Birth Pangs of Western Science

I have struggled to find any rational path from Scholasticism, which reigned in the Church prior to the Reformation, through it, and well into the Renaissance, to empiricism and science. Some aspects of Christianity’s Scholastic roots remain yet today: that established by Augustine at the beginning of the sanitized and politically alligned church by which he attempted to support Christian doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy.
Upon further reflection, it appears to me that the path from Scholasticism to the world that we understand through science, was that of superstition. Will Durant had addressed that in The Story of Civilization, Volume VII, The Age Of Reason, Chapter 22, Science In The Age Of Galileo at page 575. I had not understood its relevance, its truth, or its power until this writing:

Religions are born and may die, but superstition is immortal. Only the fortunate can take life without mythology. Most of us suffer in body and soul, and Nature’s subtlest anodyne is a dose of the supernatural.

Growth is a process. Even what appear to be sudden “bursts of revelation” must be connected to the past, else they risk mere fantasy. I have previously mentioned the book, Philosophy In the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. We live in a physical world; disembodied notions have no relevance. We and the matter that constitutes us are matter aware of itself, as Teilhard described it. There is no hard division between spirit and matter. There is more to life than what we see, but not contrary to what we see.

Again, at page 575, Durant notes the ambiguity which marked the beginning of Western science: “Even Kepler and Newton mingled their science with mythology: Kepler believed in witchcraft, and Newton wrote less on science than on the Apocalypse.” Even in so revolutionary a scientist as Newton, we see conflict between science and religion. That was nothing new. Superstition has been the rule, not the exception. Moreover, these scientific discoveries hardly broke new ground concerning the understanding of the world that we live in. Long before Western science, the Greeks and their philosophy had anticipated a number of scientific premises, such as a solar center world. Additionally, Islamic civilization had explored the night skies and had made a number of scientific observations long before these great scientific figure’s of Western civilization.

At about the time of the Reformation, Islamic civilization had peaked and was about to decline. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had made Columbus’ discovery of the New World possible. As a practical matter, that was bound to happen sometime or another as Western society and civilization developed economically and politically. Perhaps of greatest impact upon Western civilization is Ferdinand and Isabelle’s expulsion of Muslims from Spain, better known to the West as “the unification of Spain.” Actually it was even broader than that: through their Spanish Inquisition, they attempted to eradicate all non-Christians from their unified kingdom. If one visits Spain today, he or she will still note the Islamic influence there as expressed in its Moorish elements.

Will Durant notes at page 691 that in the fourth century, the Muslim historian, Ibn-Khaldin, realized the philosophical importance of history. He wrote,

History has for its true object to make us understand the social state of man, i.e., his civilization; to reveal to us the phenomena that naturally accompany primitive life, and then the refinement of manners … the diverse superiorities that peoples acquire, and which beget empires and dynasties; the diverse occupations, professions, sciences, and the arts; and lastly all the changes that the nature of things can effect in the nature of society.

Indeed, there is much to learn from a larger view of history than just that of Western civilization. I have previously noted the remarkable rise and fall of Islamic civilization during the Dark Ages. I have also noted that during the Crusades, the Muslims were often much more honorable and true to their promises than were Christians. I am a Christian. I want to say that I do not understand the long history of Christianity intolerance of other religions, but I suspect some of it has to do with Augustine, his Aristotelian grounding of Christian theology, its adoption by both Catholicism and Protestantism, and what seems to be that it is somehow related to a literalistic view of the scriptures, to its inclination to elevate spirit over matter, and to the high publicity of Christian fundamentalism. Of course, fundamentalism, in the manner in which Jimmy Carter used it, is a curse of our times extending to each of the Abrahamic religions. The contemporary view of conservative fundamentalist and literalistic Christianity is that the creation story in the Bible is literally, scientifically, and historically true. Whether expressly or implicitly, they set up a conflict between science and religion that, as I view it, does not exist. How does one answer their argument that spirit and faith are above and in conflict with the physical world and human life, and that God is above and superior to the “corrupt” nature of matter, of mankind, and of reasoning and “man’s wisdom.” The horrors of such a schizophrenic view of nature, of the physical world vs. the spiritual world, are, to my mind, perhaps best exemplified by the Christian witch hunts when torture was viewed as an acceptable way to save “the only significant part of the human:” the soul. It has been said that when supposed witches and heretics were burned at the stake, church officials and the obscene onlookers rejoiced that the victim’s soul was saved for heaven if that victim screamed repentance before death.

The Reformation was a time of preparation for rebirth, or of Renaissance, for Western civilization. But politically it remained unstable and Islamic military might remained dominant. Will Durant notes at page 695,

It is hard for us, pigeonholed in Christendom, to realize that from the eighth to the 13th century Islam as culturally, politically, and militarily superior to Europe. Even in its decline in the 16th century it prevailed from Delhi and beyond to Casablanca from Adrianople to Aden, from Tunis to Timbuktu.

But the reality, indeed the enigma, of human existence is that virtue and evil can reside in the same person. It is no different with civilizations. From a Christian standpoint, my mother notes that the “heroes” of the Bible were flawed people as is each of us. Using King David as an example, she notes that God was able to work through him with his virtues as well as his calamitous faults. That is encouraging to her: “Then God can use an ordinary person, even a flawed person, such as I am.”

Will Durant puts into perspective the conflict between Christianity and Islam, at page 703,

Suleiman was doubtless the greatest and noblest of the Ottoman sultans, and equaled any ruler of his time in ability, wisdom, and character; but we shall find him, now and then, guilty of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge. Let us, however, as an experiment in perspective, try to view dispassionately his conflict with Christendom.

The military debate between Christianity and Islam was already 900 years old. That began when Muslim Arabs snatched Syria from the Byzantine Empire (634). It proceeded through the year-by-year conquest of that empire by the Saracens, and the conquest of Spain by the Moors. Christendom retaliated in the Crusades up, in which both sides covered with religious phrases and ardor their economic aims and political crimes. Islam retaliated by taking Constantinople and the Balkans. Spain expelled the Moors. Pope and after pope called for fresh crusades against the Turks . . .

