There is an unfortunate kind of Catholic who seems to think that everything the Church does must be beyond criticism. The recent handling of the pedophilia crisis by some American bishops should have laid that pious myth to rest. But embattled Catholics in the present are often tempted to believe that it was once different, that in some idealized Christian past there was a series of glorious triumphs for the Church instead of a pre-carious pilgrimage through history and human sinfulness. As St. Augustine might have argued, this, too, will not stand serious scrutiny, beginning with the abandonment of Christ at the time of the Crucifixion by his closest and dearest friends, the Apostles.
But this naïveté is nothing compared with the enormous number of intellectuals today who not only denounce Christian errors but look upon Christianity itself as inherently evil (though in most other contexts they abhor making black-and-white value judgments). The charges are familiar: Christianity is irrational, intolerant, superstitious, anti-Semitic, joyless, and sex-obsessed. It takes no very great experience to encounter Christians who fit these categories, but whether that is enough to justify a collective ad hominem against Christian faith is quite a leap. And another has just appeared in the British writer Charles Freeman’s much touted The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf).
Stripped of its considerable, if tendentious, scholarship, Freeman’s thesis is quite simple. Reason, especially reason of a scientific kind, was the central intellectual tradition of Greece. Most people believe that it faded away after the great classical age. But this is false, says Freeman. Reason, especially reason of a scientific kind, continued well into the Christian era, and we know the names of famous scientists such as Ptolemy (astronomy and geography) and Galen (medicine), among others. It was only with Constantine and the Christianizing of the empire that classical reason disappeared. And this was not a natural process; reason was suppressed by Christianity, which is unique among the world religions in its intolerance and enforcement of a rigid orthodoxy.
If true, this is the kind of claim that would force any honest Christian to think seriously about yet another failure in Christian leadership, in this case primarily in a long line of bishops in the Greek East. But if you want to find out if it’s true, Freeman will not much help you. In fact, he seems to have set out assuming that the evidence would turn up, did not really find the smoking gun, and was forced—maybe by a publisher’s contract—to finish all the same.
The book’s structure reflects this difficulty: He spends more than 300 pages in a rambling survey of pagan and Christian history and only turns to his real subject in the last 40. And along the way, he often interjects material separated by centuries from the subject at hand to reinforce a weak historical point. (In the plates, for example, a Matthias Grunewald painting of hell from the 16th century, we are told, explains what happened more than 1,000 years earlier: “It was perhaps inevitable in such a climate that creative thinking about the natural world would be stifled.”)
In another place, he cites the famous letter of the Roman prefect Symmachus to the emperor Valentinian as an example of classical rationality versus Christian intellectual rigidity: “What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.” There is a kernel of truth in this, of course. But if you are a monotheist, truth is one, just as it is in science. And this will limit and perhaps give a common cast to all valid approaches to the truth.
So in a way, his failure tends to sup-port a different truth: Something happened to produce the fall off in cultural level from the fourth century until the medieval revival. Christianity may have played a role, but in his own telling not the “suppression” Freeman set out to prove, and he all but admits as much in conclusion: “Whether the explanations put forward in this book for the suppression are accepted or not, the reasons for the extinction of serious mathematical and scientific thinking in Europe for a thousand years surely deserve more attention.”
Well, yes, quite so. Yet Freeman’s case itself deserves more attention than might first appear. He cannot seem to make up his mind whether it is scientific reasoning or reasoning in general he thinks Christianity suppressed. The latter proposition, of course, is absurd on its face because there were many rational arguments advanced for Christian positions in a hostile pagan culture. So he argues instead that reason was allowed solely an instrumental role among Christians, with faith as final knowledge. And even then, the Christian obsession with a definitive truth about a God who was by definition beyond reason led to a self-defeating round of disputes as different individuals used different portions of the Scriptures against one another.
He is quick to spot evidence of this in many of the Fathers of the Church, some of whom, in addition, denigrate secular learning. And here he makes a fair point that Christianity, asserting itself against a previously hostile pagan culture, weakened interest in worldly knowledge developed by that culture. In addition, the Christological disputes in the East, never a very edifying tale, at least in their messy historical passions and imperial interventions, convinced some Christians and even Christian emperors to turn away from divisive theological controversies.
Freeman is clearly more comfortable with this material than with the Latin West, which should really have been the focus of a book on the closing of the Western mind. Rome tended to take for granted what we think of today as orthodox Trinitarian formulas, though conflicts existed even within Latin Christianity. He rightly sees the pope as more independent of imperial politics, mostly owing to the breakdown of the empire in the West, than the prominent bishops in the Byzantine world. But he does not notice that while theoretical knowledge waned during the Dark Ages in the West, as elsewhere, technology grew more rapidly than even in the great classical age.
Every high school student is taught (and some may even learn) that from 950 to 1250 Western Europe underwent an unprecedented population growth supported by technological innovations such as the heavy plow, the three-field-system, harnesses for horses, ingenious engineering to channel water and make milling more productive, and so forth. So if Western Christianity was weak in theoretical reasoning, it was stronger in some respects than Greece and Rome in practical reasoning. And even Free-man allows that by the high Middle Ages Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas honorably champion reason, though he doubts even they harmonized it with faith.
Freeman does not have great philosophical or theological gifts, so this latter opinion merely repeats objections others have raised. And he himself concedes that today a balance between reason and emotion is commonly thought to be necessary to a full human life. Emotion, too, for him is “irrational,” when like faith it may really only be non-rational. There are irrational emotions and beliefs but others that are quite rational in a human framework.
Freeman expresses gratitude and love to his wife in the introduction, for instance, who as a psychotherapist “has been dealing with similar tensions in the minds of her clients” (presumably freeing them from Christian irrationality). That very important experience, love, is also from one point of view irrational, and from another highly, even singularly, rational. It’s a paradox, but a deeply human one, why any of us should love one person rather than another, or anyone at all. It does not make sense; it is a wound that keeps us from controlling our own fate. And a mystery, almost as great as the mystery of the Trinity.