This is true with everything: change doesn’t happen by itself; it must be initiated by something other than itself. Or as Aquinas said, “Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another” (ST 1.2.3).

Yet if that is the case, how did change ever begin in the first place? Enter God. Aquinas argued, “…it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God” (ST 1.2.3). By arguing for a “first mover,” Aquinas was not talking in terms of the order of time, as if God, way back when, created the universe, wound it up like a clock, and then set it in motion with all the change inherent in nature. Aquinas was talking, not in terms of time, but in terms of being. God was not “first in time,” for God was, in fact, outside of time. Rather, God is first in terms of being and existence. He is “pure actuality,” without any potentiality, and is thus the basis for all existence and change in nature.

Please note, Aquinas is not claiming that God is the first cause of everything in some sort of space-time sense, for to claim that would be, in fact, reducing God to a mere something else in the universe. Aquinas is not even arguing for “how the universe began.” For Aquinas, even if the universe itself is eternal, the fact is that things within the universe cannot cause themselves or undergo change themselves. Therefore, whoever or whatever is initiating those “causes,” whoever or whatever is “causing” things to change must be what we call God. But to fully grasp this would mean to understand what Aquinas means by “actuality” and “potentiality.” Here’s that in a nutshell:

1981-joel-steelersEverything in the universe is some combination of “actuality” (i.e. what we are) and “potentiality” (i.e. what we can become, change into). For example, back in 1981, 12 year old Joel Anderson was 12 year old Joel Anderson, but with the potential to eventually become 47 year old Joel Anderson. And lo and behold, here in 2016, due to time, societal and cultural img_20161116_115611965_hdrfactors, and basic growth and maturity—here I am, the 47 year old Joel Anderson! But then here’s the thing that will really bend your mind: both the 12 year old and the 47 year old is still the same Joel Anderson! And I’m not yet the 80 year old Joel Anderson that I have the potential to be, but given various factors, I will one day be that 80 year old Joel Anderson while still being the same Joel Anderson!

And so, everything in the universe undergoes change because everything in the universe is a combination of “actuality” and “potentiality”—that change, therefore, is the process in which we are becoming who we are. But since we cannot cause our own change, our becoming must be caused by someone or something else—but that someone or something else must be pure actuality, without any potentiality. That someone or something else is the “First Cause,” the Ultimate Reality, a being who is pure actuality, in whom no change can occur because He is already fully who He is. Biblically speaking, that “someone” is God—the Great I AM. All reality, and all potentiality within creation, is rooted in that Being, that First Cause, who brings everything into being.

Proof from Causality
The proof from causality will sound very similar to the proof from motion. In many ways, they actually overlap. Yet whereas the proof from motion addressed the question as to why things change, the proof from causality addressed the question as to why things exist at all. The philosophical term Aquinas used was “cause,” and he distinguished between ultimate causes, intermediate causes, and first causes. He argued that without a first cause, there would not be an intermediate cause, and there would not be an ultimate cause. But we need an example to flesh this out. Let’s say Bob and Betty get married and have a son, Bill—that will be considered the “first cause” that produced Bill. Bill then grows up and goes to college and gets a degree—this will be considered the “intermediate cause” that gave Bill the knowledge to launch a career.

Eventually, Bill, being the genius that he is, creates a new supercomputer that puts all other computers to shame—this is the “ultimate cause.” Aquinas would say that Bill’s supercomputer would have never come into existence in the first place if he had not gone to college, and he would have never gone to college if it had not ultimately been for his parents who got frisky one night and conceived Bill. Hence, everything and everyone gets its existence from another. Just like there is always a cause that invokes change in something that exists, there is also always a cause that invokes existence in the first place. Without a first cause, there wouldn’t be any intermediate or ultimate causes. And so, since such a thing could not regress to infinity, “…it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which every give the name of God” (ST 1.2.3).

Again, as with the proof from motion, Aquinas is not talking about a first cause in terms of time. He was no deist who viewed God as a cosmic watchmaker who caused existence, wound it up with natural laws, and then left it to its own devices. Simply put, existence is not a one-time thing; existence is a continuous reality. Therefore, Aquinas’ argument for God here is that just as God is the basis for all change, He is also the basis for all existence—here and now, on a continual basis, not back then and there. Aquinas’ argument basically is that God is the sustainer of all existence throughout time. Edward Fesser provides a good illustration on this point: “…for Aquinas, the claim that God made the world ‘is more like the minstrel made music than the blacksmith made a shoe;’ that is to say, creation is an ongoing activity rather than a once-and-for-all event” (88).

Proof from the Contingency of the World
This proof holds that “…the world of contingent things could not exist at all unless there were a necessary being.” But I’ll be quite honest, I couldn’t find much to say for this one. I hope the other four proofs are enough!

Proof from the Grades of Perfection
aquinasAquinas’ fourth proof involves what he calls “grades of perfection,” particularly in terms of transcendental values such as goodness, and justice. This argument is actually very similar to the argument regarding the moral law C.S. Lewis puts forth in Mere Christianity. Simply put, this argument starts with the acknowledgment that we are constantly evaluating people and events on a moral scale. For example, for all the immoral behavior in America today, America is still most certainly more moral than the Nazis. Compare me to Saint Francis of Assisi, I’m pretty sure I’ll come out looking pretty bad; compare me to a Charlie Sheen, I come out smelling like roses. And so, whenever we compare moralities along these lines, what we are actually doing is comparing them to some accept standard of perfection. Therefore, Aquinas argues that “there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest, and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being” (ST 1.2.3).

And yet, we would be mistaken if we assumed that Aquinas envisioned God as some sort of Platonic Form. After all, Plato’s forms were pure unchanging abstractions that were completely distinct from the particulars of the created order. If one thing is certain when one reads the Bible, it is this: God is involved with His creation. So, rather than viewing God as some abstract standard, Aquinas proposes that we view his proof in light of God’s participation in the natural order. Perhaps an illustration from the natural world will help. Think about how the basic elements of life like water and sunlight are “taken in” by plants to aid them in the higher form of plant life. And then think how plants are often eaten and “taken in” by animals to aid them in the higher form of animal life. And then think about how various animals are often eaten and “taken in” (along with various fruits, grains, and vegetables) by human beings to aid them in the higher form of human life. At each step of the way, the lower form of biological life participates in the development and maintenance of the higher form of life. Or to put it another way, the higher form of life incorporates the lower form of life into its own, and thus further perfects it.

Aquinas thus argues that, just as this is true on the biological level, it is also true when it comes to transcendent values. Every time someone participates in a good, truthful, or noble act—no matter how great or small—that person is, in fact, pointing beyond his own particular good, truthful, or noble act to some higher form/degree of goodness, truthfulness or nobility. Therefore, any value within human morality, by virtue of its being inherently relational and participatory (i.e. “justice” only can be achieved when there is a relationship between two or more people), inevitably points toward and participates in a higher degree of virtue, of participatory moral perfection. This, therefore, points to the existence of God.

Proof from Finality
Perhaps Aquinas’ most important argument for the existence of God is his teleological argument. (It should be noted that ever since the so-called Enlightenment, modern philosophers, to the detriment of our modern world, have largely ignored this argument). In its most simplest terms, Aquinas’ teleological argument is that all things in the natural world are goal-directed and thus have a purpose. Just as an archer shoots an arrow at a target, all things in natural are directed toward a final end, namely God. Or as Aquinas himself says, “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God” (ST 1.2.3). Simply put, everything done has an effect and purpose. The very concept of “purpose,” though, denotes some sort of intelligence, for it seeks to understand why something happened. Why did Oswald kill Kennedy? Why did Al-Qaeda fly planes into the twin towers? Why? That is a question intelligent beings ask, because “purpose” is something intelligent beings know exist.

