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The Renaissance

Thomas Aquinas and his followers had unleashed a genie from the lamp that was going to grow so large, so powerful, that one day it would attempt to engulf its master. The intentions may have been good to create a system whereby the rationalism of Aristotle could be harnessed as a servant to the understanding of the Word of God, but the outcome was eventually to prove fatal. A day was going to come when the critical faculties, the rational mind, even basic common sense, were going to look at the sorry state of the Church, whether Protestant or Catholic, and say, what have we helped to create, surely this couldn't have been what Jesus had in mind?!

This indeed happened a few years earlier. It started with the Muslims with a massive military victory at Constantinople, the home of the "Christian Empire" that had stood for over a Millennium. History books declare this as the official end of the Middle Ages. Why would that be and what came next? Well, it was all largely a consequence of this very event, as refugees from Turkey arrived in Italy and helped to fuel a major new thing that was happening there, particularly in Florence: The Renaissance.

It was said to be the rebirth of classical culture after centuries of darkness and barbarism. This rebirth comes to us as a French word, Renaissance. (By rights it should have been the Italian word, but try getting your tongue around Renascimento).

Let's repeat that sentence. The rebirth of classical culture after centuries of darkness and barbarism. The implications here are sad and awesome. It states the truism that "Christian" Europe was a time of darkness and barbarism and mankind was only saved by restoring the "virtues" and mindset of Ancient Greece. Yet, as we now know, it was the corruption of the Christian gospel by the very mindset of Ancient Greece that largely created the darkness and barbarism in the first place. What a tangled web we weave ...

The seeds of the Renaissance were sown a century earlier by an Italian scholar called Petrarch. An avid student of the "ancient texts", he was one of the first humanists, though, as that term wasn't invented until 1808, he wouldn't have recognised the title. Humanism, this is a new concept. We are now starting to see, in "Christian" Europe, the beginnings of a movement that would start to push God aside and put man at the centre of the Universe.

One of Petrarch's main influences, and hence one of the key influences of the Renaissance, was our old friend Augustine, who in turn of course was primarily influenced by Plato. Whereas Aristotle's influence was to turn people's minds to the World around them, Plato told people to look within, which Petrarch did and concluded that man had to look inside himself and there to find salvation. Hence humanism emphasised the dignity of man.

So the Renaissance, that flowering of artistic, scientific and intellectual endeavour, lit up by such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo, was not a movement primarily to the glory of God (though much of the art was of a religious nature), but to the glory of man and his possibilities. This sea-change can be seen through the syllabi of the schools of the time, as compared to an earlier age. Whereas the schools of the Middle Ages would have offered Latin, letter-writing and philosophy to their students, supplementing their religious instructions, a Renaissance student would typically major on grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy. Horizons were being widened, outside the claustrophobic clutches of the Church. The Renaissance thinkers still saw themselves as "Sons of Adam", still saw themselves as part of the divine order. God was not out of the picture ... yet!

But His days were numbered. By the start of the 17th Century, philosophers were appearing on the scene, willing to think the unthinkable. They intended to carry through Renaissance thinking even further ... and take God out of the equation. They set out to view the World away from the restrictions of religious dogma and more in the spirit of ... you've guessed it ... Ancient Greece.

One of the first was Rene Descartes, said to be the Father of Modern Philosophy. He was not a fan of Aristotle, whose philosophy was so entrenched in the thinking of the Church that some churchmen believed that anyone who went against his principles was holding an anti-God position and ought to be punished. And, of course, the Church was quite strong on punishing, so Descartes was quite a brave man, particularly as a Roman Catholic. He preferred to search within and, of course, we know him from the Latin phrase, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.

Out of this statement came a whole philosophy, a form of rationalism which was thoroughly man-centred, with a resolve to doubt everything that could be doubted, God included. The starting point for this new thinking was the human "self", one's own existence, the only thing that couldn't be doubted. It was the birth of individualism, a way of looking at the World that is still with us, as the defining feature of modern society. Yet, as already stated, Descartes was a Catholic, so he also used his philosophy to prove God's existence.

Steve Maltz
November 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth)

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