A Little 12th Century Christian Trivia

[philosophy alert] “By doubting, we are led to inquire; by inquiry, we perceive the truth,” wrote theologian and some-time monkĀ Abelard in the early 12th century, when he was the first to argue that Christians could use reason as well as faith to attain knowledge of God, thus combining Greek thinking with the Jewish. He also wrote, “He that is hasty to trust is light-minded” and “The doctors of the Church should be read, not with the necessity to believe, but with the liberty to judge.” And he suggested people ought to be able to read the scriptures for themselves.

He was severely tortured for his boldness and forced to burn his writing.

But as fate would have it [long story short], his popularity as a teacher in Paris influenced the formation of the scholastic movement (best known for Thomas Aquinas), which aimed to prove that Greek philosophy and biblical supernaturalism, reason and revelation, were not absolutely incompatible. Paris became a wonderful hotbed of creative thought about this.

But of course, creativity is not conformity.

Enter the Inquisition.

In 1277, three years after Aquinas died, Pope John XXI issued a memo to the bishop of Paris pointing out 219 philosophical errors being circulated in his diocese. This proclamation signaled the end to philosophy as “an exercise within the sanctuary of the Church.”

And at that very moment, also, institutional Christianity was finished as a creative force in European life. For not only had its God dropped back once more into the Bible, but there were presently two popes, then three (the Great Schism, 1377-1417); after which, two Christianities, then a hundred (Martin Luther, 1483-1546). And meanwhile the new theological tone had been set by the powerful chancellor of the still supreme University of Paris, John Gerson (d. 1429), the pious power-man [who wrote] “Against Vain Curiosity in Matters of Faith”…

I’m taking this from Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology (I’m up to page 406!). It seems like a very interesting turning point in history and illustrates the clash between creative, scholarly philosophical thought and stubborn authority. According to Campbell (I’m interpreting), it winds up being a lose-lose situation: good thinking is driven away and authority splinters into a million pieces… and it becomes “the mythological base of the Waste Land of the modern soul, or, as it is being called these days, our ‘alienation.'”

I’m not selling these ideas — I’m just trying to digest some very interesting food for thought.

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