As every political authority seeks to protect and expand its arena, so did Suleiman. He had his eye on Hungary and was poised to take it when he received a letter from Francis I, who was then held captive by Charles V, requesting that he take Hungary. Pope Clement VII urged Christian rulers to defend Hungary, but Luther encouraged Protestant rulers to stay out of the fray because to do otherwise would be to violate “the will of God.” Having successfully taken Hungary, Suleiman then turned his forces upon Italy. It appeared that the fate of Europe “hung in the balance.” However, somewhat as occurred with Hitler in the Soviet Union, winter intervened and the Sultan’s lines of communication were disrupted. This time, both Luther and the Catholic Church understood the seriousness of the threat, and Suleiman suffered his first defeat. Although they saved Italy and staved off further advances of Suleiman, Europe was not without its losses. Ultimately, the Turkish army, under the command of the sultan, ruled the Mediterranean; and the Christians, accepting the losses of Rhodes, the Aegean, and Hungary agreed to terms of peace which implicitly accepted the Ottomans as the superior power.
Suleiman survived the European campaigns to return to rule Turkish Islam. Will Durant notes that in the Ottoman Empire, the Mufti or sheik ul-Islam were the” theologians – lawyers” who directed everyday life of the Islamic Turks. Although sultans came and went, the Mufti were a stabilizing force in that society. However, being committed to the law of the past, they were very conservative, and not progressive in either the arts or the sciences. However, they were very tolerant of Christians and Jews, who enjoyed not only religious freedom, but even self-government, provided that no Muslim was involved. There was greater order, less criminal conduct, and greater civility to be found in the Ottoman Empire than in Europe. Then, as today in the Muslim world, men reigned and women served. Concerning this enigmatic man, Will Durant concludes at page 719:

Suleiman fought too many wars, killed half his progeny, had a creative vizier slain without warning or trial; he had the faults that go with unchecked power. But beyond question he was the greatest and ablest ruler of his age.

Of the Jews during this period, Will Durant notes at page 741,

It was not to be expected that the age of the Second Dispersion should produce any high culture among the Jews; their energy was consumed in the brute task of survival. Education, in which they had excelled, was disrupted by the mobility and insecurity of life; and while Christian Europe moved with exhilaration into the Renaissance, the Jews of Christendom moved into the ghetto and the Cabala law.

In European Christendom, Galileo confirmed the Copernican proclamation that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our world. That conflicted with the Aristotelian notion of geocentrism, which was adopted by the church. Galileo developed his telescope and observed the planets and their motion. Upon publication of his findings, he was tried and convicted of heresy by theologians of the Roman Inquisition, as “contrary to the scriptures.” [How far have we come in the continuing “conservative” Christian view of conflict between science and religion, evolution and creationism, and dualism of spirit and matter?] Galileo was sentenced to imprisonment, which was commuted to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Popular legend has it that following his conviction and sentence Galileo maintained “and yet it moves.” Beyond that, he accepted his fate.

Protestation, Reformation, and Humanism

Toward the end of the 15th Century, the ancient classics were re-discovered; they and new thinking were made available to all with the education sufficient to utilize it; the merchant class was rising, expanding the population of those who were able to benefit from political and material power; through the printing press literature and the power of ideas was more readily available to all; commerce was expanding throughout the Mediterranean and Europe and throughout the region, as far as India; a wider segment of society found and shared the benefits of this new learning and wealth available. Some of the results of that growth were more effective communication, more profuse distribution of wealth, and greater broadcast and receipt of ideas.

There had long been divergent streams of religious ideas, practices, and zeal apart from the church, as has been discussed, but none of it threatened the primacy of the western church within its sphere. In the 15th century, dissatisfaction with the church increased, its privileges among its own were increasingly resented, and protest against its growing wealth at the expense of its congregations and of the lower class became more visible, more effective and more broadly cast. Will Durant states in his Story of Civilization, Volume V, The Renaissance, at page 569, “Enlightenment is of minorities, and emancipation is individual; minds are not freed en masse.” The former rules of social and moral order were changing. Durant notes at page 571: “The church might have sustained the supernatural sanctions provided by the Hebraic Scriptures and the Christian tradition, if her personnel had lived lives of decency and devotion.” Nonetheless, to resist the church yet had its costs. Durrant writes, “In 1478 Galleotto Marcio was condemned to death for writing that any man who lived a good life would go to heaven whatever his religion might be; but Pope Sixtus IV saved him.”

The floodgates of protest were burst open when Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 on the door of the all Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Once the vessel was split, the part that fell away fractured into many pieces, which would continue to fracture to the present day. I have found a graphic and timeline at quite helpful.


Within what remained of the Catholic Church, it cleansed itself by Counter Reformation. Although there are some distinguishing practices, it appears to me that there is yet more similarity between Catholicism and Protestantism than is suggested by the proponents and adherents of either. It is remarkable how such minute differences create so many fissures.

In my posting concerning the consolidation of authority within the Roman Catholic Church, I noted that Augustine not only influenced Catholic theological thinking as redirected by the Council of Nicaea, to Aristotelian scholasticism, but many of his notions were later adopted by Protestants. Certainly, among my more fundamentalist friends and family, I note Christian language and concepts that are taken directly from the Confessions. Doing some more research at this writing, I note that I am not the first to see the great influence that Augustine has had upon Protestantism. I note at, an article entitled, “How Augustine Became the Father of Not Only Roman Catholicism but also…… Evangelicalism! That post refers to the “Roman Catholic website, New Advent, in which was posted the article, 'Teaching of St Augustine of Hippo.'” Of the mutual reliance of Protestants and Catholics upon Augustine, it cites the following:

Luther and Calvin were content to treat Augustine with a little less irreverence than they did the other Fathers, but their descendants do him full justice, although recognizing him as the Father of Roman Catholicism."

There is no doubt that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430AD) became the major theological 'heavyweight' whose writings largely influenced and fashioned not only Roman Catholicism, but also Protestantism, and – through that route – modern evangelicalism.