Indeed, nothing in the universe at all can be explained or truly understood without this concept of purpose. Indeed, as Fesser has stated, “…it is impossible for anything to be directed towards an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question towards it. It follows that the system of ends or final causes that make up the physical universe can only exist at all if there is a Supreme Intelligence or intellect outside the universe which directs things towards their ends” (117).

The reason why Aquinas’ teleological argument regarding final causes has been discarded by modern philosophers and many in the scientific world today is that it argues that meaning and purpose in the world point toward the reality and existence of God. Yet ever since the so-called Enlightenment, the Christian worldview that was responsible for the resurrection of Europe and the explosion of arts, literature, architecture and scientific inquiry, has faced a violent assault by the worldview of philosophical naturalism, that starts with the presupposition that there is no God and that the natural world comprises the entirety of reality. Simply put, philosophical naturalism states, “If it cannot be scientifically tested and analyzed, then it cannot exist.”

Therefore, when it comes to explaining creation of the natural world, those who hold to philosophical naturalism (i.e. atheism) try to argue that the theory of evolution “proves” atheism. But then they go even further. Men like Sam Harris even go so far to argue that morality itself is simply the result of atheistic evolutionary forces. Or even more simply put: it was blind chance that brought about natural life, and it was blind chance that brought about morality. Evolution, they claim, explains both biological life and human morality. Of course, the problem with that explanation is that it is, after all, an explanation—and by virtue of being an explanation, it is attempting to prove something, give meaning to a phenomena…and that action is evidence of intelligence and purpose, the very thing that philosophical naturalism, by very definition, utterly rejects. Therefore to try to give a convincing argument that the universe is purposeless, meaningless, and the result of random, blind forces, is to do something that you are arguing doesn’t exist—namely give a purposeful, meaningful, intentional explanation for the way things are. The point is simple: nothing in the universe makes sense without the existence of final causes.

The Way of the Worldviews (Part 24): Thomas Aquinas, Philosophy, and the High Catholic Age

The Way of the Worldviews (Part 24): Thomas Aquinas, Philosophy, and the High Catholic Age

The ground-breaking achievement in philosophy during the High Catholic Age was the revival of the study of Aristotle. Throughout the Byzantine Age, Christian theologians and philosophers gravitated toward interacting with the philosophy of Plato. His teachings on the idea of universals, the world of forms, and this material world of particulars being a shadowy reflection of the world of forms were easily translatable in Christian theology. The Byzantine preference for Plato led to a much more contemplative, mystical Christian tradition that focused much more on esoteric concepts within Christian theology. Now, contemplation and theological reflection on these undoubtedly metaphysical concepts is absolutely good and necessary—it is the fruit of Christian men and women translating the Gospel of Christ into the cultural and philosophical world around them. Yet there is more to reality than just contemplation of universals. God has created a material world of nature, and he has called it good. Therefore, with the dawn of the High Catholic Age, the revival of Aristotelian thought and philosophy led to a re-appreciation of the world of nature—of the particulars.


As with anything, change is often met with a certain amount of resistance. As the scholastics were rediscovering Aristotle, there were those in the Catholic Church who sometimes objected. And so, it is true that there were instances during the High Catholic Age in which the natural philosophy of Aristotle was banned (such as in Paris in both 1210 and 1215 AD), the fact is there was never a Church-wide ban on the study of Aristotle. In fact, even in places like Paris, such bans were often short-lived. By 1240, Roger Bacon was teaching Aristotle’s Physics, and by 1255, as Rodney Stark tells us, Aristotle’s “formerly condemned natural-philosophical treatises were required for the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in arts at Paris, as they were already or would be for most medieval universities” (Triumph of Christianity 24-25).

The point is simple: Christian scholars of the High Catholic Age vigorously embraced Aristotelian philosophy, and it changed everything. Indeed, it opened the door to a fuller appreciation of God’s natural world, and it helped further develop Christian theology in its quest to continually engage with new discoveries in the world. The very concept of theology being “the queen of the sciences” was, in fact, a concept that came from Aristotle himself. What that term means is that all the sciences—be it geology, biology, astronomy, mathematics, or anything else—are ultimately subservient to metaphysics/theology. For it is the study of metaphysics and theology that give meaning and purpose to any scientific study of the particulars within nature.

Mr. Aquinas, I Presume?
st_thomas_aquinasThe foremost Christian philosopher of the High Catholic Age by far was the Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas. Not only did he dominate the Christian thought of the High Catholic Age, he still dominates much of Christian thought today. He is most famous for incorporating Aristotelian philosophy into Christianity—or perhaps better stated, “Christianizing” Aristotle. In doing so, Aristotle re-emphasized the goodness of the natural world, and by doing so, showed how “all of creation declares the glory of God.”

One of the things that Aquinas did was show just how far human reason could take one in one’s search for God. Aristotle had argued that one could learn about universals in the world of forms by studying the particulars in the natural world. In his “Christianizing” of Aristotle, Aquinas showed just how much the natural world could, in fact, tell us about God. By doing so, many people like Schaeffer have accused Aquinas of splitting reality into two spheres: the “upper level” of the spiritual world, with its concepts of God, heaven, the unseen, and grace, that can only be arrived at by faith, and the “lower level” of the natural world, with the visible, created, physical order that can be analyzed and measured. Of course, such accusations are misguided and misleading—there had been philosophical debates between Plato and Aristotle for 1,500 years. In the Nicene Creed, one of the first statements of faith is “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Clearly there was an understanding of the two aspects of reality.

Aquinas did not introduce the concept of autonomous reason. He did not say, “autonomous reason can get you to logically conclude that there is a God, but then you need revelation to know who that God is.” He said that logic and reason where unique aspects of human beings who were made in God’s image. Therefore, even though human beings are sinful and fallen, their capacity for reason and logical are still gifts from God and can still aid human beings in their search for God. A sinful person, therefore, because he is made in God’s image, can still use his God-given reason to look at the God-created natural world and thus come to a better understanding of God. Human reason is never autonomous—it is a gift of God, and can therefore help lead human beings back to God. And inversely, if one rejects God, that person is without excuse, just as Paul says in Romans 1:20: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.”

It is not a false dichotomy of “reason or revelation.” It is rather a matter of human beings using their reason to assess both the natural world and anything that God does, in fact, reveal—something that is revealed still needs to be understood, and it is our reason/intellect that does that very thing. So to be clear, this teaching of Aquinas regarding human reason is, in fact, the exact opposite of the modern, so-called Enlightenment teaching of autonomous human reason.

A Brief Lesson on Aquinas
Edward Feser has written a wonderful introduction to Thomas Aquinas: Aquinas. Most of what follows is taken from his book. I cannot begin to do his book justice, but I do want to attempt to provide somewhat of a “Reader’s Digest” version of some of Aquinas’ basic concepts that Feser helps to explain. So get ready, we’re going to jump into some philosophy here!

summa-theologicaOne part of Aristotle that Aquinas builds from is Aristotle’s concepts of actuality and potentiality (as discussed earlier in the book). Using these concepts, Aquinas argues that there is no potentiality in God, and that God, therefore, is full actuality. Another part of Aristotle that Aquinas builds from is Aristotle’s claim that everything in nature is a composite of both form and matter—a concept known as hylemorphism. Aquinas argued that although this is true for material substances, that it was possible to have immaterial substances of pure form, without matter—for example, God and other spiritual realities (again, consider the Nicene Creed that states that God, the Father Almighty, is the creator of all things visible and invisible).

Yet when it comes to the natural world, everything is a composite of form and matter. The perfection of this combination of form and matter is what Aquinas calls the essence of a particular thing in nature: what a thing is meant to be is its essence. Of course, taking human beings for example, no human being is perfectly what he/she should be—in our current state (our present existence) we are not yet what we are meant to be (essence). Aquinas said that the reason for this is that because of sin the material world has not yet been fully redeemed. We know this because there is still potentiality in nature—things are still in a state of becoming; and thus this means that all of creation has not yet been fully actualized (i.e. redeemed).

