The Impossible Synthesis

Altarpiece of the Church Fathers”, by Michael Pacher (c. 1483).

Bertrand Russell, in his “History of Western Philosophy”, introduces the second part of the book by saying that the Middle Ages is the history of “growth and decay” of the Catholic synthesis. He knows so well what is being synthesized that he forgets to say it. But now, as I reread portions of the book, I know that the synthesis sought was between faith and reason. My “Medieval Philosophy” teacher thinks that it has been successful. I, for one, can not imagine where he got that idea from.

The Apostolic Age (from the resurrection of Christ in 33 BC to the death of the last apostle, John, in the year 100) gave the New Testament to the world and with it a “new” faith. The success and rapid diffusion of the Christian faith, in turn, had generated a problem. The Hellenistic period had spread Greek culture everywhere and Rome had absorbed it to the fullest, so any new religion / philosophy would have to defend itself against the attacks of the dominant Greco-Roman philosophy. “If you can’t beat them, join them.” The Christian solution was to blend religious dogmas and philosophical principles.

How could this be possible? In my view, faith is the antithesis of reason. Reason is the faculty that converts perceptions of the real world into concepts using logic. Accepting something like divine revelation completely invalidates such definition. I can not see how reason can lead to faith, or faith to reason.

In any case, the history of medieval philosophy is the history of this synthesis — or of the attempt of synthesis — and is divided basically into two periods: the Patristics or Early Christian philosophy (2nd – 8th centuries); and Scholasticism (12th – 15th centuries). Between them there was a transitional period where knowledge of the Greek language had virtually disappeared (but for the teachings in monasteries, which were growing in number), but at the same time the Carolingian Renaissance began to set schools in almost every abbey, thereby creating the basis for the Scholastic period. What unifies all these periods is the desire for synthesis.

Patristics gets its name from the “Fathers of the Church” (pater = father, in Latin) — influential theologians, philosophers and writers who have built the foundations of Christianity. The period runs from the end of the Apostolic Age to, conventionally, the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787, when it is considered that Catholic orthodoxy was fully established, but it culminates in the life and work of Augustine of Hippo, St. Augustine (354 – 430).

The list of Church Fathers is inconclusive and quite controversial, having been expanded to the present day, but in general four criteria are considered:

1. Orthodox Doctrine: The priest need not be free from errors, but must promote the faithful communion of the doctrine with the universal Church;

2. Holiness of life: The priest need not have been officially canonized, but rather worshiped as the saints were in Christian Antiquity;

3. Approval of the Church: The decision must come from consensus among the deliberations and ecclesiastical declarations;

4. Antiquity: The priest must have lived in the period considered above (2nd to 8th centuries).

I find the project to unite faith and reason utterly impossible. However, when I look at the world today — a world deprived of both faith and reason — I admit that a part of me laments that the synthesis has failed.

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