theology

Introduction to the Middle Ages (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.2)

The Middle Ages is a 1000 year period during which Western Civilization took shape. During this time, Europe became a Christian continent. These Christians then began the long process of sorting out the great heritage they had received from those who came before them. The Christians of the Middle Ages wanted to figure out a way to bring together the ideas and traditions they had received from the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans into one. Of course, they also had to make these Greek, Jewish, and Roman ideas fit with the ideas of their own Christian religion. The result was a thousand years of great achievements in art, architecture, music, philosophy, literature, and science.

Medieval art and architecture focused almost entirely on themes from Christianity. Nearly all of the paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages are of Jesus, Mary, angels, and other people important to Christians. In almost every town of Europe, the largest and most beautiful building was the church. Often, these churches were not built by experts and construction workers but by the people of the town. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, for example, was built by the common people there. Medieval churches were usually built with very high ceilings and filled with art, including paintings, statues, and stained glass windows. They used the art and the high ceilings to emphasize the greatness of God and the beauty of heaven.

Medieval music also drew heavily on Christian themes. Musical instruments were not usually used in Christian worship services, so medieval musicians came up with a variety of ways to use the human voice to create beautiful music. Both Gregorian chant, in the Western part of Europe, and Byzantine chant, in the Eastern part, used all different types of voices singing together. Medieval musicians looked to the psalms in the Bible for inspiration for their own musical creations. Sometimes they would have singers with different kinds of voices take turns singing lines from the text of a psalm. Other musicians wrote their own songs which imitated the psalms in their content and style. It was also during the Middle Ages that the first musical notation was written. Now, it was possible for people in distant places to all sing the same song in the same way by following the notes that were written with it.

Early in the Middle Ages, most poetry and literature were written in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. As time went on, however, people all over Europe began to appreciate the local languages of their own nations and to write in those languages. The poems and books that were produced are still regarded today as among the greatest literature of the world. In the 13th century, Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem called The Divine Comedy which told the story of an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Geoffrey Chaucer became the first great poet of the English language when he wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims heading to pray at Canterbury, an important Christian site in England. The most popular stories of the Middle Ages were tales of great heroes, warriors, and knights who battled against evil. Love songs about knights and the women they fought to defend were also very popular.

Philosophers of the Middle Ages continued to discuss subjects like God and the meaning of life in the same way philosophers before them had done. Most philosophers of the Middle Ages, however, were Christian. As a result, the answers they gave to the questions philosophers ask often were ones that came from the Bible and other Christian writings. Philosophers like Boethius and Thomas Aquinas tried to figure out if Christian beliefs could be proved by using reason instead of just the Bible.

There were also many important scientific discoveries and inventions during the Middle Ages. Many people became very interested in nature and in the world around them because of the Christian belief that God had created the world to be beautiful. They wanted to investigate the world and the place of humans in it. Astronomy was considered especially important because medieval Christians believed the movement of the stars and planets in the sky had a lot to teach people about God.

All students were required to study astronomy at schools throughout Europe. In addition to astronomy, students also studied music, arithmetic, geometry, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. These seven together were called the “liberal arts” because people believed that studying these subjects liberated a person, which means it made them free. Theology, the study of God, was considered the highest and most important science. A student could only study theology if they had first studied the seven liberal arts.

As the people of the Middle Ages sought to understand their Greek, Roman, and Jewish heritage, they created a great civilization of their own. It was this civilization which became our civilization.

 

Review Questions

 1. What themes are most medieval art, music, and literature about?

2. What are the seven liberal arts?

3. What subject was considered the highest and greatest science?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Liberate – to make someone free

Theology – the study of God and other religious subjects

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Book Review: Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor

Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor

Lars Thunberg explains and explores St. Maximus the Confessor’s vision of man as a microcosm. Along the way, he explores the various correlations made by St. Maximus, such as that between Scripture and man, between the architecture of the temple and man, and between the structure of the liturgy and the movement of the cosmos. What is uncovered is St. Maximus’s uniquely sacramental and liturgical view of human nature and of the cosmos as a whole.

St. Maximus drew upon the Christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon to construct a way of viewing the world which saw all that is in it as a reflection of its Creator. Man, as the touching point between the uncreated and uncreated order, as the bearer of the flesh taken up and dwelt in by God himself in the Incarnation, occupies a special place in this worldview. For Maximus, God’s movement to man in the Incarnation finds its correlate in man’s movement to God in deification.

Thurnberg does an outstanding job of making St. Maximus’s often difficult wording quite understandable. Thurnberg also presents Maximus in a wonderfully fitting way as a touching point between East and West in the ongoing ecumenical dialogue between churches. I recommend this book to anyone interested in patristic theology.

Review: Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings

Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings
Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings by George C. Berthold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book contains several works by one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity. St. Maximus’s approach to theology, in which he married the mystical and doctrinal, has been a major influence on the subsequent development of Christian thought. This book is an edifying pleasure to read and to contemplate throughout. I recommend it to anyone interested in matters of theology.

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"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.