By contrast, there is no potentiality in God, because He is fully actualized and fully real. He is pure Spirit, and thus is not material, for to be material is to have potential and be susceptible to change. But human beings…that is another matter. We are in process of becoming; we are not yet fully actualized; our matter is “in potency” and it is our form actualizes our matter. Therefore, Aquinas argued that goodness is conformity to the essence of a thing—in other words, you are doing what is “good” when you are doing something that conforms to your essence, who God created you to be. By contrast, evil is the absence of the good. This leads to another observation of Aquinas: if goodness actually is what conforms to one’s essence, and one’s essence is that which is fully real, then goodness conforms to what is really real; but evil, being the absence of the good, is ultimately unreality. It cannot have being in and of itself, because existence, being created by God, is ultimately good—existence is what is real.

Like Plato and Aristotle before him, and indeed like virtually most philosophers up to that point in time, Aquinas viewed the purpose for wisdom and knowledge as the search for the ultimate causes and meaning of things. Both the study of the natural world and the intellectual inquiry of philosophy were only worthwhile if they pointed toward God and helped human beings better themselves as they searched for God.

In my next post, I will provide an overview of Aquinas’ famous “Five Proofs” for the existence of God.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 23): Philosophy and the Universities in the High Catholic Age

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 23): Philosophy and the Universities in the High Catholic Age

medieval-universitiesIn my last post, I made it a point to show that one of the distinguishing features in the universities during the High Catholic Age was their fascination with and commitment to studying the natural sciences. That being said, it almost must be made clear that there was also a clear philosophical understanding in the “medieval” universities that the study of the physical/natural world was not all there was to reality. As useful as the study of the material world is, it still can only take you so far. In fact, ever since the time of the Council of Nicaea (and probably before that) Christianity has always held that there are greater realities that the natural sciences simply are unable, indeed impotent, to address. What this means is that while the Christians of the High Catholic Age were fascinated by the study of the natural world, they were not proponents of naturalism: the philosophical worldview that states the natural world is all there is to reality. They were Christians who held the conviction that what gave the natural world meaning was in fact a greater reality, the supernatural existence of God.

Before I move on to discussing the philosophy of the High Catholic Age, though, I want to just provide some quotes in regards to this topic of the relationship between Christianity and science. These are quotes that I find very illuminating, but to be honest, I just didn’t know how to put them into the larger discussion. So take them for what they are worth. I like them (and yes, pages 275-276 in The Triumph of Christianity were really good!):

  • “The truth is that not only did Christianity not impede the rise of science; it was essential to it, which is why science arose only in the Christian West!” (Rodney Stark, Triumph of Christianity 275)
  • “…science is limited to statement about natural and material reality, about things that are at least in principle observable. Hence there are entire realms of discourse that science is unable to address, including such matters as the existence of God. Nor can there be a physics of miracles.” (Rodney Stark, Triumph of Christianity 276)
  • “Just as there were no ‘Dark Ages,’ there was no ‘Scientific Revolution.’ Rather, the notion of a Scientific Revolution was invented to discredit the medieval church by claiming that science burst forth in full bloom (thus owing no debts to prior Scholastic scholars) only when a weakened Christianity no longer could suppress it.” (Rodney Stark, Triumph of Christianity 276)
  • “…the great scientific achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were produced by a group of scholars notable for their piety, who were based in Christian universities, and whose brilliant achievements were carefully built upon an invaluable legacy of centuries of brilliant Scholastic scholarship.” (Rodney Stark, Triumph of Christianity 276)
  • “…science arose in Europe because of the widespread ‘faith in the possibility of science…derivative from medieval theology.’” (Alfred North Whitehead, Lowell Lectures at Harvard, 1925)
  • “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, form the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, institution.” (John Heilborn, The Sun in the Church)

The Revolution in Philosophy During the High Catholic Age
This brings us to another feature of the universities of the High Catholic Age: the revolution in philosophy. Throughout Europe in the Byzantine Age, learning was largely restricted to the monasteries. Indeed, it was the tireless work of monks that preserved classical learning. During the High Catholic Age, though, partly due to the cultural explosion owed to the Crusades and most certainly due to the rise of the university, the classical learning that the monks had preserved was now made more readily available to the larger flocks of students who began attending the universities. With renewed interest in the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, the universities cultivated a philosophical revolution that has effected Western civilization ever since.

Just as the Christian philosophers of the Byzantine Age had engaged pagan philosophy and had actually used it to argue for the truth of Christianity, the Christian scholars of the High Catholic Age further used the works of pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle to, as Rodney Stark put it, “demolish the intellectual foundations of the pagan culture that produced them” (TC 73). In fact, “…it was the logical development of Aristotelian ideas (primarily by his medieval Scholastic admirers) that provided the most powerful and systematic intellectual foundation for traditional Western religion and morality—and for that matter, for science, morality, politics, and theology in general—that has ever existed” (TC 52).

Faith Leads to Reason? Reason Leads to Faith?
anselm-of-canterburyThe Scholastics of the High Catholic Age also wrestled with fundamental concepts concerning rational inquiry and epistemology (i.e. the theory of knowledge: how we come to understanding). Like Augustine before him, the Benedictine monk and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) emphasized the foundational aspect of faith in the pursuit of theological understanding. Augustine had famously said, “I believe in order to understand.” Anselm echoed that sentiment.

To clarify, what this means is that faith is not fundamentally a rational enterprise. That is not to say that faith is irrational, but rather that faith is the presuppositional force or worldview that guides one’s attempt to understand the world around him. Or more simply put, one does not come to faith through rationalistic/intellectual inquiry alone. No one can be convinced on rational grounds alone that there is a God. Faith is ultimately something that goes beyond mere intellect, and therefore is fundamentally existential. Nevertheless, Anselm insisted that reason and investigation were crucial to verifying Christian teaching. …Study creation…and one would learn about its Creator” (Vincent Carroll, Christianity on Trial 71).

peter-abelardOn the other end of the spectrum was the scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142 AD), who argued that theology was first and foremost a scientific discipline, and that therefore it was a careful, rational, and systematic quest for understanding that led to faith. If Anselm said that faith precedes understanding, Abelard said that understanding precedes faith. Abelard sought to provide logical reasons regarding theology and faith that could satisfy the human intellect.

In reality, we need to see that neither Anselm nor Abelard were completely right, and neither were they completely wrong. Faith and reason can never be neatly divided to where one can clearly be seen as “before” or “after” the other. Yes, reason and understanding often leads one to faith, or at least a much firmer foundation of faith, but at the same time one’s faith commitment, whatever it may be, does obviously affect and guide one’s quest for understanding. Perhaps we should say that both are in a symbiotic relationship within every person’s soul, and are in constant dialogue with each other as that person lives his life.

In the next post or two, we will look at one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher of not only of the High Catholic Age, but perhaps of all time: Thomas Aquinas. Fasten your seat belts, the ride is going to get a little bumpy!

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 22): Monasteries and Universities in the High Catholic Age

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 22): Monasteries and Universities in the High Catholic Age

As we continue our overview of what has been traditionally called “The Middle Ages,” but what I have chosen to call “The High Catholic Age,” we now come to the topic of the monastic movement and its impact on the culture, and the emergence of the university.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement during the supposed “Dark Ages” was the explosion of learning and technology that was brought about by the establishment of various monasteries and universities throughout Europe—thus proving beyond any historical doubt that the moniker of “Dark Ages” as applied to this time-period is nothing short of a complete and utter falsehood. Now, what laid the foundation for the establishment of universities throughout Europe were the monasteries.

