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Of Artichokes and Onions: The Baptism of Aristotle

Updated: Nov 17


Everybody has a story, a cultural story that provides the context for their understanding of the meaning of their experience. The next four blogs will be my story, at least as best I can express it in this format. I don’t assume that anyone else’s story will be like mine but I offer it that it may find some resonance with others.


[Note: When writing dates in this and other blogs I will be using the designators BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) for what in the past have been BC (Before Christ) and AD (Year of our Lord). This practice has become standard in academic and scientific works. It dates back to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630 CE). The practice of dividing the dates of human history from before or after the birth of Jesus originated with Dionysious Exiguus in 525 CE. BCE and CE are intended to be "culturally neutral."]


Scholarly research into the stories we have told ourselves about science/religion relationships has grown substantially over the past fifty plus years. What it has revealed is that these stories have had a long and substantive effect on the development of western culture, on religious communities, and on the lives of individuals within that culture.


Over the next four blogs I’m going to share my version of this story. This will include all too brief historical summaries of "how we got here;" summaries that will serve as a kind of "background radiation" for the conflicts and confluences related to science and religion that we see in our current culture. I’ll eventually get to some personal musings about how an itinerant Christian theologian tries to make sense of the double helix of science and Christianity as its evolution impacts our cultural DNA.


So, we begin. Prior to the advent of modern science western culture was shaped largely as the result of the interaction of two cultural traditions: Greek speculations about the origin and structure of the world and an essentially Hebraic theological understanding of the origin and processes of the world.

As early as the 6th century BCE philosophers like Anaximander and later Democritus and the Epicureans imagined that the universe existed not due to acts of the gods but as the result of dynamic interactions of matter alone. They actually proposed historical or developmental explanations for the origin of the material world and life.

Many of us in our middle school geometry classes suffered over the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. What we weren't taught then and many don't know now is that Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) was the founder of a religious community. The Pythagoreans held that the cosmos was made of numbers. One was the source of all; two represented matter; three was "ideal" because it had a beginning, middle and end and three points identified a triangle and were the least number of points to define a plane; four represented the four seasons and four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Odd numbers were masculine, even numbers were feminine and five represented marriage because it was the sum of two and three.

By the 3rd century BCE Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BCE), who was not a Pythagorean, proposed a heliocentric, Sun-centered, cosmology. There were earlier Pythagoreans, like Philolaus (470-385 BCE), who proposed non-geocentric (non-Earth-cenetered) cosmologies. But they had described these as centered on a "central fire" around which both the Earth and the Sun revolved. However, this "central fire" was never seen because, according to them, only one hemisphere of the Earth was inhabited and that side was always facing away from the "fire." This, of course, required that the Earth have a two-fold motion: revolution around the "fire" and rotation on its axis.

These classical Greek non-theistic cosmologies were in sharp contrast with the theological worldview found in the traditions of Israel. The Priestly account of creation in Gen. 1.1-2.4a is one expression of the common cosmic model that prevailed in the Middle East in the millennia prior to the rise of Christianity. Another even earlier example of this cosmic picture is found in the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, upon which the Genesis account may have relied. This was a cosmic story in which the divine, while distinct from the creation, nevertheless had an intimate relationship with it. It was a mythological worldview in which God could walk in the garden in the cool of the day.


However, because the authors of the Bible (both Old and later New Testaments) shared the general cosmic framework common within the region, there was no necessity for them to speculate about or offer a new cosmology. That is to say, the Bible does not provide a systematic description of or a theory about the basic structure of the world. Instead it was written within the cosmology of its day.

By the time of the appearance of the Christian church, it was the philosophies of Plato (427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) that had come to dominate much of Western thought. Plato's worldview was expressed most explicitly in the Timaeus where he includes a creation story in which the world is made from matter by a creator in accordance with an ideal or perfect form. However, because matter is less than ideal, the resulting world was less than perfect. Many early Christian theologians found this philosophical creation story compatible with the Hebrew theological tradition about the divine creation of the world. However, Plato's idealism (i.e., his view that what is most real are the immaterial "ideal forms") seemed much less compatible with the unashamed appreciation for the material world within the Hebrew tradition.


For the authors of the Hebrew scriptures the creation was a whole. There was no fundamental distinction to be made between the material and the immaterial. Thus, many early Christian theologians judged Aristotle's "realism" (i.e., a view which affirmed that form and matter could be distinguished but not separated) to be more compatible with the Hebrew roots of Christian thought. At the same time, while the Hebrew tradition viewed the human person as a whole, the Platonic influence on Christian thought led to a view of the soul and body as separable elements of the human person. For the Platonists, humans had a soul. For those in the Hebrew tradition humans were a soul. Today many, if not most, Christians hold the Platonic view without realizing that it has no Biblical or creedal warrant.


The prevailing Pre-Modern world image was organic. For example, Plato understood the universe to be a single living organism. Aristotle's organic orientation was reflected in his understanding of causality. Though he held that there were four forms of causality (material, formal, efficient, final), he viewed final causality as the most fundamental. Final causality was the causality of purpose. It was the form of causality most characteristic of the the domain of life and intellect.

