Word and World together – the lost synthesis of the medieval scholastics (from which science, capitalism, and Western culture were born)


Michelangelo-creationMoving to the Creation chapter, I find the themes of the nascent theology chapter “leaking over” into this topic. I am thus moving the “science and religion” and “Word and world” material from the latter to the former. Here is the bucket where I have currently put evidence from Lewis, Dante, Aquinas, Abelard, and others for the ways medieval thinkers brought together Word and World, Faith and Science. It still needs reorganizing and revising, but I like how this is shaping up:

Word and world

Scholasticism also offered a broadening of horizons and a deepening of relationship between man and God, because it not only engaged the inner faculty of reason in the study of God, but also sought to comprehend the whole sweep of human experience in a single system. This was, I believe, what Lewis meant when he observed, “Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the [Middle Ages].”[1a]

Before Lewis (and influencing him), G. K. Chesterton picked up the scholastic torch as he spent his career insisting that Christianity was, far from an obscurantist opiate of the masses, actually the Most Reasonable Thing (a constant theme in his “Father Brown” stories, for instance). Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers carried this onward, explaining the medieval (Thomist) synthesis of knowledge through essays and her brilliant notes on Dante’s Comedy describing the ruling “images” operative in every book and canto of that poem.

As we have seen, scholasticism was clearly a response to a new, naturalistic worldview that was becoming dominant in their culture. “Recognizing as we must the imperfections and the unfinished business of the medieval achievement, we should also acknowledge that it [Scholasticism] was the most daring constructive attempt in the Church’s history to think of grace and nature, faith and reason, Christianity and culture, God and his creation, in terms that would neither separate nor confuse them [note the direct parallel to the language of the Chalcedonian Definition!], neither strip God of his sovereignty nor do violence to the integrity of his creatures. In other words, scholastic theology and philosophy are, at the very least, a noble effort to face the abiding problems raised by the correlation of Christian faith in God, Creator and Redeemer, with man’s knowledge of himself and his world.”[1b]

So the story of Western progress, for Stark, is the story of how, “encouraged by the Scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice” as well as “the rise of capitalism.” Particularly important to Stark’s argument on this last front –in which he gleefully dismantles Weber’s now heavily challenged theory about “the Protestant ethic” being the cause of “the spirit of capitalism”—is the historical fact that “the systematic and sustained application of reason to commerce” first took place in the Christian Middle Ages, within “the great monastic estates.” As an amateur medievalist tired of William Manchester-like Enlightenment caricatures of the Middle Ages as an ignorant, flat-earth-believing, intentionally obscurantist, priest-ridden society that had to be hauled out of abject intellectual and moral darkness by a recovery of the wise sages of classical Greece, this line of argument gave me a deep delight and personal satisfaction.[2]

So for the medievals (and from this we should learn), passion for theology is a good thing for theologians and religious scholars with time on their hands, squirreled away in their university libraries, Gollum-like with their pale skin and big eyes, safely away from any interference with the public sphere. No, the medieval passion for theology was not just about theology. It was part of an all-embracing vision of the Christian faith as the Truth that will most contribute to human flourishing in the material, natural, economic, political realms, through the application of “sanctified reason” to the perennial problems of humanity. The rational God who creates all that exists, and intones over all of it, “It is good,” says of humans that we are “very good,” as he implants in us his very image – which was most usually identified in the medieval period with our reason.

God desires that we live in full enjoyment of his creation as well as his fellowship. He will not allow this full enjoyment and flourishing to be completely destroyed by the disobedience of free humans in the Fall, and so he works with and through human reason to improve every area of human life through law, medicine, education, and every other field of culture. Medieval theology was not just about questions of biblical minutia centered around who will and will not go to heaven – though soteriology always looms (the theologians believed, as a faithful reflection of the central concerns especially of the New Testament). Rather, medieval theology was one link in a strong and always-progressing chain of human “sciences” that thrived and blessed the Western world through (as Stark says) the church-based innovation of the university. Medieval theology served, as the “queen” of these sciences, as regal protector and fosterer of every science and art – the quadrivium of the maths and sciences as well as the trivium of the humanities.[3] But within and behind all the discussions of the Eucharist and the atonement was an abiding sense of wonder and love for creation. This captivated Lewis at a deep level, as he related it in his Discarded Image: “The medieval universe was ‘tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.’”

In fact, as Stark hints and I will examine more closely, it was the surge in scientific inquiry and economic activity (with the emergence of full-blown capitalism from its monastic antecedents in the Italian city-states) in 12th-century Europe that brought Christian theology into its full flowering in that age, leading to the towering and world-embracing accomplishment of Thomas Aquinas. This is “the medieval synthesis”—the arm-in-arm progressing of science and theology in the peak period of the “high Middle Ages.”