Because I do not see great substantive theological differences among Roman Catholicism, Greek orthodoxy and the various Protestant denominations. I will refer the reader to Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree, published by Abington Press. I believe he more than adequately articulates the fundamental differences among them in a respectful manner. He has also published other books that might be of interest to the reader, particularly, Christianity and World Religions. I find his purposes to be quite consonant with my own purposes in this blog site, and articulate. In his Introduction to Christianity’s Family Tree, he states,

. . . The aim of this book is not to critique the various churches and traditions we will study. Neither is it to compare and contrast them. Instead my aim is to help you learn from your brothers and sisters of other denominations so that your faith might be enriched and that we might be more authentic and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, fine theological differences do not particularly interest me. Philosophy in the Flesh in, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson addresses my view of such distinctions. I gather from their book that unless our ideas can relate to us and our world in concrete ways, ie., A “in the flesh,” they lack any significance to the life in the flesh which we must live. I see theology to be simply philosophy applied to religious, or metaphysical, notions. I believe that Jesus addressed that when he was asked by his disciples to judge others who are doing good works but not in his name: good fruits and good works mark the life within the Kingdom of God, not logical constructs based upon disembodied premises.

More significant to me are the beliefs that help us to relate to the world in which we live and to produce good fruit. Eric Fromm notes in his book, Fear of Freedom, which I had purchased in the 60s under the title, Escape from Freedom , that a mentally healthy life requires a balance of individuation and relatedness, freedom and a sense of social responsibility, dependency and independency.

There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties, but as a free and independent individual.

European and American history since the end of the Middle Ages is the history of
the full emergence of the individual.

I am again reminded of Eric Fromm’s definition of religion: that which gives us a sense of orientation and an object of devotion. A healthy religion will help the individual and its society to orient itself in a way that dynamically balances individual and social freedom with individual and social responsibility. I see the humanism of Eric Fromm as consistent with “you will know them by their fruits.”

Eric Fromm discusses the origins of contemporary religious orientation and devotion:

[It begins in] the cultural scene in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. In this period the economic basis of Western society underwent radical changes which were accompanied by an equally radical change in the personality structure of man. A new concept of freedom developed then, which found its most significant ideological expression in new religious doctrines, those of the Reformation, Any understanding of freedom in modern society must start with that period in which the foundations of modern culture were laid, for this formative stage of modern man permits us, more clearly than any later epoch, to recognize the ambiguous meaning of freedom which was to operate throughout modern culture: on the one hand the growing independence of man from external authorities, on the other hand his growing isolation and the resulting feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness. Our understanding of the new elements in the personality structure of man is enhanced by the study of their origins, because by analysing the essential features of capitalism and individualism at their very roots one is able to contrast them with an economic system and a type of personality which was fundamentally different from ours. . . .

Of the Reformation and its significance for the contemporary individual and society, Eric Fromm writes:

The Reformation is one root of the idea of human freedom and autonomy as it is represented in modern democracy. However, while this aspect is always stressed, especially in non-Catholic countries, its other aspect–its emphasis on the wickedness of human nature, the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual, and the necessity for the individual to subordinate himself to a power outside himself–is neglected. This idea of the unworthiness of the individual, his fundamental inability to rely on himself and his need to submit, is also the main theme of Hitler’s ideology, which, however, lacks the emphasis on freedom and moral principles which was inherent in Protestantism.

I see much of religion, from its earliest times, as a response to the wonder of spirit in matter, and their relationship. Is man fundamentally corrupt because of the “sin of Adam,” or is he reflective of “the image of God?” To what degree is present life derived from, or influenced by, prior life? What is God: more than what you see and experience, or above it? What is the significance of life; what is the significance of death; what is left after death? Or, as Joseph Campbell described the function of myth, does it show us how to live?

The Medieval Labyrinth: Its Pagan Roots, Its Spiritual Uses, And Its Unfortunate Associations


Labyrinth Saint Quentin Basilica:

Labyrinth Saint Quentin basilica

Before we leave the Medieval Period, let’s explore a Christian practice which was first introduced to the Christian church in the medieval period, and has again become common in contemporary Christian practice: the labyrinth. As so many times happens to me, and I suspect it is not limited to me but is experience, also, by others, at crucial points in my life, including the posts of this to blog, something happens that just “fits” my circumstances of that time. In fact, I know that such relevant, opportune moments are commonly experienced by those with perceptive minds and eyes of faith. While studying at the University of Nebraska law school, in one of the final classes that I had with Professor Snowden, Legal Ethics, he sent us off with some wisdom. As one can imagine a long, white-haired, bearded and wise professors or wizards in the Harry Potter movies, Professor John Snowden mystically intoned, “If you ever have a problem, read a good book, and there you will find your answer.”

The labyrinth originates in Greek mythology, in which we are told that it was built to hold the Minotaur, which was half man and half bull. Forms of the labyrinth were also common to the Egyptians, to the Romans and throughout ancient civilization. Although the design of the labyrinth, which can vary, appears to take the traveler close to the centre and then back to the edge, in and out, and finally to the center, a labyrinth is not a maze. One does not become lost in a labyrinth. One trusts that the path will lead from the point of entry to the center although it may appear to wander aimlessly. Once in the center, one trusts the path to the exit, sometimes seeming to approach the edge, and yet returning toward the middle, and about. It may appear to be a complicated path, and it is by design, and yet if one trusts the path through all of its winding and seeming meandering, it will take that person to where “one is going.” Whatever its historical or Christian use, one of its effects was, and still is, spiritual. The person who walks it must yields his or her will and perceptions “to the path.”

While the gift of the labyrinth does not justify the horrors of its contemporaries, it was a beautiful introduction into Western Christian practice at about that same time as the Inquisition and the Crusades. It appeared in several Gothic cathedrals of that time, including Chartres and Reims. Some were crude, with stones laid upon the ground to provide a pathway, and some were highly refined, as those in the Gothic, ornate cathedrals. It is said that the labyrinths were laid out on their central floors of the Gothic cathedrals that were built throughout Europe, were symbolic of a pilgrim’s travel to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is now also popularly believed that those Christians who could not undertake a Crusade to Jerusalem might, as a substitute, walk the labyrinth of those various cathedrals. Whatever its history, Christianity has rediscovered the spiritual benefits of that ancient practice.

