The Religious A priori

Christinaity, Supernature, and the Rise of Science in Middle Ages. Part 1

The medieval Christian doctrine of the supernatural1 has long been misconstrued as a dualistic denigration of nature, opposed to scientific thinking. The concept of supernature, however, is not a dualism in the sense of denigrating nature or of pitting against each other the "alien" realms of spirit and matter. The Christian ontology of the supernatural bound together the realm of nature and the realm of Grace, immanent and transcendent, in a unity of creative wisdom and purpose, which gave theological significance to the natural world. While the doctrine of supernature was at times understood in a dualistic fashion, ultimately, the unity it offered played a positive role in the development of scientific thinking, because it made nature meaningful to the medieval mind. Its dissolution came, not because supernatural thinking opposed scientific thinking, but because culture came to value nature in a different manner, and the old valuation no longer served the purpose of scientific thinking. An understanding of the notion of supernature is essential to an understanding of the attitudes in Western culture toward nature, and to an understanding of the cultural transition to science as an epistemic authority.

The ontology of supernature assumes that the natural participates in the supernatural in an ordered relation of means and immediate ends, with reference to their ultimate ends. The supernatural is the ground and end of the natural; the realm of nature and the realm of Grace are bound up in a harmonious relation. The Ptolemaic system explained the physical lay-out of the universe, supernature explained its theological relation to God. The great chain of being separated the ranking of creatures in relation to creator. The supernatural ontology is, therefore, sperate from but related to cosmologies. This ontology stands behind most forms of pre-reformation theology, and it implies an exaltation of nature, rather than denigration.2 This talk of two realms seems to imply a dualism, yet, it is not a metaphysical dualism, not a dualism of opposition, but as Fairweather points out, "the essential structure of the Christian faith has a real two-sidedness about it, which may at first lead the unwary into dualism, and then to resolve [it]...[into] an exclusive emphasis on one or the other severed elements of a complete Christianity...such a dissolution is inevitable once we lose our awareness of that ordered relation of the human and the divine, the immanent and the transcendent, which the Gospel assumes."3 Yet, it is this "two-sidedness" which leads unwary historians of into dualism.4

In his famous 1967 article, "The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White argued that the Christian belief of the Imago Dei created "a dualism of man and nature;" "man shares in God's transcendence of nature." This notion replaced pagan animism, it removed the "sacred" from the natural world, and with it, inhibitions against exploiting nature.5 Moreover, by the 12th century, nature became a source of revelation through natural theology. In the Latin West, where action prevailed over contemplation, natural theology ceased to be the decoding of natural symbols of the divine and became instead an attempt to understand God through decerning the operation of creation. Western technology flourished, surpassing even that of Islamic culture (although they still led in theoretical pursuits). Thus, White argues, medieval theology did allow science to grow, but at the ultimate expense of the environment.6

The insights of feminist scholarship, however, suggest an even more subtle argument for the denigration of nature. Feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruther, argued that there is an identification between the female and nature, the male and transcendence. 7Women have been disvalued historically through the association between female sexuality and the "baseness" of nature. 8Londa Schiebinger, calls attention to the fact that the Judeo-Christian cosmology placed women in a subordinate position. Gender was more fundamental than biological sex, and it was a cosmological principle, "...Men and women were carefully placed in the great chain of being--their positions were defined relative to plants, animals, and God." The subordination of women was predicated upon their position in nature. "Male" and "Female represented dualistic cosmological principles penetrating all of nature, principles of which sexual organs were only one aspect. One might suspect that the place of women on the great chain of being is indicative of the true status of nature itself in Christian ontology; an overt denigration of women indicates a covert denigration of nature.9

Moreover, the very fact of the medieval cosmos, and the great chain itself, because of the relation of earth to heaven, might be taken as an indication that nature was denigrated. 10Historians and classicists have tended to assume that the Ptolemaic system was designed so as to give humanity a position of honor and centrality. As Lovejoy points out, however, earth was the closest thing to hell, which was at the center of the cosmos. On the other hand, as Author O. Lovejoy himself admits, it was the fact that earth was the staging ground for the drama of salvation that gave it significance. Everything derived its value from its relation to the eternal. Nature was not disvalued, but re-valued, in its relation to God. It is this distinction that often leads historians to understand Christian medieval ontology as a denigration of nature.11 White assumes that transcendence must imply denigration of the thing transcended. Transcendence, however, does not mean that God fled the world; God is both immanent and transcendent, in creation and beyond it. Fairweather argues that the most profound symbol of this relation is the incarnation, the transcendent in the immanent, the spirit in flesh.12

It cannot be denied that women were assigned an unjust and denigrating position in the cosmos, based upon the ignorance, pride, and self-interest of the dominate male hierarchy. Ruther makes an elegant argument, the associations between denigrated nature and the female gender (the great mother), and the triumphant sky father (the transcendent God of the Christians) fit so neatly, it is hard to reject. On the other hand, the medieval Christian relation to nature was very complex. In late antiquity, for example, St. Augustine is said by Scheibinger to have ascribed to women an inferior nature and lesser reason.13 Yet, her comments do not represent Augustine's true positions. He tried to correct abuses against women through a doctrine of spiritual equality, he argued that they possessed equal reason to that of men, and he said nothing about inferior natures. Most Christian mystics believed in some sort of illumination of the transcendent through the natural world. Natural creatures were seen as vessels, or mirrors of the divine; "God in all creatures and all creatures in God."14

