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MOST EDUCATED PEOPLE, in addition to a set of favorite authors, artists, and composers, develop a fascination for one or more historic cultures: republican Rome, say, or colonial New England or the Ming dynasty. Sometimes these passions are matters of aesthetic or intellectual taste, but often they bear a relationship to the individual’s ideas about what constitutes the good life and how the ideals of a past culture might nurture and strengthen one’s own. Of course, the prevailing worldview of a given time period may play a role in guiding what the majority find engaging. After several centuries of admiration for ancient Greece and Rome, Europeans, swayed by the Romantic movement, turned to the Middle Ages; tired of rationalism and artifice, they saw in the medieval world a model of a more organic, earthy sensibility—attuned to nature rather than the works of man.

That such celebrations of past cultures may have a political dimension is clear enough. Ancient Rome has been embraced by groups as diverse as the founders of the United States and twentieth-century fascist regimes. Perhaps one sign of our so-called postmodern condition is that no single era of the past commands the allegiance of the public.

But religion also has an influence on our embrace of the past. If the church, subject to the inevitable cultural rhythms of decadence and renewal, is “semper reformanda” (always reforming, in the words of the early Reformers), believers may turn to a past era to rediscover a primitive purity that has been lost or a richness that has leached away. Just as the Reformers themselves looked to the earliest days of the church, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, so many contemporary Protestants seek out the first stages of the Reformation itself for forgotten wisdom.

The Middle Ages have long been celebrated by Christians as an era of remarkable balance between earthly and spiritual things—a “thick” culture that saw man’s place in a cosmic scheme of astonishing complexity and order. And in the last twenty years a growing number have turned to the Christian East and the patristic era for a tradition that is at once ecstatically mystical and densely liturgical, a life-giving antidote to the desiccated rationalism of the West.

The attraction that so many feel for medieval or eastern religious cultures stems precisely from their pre-modern character. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the “nominalist” school of theologians brought about a radical shift in western thought, separating the mind from reality. As the philosopher Louis Dupré notes in Passage to Modernity:

Nominalist theology effectively removed God from creation. Ineffable
in being and inscrutable in his designs, God withdrew from the original
synthesis altogether. The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere
separate from nature, with which it retained no more than a causal, external
link. This removal of transcendence fundamentally affected the conveyance
of meaning. Whereas previously meaning had been established in the very
act of creation by a wise God, it now fell upon the human mind to interpret
a cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be intelligible. Instead
of being an integral part of the cosmos, the person became its source of
meaning. Mental life separated from cosmic being: as meaning-giving
“subject” the mind became the spiritual substratum of all reality.

That a group of medieval theologians ushered modernity into the world is an irony that should not go unnoticed. But for those who love the Middle Ages and the patristic East, these cultures represent an integrated sensibility prior to the onset of anthropocentric modernity and the long withdrawal of God from western culture. That people of faith should drink deeply from these wells is hardly objectionable.

Here’s the problem. Modernity happened. There can be no going back. What is needed is a new synthesis, a vision that can encompass the subjective individual with divine being.

That’s why I am convinced that religious believers should delve more deeply into the era that has traditionally been the whipping boy for the critics of modernity: the Renaissance. Few topics in western history have been so debated as the dating, character, and meaning of the Renaissance. Few periods have been as complex and unsettling—and burdened by myths.

It is not difficult to see why those who love the medieval and patristic eras consider the Renaissance the beginning of the decline of western civilization. After all, the very separation of the individual from nature can be blamed for the rise of modern “scientism,” the worship of science and technology as instruments of human domination over nature. While religious critics of the Renaissance concede that towering artistic masterpieces were created in this era, they are quick to add that in this time the arrogant notion of the artist as genius and priest of secular culture was born. There is plenty of evidence to support both of these assertions, from the artist Cellini’s vaunting autobiography to Machiavelli’s meditations on political power to Francis Bacon’s “knowledge is power.”

