Faith versus Reason; When Christianity Co-Opted Ancient Rationalism

Article excerpt


How well does the faith-based worldview of Christianity hold up against the rationality of the classical Roman civilization it supplanted? The question may strike many Christians as being somewhat beside the point, but put in a slightly different way, it is certainly one of the more interesting historical and cultural questions of the last 2,000 years - namely, how did a small and powerless sect manage to co-opt the ancient world's greatest imperial power? For many believers, of course, it was evidence of the truth of their faith; even for those who are not Christian, though, it is an endlessly intriguing question.

In "The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason," Charles Freeman surveys this crucial period of transition in the ancient world. He sweeps from the heights of Greek and Roman culture, through the rule of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, to the empire's full embrace of Christianity and its role in the development of religious doctrine.

It is a panoramic view that Mr. Freeman handles with grace, erudition and lucidity - but also with something of an agenda. In his opinion, the intellectual tradition that began with the Greeks did not simply fade away as the new religion took hold; Greek rationalism was actively suppressed by the early Christian authorities.

From the earliest pages of the book, Mr. Freeman sets up a contrast between this classical rationalism and the (in his description, somewhat authoritarian) belief-system that was developing into Christian doctrine. And it is clear - not least from the book's title - where Mr. Freeman's sympathies lie.

The author celebrates the Greco-Roman world for its achievements in politics, science and philosophy. In his telling, however, this vibrant intellectual life would come to an end when the apostle Paul's deep suspicion of intellectuals ("I will destroy the wisdom of the wise") came to be ingrained in church teachings. "With the elaboration of Christian doctrine," Mr. Freeman writes, "faith came to mean acquiescence in the teachings of the churches . . . faith in this last sense achieved prominence over reason."

Paul's influence comes in for much blame here: "[F]or Paul it is not only the Law that has been superseded by the coming of Christ, it is the concept of rational argument, the core of the Greek intellectual achievement," Mr. Freeman argues. "So here," he concludes, "are the roots of the conflict between religion and science that still pervades debates on Christianity to this day. By proposing that Christian faith . . . might contain 'truths' superior to those achieved by rational argument . . . it was Paul, perhaps unwittingly . . . who declared the war and prepared the battlefield."

Paul's anti-intellectualism would not achieve its full impact, however, until it was yoked to the growing authority of the bishops and, later, to the authority of the emperors themselves. As Mr. Freeman shows, the emperors did not hesitate to inject themselves into theological debates. …