The Impact of the Monastic Movement in Europe
benedictAlthough properly belonging to what I call “The Byzantine Age” (313-1054 AD), St. Benedict (480-543 AD), as Daniel Boorstin declares, was not simply the father of monasticism in Europe, he also was “the godfather of libraries. The preservation of the literary treasures of antiquity and of Christianity through the Middle Ages was a Benedictine achievement” (The Discovers 723-724). Indeed, as we will see, it was the dedication of thousands of monks (despite the corruption of far too many popes) throughout the history of both the Byzantine Age and the High Catholic Age that laid the foundation for not only education, but also technology, innovation, finance, and charitable organizations. The Cistercians, for example, were innovators in farm techniques, wool production, iron making, and watermills, which in turn led to further advances in a variety of other areas (Vincent Carroll, Christianity on Trial, 65).

To be clear, the motivation of these various monastic orders (Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian, Franciscan, Dominican) was their devotion and love for Christ. They took to heart the divine ordination upon mankind as a whole to reflect God’s image and to be both priests and kings of God’s creation. Because of their devotion to Jesus Christ, the ultimate priest-king who opened the door to salvation of the world, they saw their vocation as proclaiming the Gospel Christ’s Kingdom, not simply in words, but in actions that affected all of life.

As St. Francis (and St. Basil before him) said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” What exactly does this mean? It means that Christians are called to reflect God’s image, that is the image of Christ, the risen Lord of creation, with their whole livesnot simply in what they say, but in what they do. As co-regents of creation, we are to rule over and care for God’s creation; and as priests, we are to offer up the fruits of creation to God, through Christ, as an act of sacrifice that leads to the reconciling of all things to God. The monastics orders of both the Byzantine Age and High Catholic Age knew this well, and their devotion changed history.

A word quickly must be said about the various monastic orders. As said before, the Benedictine order was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th Century. The most famous Benedictine monastery was in Cluny, France. In 1098 AD, though, a group from that monastery set out to establish the Cistercian Order. St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 AD) established the Franciscan Order in 1209 AD). It was a monastic order that was devoted to the virtues of poverty and humility. A contemporary of St. Francis was St. Dominic (1170-1221 AD) who established the Dominican Order in 1215 AD. All these monastic orders contributed in their own way to the rebuilding of Europe and the establishment of countless innovations and advances in science, medicine, technology, hospitals, theology, philosophy, literature, music, the arts, architecture, and many other areas.

Hospitals…It Was a Christian Thing
hospital_medievalTake the area of medicine and hospitals for the poor, for example. Throughout the pagan world, only the rich and wealthy had access to what medicine and hospital treatment was available at the time. The vast majority of plebeians (perhaps the original 99%?) were left to suffer. As we have already seen, during the years of the early Church, it was the Christians who stayed in the cities during times of plague to minister and care for the sick and the poor, while the rich fled the cities to their country villas in order to escape various plagues. And, as we have already seen, when Constantine became a Christian, one of the first things that was emphasized was that the Church set up hospitals throughout the empire to help care for its citizens, both the rich and the poor. That in and of itself was revolutionary to the culture.

Such a tradition of charity was carried on, particularly through the Benedictine monasteries. As A.C. Crombie tells us, “Medicine was studied in the earliest Benedictine monasteries, and the long series of medical works written during the Middle Ages, and continuing without a break into the 16th century and modern times, is one of the best examples of a tradition in which empirical observations were increasingly combined with attempts at rational and theoretical explanation, with the result that definite medical and surgical problems were solved” (Quote found in Christianity on Trial, 67). Crombie further points out, this concern for the poor that led to countless advances in the area of medicine was a distinctly Christian concern: “It was not the result of necessity…there is no compelling need to treat the sicknesses of the impotent poor—but of a theological vision” (68).

Indeed, it was that very theological vision shared by the various monastic orders of this time that led to so many cultural advances that we in the modern world just take for granted.

Universities…It Was a Christian Thing
The monks were the farmers, innovators, inventors, doctors, writers, and teachers of the age. And when it came to education, particularly the establishment of the university, it must be said loud and clear: without Christian monks, there would be no universities. Again, in complete contrast to the false narrative stemming from the so-called Enlightenment, the historical facts of both the Byzantine and High Catholic Ages prove that, far from keeping society “in the dark” and in a state of ignorance, the Church was the shining beacon of knowledge in a devastated post-pagan world. It was the Church that fostered the arts, literature, medicine, science, and philosophy. The advances in all these areas were seen as, not somehow separated from the Christian Gospel, but rather the natural and logical outgrowths of the Christian Gospel itself.

The apostle Paul said, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). He also said, in II Corinthians 3:18, that Christians “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” This emphasis on “transformation” is central to the Christian conviction regarding how not only to live our individual lives, but also how such individual transformation leads to cultural transformation. Perhaps no other institution has effected so much cultural transformation like the Christian university. St. Paul no doubt is proud.

monksIt was the rise of the university that led to intellectual, scientific, and philosophical progress that the world as ever seen—and all of it stemmed from the theological vision of the various monastic orders who established the universities. Now, given that fact, it may be surprising to find that the typical curriculum in the universities was not primarily theological. As Ronald Numbers points out in his book, Galileo Goes to Jail, the majority of university students never got close to meeting the requirements for studying theology (usually a master of arts degree). Rather, the majority of students studied “only nonreligious subjects, including logic, natural philosophy, and the mathematical sciences” (22). In fact, theology faculties were not even the largest ones in the northern universities (23). Furthermore, Numbers writes, “By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe. …About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world. This was not a trivial development” (21).

Let that fact sink in for a moment: universities were first established during the High Catholic Age by monastic orders, and almost 1/3 of the university curriculum was devoted to the study of science. Given the seemingly never-ending “war between science and religion” that we hear so much about in our day and age, how could this be? We’ve been told for the past 200-300 years that the Christian Church was militantly anti-science, and fought to suppress science. Well, the facts of history tell us otherwise. In fact, it was only in Christian Europe that modern science took root. That is not to say that a certain amount of scientific inroads were made in places like China or the Islamic world, but the simple fact is that nothing compared to the explosion of scientific inquiry that happened in Europe during the High Catholic Age in the universities that were largely run and taught by scores of Christian monks and scholastics. And consequently, many, if not the majority, of early scientists were not simply Christians—they were monks, and deacons, and friars, and priests.

As Rodney Stark has said: “Real science arose only once: in Europe. China, Islam, India, and ancient Greece and Rome each had a highly developed alchemy. But only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry. By the same token, many societies developed elaborate systems of astrology, but only in Europe did astrology lead to astronomy. Why? Again, the answer has to do with image of God” (The Triumph of Christianity 14).

Now, why was there so much interest in the natural world during this time? The answer is obvious. Alfred North Whitehead perhaps said it best when he stated, “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that…there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind?…It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.”

medieval-universitiesSimply put, because one of the fundamental Christian convictions regarding the nature of God is that He is a thoroughly rational God who has created a good and orderly creation, it only made sense to assume that the created order was, in fact, orderly and logical, and could therefore be explored, studied, examined, and made sense of by the very creatures God had created to be in His image, and who therefore had the God-given rational and intellectual capacity to understand what God had made. Or more simply still: (A) God is a rational and orderly God; (B) His creation runs rationally and orderly; and (C) Man, who is made in God’s image, has the ability to comprehend the rationality and order in nature. Christianity teaches that God is good, His creation is worth exploring and understanding, and therefore part of Man’s vocation as being created in God’s image is to, in fact, explore and understand the world that God has made.

But it wasn’t just science that the universities of the High Catholic Age championed, it was also philosophy. And that will be the topic of the next post.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 21): The Reality of the Crusades: Why Pacifism on a National Level Isn’t Christian

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 21): The Reality of the Crusades: Why Pacifism on a National Level Isn’t Christian

There has often been a misguided assumption by many who have this strange impression that before the Crusades, Christianity had been a largely pacifist and “anti-war” religion for 1,000 years. Historical facts show this to be rather naïve. Even after the Roman Empire had become largely Christian, it still had to engage in various wars with hosts of enemies over the course of the centuries. Earlier emperors fought the Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and the Persians. Charlemagne fought various pagan tribes in northern Europe, the Huns, and even the armies of Islam who attempted to invade Europe from Spain.

