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The importance of the distinction between Church and State for Western culture can scarcely be exaggerated; in time the concept of the Church, as later thinkers such as Coleridge came to understand it, acquired a wider significance and came to embrace not merely ecclesiastical institutions but other autonomous bodies within the nation defined by their spiritual purposes, including its voluntary associations, its charities and most notably its universities. In this wider Coleridgean sense, the Church, far from being confined to the private sphere (an arch-liberal and ascending conceit), cannot help but inspire and unify society around its religiously-based spiritual ideals. It is worth recalling why the British Constitution (now somewhat emasculated) was once so widely admired: it was a unity in diversity, where the clash of secular interests (the ascending principle) could flourish under a spiritual ideal which was symbolised by the monarch (the descending principle) — a paradox nicely captured by the phrase, King-in-parliament (nature touched by grace). Britain was widely regarded as a free country, but that freedom was in no small measure accounted for by its also being a Christian country.

The final distinction of supreme importance for Western culture is that between theology/philosophy on the one hand and science on the other; this allowed the intellectual confusions of the old scholasticism (which even confounded Aquinas, for all his fresh insights) to be cleared away once and for all. It was Francis Bacon who was the first to elucidate clearly the method, scope and crucially the limits of science. He understood that science was a collective enterprise, the conclusions of which depended on certain hypotheses being advanced which were to be tested by experiments under controlled conditions; scientific conclusions were by necessity provisional because they were reached by a method of abstraction; this "inductive" methodology is highly effective with quantifiable and measurable phenomena, which are amenable to the experimental method, but is out of its depth when it purports to deal with the individual, the concrete and the real. The very highest generalisations of all, Bacon said, are out of reach, too near God and final causes, and must be left to the philosopher. 

Science did not contradict religion. Indeed, the crucial factor which laid the groundwork for a proper clarification of the scientific method was the final overthrow of the Aristotelian cosmology. As Herbert Butterfield points out in his authoritative The Origins of Modern Science, an Aristotelian universe which saw unseen hands in constant operation, material bodies endowed with souls and aspirations or a "disposition" to certain kinds of motion, and planets moving obediently in their prescribed celestial spheres, demonstrated that the old mythological way of seeing things was still haunting Western thought and holding back progress in science until well into the 17th century. The Bible, by contrast, provided no authority for the spiritual agencies demanded by the Aristotelian cosmology; as Bacon says: "It was heathen arrogance, not the Holy Scripture which endowed the skies with the prerogative of being incorruptible." To the contrary, and as we have seen, a purified Judeo-Christian theology seemed rather to demand a demystified nature and therefore to support a "clear and clean" conception of science. 

Our trio of medieval and early modern thinkers, Maimonides, Aquinas and Bacon, were able to demonstrate that descending and ascending principles were mutually consistent. But this did not mean they were commensurate. A succession of natural theologians and pantheists in the early modern era had laboured under the delusion that somehow or other the truth of religion and the truth of reason or nature could be shown at bottom to be identical. But the point about a God of revelation, as Pascal well understood, was that he remained ultimately unfathomable and mysterious. If we could rationalise him or square him or contain him, he would cease to be God. Or he would be a different kind of God. Of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we could never say that he was something, but only that he did something. For the thoughtful theist, the abyss between the descending and ascending principles was a fact of consciousness, which in the end could not be bridged by reason but only by faith.

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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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