But the wholesale denigration of the Renaissance typical of many Christians today rests upon another irony: the uncritical acceptance of modern myths about the period. The term “Renaissance” only came into general use in the nineteenth century, and its first great expositor was Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy left the “vivid impression of rampant individualism, creative energy and moral chaos, with the supernatural sanctions and Christian traditions of the Middle Ages giving way to something more like ancient pre-Christian ways of thought,” according to historian Wallace K. Ferguson.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, historiographers systematically refuted Burckhardt’s picture, but old myths have a way of seeping into the culture. Nonetheless, scholars such as Charles Trinkaus, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and Giuseppe Mazzotta “have thoroughly discredited the secularist interpretation of Italian humanism,” writes Dupré in Passage to Modernity. And many others, including Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle and James McConica, have created a rich body of scholarship on the northern Christian humanists like Erasmus, More, Vives, and Reuchlin.

One of the first myths to fall was the notion that the Renaissance constituted a major break from the medieval world. Earlier humanistic “renaissances” were pointed out, such as the twelfth-century revival of Aristotle (aided by medieval Islamic scholars). The powerful influence of medieval spiritual movements such as Franciscanism and the Brethren of the Common Life (whose most famous member was Thomas à Kempis) on later Christian humanism were carefully delineated.

More importantly, it has been shown that many of the greatest Renaissance thinkers and artists were already at work trying to find a new synthesis of self and cosmos and bring healing to the modern consciousness. The conditions they faced were strikingly like our own.

The rediscovery of pagan culture involved the question of how to approach the dialogue between secular and sacred. As the Christian humanists argued for the importance of learning from pagan culture, they deepened the theology of the Incarnation, attacking the sort of dualism that compartmentalizes experience and denies the unity of truth. “For Erasmus wisdom does not consist in despoiling a humiliated paganism, but in collaborating pedagogically with its highest expression,” writes Boyle.

The age of exploration began the process of globalization, and while the record of western engagement with other cultures has been checkered at best, the greatest religious order to emerge out of the Renaissance—the Jesuits—offered some of the most humane forms of intercultural exchange on record, including the mission to the Guaraní in South America, recounted in the film The Mission. The Jesuit missionaries to China dressed as Mandarins and learned both the language and Confucianism before breathing a word about Jesus.

The breach between the eastern and western churches was healed, for a brief time, at the Council of Florence. That there were political reasons influencing this is beyond doubt, but at the same time the council would not have been possible without the assiduous work of humanist theologians striving to find common ground between the two great traditions.

The rise of science presented new powers and new temptations. Shakespeare, the last great flower of the Renaissance, would tackle this subject in The Tempest, where a modern magus, Prospero, learns to relinquish his dominion over nature for the reconciling power of the imagination.

The emergence of the solitary self, cut off from the community and the cosmic order, led some figures of the era to vaulting ambition and pride, while others exhibited the first symptoms of what modern thinkers would call alienation. But the period gave rise to gifted artists who were among the first to dramatize and diagnose these ills. The course of Michelangelo’s art, from the assurance of the David through the magnificent but wounded humanity of the Sistine chapel to the heavy fragility of the late, unfinished pietàs, traces a tragic vision that is
wedded to a Christian understanding of suffering.

At the risk of some anachronism, I think it can be argued that the struggle between hell-for-leather Reformers and reactionary Catholics during this period can be seen in the light of what have recently been dubbed the “culture wars.” Eventually, these conflicts would erupt into shooting wars that would engulf Europe in an orgy of division and destruction for over a century. What gets lost in dwelling on this conflagration are the achievements of the humanists on both sides of the theological divide: the emergence of biblical criticism and philology, the first stirrings of the discipline of history, pleas for tolerance and understanding of Jews, and programs for the education of women.

Having forgotten that these achievements took place in the Renaissance, many moderns, including the religious folk, have falsely ascribed them to the secularism of the Enlightenment rather than the Christian humanist project. Chalk this up as another historical irony.

These were troubled times, to be sure. That many of the initiatives and creations of the Renaissance were failures is beyond question. The eastern and western churches did not unite; the Reformation further split the church. The effort to forge a synthesis between ancient tradition and modern consciousness did not take hold, and a process of secularization did, in fact, ensue. The early efforts at reaching out to other cultures with respect were followed by harsh, colonialist methods.

But most human endeavors end in failure. The goal, to quote Samuel Beckett, has always been to “fail better.” Those of us who are living on the far side of the modern experiment can gain immeasurably from a study of those who sought to create the first reconciling vision.

The Renaissance cannot offer the tranquility and order that some see, rightly or wrongly, in eastern and medieval religious cultures. But if one of the roles of history is to be a “distant mirror,” then we are going to have to learn how to love trouble. We’ve got heaps of it ourselves.


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