The point here is that we must make a clear distinction: Christianity, indeed Christ himself, clearly teaches that on an individual level we are to pray for our enemies and not repay evil for evil. Yet on a national level, it is incumbent upon the rulers to protect their citizens whom God has entrusted in their care. To fail to do so would be to fail in one’s vocation to be a godly ruler. In that respect, when we come to the Crusades, we see that very thing come into play: Muslim armies had been conquering Byzantine lands for years, they had continued to attempt to wipe out the Byzantine Empire and to invade Western Europe as well. On top of that, they were also terrorizing Christian pilgrims who travelled to the Holy Land. It was up to the leaders, namely Emperor Commenus and Pope Urban II, to fight back against the Islamic Empire and to protect their citizens. In that respect, as Piers Paul Read states in The Templars, “From the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s first razzia, the Christians’ perception was that wars against Islam were waged either in defense of Christendom or to liberate and reconquer lands that were rightfully theirs” (311).

urban-iiWhat made the Crusades unique, though, was not the fact that Christians went to war. What made the Crusades unique was how the Pope encouraged people to go to war. When encouraging the leading nobility of Europe to raise armies to travel to the Holy Land and liberate the holy places from Muslim hands, the Pope offered an extra incentive: he equated going to war with penance and stated that anyone who went on crusade would get his sins forgiven. Such a notion was extremely reckless and dangerous—for although Christians had gone to war for nearly the previous millennium, war was never considered a Christian virtue. Indeed, it was standard Church practice to require returning soldiers to do a certain amount of penance after they returned from war, for it was seen as sometimes tragically necessary, but it was still tragic. With Pope Urban’s call for crusade, though, there was a dangerous precedent that presented “killing the infidel” as a means to merit God’s forgiveness. And that was a step too far.

The People’s Crusade…The Crusader Armies
peterthehermitThe result of such rhetoric could be seen in the mob of peasants that trekked through Europe on their way to Constantinople, raping and pillaging every “Muslim-looking” town they came across—unfortunately, many if not most of these towns were inhabited by either Jews or Eastern Christians. The unruly mob of the “People’s Crusade” eventually was wiped out shortly after they set foot into Asia and encountered seasoned Islamic troops, but the trail of barbarism they left in their wake should serve as a sober warning: careless rhetoric by religious leaders (and modern day secular leaders for the matter) could can easily inflame the uneducated masses and lead them to commit shameful atrocities.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the actual Crusader armies that were raised by the European nobility were trained-soldiers who viewed the crusade as a defensive war against the aggressive and hostile actions of an Islamic empire. They were not travelling to the Holy Land in search of riches—the Crusades were almost solely funded by Europe’s nobility, and most returned to Europe poorer than when they left on crusade. The goal was simple: liberate the holy places and protect Christians living there who were suffering at the hands of the Muslim Turks.

crusader-kingdomsThe Crusaders of the first crusade successfully took Jerusalem, and they ended up establishing four kingdoms: the County of Edessa, the Princedom of Antioch, the Country of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. One thing must be quickly said concerning the accusation that the Crusaders mercilessly butchered both Muslims and Jews once they took Jerusalem. Jonathan Riley Smith has stated, “We know it to be a myth that the crusaders targeted the Jewish community in Jerusalem. We also know that the figure for the Muslim dead, which used to range from ten to seventy thousand on the basis of accounts written long after the event, out to be revised downward. A contemporary Muslim source has been discovered that puts the number at three thousand.”

One might still say that 3,000 dead Muslims in Jerusalem is still a war crime—yet such an accusation shows an ignorance of the rules of medieval warfare. In war, during times of a siege, the besieged city had a choice: (A) either open their gates and surrender, or (B) honker down and try to wait the siege out. If the city surrendered, the citizens would be spared, but the city would still suffer some pillaging; if however the city refused, and the result was a long, drawn-out siege, and if the besieging army eventually successfully took the city, it was accepted that many of the people in the city would be killed—it was the price for prolonging the siege. Such military action was considered justified by the rules of medieval warfare. As Rodney Stark has stated:

“It is important to realize that according to the norms of warfare at that time, a massacre of the population of Jerusalem would have been seen as justified because the city had refused to surrender and had to be taken by storm, thus inflicting many causalities on the attacking forces. Had Jerusalem surrendered as crusaders gathered to assault the walls, it is very likely that no massacre would have occurred. …Muslim victories in similar circumstances resulted in wholesale slaughters too” (229).

“No doubt it was very ‘unenlightened’ of the crusaders to be typical medieval warriors, but it strikes me as even more unenlightened to anachronistically impose the Geneva Convention on the crusaders while pretending that their Islamic opponents were either UN Peacekeepers or hapless victims” (232).

That being said, in reality the Muslim armies were actually worse. Stark tells us of the actions of Baybars, the Sultan of Egypt: “When Baybars took the Knights of Templar fortress of Safad in 1266, he had all the inhabitants massacred even though he had promised to spare their lives during negotiations. Later than same year his forces took the great city of Antioch. Even though the city surrendered after four days, Baybars ordered all inhabitants, including all women and children, killed or enslaved. What followed was ‘the single greatest massacre of the entire crusading era’—it is estimated that seventeen thousand men were murdered and tens of thousands of women and children were marched away as slaves” (TC 231).

And then there was the infamous Tamerlane (1336-1405 AD). Stark writes: “A Muslim of Turkic-Mongol origins, Tamerlane is remembered mainly for his barbarity, earning the sobriquet the ‘Scourge of God,’ as Christopher Marlowe put it in his great play. Again and again Tamerlane perpetrated huge massacres—perhaps as many as two hundred thousand captives (men, women, and children) were slaughtered during his march on Delhi—and had towering pyramids built from the heads of his victims. And while he killed huge numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, he virtually wiped out the Christians and Jews in the East. In Georgia alone, Tamerlane ‘destroyed seven hundred large villages, wiped out the inhabitants, and reduced all the Christian churches…to rubble.’ Any Christian communities that survived Tamerlane were destroyed by his grandson Ulugh Beg” (TC 211).

War is always horrible, but both the so-called “enlightenment” narrative of the Crusades and the current Muslim condemnation of the Crusades is simply false and rather dishonest. The men of the so-called “enlightenment” were motivated to distort history because of their hatred against the Catholic Church—and they were willing to falsify history to achieve their own ends. As for the current Muslim condemnations of the Crusades, they came about only after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. With the loss of an Islamic Empire that had stood for over 1,000 years, Muslims found themselves subjects to the conquering forces of Europe.

It was only then that Muslim intellectuals seized upon the accusations from the so-called “enlightenment” and made them their own. For the first time in Islamic history, Muslims began to argue that the Crusades were attempts by European imperialism to colonize Muslim lands. And why did they do this? Because after WWI, European countries were colonizing Muslim lands! As Rodney Stark states, “…current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth century creation, prompted in part by ‘post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel” (233).

The Effects of the Crusades
Having given a brief defense for the cause of the Crusades, and an explanation of the reality of the Crusades themselves, I want to briefly address the cultural effect that the Crusades had on the development of western civilization. First, it must be pointed out that the Crusaders did not go to the Holy Land to forcibly convert Muslims. In fact, as Rodney Starks points out, “Muslims who lived in crusader-won territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion. Consequently, the crusader kingdoms always contained far more Muslim residents than Christians” (228).

knightsSecondly, there was the establishment of the monastic-military orders: The Knights Templar (founded in 1119 AD), whose mission was to protect the temple mount and Jerusalem (they wore white robes with red cross on mantel); and The Knights Hospitaller (founded in 1182 AD), whose mission was to care for and protect the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land (they wore black robes with white cross on left sleeve). Raymond Le Puy, the founder of the Hospitallers, said, “Wherever there are hospitals of the sick, the commanders of the houses must serve the sick with good courage and provide them with all they need, and do them service without murmuring or complaint, so that by this ministry they may have part in the glory of heaven.”