For pictures of medieval labyrinths and their settings, I have obtained the following photos from the google search:

See, also,,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.42768644,d.cGE&fp=edc2cdd6c0fe230d&biw=984&bih=463

For a concise history of the labyrinth at the Cathedral of Chartre, France, see

For an excellent a resource in one location concerning the church history of the use of the labyrinth, see . As an introduction to the labyrinth and of resource for more casual exploration, I will rely upon that site for background, designed, use, photos, and graphics.

For spiritual uses and benefits of the labyrinth, see…1c.1.4.psy-ab.IOBu9fHY3_4&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.42768644,d.aWc&fp=edc2cdd6c0fe230d&biw=984&bih=463

For other a treasury of links concerning labyrinths, see
For a very scholarly list of resources for labyrinth studies, see,

See, also, my prior post during my discussion of architecture,

The Church, Judaism and Islam in the Middle Ages

In Volume IV of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization he introduces Chapter 3, “The Progress of Christianity” at page 44, he observes:

The foster mother of the new civilization was the church. As the old order faded away in corruption, cowardice, and neglect, a unique army of churchmen rose to defend with energy and skill a regenerated stability and decency of life. The historic function of Christianity was to reestablish the moral basis of character and society by providing supernatural sanctions and support for the uncongenial commands of social order; . . .

Augustine and His Influence upon Both Catholic Theology, and Later, Protestant Theology

Next to Constantine, St. Augustine had the greatest influence on the church, and not just the Catholic Church, but even the subsequent Protestant churches. His best-known work is his Confessions, in which, for my tastes, at times he seems to make himself more base to make God all the greater; and at other times, he seems almost to be brag of his brazen rejection of his mother’s prayers for him. In that work, he acknowledges that he prayed for chastity, “but not yet.” He was well schooled in Greek philosophy and was a disciple of Manichaean dualism until it was outlawed by the Roman Emperor, as the Empire, through Constantine, adapted Christianity to its political purposes. Indeed, I find that his rejection of Manichaeism is on grounds that bear strong resemblance to his finely retooled Christian theology.

Augustine found Greek philosophy to be much more consonant with Christian theology, perhaps influenced by Paul’s announcement to the Athenians that he was revealing to them the Christ, who the pagans represented as the “unknown god.” Drawing upon his philosophical background, which, it would appear, was not a threat to Roman authority and therefore Roman authority was not a threat to it, he provided an Aristotelian justification of church doctrine, as refined by himself. He adopted the doctrine of original sin first introduced by Paul. He argued that Adam’s sin had left man corrupted merely by being children of Adam; that only through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, God’s only Son, could mankind be redeemed; that only by the free grace of God could the stain Adam’s sin be erased and salvation gained; and that only by intercession of the prayers of the Virgin Mother.

His was a dogmatic complexity which would stain Christian theology for all time, rooted in a doctrine of original sin in all offspring of “Adam.” For all his youthful excesses, in his more mature, converted state, sexuality was part of the fallen, sinful state of man. He wrote a treatise On Free Will in which he argued that although God for saw the choices that man would freely make, nonetheless, man was free to make the choices.

Following the political collapse of Rome, many asked how that could have occurred. Some blamed paganism, others blamed Christendom. Many Christians were shaken in their faith by Rome’s fall. Augustine made his own attempt to make sense of that chaotic aftermath in City of God. He struggled with the work for 13 years. Will Durant makes the following observations and assessments at page 72:

He published it in piecemeal installments; the middle of it forgot the beginning and did not foresee the end; inevitably it’s 1200 pages became a confused concatenation of essays on everything from the First Sin to the Last Judgment; and only the depth of its thought, and the splendor of its style, lifted it out of its chaos to the highest rank in the literature of Christian philosophy.

Over the next two centuries, Rome would see the final dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the Catholic Church would take up its political remnants to combine with its ecclesiastical power. Europe descended into its Dark Ages

The Rise of Byzantine Culture and of the Greek Orthodox Church.

As the Roman church consolidated its ecclesiastical and political power in the West, there also arose theological and political differences between the church at Rome and that at Constantinople. In 867 the Byzantine Emperor called a church council which denounced the Roman Catholic Church and excommunicated its Pope. In 897, Pope Stephen the VI “got even” by having the corpse of Pope Formosus exhumed, adorned in purple robes and tried, convicted, and the corpse mutilated.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman Church political power increased. Byzantium also struggled with invasions from the East and the West. Finally, at the beginning of the 11th century, the Greek Empire consolidated its control of Byzantium, and through its stability, Byzantine commerce again dominated the Mediterranean. Constantinople thrived. Byzantium enjoyed a renaissance. Although the Byzantine church prohibited sculpture and art, generally, Christian Orthodox iconoclastic representations were allowed and thrived. Its icons were viewed as an aid to worship. Politically, Constantinople provided a buffer between Europe and Islam and thrived until it was plundered by the Crusaders in 2004.

The 11th century found the Roman church in spiritual disarray. The church sold its services for a price, it sold purported relics, it’s clergy was caught between marriage and concubinage,, and the Papal States became militarily engaged for its own political as well as religious purposes. In that century, the Schism between East and West churches was formalized. Although the Church did not encourage it, nonetheless, the populace adored the Virgin Mary. Her maternal image softened some of the harsh realities of life and teachings of the Roman Church.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the roots of various nationalities throughout the European region were developing. The German emperors claimed that their political power was divinely granted. The fine line between Church and Empire had become blurred, and rather than direct political and military action, the Church ruled indirectly, meeting conflict with excommunication, and obtaining favor by the blessing of the Holy Roman Empire.

In Europe, feudalism yielded to chivalry and the Crusades; fiefdoms and manors yielded to villages and then to city states. In preparation for a cultural renaissance, Europe was realizing an economic revolution in which merchants gained more power, and commerce permitted cultural enrichment by contact with other societies.

