Reason Illuminates Faith (in the Middle Ages)

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Two of my favorite topics are science and the medieval world, so I’m really excited to do a blog series for the soapboxguild on some books related to these topics. What do the Middle Ages and scientific ideas have to do with each other? Quite a bit more than you might think. Unlike the thoughts brought to mind by words like the “Dark Ages,” the medieval period was not a totally backwards time of ignorance and superstition (though as in any era, both were present!), but one of intellectual formation that proved critically necessary for modern science to develop. I knew a little of this from various material I’d read in the past, but did not realize the extent of the importance of medieval theology, natural philosophy, and history to the development of science, or how much was accomplished before the Renaissance ever occurred. In the process of trying to learn more about medieval science, I picked up a book by Dr. James Hannam, a British historian of science. His work, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, is incredibly readable for its length and depth, and is a credit to its author. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and the Middle Ages. This series of blog posts is my attempt to gain a deeper appreciation for the issues Hannam raises, and to think alongside him as he dives into the lost world of medieval cosmology, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy.

To begin, then, we should start with one of the most influential figures in medieval thought, on one of the most important issues raised by the period. The man is the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, and the question is the relationship between reason and faith. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 A.D. to upper-class, wealthy parents in Italy. He entered the clergy as a poverty-sworn Dominican while at university, to the displeasure of his parents, who expected him to become a powerful and wealthy Benedictine monk. (We know this because they  subsequently kidnapped him from college for the purpose of putting some worldly sense into him. According to an early biographer, this included hiring a prostitute to tempt him to leave his life of holiness. It only succeeding in causing the captive Aquinas to cast her out of his room.) (Hannam 85-86) After this, Aquinas “transferred” to the University in Cologne to study under one of the most famous philosophers of his time, Albert the Great (as opposed to Alfred the Great, who was an educated king of pre-England who lived much earlier). Aquinas earned his degree and gained a reputation as a skilled thinker, eventually teaching at the University of Paris, a hub of medieval scholarship. There he encountered the Averroists, and there our story of faith and reason really begins in earnest.

Siger of Brabant (upper right, wearing red) appears in this 15th-century illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The writings of classical antiquity were only partially known, thanks in part to the fall of Rome, for much of the Middle Ages. Shortly before Aquinas came on the scene, a Muslim commentator on Aristotle, named Averroes, had been translated into Latin and was causing quite a firestorm. Averroes held to things like determinism, a lack of personal moral responsibility, and an eternal rather than created universe. Needless to say, people concerned about theology had an issue with this interpretation of Aristotle. In the Middle Ages, the ancient authorities Plato and Aristotle were taken very seriously, and different Christian scholars attempted to deal with Averroes in different ways, as usual. Siger of Brabant, a thirteenth-century professor  of philosophy at Paris, accepted to some degree the conclusions of Averroes’ reasoning process. However, he dealt with this in a way we might find very familiar in our modern science and faith discussions. According to Hannam, he posited that we can know by faith that Christian doctrine is true, even though reason shows something else. This is a problem if we are to hold to Christian orthodoxy, or even if people of faith want to engage in truth-seeking. Thus Aquinas- like his forbears Augustine and Anselm-  realized he needed to engage Aristotle with a “faith that seeks understanding,” walking in the confidence that the Author of Faith is also the Author of Reason. In his subsequent grappling with Aristotle, Aquinas went on to create the Summa Theologica, one of the greatest works of theology ever written. As Hannam humorously notes:

Thomas wrote direct rebuttals to some of Siger’s work but concentrated on producing his own synthesis of Christian and pagan philosophy. This found its definitive expression in his Summa Theologica. It is a massive work and, despite the fact he never quite finished it, it remains the highest accomplishment of medieval scholarship. What he had achieved was such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two. (91-92)

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

This account doesn’t square well with what we tend to assume about the Middle Ages. After all, backwards, pre-Renaissance religious people run away from philosophy, science, and reason. We know this from experience, right? How many of us were told that philosophy and science were antithetical to religious belief at their core, and we had to choose one or the other? (Now, there may very well be genuine discord between science and religion on some points these days, but I’m talking about the very natures of scientific inquiry and religion here.) If I had to choose, that choice is made. I will follow Christ, however foolish that might appear to the world. But (surprise surprise!) that choice assumes wrongly about nature’s Creator, according to the long history of Christian orthodoxy. The assumption that Christians bury their heads in the sand comes from our own cultural experiences (or stereotypes, perhaps?) of faith where we or our parents grew up, causing us to project our own experiences- or often prejudices- onto the broader tradition of Christianity. But this simply is not warranted: our forbears, from the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus of Greek philosophy, to Augustine and Aquinas, and on into the 20th century with Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis, would all say that they have confidence that Christian belief can stand up to its opponents in the marketplace of ideas. This is because reason illuminates faith. Since God is a God of truth and the very standard of truth, reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but find their unity in the reasonable, consistent, non-arbitrary Source of wisdom. In other words, faith in Christ Jesus seeks understanding, in order that we might wonder and worship Him better– it cannot bear to remain ignorant of the redeemed soul’s greatest Desire. Augustine famously stated that our hearts are made for God and are restless until they rest in Him. It is just as true that our minds are made for God and are unsatisfied with any lesser answer to their questioning than that of the unanswerable I AM.

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3 thoughts on “Reason Illuminates Faith (in the Middle Ages)

  1. Pingback: The mythical conflict of science and Scripture (2) | Stepping Toes

  2. Pingback: Science and the Bible—Do They Really Contradict Each Other? | Stepping Toes

  3. Pingback: Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe | The Soapbox Guild

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