Monday, April 25, 2011

Roots of the Reformation I: Don't thank Gutenberg, it was the Muslims

Gutenberg usually gets all the credit, but that is grossly unfair.  The invention of  movable type (c. 1450) certainly speeded up the processes of challenging the authority of the Church because the printing press made books so much more readily available, but the fact that Europe had been experiencing an educational revolution for at least three centuries gives a wider angle to the picture of European society ripe for intellectual revolution. 
Avicenna, the Arab Philosopher
whose works helped introduce Aristotle
to the west
Where does it start? I suppose some would say the roots of the Reformation can be found with the rise of the universities in the later part of the twelfth century while others would look to the eleventh century cathedral schools which were themselves the “pollywogs” from which the universities matured.  Certainly, by the thirteenth century universities were springing up all over Europe and grammar schools in most cathedrals, urban friaries, and collegiate churches were providing the basic education that allowed the sons of the rapidly expanding middle class to acquire the basics they needed to study law, medicine, or theology at the universities. 
While these universities were intimately linked to the medieval Church they were not catechetical centers—far from it.  The medieval university was an intellectual hothouse which was jumping with ideas.  No doctrine or dogma of the Church went unexamined in the classroom nor unchallenged in the debate hall.  While today few study theology and theology departments rest (or are supposed to rest) firmly under the thumb of the local bishop, in the Middle Ages theology (along with its adjunct, philosophy)  was the hot topic of the intellectually curious.  Granted many studied law (so as to take their places in the royal administration) and some studied medicine—but it was Theology that made the reputation of a school and none more than the University of Paris, the premier university of Christendom.  And it was not merely doctrines that were challenged at Paris and Cologne and the Oxbridge schools—but entire philosophical systems on which the Church had constructed its doctrines.  In the thirteenth century the neo-platonic philosophical structure on which Christian doctrine had been built since late antiquity  was not only challenged but ultimately replaced by the more experiential Aristotelian system, newly rediscovered through the works of the Arab (and Muslim) philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes.   Neo-Platonism depended heavily on the “authorities”—that is the long history of previously determined philosophical and theological “truths” –as taught by those whom “Tradition” has validated.  Aristotelianism, on the other hand, taught that empirical evidence and logic  together trumped “Tradition.”  While initial efforts to subject the doctrines of faith to the questions of reason led to the condemnation of Abelard, Aristotelian thought eventually was vindicated by such brave new (and revolutionary) theologians and philosophers as Aquinas.  But at the same time that the triumph of scholastic Aristotelian thought led to Aquinas as the premier Catholic apologist in history, it also undermined the foundations of Tradition and Authority.  This would, in turn, lapse into Ockham and nominalism which would undermine the notion of belief all together.  Note—I said undermine, not destroy, because while nominalism would raise the questions that challenged  belief it also, for believers, demanded to know of them precisely what it is in which they believed, not as mere words or formulas, but as realities that transcended the words and formulas, and even transcended “universals” or concepts which those words and formulas were meant to convey.  In the hands of mystics like Meister Eckhart and those who would be associated with apophatic theology such as the author of The Cloud, this would disassociate personal religious experience from doctrinal affirmation and threaten to make religion purely subjective.  (Like it is for so many today.) While Eckhart himself would never have said this, and indeed his pledge to renounce any “heresy” that might be found in his writing in favor of the faith of the universal Church testifies against his radical subjectivism, it did create the theological ground from which Luther and others could challenge the staid (and indeed embalmbed) doctrines of last medieval scholastic thought.  There is something ironic in Scholasticism’s having challenged the authority of Tradition only to end up having its own authority challenged by its post-scholastic heirs.  But then where would history be without irony?  tomorrow: the renaissance and the roots of the Reformation.

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