In his The Story of Civilization, Volume IV, The Age of Faith, Will Durant begins Chapter XX VI I, the Roman Catholic Church,

In many aspects religion is the most interesting of man’s ways, for it is his ultimate commentary on life and his only defense against death. . . . Men hoped vaguely for heaven, but vividly feared hell.

In both Islam and Christianity, a sign of the times was the theological notion that there are the elect, selected by God before birth, but then there was the majority that would go to hell. Even St. Augustine was of the opinion that an unbaptized infant was destined to hell.

Of this time, Will Durant observes, “The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth.” In the latter part of the Middle Ages Christian theologians were influenced by Jewish and Islamic philosophy and theology, particularly that of Moses Maimonides.

See The Nicene Creed at and The Need for Creeds at

The Christian Mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim (c. 1260 – c. 1327)

Meister Eckhart was a Christian Mystic theologian of the Dominican order. He was a Neoplatonist scholar who studied humanism, which became during the Renaissance a strong influence on the arts. The Dominicans are known for their sound scholastic orientation. He saw the truth of the Bible, not as literally read, but as metaphorically significant. In that dynamic sense, he emphasized the balance between the mysteries of the tri-unity and its manifestations. Like with his predecessor, Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204), he addressed the inability of language to describe anything positive about the divine.

The author of The European Graduate School post entitled Meister Eckhart – Biography, which may be found at, articulates Eckhardt’s contribution to Christian mysticism:

Eckhart taught that man’s great need is that his soul be united with God, and that finding salvation requires that one attains the teaching of religion in and through his own understanding. In accord with this orientation, Eckhart spoke little, and quite possibly, thought little, of church ceremonies.

The Deity, he claimed, was the highest object of thought precisely because no finite predicates, or predicates derived by finite beings, are applicable to the Deity. This claim, however, is not a simple negation or emptiness. It is not the Deity that is negation, but finite beings as such which are emptiness and negation. The Deity is the negation of finite beings, and as such, the negation of the negation, that is, it is the absolute fullness of being. There is an apparent contradiction in Eckhart’s proclamations that God is the absolute being and the denial that He is a being. The contradiction, however, is reconciled in so far as he claimed that while the essential elements of finite beings are in God, they are so only in an exalted degree and thus in a manner that cannot be apprehended by man.

Eckhart also refers to the absolute, unqualified being, as unnatured nature, which manifests itself in the Trinity. The Trinity, therefore, is the self-revelation of the Deity. Eckhart draws a distinction between God and Deity, along the lines of actuality and potentiality. Although such language is not explicitly used by Eckhart, and moreover, he explicitly claimed that God excludes all potentiality, this division nonetheless follows from his conception of God as actus purus.

This self-manifestation of God in the Trinity is followed by His manifestation in His creatures. Although everything true and real in them is of God’s eternal being, God’s eternal being is not manifested in them in Its fullness. In so far as all finite beings are negations, then if God were to withdraw, they would disappear much like a shadow projected onto a wall would, if the wall itself was removed.

The unqualified Deity, Trinity and Creation, Eckhart claimed, were three immediate moments, which followed one another conceptually, but not temporally. Eckhart posited a hierarchy of being, in so much as he claimed that while something of God was even in irrational beings, His divinity resided only in the soul. That is, the soul was the place of God in man, and hence in the soul God is subjective, while in the rest of creation He is merely objective. In the soul, he claimed, was the divine spark. This spark exists eternally in God, but through grace enters into the temporal realm, that is, into the soul.

Perfection, however, was not the result of some primary original unity, but of a return. Man must turn to God in order for the divine spark in him to be truly realized – it is not enough to be His creation, one must also become His son. Christ was not born as the son, but became him, for no reason other than he made a place for God in his soul.

Sin, for Eckhart was not the cause of the incarnation. Sin, instead, is the turning away from God. In turning in the direction of finite being and pleasure one refuses God his place in the finite soul, and as such sins. Redemption, accordingly, is when a finite being makes room in his soul for the work and word of God. To sin or to become the son, forms the polarity of man, with respect to God. When God enters the finite soul he births the son; this is the fulfillment of the soul’s destiny – the soul’s destiny, we can say for Eckhart, is its anatomy.

Of Eckhart, the site,, in a post entitled, Medieval Christian Mysticism, the author states:

One of the most influential mystics of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, wrote “God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, their very essences. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing, only in its innermost part.

Few of Meister Eckhart’s theological works were published until the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his sermons, which have long been in publication. Concerning those sermons, Wikipedia at quotes him concerning his intentions for his preaching:

When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature,

Later in life, Meister Eckhart was charged by the Roman Catholic Church of being a heretic. He fell victim of the Inquisition, which was heavily influenced by leaders of the Franciscan order. He is said to have logically defended himself well, but he died before verdict in his trial was rendered.

To this day the Church maintains its censure of his work and ideas, although many over time have attempted to remove that censure and to recognize him and his work. Nonetheless, Meister Eckhart has had a great influence upon contemporary theologians, particularly, Matthew Fox, the psychiatrist and writer, Eric Fromm, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld. Some contemporary scholars see parallels between Meister Eckhart and Buddhism.

The Rise of Islamic Civilization and the Roots of Mysticism

In 570, Mohammed was born into a poor family among the nomadic tribes in the Arab Peninsula. Will Durant notes the significance of that birth:

No one in those years would have dreamed that within a century these nomads would conquer half of Byzantine Asia, all Persia and Egypt, most of North Africa, and be on their way to Spain. The explosion of the Arabian Peninsula into the conquest and conversion of half the Mediterranean world is the most extraordinary phenomenon in medieval history.

Mohammed established the third of the Abrahamic religions, Islam. Some of his ideas are of Jewish origin, and some of Christian origin. He generally accepted both Jewish and Christian scriptures as given by God to humankind, to which he added the Koran.  That he wrote, was dictated to him by Gabriel during his visions. Islam shares some basic theological notions with Judaism and Christianity: one God, faith, repentance, the Last Judgment, prophecy, notions of heaven and hell, and notions of reward in an afterlife for faithful living.

