Introducing Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis – part 13: Medieval people as “Homo Ignoramus”?


Flat-earthers?

Flat-earthers?

Why can’t we hear the medievals on Creation and Incarnation?

In the modern West, a crucial reason we cannot hear what medieval people actually said about the world and God’s relationship to it is that we assume, from our privileged modern “scientific” vantage point, that they were impenetrably ignorant about the world. To take just one example: everyone knows that medieval people believed the world is flat, right?

In fact, this is nonsense. The myth that “before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church,” came from the eighteenth century. Its originator was popular novelist Washington Irving, who “flagrantly fabricated” evidence for medieval flat-earth belief in his four-volume history of Columbus.[1]

“The truth is,” says historian of science David Lindberg, “that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.”[2]

I would argue, and Lewis makes a similar argument in his Discarded Image, that if we are to return to the nourishing truths of the Middle Ages, rooted as they are in a very different understanding of the material world than we hold today, then we will have to tear away some significant polemical barriers erected by supposedly “enlightened” moderns (like the flat-earth myth). Only by doing so can we begin to shuck off our own impenetrable materialist ignorance and intractable scientific superstition.

Only then can we begin to take seriously the scriptural stories of Creation and Incarnation as clues that the material world is not just a random collocation of atoms. We scientific moderns, who “know better,” will have to allow the possibility that all this material stuff is first, the handiwork of God, and second, still used by God to comfort, confront, discipline and delight us. Further, we will have to open ourselves to the truth what we do with our own stuff—our bodies, families, goods, economic work, neighborhoods, food—absolutely does matter to God.

In other words, Christianity is not a merely spiritual religion. Today’s fad is to say “I am spiritual, but I am not religious”—meaning something like “I have spiritual thoughts and feelings. But I don’t have to do anything about them to know that I’m in touch with God.” A medieval Christian would have laughed.

[1] David Lindberg, “Natural Adversaries?” Christian History Issue #76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue76/17.44.html.

[2] Lindberg, “Natural Adversaries?”

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