What these arguments really demonstrate, however, is a very complex situation. It is an oversimplification to say that Christian belief in transcendence resulted in the abhorrence and exploitation of nature. A combination of cultural and economic forces produced certain attitudes toward nature which are often read as denigration if one is not careful to understand the relation of value. Historians tend to read back into transcendence their own assumptions of alienation created by the enlightenment, Karl Marx, and Jackob Burkhart's view of Renaissance autonomy. There was a sense of medieval alienation from nature. In German culture, fear of the forest, fear of the unknown, created a certain sense of danger in the natural world. There were anti-naturalistic assumptions surviving from gnosticism and the Manicheans, which asserted themselves in groups such as the Cathori. The bias of Latin culture for action over contemplation created economic forces which took on a life of their own, and laid claim to nature as a thing to control.15-16(?)

David Lindberg draws upon Max Weber's theory of modernization in order to explain the way in which economic forces drove religious attitudes. After the fall of the Roman empire, the center of power and population shifted to the north, where Gaul and the Rhineland had already become the industrial base of the late empire. A less developed culture was struggling to come to terms with a civilization which had ceased to function and had to be re-created. Daily life under such conditions was hard, labor saving devices were much more important than theoretical insights. Technological applications, such as the heavy plow, the harness, wind and water power probably have more to do with conquest of nature than do metaphysical speculations. The supernatural ontology did not denigrate nature, but it did allow for trends which eventually issued in both science and capitalism. The supernatural ontology grew along with these developments, and plays a part in the rise of science. In order to fully understand this argument, however, it will be necessary to take an historical view, to trace the major themes as they unfold side by side, beginning with the Church's early self-identity and relation to nature.17-20

The Church, in the first three centuries of the era, forged its identity in opposition to gnosticism. In so doing, it also forged its understanding of the relationship between God and the natural world. The "gnostic" were not a unified movement, but most of them held in common a Persian style dualism, (a stark contrast between spirit and matter, represented as the forces of light and dark, good and evil) and an abhorrence of the material world. For most gnosticis, the flesh was evil, as was all matter. Humans were divine sparks of light trapped in evil flesh, only the secret knowledge which would return them tot he other world had any value in this life. In struggling to define itself apart from gnosticism's "tragic myth," the emerging orthodoxy, Irenaeus of Lyons in particular, (mid second century, C.E.) proclaimed that God's creation was "a single world full of the glory of the God who created it and to whose providence all its history is subject. The world of matter and time is not alien to man." 21As the Church made more explicit its views on the relation between God, humanity, and the natural world, the analogical ontology was formulated as the action of Grace upon human nature.22 External nature was not disvalued, but valued in its relation to supernature as its ground and end. Where the Greeks developed an emphasis upon the transcendence of God, and God's gracious approach to creatures, the Latins thought more along the lines of moral valuations.23

Thus, for Augustine, a product of Latin culture in North Africa (late 3d early 4th centuries) grace is divinely bestowed power of action, the effect of God upon the will. The relation of immanence to transcendence is, for Augustine, the relation of a scale of values; temporal and eternal. Eternal values represent that which we are to love, temporal values are that which we use. This does not mean, however, that because the temporal order of the natural world consists of things we use, less perfect than the eternal, that it is unimportant, or of no value. This scale of values, hierarchical though it may be, is not a dichotomy of denigration.

It would be ridiculous, on the other hand, to regard the defects of beasts, trees and other mutable and mortal things which lack intelligence, sense, or life, as deserving condemnation. Such defects do indeed effect the decay of their nature, which is liable to dissolution; but these creatures have received their mode of being by the will of their creator, whose purpose is that they should bring to perfection the beauty of the lower parts of the universe by their alternation and succession in the passage of the seasons; and this is a beauty in its own kind, finding its place among the constituent parts of this world. Not that such things of earth were meant to be comparable with heavenly realities. Yet the fact that those other realities are of higher value does not mean that these lower creatures should have been excluded from the whole scheme of things.

Moreover, for Augustine, no existence is contrary to God, therefore, mater is not contrary to spirit. Enmity with God did not arise out of nature, but of will. "Augustine insisted that sin is situated not in the body, but in the will. This was a point of extraordinary importance, because it helped to liberate Christendom from the [gnostic] notion that the soul is contaminated by its contact with the body--and therefore that matter and flesh must be inherently evil."

Nor was Augustine opposed to study of the natural world, provided the study bare some relation to the scale of ultimate values. Augustine used references to the scientific learning of his day throughout his writings, mainly to illustrate his theological concepts. In the final analysis, he placed less value on knowing physical causes, than on knowing eternal values, but he did not obstruct learning. He even developed a conception of natural laws of cause and effect. Augustine's causality allowed for things to change according to their divinely bestowed natures, "God governs his creation `from the summit of the whole causal nexus.'" This is a description of the analogical ontology, the relation of natural law to the higher law of supernature. St. Augustine does not denigrate nature, nor does its place on the temporal value scale mean that an understanding of nature is to be condemned. Rather, nature is given theological value in relation to the higher scale.

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The Religious A priori