During his lifetime, Mohammed sought to put an end to intertribal fighting among the Arabic tribes. However, he made no provision for his successor upon his death. Therefore, at his death, the intertribal conflict which he had managed during his life, erupted again, with increasing fervor, inflamed by Islamic ardor.

In his Story of Civilization, Volume IV, “the Age of Faith,” 11, at page 206, Will Durant observes this Islamic flowering:

Civilization is a union of soil and soul – the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of man. Behind the façade and under the burden, ports and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and arts, stands the basic man … All these were busy in Islam.

Islamic civilization arose in spectacularly short time during Europe’s Dark Ages. Then, as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, that civilization disintegrated about as fast as it arose.

At the end of the Middle Ages, as Christianity embarked upon its many Crusades, in the dealings between Christian and Muslim leaders, Muslims proved to be more honest and reliable than the various Christian groups embarking upon them.

Islamic civilization reached its zenith between 632 and 1058. Mohammed admired and encouraged the pursuit of knowledge. In its conquest of the Mediterranean, Islam came in contact with Greek culture, which inspired the Muslims to art and science. Education became an important role of the state. Arabic numbers were developed, and with them, logic, astronomy, and mathematics. As the Muslims expanded their territory, they learn from those that they conquered. As with the Christian monasteries, most mosques had libraries of that time.

Will Durant notes at page 237,

Nowhere else in those eighth, nineth, tenth, and eleventh centuries of our era was there so great a passion for books, unless it was in the China of Ming Huang. Islam reached then the summit of its cultural life. . . . The old cultures of the conquered were eagerly absorbed by the quick-witted Arabs; and the conquerors showed such tolerance that of the poets, scientists, and philosophers who now made Arabic the most learned and literary tongue in the world only a small minority were of Arab blood.

In 830, Islam established in Baghdad a “House of Wisdom” for scientific inquiry, an observatory, and a library. By the mid-ninth century, the Muslims had translated most of the classic Greek scientific texts and the works of Plato and Aristotle. During that time Muslim scholars attempted to reconcile the Koran to Greek philosophy. Algebra, quadratic equations, their analysis and solutions, geometry and trigonometry were developed during this period; astronomical tables were compiled; astronomical … calculations were determined with remarkable accuracy, and for the benefit of trade, maps of the lands within the scope of that civilization were developed. Muslims developed, long before Galileo, the notion that all things are attracted towards the center of the earth, that astronomical phenomena could be explained, as could the basics of genetics. Although Muslim religion prohibits the dissection of the human body, pharmaceuticals and therapy prospered. Arabic drugs were an important commodity in trade with Italy. They achieved an effective treatment of smallpox and measles, and some drugs were effective as an anesthetic inhalant. Many hospitals were established, medical care was provided for prisoners, and the insane were treated humanely. Their science explored the various models for the creation of mountains: either they resulted from the upheaval of the Earth’s crust or the eroding action of water. The scientist, Saracens, kept careful records of his observations of chemical experiments, establishing the roots of metallurgy and chemistry. Botanists develop skills of grafting, and in the ninth century Othman Amr-al-Jahiz developed a theory of evolution that began with basic matter, developed into the forms of plant life, through animal life, culminating in mankind.

One aspect of Islamic religion which was shared with both Judaism and Christianity was the age of the mystics. Will Durant notes that Islam was introduced to philosophy through its school of Muʿtazilah, meaning “seceders”. They denied the eternity of the Koran, but asserted that it arose through the dictation to Mohammed in time. They attempted to accord the Koran and the Hadith with the principles of logic and reason as the inherited them from the Greeks. They held that when the Hadith or Koran contradicted the teachings of reason, such passages must be interpreted allegorically.

Anticipating Maimonides, they held that mortal man cannot know the nature and extent of God; it could only recognize the spiritual power identified with God, as revealed in the world. That movement produced Al-Kindi, the first philosopher of conquest in Islam. He was a student of Neoplatonism and was a prolific writer on a great variety of mathematical, scientific and philosophical matters in Islam.

Will Durant, at page 251, notes the conflict that such philosophy created between the social and religious order and such logical demands:

In a society where government, law, and morality are bound up with a religious creed, any attack upon that creed is viewed as menacing the foundations of social order itself. . . . In this crisis three factors made orthodoxy victorious: a conservative caliph, the rise of the Turkish guard, and the natural loyalty of the people to their inherited beliefs.

The Shia sect of Islam was associated with Muʿtazilah and this new Islamic mysticism. With the Orthodox Islamic reaction, the Shia sect was marginalized, and their shrine was destroyed. They were to have great influence, however, upon Jewish and later Christian mysticism.

Dispersion and Contribution of the Jews

Dispersion of the Jews

As Christianity was made a state religion by Constantine, as the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians, and as Western civilization descended into the Dark Ages, we have noted the rise of Islam and Islamic civilization. We now trace the path of Judaism into the Middle Ages.

In Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Volume III, Caesar and Christ, Chapter 25, “Rome and Judea,” at page 542 he observes concerning the Jews:

No people in history has fought so tenaciously for liberty as the Jews, nor any people against such odds. From Judas Maccabee a to Simeon Bar Cocheba, and even into our own time, the struggle of the Jews to regain their freedom has often decimated them, but has never broken their spirit or their hope.

Generally contemporaneous with the rise of Christianianity, Jewish control of Israel, under the Roman Empire’s supervision, became threatened. In A.D. 6, Augustus established Judea as a Roman province. Under provincial rule, in order to retain some semblance of control over their circumstances, they had agreed Roman authorities during the rules of Augustus and Tiberius that they would be permitted to continue their sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem provided that they also do it in the name of the Emperor. However, when Caligula became Emperor, he pushed the Jews over the edge by requiring that an image of himself be placed in the Temple and that sacrifices be made to his image. The Jews revolted. Not only did the Emperor tax the Jews, but he even raided the temple treasury. The Jews again revolted. This time Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and demanded that the 600,000 rebels gathered there surrendered. The siege lasted for five months. Titus offered lenient terms to the rebels, but they refused. The Jews fought to the last man, woman, and child. Many bodies were thrown over the walls, corpses lined the streets. The Romans showed no mercy to the Jews, slaughtered the Jews they could find, and set the wood structure of the Temple on fire, totally destroying it.