Thirdly, the Crusades brought a tremendous amount of culture and learning back to Western Europe. The Islamic world had been the recipients of classical learning when it conquered Byzantine lands. They had enlisted Byzantine administrators, philosophers, architects, and teachers to bolster their Islamic empire. The famed Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for example, though ordered to be built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, was nevertheless designed and built by Byzantine architects and artisans.

And so, what ended up happening when the Crusader armies marched in and conquered the Holy Land, was that they encountered (ironically) a wealth of Byzantine culture and learning that the Islamic empire had incorporated. Now obviously, there were scores of Islamic scholars, philosophers, and artisans who contributed greatly to the Islamic empire, but the initial learning they received and later elaborated on and contributed to came from the scholars, philosophers, and artisans of the Byzantine Empire. And in turn, the Crusader Christians from the west eventually brought that very culture back to western Europe.

It was during the era of the Crusades that learning really began to take off in Europe. Well, “take off” is a relative term…it certainly was a “take off” for that time. But that will be for the next post.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 20): The Reasons for the Crusades

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 20): The Reasons for the Crusades

crusadesMuch has been written about the Crusades, so I will not attempt to write yet another history about them. The Crusades, though, were incredibly significant on a number of political, economic, cultural levels, and for that reason I want to address them. Contrary to the modern narrative ever since the so-called “Enlightenment,” the Crusades were not wars instigated by fanatical, bloody-thirsty, imperial-minded European Christians intent on slaughtering innocent, peace-loving Muslims. History, and reality for that matter, is far too complex and messy to allow for such over-simplistic and inflammatory nonsense.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that such over-simplistic and inflammatory nonsense about the Crusades is precisely what we’ve been told for the past 300 years. In their attempt to paint the Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) as the root of all evil in the world, Enlightenment propagandists literally re-wrote (i.e. lied about) history. Voltaire (1694-1778 AD) stated that the Crusades were an “epidemic of fury which lasted for two hundred years and which was always marked by every cruelty, every perfidy, every debauchery, and every folly of which human nature is capable.” David Hume (1711-1776 AD) called the Crusades “the most signal and most durable monument to human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.” Denis Diderot (1713-1784 AD) depicted the Crusades as “a time of the deepest darkness and of the greatest folly.” And Edward Gibbon (1737-1794 AD) claimed that the real motivation of the crusaders was for “mines of treasures, of gold and diamonds, of palaces of marble and jasper, and of odoriferous groves of cinnamon and frankincense.”

These propagandists did their job well, for this is the very same false narrative that we are still being told today. As Rodney Stark has pointed out in The Triumph of Christianity, “In 1999, the New York Times had solemnly proposed that the Crusades were comparable to Hitler’s atrocities or to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo” (214). Not only that, but the constant charges coming from the Islamic world over the past century have been that Europe’s involvement in the Middle East ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI is yet just another chapter in European colonialism that had begun with the Crusades. Indeed, “As Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington DC, suggests: ‘the Crusades created a historical memory which is with us today—the memory of a long European onslaught’” (TC 213).

The Cause for the Crusades
Yet the historical facts clearly show this is not, and was never, the case. In fact, the complete opposite is true. In fact, as Rodney Stark points out, “claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900 in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East” (216).

The fact is that the Crusades were precipitated by an aggressive and militant Islamic onslaught that had been going on for 400 years, ever since the time of Muhammad himself. Islamic armies had already invaded and occupied a great swath of the Byzantine Empire, from the Middle East to Egypt to North Africa and to Spain, and had countless times tried to invade Europe itself. And in the territories they conquered and occupied, they reduced Christians to second-class citizens. Christians were called the dhimma. They were forced to pay a heavy tax for being Christians, were forced to wear a certain type of clothing that identified themselves as Christians, and were not allowed to worship—even in their homes—if it could be heard by any Muslim, and thus offend them.

If anyone wants to get a feeling for what life for Christians in the Islamic-occupied territories was like, one just has to look at what is going on in modern day Iraq and Syria, where ISIS has imposed those very Islamic restrictions on the Christian minorities in the territories they have taken over. When reading about ISIS destroying 1,800 year old Christian churches and imposing such brutal treatment on the innocent Christian minority in the region, who doesn’t feel righteous indignation? Who doesn’t think that something must be done to stop such brutal and inhumane behavior? Such was treatment of Christians in the Holy Land for the 450 years before the Crusades.

And then, in the latter half of the 11th century, Muslim Turks ramped up their harassment even more, killing and enslaving not only Christians living in Islamic-occupied territory, but also Christian pilgrims from Europe who would travel to the Holy Land to worship at Christian shrines. As Rodney Stark states, “The Turks were unflinchingly intolerant. There was only One True God and his name was Allah, not Yahweh or Jehovah. Not that the Turks officially prohibited Christian pilgrimages, but they made it clear that Christians were fair game. Hence, every Anatolian village along the route to Jerusalem began to exact a toll on Christian travelers. Far worse, many pilgrims were seized and sold into slavery while others were tortured, often seemingly for entertainment” (218). Such harassment and enslavement apparently wasn’t enough. The Turks also wanted to even wipe out every structural evidence of Christianity. Stark tells us that in 1009,“…at the direction of Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, Muslims destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—the splendid basilica that Constantine had erected over what was believed to be the site of the tomb where Christ lay before the Resurrection. Worse yet, the Muslims attempted to destroy the tomb itself, leaving only traces of the hollow in the rocks” (217).

pope-urban-iiThis was the situation that caused the Byzantine emperor Alexius Commenus to appeal to the Pope in Rome to send aid to help the persecuted Christians in the East. As Stark tells us, “In his letter, the emperor detailed gruesome tortures of pilgrims and vile desecrations of churches, altars, and baptismal fonts. Should Constantinople fall to the Turks, not only would thousands more Christians be murdered, tortured, and raped, but ‘the most holy relics of the Saviour,’ gathered over the centuries would be lost” (219). The fact that so many European Christians personally knew pilgrims who had endured such treatment at the hands of the Muslim Turks only helped strengthen the Alexius’ appeal. And so, in response, on November 27, 1095 at Clermont, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade with the famous words, “God wills it!”

And history would never be the same. More on that in the next post.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 19): The Emergence of the High Catholic Age (1054-1517 AD)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 19): The Emergence of the High Catholic Age (1054-1517 AD)

1054 AD marked a watershed moment for the respective histories of both the Eastern Byzantine Empire and what was soon to become Western Christendom. For the previous 300 years, the Byzantine Empire had lost much of its territory to the rising Islamic Empire, yet still was able to sustain much of its riches and splendor. And, ever since the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Western Europe was slowly being rebuilt through the ceaseless efforts of thousands of anonymous monks and priests from the Church of Rome. Although Rome was still in communion with the great patriarchates of the East, for all practical purposes it was on its own in the West, with popes acting as often corrupt administrative heads, and western monastics slowly rebuilding Europe from the ground up, resurrecting the dead pagan world into the image of Christ.

great-schismYet in 1054 AD, the growing rift between East and West was simply too great to overcome. The cultural, political, administrative, and religious differences between the Latin/Catholic West and the Greek/Byzantine East all contributed to the growing divorce that become official with the Great Schism of that year. This monumental event marked not only the beginning of the end of the great Byzantine Empire, but also the rise of Western Catholic “Christendom.” For the next 400 years, the Byzantine Empire in the East would continue to be weakened by the encroaching forces of the armies of Islam until the tragic fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. By contrast, ironically due to that very threat of Islam, the Pope called for Catholic Christendom in the West to unite to fight a number of crusades against the Muslim forces in the East, and that would lead to a resurgence on all levels in Western Europe: culturally, politically, and scholastically.

