Now there was a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. No, this is not the beginning of a joke, but real history and very important history it is too.
We start with the Muslim. We know him as Averroes, though his full name was Abu ‘l-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd. He was one of the cleverest men living in the 12th Century, excelling in philosophy, theology, law, logic, psychology, politics, medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics and physics. He created a school of philosophy and has been described as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe. He was very big on Aristotle and his commentaries on the Greek philosopher were very much a bridge between ancient philosophy and the Jewish and Christian philosophy of his day.
He lived in Cordoba in Spain, where the “Golden Age” mentioned in an earlier article was still running strong. Interestingly his writings made little impact on the Muslim world but, once his work was translated into Latin, his fame spread to the Christian world, even earning him a place in Dante’s Inferno, as the author of the great commentary. In fact, for many scholars centuries afterwards, Averroes was known as the Commentator.
Living also in Cordoba, at the same time was a man who was henceforth to be known as the most important Jewish thinker for centuries. His name was Moses Maimonides and such was his output that it was later said that “if one did not know that Maimonides was the name of a man, one would assume it was the name of a university”. Known also as Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, he was the first person to gather together all Jewish law into one place, the Mishnah Torah. He was also a Jewish philosopher and, for Christians, will always be remembered by his major work, The Guide to the Perplexed.
Maimonides was the latest and greatest of the line of Jewish philosophers that began when Saadia Ben Joseph first dipped his toe into the works of Aristotle a century or so earlier. He now also had the thoughts of the Muslim philosopher, Averroes, to work with and proved himself a master of synthesis, creating out of this a form of religious rationalism. This, as we will see, will be the outcome of mixing up Holy Scripture with Aristotle. The Word of God is now going to be prodded and dissected using the tools of Greek philosophy, just as it was at the time of the Church Fathers. In those earlier times, the alien influence came from Plato, resulting in a skewed understanding of God’s ways from the dualism that separated the physical and the spiritual.
The Christian world is now going to be similarly impacted by Aristotle’s influence and it’s not going to be a pretty sight. Which brings us to the last member of our triumvirate … the Christian.
Surely we are in good, safe hands for someone once known as the “dumb ox”, on account of his size and demeanour. But don’t let that fool you; as a contemporary of his said, “you call him a dumb ox; I tell you that the Dumb Ox will bellow so loud that his bellowing will fill the world.” And so it did.
His name was Thomas Aquinas, an Italian and was to become the most important and influential Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages. Again we see the unholy amalgam, Christian philosopher, and realise that if this guy was so influential then the whole concept of Christian philosophy was well and truly in the mainstream. And he was true to his title because Thomas dedicated his life to the use of Aristotle’s rationalism in Christian theology, influenced greatly by Maimonides the Jew and Averroes the Muslim.
Here is his big idea, which was to provide a break from existing views. He said that the things of God and the human soul can be understood not just by divine inspiration but also through human reasoning from what could be sensed from the World that surrounds us. Also the existence of God is not to be taken as a given (i.e. through faith) but through analysis of information that can be gathered through the senses.
In other words he proposed a marriage between faith and reason. We’ll see where this takes us next week …
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)