The Sanhedrin, the high priesthood of the Jews, was abolished. From that time to the present the Jews were without a Temple. According to Jewish law and custom, sacrifices could be made only at the Temple. Although the Jews were permitted to visit Jerusalem on holy days, the temple was destroyed. Therefore after 60 A.D. Judaism went without sacrifice. During the diaspora, the synagogue became the place of worship. Rabbis, rather than priests, led them in worship and in their religious life. Again, the Jews were dispersed throughout Empire revolted; and again, Gentiles slaughtered Jews, and Jews also slaughtered Gentiles. An historian of that day reported that 220,000 men were killed in Cyrene and 240,000 were killed in Cyprus. In 130, Emperor Hadrian ordered that a shrine to Jupiter be raised at the sidt of the Temple. They again revolted and again they were defeated. The Jews were even more heavily taxed and they were permitted in Jerusalem only one day a year, and then solely for the purpose of weeping at the wall before the ruins of their Temple.

Will Durant concludes that chapter,

No other people has ever known so long an exile, or so hard a fate. Shut out from their Holy City, the Jews were compelled to surrender first to paganism, then to Christianity.… Judaism hid in fear and obscurity while its offspring, Christianity, went out to conquer the world.

In dispersion, the Jews supplemented their Scriptures with the Talmud which is a collection of teachings or commentary upon the law. Study of the Torah occupied the energies of the Jewish male in the place of the dream of rebuilding the Temple. For the Jew, salvation was in the community, not individually bestowed. The Scriptures and the commentary were each believed to be literally the word of God. Having no Temple on which to focus their religious fervor, the Jews focused their attention and energies on the Sabbath. Rules of Sabbath observance abounded and were observed in the greatest of detail. At Maine’s true today. For example, not long ago we bought a new oven which has a “Sabbath mode” which may be set for the Sabbath to start automatically on the Sabbath so that Jews who operate that appliance do not violate Sabbath law.

The Medieval Jews (565 – 1300)

The Jews were scattered throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds during the Medieval Period. The Islamic civilizations had a great impact upon Jewish culture and learning. The first great Jewish philosopher, Saadia, was born in Egypt in 892. At the time, the Muslims scholars attempted to accord the Koran with faith, reason and history. Saadia attempted to do the same with Jewish Scriptures. He held that at times their holy Scriptures contradicted reason, and in those cases, the Scripture t was not to be taken literally. He had a great influence upon the Jewish mystic, Moses Maimonides.

The Jews generally thrived in the 10th through 12th Centuries and in Muslim Spain until the Muslim Almohads, orthodox Muslims from northern Africa, conquered the Spanish Muslims In the 11th century, and demanded that both Christians and Jews convert to Islam. The Jews were heavily taxed, but, nonetheless, they prospered. They tended to become moneylenders and financial advisors, amassing their fortunes in wealth, which was easily movable if they were suddenly expelled.

In 1095, Pope Urban II called Christians to the First Crusade. The Leader of that Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon, declared his intent to “avenge the blood of Jesus” on the Jews, intending to kill all Jews. Jews in northern Europe were required to convert to Christianity, and many chose suicide instead. To his credit, Bishop Hermann found Christian homes to shelter many of the Jews. Pilgrims nonetheless hunted them down and killed many of them. Many Jews died in northern Europe. The Pilgrims then began their march upon Jerusalem. At that time, the Muslims had control of Jerusalem. In 1099, when the Crusaders attacked Jerusalem, many Jews joined the Muslims in defense of the city. Jerusalem fell to the Christians, and the victors herded the Jews into a synagogue, where they burned the them alive. In the Second Crusade, 1147, Crusaders again attacked the Jews in northern Europe. Archbishop Henry of Mainz tried to hide Jews in his own home, but a mob of Crusaders attacked his home and killed the Jews in his presence. In 1243 the Crusaders slaughtered all of the Jews of Belitz, near present-day Berlin. Such atrocities occurred in each of the Crusades. Some Christians, however, did attempt to protect the Jews, including several of the English kings.

Abraham Ben Meier ibn Ezra was born in Toledo Spain in 1093. He was well known as a poet and traveled widely throughout Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Italy, France and England. He was known for his commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. He held that the books were authoritative and divinely inspired, but when they conflicted with reason, he advised that those passages should be interpreted as metaphors for a deeper truth. Spanish Jews of the 12th century tended to view scriptural passages that defied reason as poetical expressions of truth.

Will Durant, The Age of Faith, at page 394 concludes, “For that one death on the cross how many crucifixions!”

The Rise of Jewish Philosophy

Will Durant writes of Jewish philosophy in the Medieval Period at page 405:

… A civilization passing from poverty to wealth tends to develop a struggle between reason and faith, a “warfare of science with theology.”… Among the three faiths that divided white civilization in the Middle Ages, this was least true of Islam, which had most wealth, truer of Christendom, which had less, truest of Judaism, which had least. And Jewish philosophy ventured from faith chiefly in the prosperous jewelry of Muslim Spain.
Medieval Jewish philosophy had two sources: Hebrew religion and Muslim thought.…What religion taught as divinely revealed dogma, philosophy would treat as rationally demonstrated truth. And most Jewish thinkers from Saadia to Maimonides made this attempt in a Muslim milieu, derived their knowledge of Greek philosophy from Arab translations and Muslim commentaries, and wrote in Arabic for Muslims as well as Jews. . . .
Gabirol was a Jewish poet and philosopher of the 11th century. He wrote a book of Proverbs, Choice of Pearls, one of which states, ”How shall one take vengeance on enemy? By increasing one’s good qualities.” He was influenced by both Muslim and Christian theology and philosophy. Under that influence within that environment, he was a Neoplatonist, but he stressed the will of both God and man. He taught that we must assume the existence of God, but we cannot know the attributes of God. His philosophy was resisted by more orthodox Jews and thinkers.

Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204) live and wrote in Islamic – controlled Spain; his Arabic name was Abū ʿImrān Mūsā bin Maimūn bin ʿUbaidallāh al-Qurṭubī . He was greatly influenced by Gabirol. He eschewed anthropomorphic perceptions of the notion of God. In doing so, he developed the “doctrine of negative attributes:” we can say that God exists, but we say nothing positive about God, as such statements would tend to limit the loving God. We can only say what God is not.

Of man, Maimonides says, “the soul that remains after death is not the soul that lives in a man when he is born.” The soul that exists with the body, he calls “potential intellect.” He allows for some existence thereafter, which he calls the “active intellect.” In the 20th century, Catholic theologian and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin would likely have agreed with Maimonides’ notion of the “potential intellect.” Teilhard acknowledge the evolution of man and man’s continuing evolution, describing the mind and select as “matter aware of itself.” Maimonides had a great impact not only upon Jewish philosophy, but on thinkers of Islam and Christians of that day, also.

One of his major theological works is Guide for the Perplexed. Some Jews were inspired by it, some believed it was heretical. See for an excellent summary of that work. He intended it to speak to people who did not have scientific knowledge yet to understand his concepts.

Early Christian Growth, Disagreements, and Heresies

By the second century the church had given up hopes of Christ’s imminent return. Nevertheless, for some time they continued to live exemplary lives. By that time, the day of worship was moved from the Jewish Sabbath to the first day of the week, Sunday. At that time, there were only three Christian sacrament: baptism, communion, and holy orders. The Roman Christians began to bury their dead in catacombs in which the corpses were stacked in crypts along the sides. By the end of the second century, the form of the Christian mass was established. By then, Christian art included the image of the Dove, representing the release of the soul upon death, the Phoenix, arising from the ashen remains of the body following death, the palm branch of celebration, the olive branch of peace, and the fish which represented the Greek words, “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior.” Christian music arose from Greek pagan music, but, on the whole, it maintained the high moral values of the church.

Greek Christians, drawing upon the Greek habit of disputation, became rife with heresies. The signs of the final times had to be reinterpreted as the years passed. Gnosticism predated Christianity, but as Christianity adopted other mystery religions, it also adapted the self knowledge of Gnosticism to its own purposes. The first notable heretic, Marcion, in the mid – second century took inspiration from the Gnostics. He taught that the mercurial Yahweh could not be the father of Christ. He challenged the notion that a good God would not have condemned and kind because of Adam’s disobedience. He taught a purely spiritual resurrection and a strict asceticism. He chose Luke’s gospel and the Letters of Paul to constitute his New Testament. The established church authorities rejected his ideas as heretical and excommunicated him.

In the mid-second century, Montanus, condemned the increasing worldliness of the church and the increasing power of the bishops. He sought the return to a simple Christian faith, and recognition of the religious service of both priests and the laity. He taught the imminent establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth in the New Jerusalem in which all things would be shared and nothing hoarded. His was a spirit-filled ministry. Today we might call it Pentecostal that at that time it bore some resemblance to the rights of Dionysus. Montanism was banned by the church as a heresy. It bore some similarity to Gnosticism in that it elevated the spiritual life over the physical life. However, whereas Gnosticism sought to gain triumph over this life through knowledge, Montanism sought triumph through ecstasy. In about 190 A.D., when Christians were being persecuted by Roman authorities in Asia minor, many Montanus offered themselves for martyrdom.

One of the early Church fathers, Origenes Adamantius (Origin), lived in the early part of the third century. His father was put to death for his Christian faith. In Origin, one finds a curious mixture of literal interpretation of the Bible (in which he took Matthew 19:12 literally and had himself emasculated) and metaphor (in which he challenged the , as nonsensical literal interpretation of days of creation and the notion of the tree of life, which would necessarily imply immortality). Because he was emasculated, his Bishop, Demetrius of Alexandria, refused to ordain him as a priest. Demetrius and was ordained by the bishops of Palestine. He moved to Caesarea where he wrote his defense of Christianity, Contra Celsum. In it, he knowledge that there were inprobable difficulties in Christian doctrine, but he asserted that paganism had even greater difficulties. Moreover, the Christian faith offered a nobler way of life. By the time that Origin was 65 years of age, the Christian persecution by the Roman Emperor, Desius, laid Origin out on a rack in an iron collar, weighted by heavy chain for many days. He survived that with the untimely death of Desius, but lived only a few more years. Will Durant writes at page 615, “With him Christianity ceased to be only a comforting faith; it became a full fledged philosophy, buttressed with Scripture but proudly resting on reason.”

Through the second century many gospels, letters of the apostles, and apocalyptic literature were circulated. There developed different lines of authority in the West, at Rome, and in the East at Byzantium. As one might expect, with different authorities, different writings concerning Jesus, the apostles and the early church would also differ. The book of Revelation was rejected by the Eastern church, but found authoritative by the Western church. The book of Hebrews and the letters of James were rejected by the Western church, but accepted by the Eastern church. When The Eastern and Western churches determine the authoritative books of their own New Testament. Various synods and church conferences were convened for those purposes. Even when the West had determined the books that it considered authoritative, certain of the popes flip-flopped on some letters attributed to Paul, which ought to have called into question the notion of Papal infallibility. Not only was there a conflict between Eastern and Western Christian churches, but each had their own rogue congregations to bring under its control. Throughout the second century, the Roman church grew both in wealth and an ecumenical power. Will Durant says of that at page 618:

As Judeism had given Christianity ethics, and Greece had given it theology, so now Rome gave it organization; all of these, with a dozen absorbed and revival faiths, entered into the Christian synthesis. It was not merely that the church took over some religious customs and forms, common in pre-Christian Rome – the stole and other vestments of pagan priests, the use of incense and holy water in purifications, the burning of candles and an everlasting light before the altar, the worship of the saints, the architecture of the basilica, the law of Rome as a basis for canon law, the title of Pontifex Maximus for the Supreme Pontiff, and, in the fourth century, the Latin language as the noble and enduring vehicle of Catholic ritual.