During the High Catholic Age, while Christianity slowly became a minority in the East (initially, a minority Muslim rule over the majority of Christian population, but eventually a distinct minority), in the West, with the start of the Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church came into its golden age. After 500 years of slowly rebuilding a new society from the ruins of an old, dead paganism (despite the deep corruption that had taken over the papal throne in Rome), the Catholic Church finally came under authority of a number of reform-minded popes who sought to root out the corruption that had so diseased the Church.

And although no society is perfect, you would be committing intellectual suicide if you bought into the false narrative spun by modern historians who try to say that the “Middle Ages” were a time of backwardness, superstitions, and ignorance. Honest historians know the opposite is true.  Despite the shortcomings within the High Catholic Age, it was this age, having emerged from the foundational work of the Byzantine Age, that produced some of the most significant cultural, scholastic, intellectual, and technological advances in world history. Just like the emergence of the technologically marvelous Gothic cathedrals, it was a time of dawning and light in Europe—certainly not one of “dark ages.”

The False Narrative of Enlightenment Propaganda
Ever since the Enlightenment, a false narrative has been told concerning the “Middle Ages.” (In this blog series, I have done away with the term and have instead divided that time period into two: The Byzantine Age and The High Catholic Age). As a matter of fact, the so-called Enlightenment’s narrative concerning the “Middle Ages” sprang from an utter hatred of all things Catholic. The narrative goes something like this:

(A) there was a golden age of culture and learning during the Greco-Roman period, but

(B) with the rise of Christianity, fanatical, close-minded, bigoted, hateful Christians destroyed the glory of Greece and Rome, and ushered in 1,000 years of cultural and philosophical darkness known as the “middle ages,” or “dark ages.” (For example, Daniel Boorstin states in his book, The Discoverers, that during the “Middle Ages” a “Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia… afflicted the continent…” (37).

And then, (C) with the rise of liberated and enlightened (i.e. atheistic and secular) men like Voltaire and Rousseau, society was able to break the chains of ignorance, terror, and superstition that the Catholic Church had imposed on Europe for the past 1,000 years, and usher in the Enlightenment, when the glory of ancient Greece and Rome began to be recovered.

Does that sound familiar? Is that what you generally have believed about the so-called “Middle Ages”? Chances are your answer is “yes,” for such has been the historical narrative of Western history that we have imbibed for the past 500 years. Consider the following quotes from several writers from the past 150 years:

draper“The Christian party [in the early Middle Ages] asserted that all knowledge is to be found in the Scriptures and in the traditions of the Church…The Church thus set herself forth as the depository and arbiter of knowledge; she was ever ready to resort to the civil power to compel obedience to her decisions. She thus took course which determined her whole future career: she became a stumbling-block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.” –John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

“With the decline of Roman and the advent of the Dark Ages, geography as a science went into hibernation, from which the early Church did little to rouse it… Strict Biblical interpretations plus unbending patristic bigotry resulted in the theory of a flat earth with Jerusalem in its center, and the Garden of Eden somewhere up country, from which flowed the four Rivers of Paradise.” –Boise Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance (1955)

[The Middle Ages were] “a dark, dismal patch, a sort of dull and dirty chunk of some ten centuries, wedged between the shining days of the golden Greeks…and the brilliant galaxy of light given out jointly by those twin luminaries, the Renaissance and the Reformation.”  –AnneFremantle (1902-2002)

“As the central authority of Rome decayed, the lands of the Western Empire began to sink into an era of barbarism during which Europe suffered a general cultural decline.” –Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

If I may be so bold, such statements reveal a shocking ignorance of history in general, and the life-changing impact that Christianity has had on the world. As we have already seen in earlier posts, the Greco-Roman world was anything but ideal and golden. To be sure, the philosophical elite of Greece laid the foundation of all later philosophy, and imperial might of Rome established a unified empire that provided the structure for the dissemination of culture and philosophy. But we cannot, as Rodney Stark has stated, allow ourselves to be merely wide-eyed tourists, enamored with the magnificent buildings of the Greco-Roman world, and being completely ignorant of the day to day, life on the ground that 99% of the Greco-Roman world endured under the crushing weight of slavery, violence, excessive taxation, and economic stagnation.

Simply put, the majority of the Greco-Roman world lived in cultural, economic, and religious darkness. It wasn’t until the collapse of Western Roman Empire that there was any glimmer of hope true enlightenment and progress for Western Europe. As Rodney Stark says in Triumph of Christianity, “When the collapse of the Roman Empire ‘released the tax-paying millions…from a paralyzing oppression,’ many new technologies began to appear and were rapidly and widely adopted with the result that ordinary people were able to live far better, and, after centuries of decline under Rome, the population began to grow again” (239-40). With the collapsing of the pagan darkness, Christianity offered a new light that began to dawn, first during the Byzantine Age, and then even more magnificently during the High Catholic Age.

Historical Backdrop: 1“Power vs. Piety”
In his attempt to make sense of the Roman Catholic Church during this time, Stark suggests that we make a distinction between the Church of Power, and the Church of Piety. The Church of Power signified the corrupt leaders within the Church that often were nothing more than immoral, secular rulers in papal vestments. The Church of Piety, on the other hand, signified Church leaders who sought to root out such corruption in the Church, and lead the Church in ways of Christ-like holiness. Throughout the Byzantine and High Catholic Ages, the Church found itself under the leadership of one of these two groups.

Throughout the Byzantine Age, the Church of Power often dominated Western Europe. Despite the corruption and decadence of the Church of Power, though, the Church of Piety had been diligently building a spiritual infrastructure throughout Western Europe. And in the mid-11th Century, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (1017-1056 AD) was able to initiate a reformation within the Catholic Church that ended up putting the reins of power back into the hands of the Church of Piety. Within the latter half of the 11th century a seismic shift occurred in both the history of the Church and the history of Europe. A string of reform-minded popes in Rome, the Great Schism with the Eastern Church, and the rise of the Crusades, converged within that 50-year time-span to send both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church down two very different roads.

The Church of Piety Reforms the Roman Catholic Church
pope-leo-ixIn 1049 AD, Pope Leo IX began what can only be described as a Catholic Reformation that launched the Church of Rome, as well as Western Europe, into cultural golden age. To be sure, there really is no such thing as a pure “golden age”—every age has its share of cultural, philosophical, and religious dross—but the thing to note here is that shortly after the rise of reforming popes like Leo IX, a new age of cultural enlightenment dawned in Western Europe. And that enlightenment began when Leo IX began to clean house and sweep the Church of Power out to the curb. He did so by excommunicating all bishops and abbots who paid money (i.e. bribed) to secure their positions. He then cracked down on the rampant sex scandals that plagued many church offices—bishops, priests, (and even a past pope or two…or three!) were known to have kept numerous concubines and bedded countless prostitutes. In response, Pope Leo IX methodically filled every church office that came available with monks.

This reformation was continued with Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061 AD), who not only exhorted every day Christians to refuse the sacraments offered by any priest who had paid for (i.e. bribed) his position, or who kept concubines, but also revolutionized the way in which future popes were selected. It was Nicholas II who established the College of Cardinals to be the ecclesiastical body who selected future popes. No longer would popes be selected by powerful and corrupt families to serve as their religious puppet. Ten years later, Pope Gregory VII became the first monk in centuries to be selected pope.

And so, within the span of a little over ten years, popes Leo IX and Nicholas II cleansed the Catholic Church from many of the evils that had plagued it for centuries. By rooting out the largely corrupt secular puppets from Church positions and by filling those positions with pious monks, these two popes, at least for the time being, reformed and purified the Catholic Church, and launched the High Catholic Age.

Ironically, it was during this very time that perhaps the greatest tragedy happened in Church history—the Great Schism of 1054 AD split the Church in what is known today as the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Given the cultural differences between the East and West, perhaps it was inevitable, but the ramifications of the Great Schism were, well, great indeed. At the time, though, no one realized just how significant the event was—both the East and West remained in contact with one another for quite some time. In fact, it was the Byzantine Emperor Alexius’ request to Pope Urban II that launched the First Crusade in 1096 AD.