Stark goes further[4]: The scholastic theology was laying the groundwork for science in a way that didn’t happen in any other part of the world. The supposed conflict between science and religion (reasoned disciplined scientific thought and scholastic theology) is a canard. Even the rationalization of economics in capitalism, which in Lewis’s time (and today) is busy eating its parents – that is, destroying tradition and setting the scene for the destruction of traditional morals – was the result of the affection for reason and the reasoned theology of the earlier periods. And that economic organization, for all its flaws, has resulted in tremendous good: We who swim in its waters can miss its goods and see only the ways it spurs on the sin nature within human beings – plenty feeding greed and gluttony, pornography feeding lust, fashion feeding vainglory, and all of that. Yet the long chains of logic and the trust in reason that had to be put in place before capitalism could flourish, with that system’s many layers of rational calculation and its reliance on rule of law,[5] could have developed only, or at least in fact did develop only, out of the Western Christian tradition.

Here’s a bit more from the modern ressourcement theologian and pope Benedict XVI: “The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself. . . . It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained.”[6]

This resonates with the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri, who during an intensive period of education in the schools of the Franciscan and Dominican scholastics,[7] came to see the universe as “theomorphic,” or God-shaped. “Through the joy of sheer knowing, philosophy introduced him to an objective cosmos, grander than any dream—an immense, unfathomable order of parts in a whole.”[8] In the whole vast mathematically, rationally, even musically structured universe, “God is revealed, if we can but see it, wherever we might turn.” [9]

Dante expresses this theo-scientific vision throughout his Comedia, culminating at the end of the Paradiso, in which the pilgrim Dante is finally brought to a vision of the universe as animated by a perfectly rational, perfectly loving being. The verses wrap within themselves both the mystical/imaginative and the intellectual/rational: “My mind was struck by lightning / Through which my longing was at last fulfilled. / Here powers failed my high imagination, / But by now my desire and will were turned, / Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly, / By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

We are reminded of Lewis’s assessment of the Comedia—that, “like Catholic theology” it contains a perfectly rational, calibrated, nested set of truths, “wheel within wheel.” This was a vision of the universe in which reason and love were unified so that, as Lewis once said, in the Middle Ages people could “love the universe as a man can love his own city.”[10]

Concluded Fairweather, “Scholastic theology and philosophy are, at the very least, a noble effort to face the abiding problems raised by the correlation of Christian faith in God, Creator and Redeemer, with man’s knowledge of himself and his world.”[11]

In his famous book Sic et Non, aimed at students, Abelard listed several scores of questions on science, ethics and theology,[12] and for each gave quotations from the Scriptures and the Fathers which seemed to support contradictory answers. The book was meant to be provocative and to stimulate independent thinking. Yet Abelard never made reason supreme. To him faith and reason went hand in hand. But faith was always to be tested by reason. He said “Nothing is to be believed until it is understood.” As he lived to see the influx of Aristotelian scientific thinking in the theological academy, this “understood” came quickly to include a significant empirical dimension: what one taught must be true to the kind of place the world is as well as the kind of God God is.

Thomas Aquinas saw “natural reality as divine creation which in the event of the Incarnation has been reunited, in an incomprehensibly new way, with its Origin.[13] And, in seeing and saying this, he makes two things plain: first, that man’s turning toward all aspects of the world is an attitude not only justified but required by theology . . . and second, that theology itself can develop only within the framework of total reality.” Pieper sums up this world-affirming theological attitude of the scholastics as “theologically based worldliness, and a theology open to the world.”[14] The conclusions of such a theology: (1) we must turn toward the world (empirically) in our theologizing and (2) every element of “total reality” (world) must be accounted for (or at least none may be ignored) in our theologizing.

According to Thomas, “faith presupposes and therefore needs natural knowledge of the world.” And “finally, moreover, the study of created things must be praised for its own sake, since these things are works of God.” (You can see where Stark can ground his argument that it was medieval Christian theology that birthed science!) In a “famous public debate waged by Thomas Aquinas and John Peckham in 1270,” “Thomas was maintaining and Peckham denying that the body is part and parcel of the nature of man.”[15]



[1a] Lewis, The Discarded Image, 203.

[1b] Fairweather, 19-20.

[2] Stark, Victory of Reason, x – xi.

[3] Yes, I am aware of the “Galileo episode.” In many ways, this was the exception that proves the rule, in ways that we don’t here have the space to examine. To learn more, see Christian History magazine, issue #76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue76/) (especially my Editor’s Note and the interview with David Lindberg) or James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery, 2011).

[4] In his Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2006).

[5] E.g. see Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Simon and Schuster, 1982).

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 153

[7] . . . the results of which he recorded in his Convivio (c. 1304 – 1307).

[8] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “The Mind in Love: Dante’s Philosophy,” in Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Freccero (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965), 45.

[9] Timothy B. Shutt, “Dante and his Divine Comedy: Course Guide” (accompanying the Dante audio course published by Recorded Books, LLC, 2005), 16.

[10] Discarded Image, 203.

[11] Fairweather, 20.

[12] Notice the breadth of cultural/topical coverage in this “theological” list. This was not “just theology.” Again – in this environment of the birth of the university (as, note, a Christian institution) – there was no artificial separation. This supports one argument of my book as a whole: that medieval faith, grounded in the Incarnation as well as Creation and New Creation,  teaches us not to separate our faith from the rest of our lives in the world, or spirit from matter, or church from work, etc. . . .

[13] Note this crucial link between theology of scholastics and sacramental principle.

[14] Pieper 119.

[15] Pieper, 121.

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