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Aristotle never heard of Jesus

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As a way of describing the old church in Europe, Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch relates an old German Easter tradition:

At the Holy Spirit’s festival of Whitsuntide in the Bavarian diocese of Eichstadtt, a carved wooden dove of the Spirit was lowered down on the congregation through a hole in the church roof vaulting… the dove was closely followed by bucketfuls of of water, and the member of the congregation most thoroughly soaked became the town’s Pfingstvogel for the coming year. Clergy might grumble about some of this excess and try to stop it, but in fact it was proof of a huge stability in the old religion: the apparent irreverence was itself a symptom of how strongly the majority of the people felt faith in the system, and how much they could relax in it. A problem would only arise if the faithful began listening to a question: was the Mass, the linchpin of it all, in fact what it claimed to be?

The question arose because the western Church tried to offer an explanation for the miracle of the mass, and it did so using the best intellectual system available to it, scholasticism.

The dominant philosophical system within scholasticism, and so the best analysis of the Mass in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adapted the scientific method of the pre Christian philosopher Aristotle for Christian purposes. This adaptation reached its highest level in the works of the thirteenth century Dominican genius, Thomas Aquinas (the basis if the intellectual system known as Thomism). Aquinas was determined to show that human reason was a gift of God designed to give human beings as much understanding of divine mysteries as they needed. He formalized and systematized earlier discussion of the miracle of the Mass, and adopted a term which had become increasingly popular in explanations of what happened in this miracle: transubstantiation.

MacCulloch sketches Aristotle’s method and Aquinas’ use of it as follows:

Aristotle divided the being of a particular object into substance and accidents. Take a sheep, for instance: its substance, which is its reality, its participation in the universal quality of being a sheep, is manifested in its gambolling on the hills, munching grass, and baaing. Its accidents are things particular to the individual sheep at which we are looking: the statistics of its weight, the curliness of its wool, or the timbre of its baa. When the sheep dies, it ceases to gambol on the hills, munch on grass and baa: its substance, it’s ‘sheepness’ is instantly extinguished, and only the accidents remain – and they will gradually decay… its former sheepness… ended with the extinguishing of its substance in death. It is no longer a sheep.

How… might we apply what is true of a sheep to the miracle of the Mass? We start with bread (we could equally start with wine). Bread consists of substance and accidents: its substance is its participation in the universal quality of ‘breadness’, while its accidents are the particular appearance of this piece of bread (being round, white and wafer like, for instance). In the Mass, the substance changes, accidents do not – why should they? The are not significant for being. Through the grace of God, the substance is replaced by the substance of the body of Christ. It is a satisfyingly reverent analysis: as long, that is, as one accepts Thomas’ scientific or philosophical premises of the language of substance and accidents, affirming the conception of universal realities which are greater than individual instances, such as being a sheep or being bread, rather than particular instances of sheep or bread.

From the fourteenth century, most philosophers and theologians, particularly in northern Europe, did not in fact believe this. They were nominalists, who rejected Aristotle’s categories and thought that words like ‘sheep’ or ‘bread’ as simply nomina (names), which we choose in an arbitrary fashion to use as labels for collections of objects that we decided to say are like each other. Nominalists could only say of transubstantiation as a theory of the Mass that it that is was supported by the weight of opinion by many holy men in the church, and therefore it ought not to be approached through the Thomist paths of reason, but must be accepted as a matter of faith. Once that faith in the Church’s medieval authorities was challenged, as it was in the sixteenth century, the basis for for belief in transubstantiation was gone, unless one returned to Thomism, the thought of Aquinas. Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this, but in the sixteenth century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus.

As this crucial excerpt shows, MacCulloch has a fine way with words, as well as with getting to the point of the matter. It’s fascinating to me how faith is at the root of all of the positions described above, even those who take pains to avoid it. One can believe in the traditional Mass because one believes in Jesus’ discourse on ‘the bread of life’ in the Bible, or one can believe it because one trusts in the teaching authority of the Church, or one can find a way into it through the premises of Aquinas’ scholastic study of the matter. What happens in the period just preceding the Reformation is that a lot of ancient books that had been lost begin to find their way back into the hands of scholars in the west. This is a good thing but it is unsettling and it forces people to examine questions that earlier generations had had no reason to question. Improved scholarship proves that the document known as the Donation of Constantine is a forgery, and it also begins to question the Vulgate, Jerome’s translation of the Bible that had been the common source for most of Rome’s theological deliberations. If your faith had rested on the saintliness of the Vatican hierarchy, or its’ scholarly perfection, you now found yourself in bit of a pickle.

What’s more, you began to have more intellectual options open up before you as the printing press began to ciculate other ancient authors, and even contemporary social critics. These are not bad things provided that you clearly know what you believe and why, but for many it was too much. A faith that rests on pillars like human authority or human holiness is a weak one in any case. It refuses to take full adult responsibility for the choice facing mankind, ie. all knowledge begins with a leap of faith, and seeks instead to pin the decision on some one or something else. We should not be surprised to see that authority be crushed by such a burden.

Pope Ratzinger has, instead, described the Church as being centered on the sacraments:

The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness.

A sacramental faith stands or falls on faith alone – just as Luther and others would argue faith should. It is not subject to testing – it is subject only to assent. Doubting the sacraments is not synonymous with doubting the ability to reason, but it is the same type of error. It should not therefore surprise us that those lacking a sacramental faith, once the prop of Papal authority was edited into a shape they would not recognize, began to turn their doubt on more and more of what surrounded them. Tellingly, Luther did retain a sacramental outlook to a large degree, enough that later reformers would come to doubt his ability to think. I would describe their attacks on him at that point as doubting his ability to doubt as muscularly as they.

Thinking and doubting began to become blurred, where they remain in some circles to this day.


Written by Curt

December 27, 2005 at 7:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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