Sunday, June 26, 2016


Nothing is more significant to the faith in the Middle Ages than the intellectual movement known as scholasticism, which flourished between 1100 and 1500, deeply transforming philosophy, theology and the sciences in Europe ever since. In this school of thought stand giants: Anselm of Canterbury, Pierre Abelard, Peter Lombard, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, to name a few.

From ancient through medieval times, all study of knowledge (Latin scientia) or wisdom (Greek sophia) was seen as an interconnected search for truth. In those pre-scientific (or more correctly, pre-empirical) eras, societies accepted what reason and observation discovered about the material and logically comprehensible world, as well as what intuition and insight suggested about the unobservable and unmeasurable—both as containing a measure of valid truth.

In this way, among the ancients the measured and reasoning Aristotle, Plato, Euclid and others could live side by side with Zeus, Adonai, Marduk and an endless collection of imps, spirits and daemons that animated, or gave life, to the world. By medieval times what we know today as the natural, exact and social sciences, were inquiries that at some point settled on temporary or theoretical and practical axioms that served as foundations for whole structures of inquiry. To use geometry to design buildings, the ancients accepted that parallel lines never meet, even though this was unprovable.

Only philosophy (Gr., philosophia, love of wisdom)—and in Christian times theology (theologia, discourse about God or God-talk)—stubbornly pressed on to that spot in infinity at which parallel lines may, or may not, meet. Philosophers, in theory, could climb the Mount Everest of knowledge and hope to reach the peak of capital-T truth, whereas theology, springing from the leap of faith, knew from the beginning that humanity received only a glimmer of light and that no one alive had seen the face of God.

Into this state of thinking, appeared two figures, one of whom was not medieval and the other a Spanish-born Muslim, Aristotle and Averroes, who figuratively electrified the scholars of new universities in Bologna, Paris and Oxford as travelers brought copies of classical texts long thought lost.

In the devastation of the early Middle Ages, one of the great losses to Europe was the destruction of libraries and repositories of many philosophy texts, including those of classical Greek philosophy. However, the 711-788 Islamic conquest of Spain and the establishment of a caliphate in Cordoba, with its links all the way to the Levant via Islamic north Africa, suddenly brought to European light those manuscripts, among them those of Aristotle.

Moreover, in the Cordoban Islamic and Jewish academies of learning there arose men of learning such as Rabbi Moses Maimonides, whose followers worked out the use of vowels in the Hebrew Bible, and the Muslim scholar Averroes, who wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle.

This is how Scholasticism came to be. The term comes from the Latin scholasticus, “that which belongs to the school”; it was the learning developed and taught by a group of academics (or schoolmen) of medieval universities. Today, their science is disregarded as outmoded but their philosophy and theology remain valued and debated contributions.

Notably, for the history of the faith, the Scholastics attempted to reconcile ancient classical philosophy with medieval Christian theology. None other than Aquinas explained the theological task ahead for the believing Scholastic as “faith seeking understanding.”

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