Saturday, November 15, 2008

Book review

If you want to pick a fight with a medievalist, you can always start by dropping the phrase "Dark Ages." So along comes the classicist Charles Freeman, whose The Closing of the Western Mind argues that the Christian era really did represent a sort of dark age, as faith-based theology put an end to the Greek tradition of rational thought.

Freeman argues that, while it is true that the high point of Greek rational thought had passed by the time Christianity arrived on the scene, it was not entirely dead yet. Although they based their theories on erroneous conceptions of the world, the astronomer Ptolemy and the physician Galen were still trying to apply reason to the observation of the natural world. In the Western world, however, both Ptolemy and Galen came too be regarded as unchallengeable authorities and there was no improvement upon their work for over a thousand years. Seriously - a thousand years of no progress in either astronomy or medicine. What went wrong?

In Freeman's telling, an unfortunate combination of events. First, Christianity fell under the influence of the Apostle Paul, who explicitly rejected rational thought and Greek philosophy (although he mimics their style - Paul sounds more like a Greek than he does an Ezekiel of a Jeremiah); it may also be no coincidence that Paul's writing is obsessed with justifying his dubious claims to authority. Paul was at odds with everyone, and so were the other early Christians, who made themselves obnoxious to Jews and Romans alike by refusing to do their civic duty to any other gods.

As Christianity spread, this contrarian spirit became more difficult to deal with. Persecutions ensued, without ultimate success. The emperor Constantine, trying to bring a little peace and quiet to the messy empire, decreed an end to religious persecution and legalized Christianity, along with all other religions/cults.* It was only then that Constantine discovered how bitterly divided Christians were over obscure points of doctrine. If the difference between Heaven and Hell weren't enough incentive to get it right, now there were large sums of imperial money to be had for the winners in these disputes. The Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325 didn't bring unity, but it did establish a tradition of secular authorities bringing ecumenical councils together and then choosing who would be the orthodoxy.

Doctrinal disputes continued, however, and they were fundamentally unresolvable by any kind of rational thought. The essential problem was that the theologians were arguing over things for which there was no particular evidence. Freeman points to the Trinity, for which there is no direct Scriptural support; the concept has to be teased out of writings by authors who aren't very clear on the subject - because they didn't know anyone would ever be discussing it. John's Gospel insists that Jesus was God, but the Synoptic Gospels say no such thing and seem to provide a lot of hints to the contrary. While the Greeks had recognized that the nature of the gods was unknowable, the Christians were obsessed with establishing unknowable things with certainty.**

Eventually, argumentation had to be suppressed altogether. Thus the rise of faith, which in practice meant uncritically accepting the authority of the Church.*** Although he doesn't say it as explicitly as this, this is what Freeman means by the word faith: it's really all about authority. In the ancient Greek world of squabbling city-states, thinkers could freely challenge those who had come before. No such thing occurred in the ancient Babylonian or Egyptian empires and the Roman emperors were equally comfortable with using their authority to define the truth. The centralized Church that inherited the Western empire stepped into the role as naturally as if they'd been born to it.

* Constantine did not actually make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He put an end to official persecutions and built impressive churches in the time-honored manner of imperial patronage. Generally, the Romans would let you believe anything you wanted, so long as you didn't piss off the other gods by refusing to make the expected sacrifices; if you didn't, it made you a threat to public order and they dealt harshly with that.

** It's not coincidental that Christian theologians followed Plato and suppressed Aristotle. Plato's theory of Forms asserted a transcendent reality, which fit neatly with the Christian view of God, but likewise assumed that studying the physical world was no way to study reality. In The Republic, Plato says, "We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what is in the sky if we want to get a real grasp of astronomy."

*** That is, when there was no longer an emperor to decree these things. By that time, the Church had long been thoroughly intertwined with the political power structure and the aristocracy was deeply embedded in the Church hierarchy.

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