From the medievals: the land we cannot reach by bridge

I’ve been listening through Carl Trueman’s lectures on the Medieval Church – which to many Reformed Christians was the darkness before the dawn of Luther, and for many Baptisty types may well not have existed – and have been gratified by what I’ve heard so far. The lectures are free on iTunes U!

As Trueman explains, the Middle Ages likely have the worst PR of any era in Western history (the “Dark Ages?” Come on!); we assume that, if anything happened at all apart from the Black Death and the Crusades, it was basically just the ruins of Roman civilization decaying a little more. But, for all the societal fragmentation that DID take place, the Middle Ages were still a time of cultural and civil development. (And, as Chesterton notes, they’re also where we get backward institutions like the printing press, representative government, and universities). In the Church in particular, the Middle Ages boast some seriously robust thinking on major questions in theology and philosophy.

But one of the points by which I’ve been struck so far in Trueman’s teaching – which reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ argument for why we ought to read outside our own era – is the relative role of reason in medieval theological thought.

Your gut reaction – like mine – might be something like, “That’s easy; they didn’t use reason.” If that’s the case, you’d be – like I was – dead wrong. Read Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas or any of the other medieval heavyweights and you’ll find a depth and clarity of reason that may well be impossible to reproduce in the modern era. Those boys could think. If the intellect is a rapier, Aquinas is Inigo Montoya.

But what distinguishes the medieval reasonistas from moderns – and why we’d do well to pay attention to them – is their take on the place of reason in the Christian’s epistemological toolshed.

Let me illustrate with a parable.

A civilization lived among a cluster of islands a long distance from a continent. The continent was so far as to be generally discernible from the islands. Over time, the islanders constructed bridges to connect each island to the others; most people thought this a good thing. And in time, they decided to reach out toward the continent by building a huge bridge, greater than any they’d built before. So they began, and each year’s work got them a little further.

But eventually, they reached a point where the ocean became too deep and too rough to build the bridge out anymore. They came a certain distance, and no further. The continent remained mysteriously far, out of reach.

One day, a traveler came to the island in something they’d never seen before – a boat! He claimed to come from the continent, and said he’d happily ferry over anyone who wished to go. (He was also very complimentary about the partially-finished bridge, which was impressive)

The people had three different responses. The first group of people, who had no respect for boats – so insecure, so bounce-abouty on the water! – politely declined, saying that if anyplace was worth reaching it would be reachable by bridge. They would rather not go if it required going by boat.

The second group of people – a smaller set, for sure, but snarky – also had no love for boats. But they took a different line: if this “continent” (they used obnoxious scare quotes whenever they said it) were even real, then wouldn’t it be reachable by bridge? Bridges had been enough to reach from one island to another; if a place couldn’t be reached by bridge, how could we know it’s real?

And the third group of people trusted the newcomer, got on the boat, and happily reached the continent.

In the Enlightenment, the West got the idea into its collective head that the only way to get anyplace was by the bridge of Reason. This split quickly into the reason-first camp (working by intuition and logic) and the empiricism-first camp (working by testable sense-data), but the core idea remained: all knowledge must be subject to either logic or empiricism, or it either ain’t knowable or ain’t real. So the questions not subject to either of these tools – which happen to include some of life’s biggest questions, like “Is there a God?” and “What is the meaning of life?,” are ruled either unknowable or basically meaningless. In modern times, these questions were left to agnosticism; in postmodernism, they’re reduced to the level of personal opinion and generally left alone.

And that’s not gratifying – “What is the meaning of life?” is reduced to “What is the meaning of life, in your opinion?” Which is on the same level as “What is the best ice cream flavor in the world, in your opinion?” We instinctively know that these huge questions have to be answerable; but what do we do if we can’t build a Bridge of Reason to get there?

Enter the medievals.

The subtitle of one of Anselm’s major works is fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. This sums up the medievals’ approach to reason, and actually came to serve kind of as the vision statement for medieval theologians. We seek understanding, yes; and reason is a good and useful tool for that search. But it’s not enough, and it’s not where we begin.

Faith bookends reason. It stands before reason even for the agnostic, who at least has faith in her ability to reason in accord with truth. “I can grasp the world as it is” is a statement that must be taken on faith. And it travels beyond reason for the believer, because human reason can only go so far. Eventually, you have to travel by boat.

Part of why they believed this was a healthy dose of humility. If I am finite and God is infinite, why should I expect to be able to fully understand him with a finite mind? Why should the Creator be totally comprehensible to the creature?

And the second reason is like it: if an infinite Creator wants finite creatures to know something about him, wouldn’t it make sense that he would make that known plainly? Wouldn’t it make sense that he would reveal himself in actions and words that they could understand? They believed – all of them – that revelation was the boat sent over from the great continent. The most meaningful truths about God – the personal truths – were right there for the taking; one just has to have the right means.

I’d love to write more about how I trust that Christianity – God revealed in and by Jesus – is the true revelation. Most days, it’s as obvious to me as the sky. The world seems a cathedral, as the medieval Christians saw it. And when my little torch of reason can’t illuminate its great heights or depths, revelation shines through as light through glass and lets me see even if I do not comprehend.

But I’ve gone on quite long enough. I’ll bring out more about medieval Christianity as I discover it!


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