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In exactly the same way as descending ideology led to scholasticism (old style), so a contrary ascending ideology leads to scholasticism (new style). The ascending ideology inverts the medieval paradigm: where religion was once pervasive, now it is science; where everything was explained by spiritual power, only material factors now count; where the Church was once supreme, now it is the State. A pure descending doctrine, because of its excessive deference to authority, had struggled to acknowledge the ascending principle, and this had led to a crisis of the understanding. By contrast, a pure ascending doctrine, now possessed (thanks to the prestige of science) with overweening confidence in the powers of the understanding, has persuaded itself it has no need of a descending principle at all, and this has produced the distinctive crisis of the contemporary world, which is, first and foremost, a crisis of authority.

Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, it might be necessary to invent him. It is certainly striking how even the most secular and atheistic philosophies are beholden to some kind of theological doctrine of how the world is governed. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, had famously drawn attention to the exact functional parallels between the Christian and the Marxist visions: thus, God = Dialectic materialism; The Church = the Party; the Creed = The Communist Manifesto; The Bible = Das Kapital; The second coming = the revolution; paradise = the communist commonwealth; hell = punishment of capitalists. Other varieties of ascending ideology such as feminism or post-colonialism have a similar (if less elaborate) theological dimension, embracing the characteristic eschatological form — oppression/struggle/liberation — and dividing the world into evil oppressors and innocent victims. Deep down, it would seem, humankind cannot live without the descending principle and needs to defer to some kind of authority. The question is — what kind of authority? Who do we trust? If it turned out in retrospect that we couldn't trust the medieval schoolmen, is there any more reason why we should trust our modern professoriate?

The contemporary crisis of authority comes about because the new scholastics, while they may be scientifically competent, are theologically naive: they have rejected the old God, but often without realising it, have not ceased their hankering for new gods, who are failing them constantly. Part of this predicament no doubt arises from a failure to grasp fully the theistic vision which the old God had made possible. That vision, of necessity, embraces paradox. A theist may be likened to a rope stretched out over an abyss between the descending and the ascending principles, each of which are brought into sharp relief by the theological framework of theism. The great challenge for Western thought — the key indeed to its much prized flexibility and vitality — may be said to consist in the ability to overcome this dualism and to manage the tension between descending and ascending principles. 

How, we may ask, did this "paradox of theism" come about? In the first instance, we need to appreciate how theism represents a radical break with the mythological and fatalistic worldview that had shaped religious consciousness previously. The Bible is expressly and didactically anti-mythological. Its worldview destroyed irrevocably what Gershom Scholem called the monistic vision according to which man and the gods were simply an extension of animated nature and ultimately in harmony with her. Those gods had been capricious and pitiless, controlling man's fate as they pursued their selfish vendettas, but in the end, whatever the gods decreed was as it should be; the gods' power, as well as that of their worldly agents, was always vindicated in the eternal cycle of nature, of birth, death and renewal. 

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Mine's a Newt
July 2nd, 2011
10:07 PM
I said, "He appears to have written as if he [Bacon] believed in a god that was the minimum necessary to allow him some freedom to observe the world as it is, without getting murdered for heresy, especially atheism." The text you cite is an example of what I meant; such statements of faith were necessary to stop him getting arrested and (as happened to other atheists) executed. I didn't say Bacon was an atheist. Since he was not free to say so if he was, we don't know one way or another. What we do know is that his philosophy is utterly unlike Aquinas and Mainonides, and posits a world that can and should be observed and explained without reference to gods.

March 16th, 2011
10:03 PM
Mine's A Newt Bacon didn't really believe in God then? You have read his essay on "atheism"?: For none deny, there is a God, but those, for whom it maketh that there were no God. It appeareth in nothing more, that atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others

Mine's A Newt
March 6th, 2011
11:03 AM
YHWH, the god Christians believe in, is imaginary like all the other gods humans have invented, and only relevant to the world we live in to the extent that it's believers have political and cultural power. But in particular, there's no such thing as a "god of Maimonides, Aquinas and Bacon", because Bacon is very much the odd one out. Bacon didn't believe in a god in the same way, or of the same kind, as Maimonides and Aquinas. He appears to have written as if he believed in a god that was the minimum necessary to allow him some freedom to observe the world as it is, without getting murdered for heresy, especially atheism, by religious zealots. Maimonides and Aquinas, on the other hand, believed in, or at least argued for, a theological god, one that empowered theologians.

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