In the third century after the birth of the Christian church, Neo-Platonism (e.g., Plotinus, 205-270 CE) produced a philosophical and theological worldview based on a metaphor of the emanation of light. This philosophical school was an attempt to reconcile Platonic idealism and Aristotelian realism and to combine these with a touch of Stoic ethics for good measure. The world of ordinary experience was said to be the farthest emanation from a divine source: The One. The first emanation from the One was the Nous (i.e., Intellect or Wisdom), and from it emanated the World Soul. These three formed the Neo-Platonic trinity. Because of its trinitarian form, Neo- Platonism had philosophical appeal to Christian theologians like Augustine (354-430 CE).


It should not be thought that this interaction of early Christianity with classical Greek philosophy was without conflict. On the one hand, the theologian Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 CE) expressed his skepticism about the value of classical thought for Christianity when he wrote,"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem or the Academy with the Church?"


On the other hand, the afore mentioned Augustine was concerned that some Christians were inclined to speak foolish things about the world as described in classical natural philosophy and was mored to write, "Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, ... and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn…. Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."


As a side note, I have been talking about old men philosophers and theologians. But there were influential women mathematicians and philosophers during this period of interaction between classical Greek thought and a Hebrew-rooted early Christianity. Perhaps the best known of these was Hypatia of Alexandria (350-415 CE) about whom poems, novels, a play and a motion picture (Agora) have been produced. A Neo-Platonist, she was a teacher, editor and commentator on classical philosophical and cosmological texts. She produced an edited volume of Ptolemy's Almagest, the work in which he describes his geocentric model of the universe. She is generally recognized as one of the leading mathematicians of her day. Yet, in her 60s she was caught up in the political tensions and struggles between her friend, Orestes, Roman prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, Christian bishop of Alexandria. She was attacked by a mob, killed, had her body dismembered, and burned. Some have suggested that this injustice was the result of a conflict between religion and science. But today historians judge that this was a political assassination rather than the result of any science and religion conflict.


Back to my main discussion. The convergence of Greek and Hebrew traditions resulted in a religious worldview that included these features:

  • a hierarchically ordered universe in which the divine created but stood beyond the relations which ordered the world.

  • the world involved in becoming (movement from possibility to actuality) but a divine which in its perfection was fully actual and so beyond movement or change.

  • thereby, the creator God of the Hebrews became the "Unmoved Mover" of Aristotelian philosophy.

In the second century after Jesus, the Egyptian astronomer, Ptolemy (127-151 CE), developed a complex geometric model of the universe centered on the earth. This model was based on the earlier astronomical observations and geocentric theories of Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-125 BCE). Hipparchus' views were rooted in Aristotle's cosmology and metaphysics. It was this Ptolemaic geometric model that became the cosmic paradigm in Western, and particularly Christian, culture for the next 1,000 years plus.


When the Roman empire collapsed much of the learning of classical antiquity was lost amidst the cultural disruption in the West. But in the late medieval period a number of Christian theologians (e.g., Bonaventure, 1221-1274 CE, and Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274 CE) "rediscovered" Aristotle's philosophy. The sources for this recovery included commentaries on Aristotle's works by Islamic and Jewish philosophers; newly commissioned translations of classical Aristotelian texts, which had been preserved in Christian monasteries; and elements of Aristotle's philosophy that had become embedded in the theology of the Church Fathers.



Thomas Aquinas, in particular, appropriated Aristotle's philosophy as the systematic intellectual framework within which to express the meaning of the Christian faith. He drew upon Aristotelian sources among Jewish (e.g., Maimonides) and Muslim (e.g., Avicenna and Averroes) philosophers. In so doing he and his fellow theologians coincidentally adopted Ptolemy's earth-centered cosmic model.



At the risk of gross oversimplification, I would characterize the Pre-modern worldview as follows:

  • Knowledge was acquired through ordinary sense experience and intuition; that is, knowing was a matter of looking and seeing or imagining with logical consistency.

  • Truth was determined by consistency with tradition (theological and/or philosophical tradition).

  • Final causality, the causality of purpose, was most fundamental.

  • There was a "vertical dualism" metaphysically separating the earth from the heavens (the orbit of the moon being the boundary). In the heavens motion was regular and circular; on Earth, not so much.

  • “Meta-physic” was viewed as the science of the general; an inquiry into the most basic questions "beyond-physics."

Another way to describe this broad cultural perspective is to say that it was an "artichoke" view of the world. It distinguished between the appearance of a thing (like the petals of an artichoke) and its essential core (the artichoke’s heart). But just as the heart of an artichoke is organically connected to its petals, the distinction between appearance and essence did not necessarily imply separation. For Plato the world of ordinary experience was not the most real, but it was a shadow of is source the realm of perfect ideas. For the Neo-Platonists the world was far from the perfection of the One but it was ultimately an emanation from that One. For Christians in the thrall of Aristotle, the material body and immaterial soul could be distinguished but the soul was the form of the body.


The second part for the title of this blog is ironic. But it is a measure of the degree of innocence that many of us have of the history of our culture that people often read it literally, at face value. This in spite of the fact that Aristotle died almost 350 years before Jesus was born.


Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that by the eve of the birth of modern science, the relations between Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemy's cosmic model, and Christian theology were so tightly interwoven that it was virtually impossible to determine where one stopped and the other began. As consequence it was difficult to see how a challenge to the system of Aristotelian natural philosophy could be anything less than a challenge to Christian theological orthodoxy. And so, the stage was set for the Copernican/Galilean controversy out of which modern science emerged as a discipline independent of the intellectual authority of the Christian church.


In my next blog, “How the World Was Divided,” I will tell my story of the rise of a new cultural paradigm that, I believe, continues to be deeply present in our culture today.

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