That will be the subject of the next few posts.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 18): Charlemagne, the Carolingian Renaissance…and the Rise and Threat of Islam

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 18): Charlemagne, the Carolingian Renaissance…and the Rise and Threat of Islam

In this final post regarding Europe during the Byzantine Age (313-1054 AD), I want to touch upon two things: the impact of Charlemagne, and the threat of Islam. In the previous few posts, I pointed out that Constantine’s moving the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople had a tremendous impact on world history, not to mention Christianity itself. Basically, Christianity in the East developed in the midst of the glory of the Byzantine Empire, whereas Christianity in the West was faced with forging its way among the ruins of a fallen pagan society. The Pope became virtually the only kind of administrator in the West, and so he took on almost a political as well as religious role. And, consequently, the papacy became extremely corrupt during this time. At the same time, though, there were thousands of monks, nuns, and priests who went throughout Europe, building monasteries, caring for the poor, and slowly but surely rebuilding Europe from the ground up.

Nevertheless, Europe during this time was essentially the Wild West, with numerous local kings vying for power in their own corner of Europe. There was one ruler, though, who changed all that: Charlemagne. His impact on the development, and dare I say renaissance, of Europe (500 years before the more famous Italian Renaissance) cannot be overstated.

charlemagneCharlemagne (742-814 AD) originally inherited the Frankish kingdom (think, modern day France and Germany) from his father Pepin in 768 AD. Eventually, though, he expanded his kingdom to include parts of Italy, and on Christmas Day 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned him as the Holy Roman Emperor—basically the first sole emperor of Western Europe since the collapse of Rome some 400 years prior. The reason why Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor is pretty simple. He had just become pope five years earlier and still had a number of enemies. Charlemagne agreed to be his protector, and in return the Pope declared him to the Holy Roman Emperor. For the next 700 years, there was understood to be Christendom in Europe: a Christian Roman Empire.

Now I’m sure one can read a much more detailed account of Charlemagne’s life in many books, but I simply want to point out his impact on European culture. Yes, Charlemagne fought many wars, and in many ways spread Christianity by the edge of his sword, but fighting wars is really nothing new for kings and rulers. What made Charlemagne unique was his commitment to promote education, literature, music, the arts and culture throughout his realm. His efforts sparked what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. (Feel free to watch this short youtube video…)

The liberal arts that Charlemagne were divided in the following manner: the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. He established the palace school in his capital at Aachen. The man he chose to oversee the school was a Northumbrian scholar Alcuin. Eventually, Charlemagne encouraged monasteries to provide education, even issuing an edict that monks and priests were to provide education for the children in their districts.

carolingian-renaissanceNow, even though these schools were attached to monasteries and parishes, they did not solely focus on Christian topics. Yes, they studied the Bible and Church doctrine, but they also studied things like Greek philosophy and Germanic legends. It was also during this time that we see the rise of the troubadours—court musicians who sang of things like chivalrous knights and courtly love. Simply put, it was Charlemagne’s vision of educating Europe that eventually gave rise to so many things we take for granted today—the university being just one of them.

Most people, though, probably have never heard of the Carolingian Renaissance, and that is a shame, for the fact is, if it wasn’t for the Carolingian Renaissance during the time of Charlemagne, Europe would not have developed in the way that it did, and thus there never would have been an Italian Renaissance, complete with the likes of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Dante…you name it.

The Threat of Islam
There is one final thing that must be mentioned regarding the Byzantine Age—the effect of the rise of Islam. From its inception in the early 7th century, the armies of Islam proceeded to sweep through the entire region of Arabia, all the northern coast of Africa, up through the entire Middle East, and even into Turkey, thus constantly encroaching on what had been Byzantine land.

To be clear, the spread of Islam was the spread of a radical monotheism. Muhammad no doubt was deeply influenced by Judaism and Byzantine Christianity that had made their way throughout the Arabian Peninsula. But it is also equally obvious that Muhammad’s understanding of both Judaism and Christianity was severely lacking. Nevertheless, his insistence on only one God would have been immediately attractive to Jews and Monophysite Christians in Egypt who had been deeply upset by the Council of Chalcedon’s creed in 451 AD. In fact, the very reason why Muhammad even was invited to Medina in the first place was because there were a number of Jews who heard his preaching of monotheism, and had hopes he might be the long-awaited messiah.

It was only after they had decided that Muhammad wasn’t, in fact, the messiah, that Muhammad changed his tone in regards to respecting the “People of the Book.” As Rodney Stark put it in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

“Initially, Muhammad expected that Jews and Christians would accept him as the prophet who fulfilled both faiths. Frustrated when they rejected him, as soon as he possessed the sufficient means to do so, Muhammad attacked the Jews in Mecca and Medina; and eventually he forced the male members of the last Jewish clan in Medina to dig their own mass grave, whereupon all six to nine hundred of them were beheaded and the women and children were sold into slavery. Then Muhammad also sent his army to seize the Jewish towns” (200).

The historical facts bear out that Muslim armies took Byzantine lands by force, And since they themselves were largely unlearned, they relied on Byzantine scholars, doctors, and administrators to rule their newly won Islamic Empire. It many circles it has become fashionable to point out that while Western Europe was enveloped in the “dark ages,” that the Islamic world was cultivating a renaissance of learning. Well, in a vastly over-simplistic way, that is true.

Yes, western Europe from roughly 400-800 AD was in ruin, but not because of the rise of Christianity. The pagan system was left in ruins, and it was Christianity that was rebuilding Europe after it had been crushed under the weight of that dead paganism. Secondly, the “renaissance of learning” within the Islamic Empire was only made possible by the legacy and culture of learning of the Byzantine Empire that the Muslim armies had conquered. Simply put, the seeds of culture and learning within the Islamic Empire were that of Byzantine scholarship, philosophy, and medicine.

Another thing to mention about Islam was its cruelty to both Jews and Christians. It is fashionable today to make that claim that throughout history, particularly in the so called “dark ages,” Islam was peaceful and tolerant, whereas as Christianity was violent and intolerant, but the facts show that simply to be not true.

First, Muhammad himself, both in word (in the Quran) and in deed, advocated the killing and persecution of any Jews or Christians who did not accept him as God’s prophet. Yes, the official position of Muslim rulers was that Jews and Christians be tolerated, and that they were allowed to practice their faith, but, as Rodney Stark points out, they were only allowed to practice their faith “…under quite repressive conditions—death was (and remains) the fate of any Muslim who converted to either faith. Nor could any new churches or synagogues be built. Jews and Christians were also prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud, not even in their homes or in churches or synagogues, lest Muslims should accidentally hear them” (207-208). Furthermore, Christians and Jews were not only forced to wear certain clothing that identified them as Christians and Jews, they also had to pay excessive taxes, precisely because they were Christians and Jews.

This all happened, though, primarily in former Byzantine lands. Islam never was able to make its way into Europe, although there were many attempts to invade Europe, the last one being stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD by the Franks, who were led by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel.

islamic-mapSuch Islamic aggression during the Byzantine Age is important to note for two reasons. First, it was the reason for the general decline of the Byzantine Empire, to where Eastern Christians found themselves living more and more under the yoke of a hostile Islamic Empire. We in the West are largely ignorant of their plight.

Second, the rise of Islam and its aggressive tactics also explains the reason for the Crusades and the dawning of what I have called, The High Catholic Age. For in Western Europe, for over 600 years, the dedicated work of thousands of monks, despite the morbid corrupt of so many popes and cardinals during this time, laid the foundation for a cultural and spiritual resurgence in Europe. So, when the Byzantine Emperor appealed to the Pope in 1095 AD for help from Islamic invaders, it was the Pope’s call for the Crusades that sparked a cleansing of the Catholic Church, the vaulting of Europe back onto the world stage….and all the problems and challenges that come with it.

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