The competing genealogical narratives of the advent of secular modernity are vast. Some of these interpretations of historical progression into the cultural, social, economic, and political reality we now participate consider such developments to be a good thing. Other interpretations cast a negative light on the secular modern instinct. Most often these narratives drifting toward the negative are invented by academics willing to pin the blame on a single intellectual villain, exhume the thought of said villain from the grave, to which these academics will create a movement committed to a perpetual ritualistic burning in effigy of the image created for said narrative purposes. An example of this would be Radical Orthodoxy’s treatment of Bl. John Duns Scotus. This may be a bit too strong of a depiction, but the famous “Scotus story” is one that continually casts the humble friar in a negative light.
The Radical Orthodoxy movement is a theological persuasion initiated by John Milbank’s book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Following this publication, Radical Orthodoxy has grown significantly in its influence, and the work attributed to this movement is voluminous. And like any other movement Radical Orthodoxy has their villains, to which I point to the aforementioned Bl. John Duns Scotus. Milbank identifies Scotus as the nefarious character associated with the genealogical conundrum of the modernist ontological destabilization of the West. Not Galileo, or Descartes, or Hume, or Kant, or Newton, or Marx, or Comte, or Nietzsche, or any combination of these names. Not even the Devil himself is to blame for the disaster of modernity. Instead, the villain identified as the culprit is a Franciscan theologian and philosopher; the theological master that inherited from St. Bonaventure a tradition dedicated to the primacy of Christ and vigorously defended the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The latter is of course an official Marian dogma of the Catholic Church. The person bringing every aspect of his thought into the framework of the spirituality of the Seraphic Father, the primacy of Christ, and the Blessed Mother, instigated the downfall of Christendom – or so Radical Orthodox theologians would have you believe.
Indeed, there are many people other than Scotus that have been blamed for instigating the downfall of the West. One example of this is William of Ockham. Another is Martin Luther. Another is Descartes. Another is Aquinas. Another is Bonaventure. And yet another is Augustine. No doubt there are other names that could be added to the list, but the point is that there are many candidates vying for the title of the one who is responsible for sowing the seeds that would eventually destroy Western Civilization. To be sure, some of these individuals, such as Ockham, are heroes to those who consider modernity a blessing. So again, the story matters for the purpose of the one telling it. In my view, a few names mentioned above deserve to probably be categorized as propagating such a negative trajectory. However, I want to focus on something else that happens when theoretical genealogies are created to explain how we got into the mess we are currently in.
I have noticed an interpretative pattern for those looking to find a villain for a genealogical theory. The pattern initially unfolds by totally ignoring the context of the views espoused by the person being transformed into the antagonist of Western Civilization. For example, I am yet to witness critics of Bonaventure and Scotus engage the specific Franciscan spirituality they were working within. Instead of looking to understand their thought as distinctively Franciscan, a particularity in their thought will be isolated from the correct context, to which it is criticized apart from the appropriate spiritual framework, and then stripped of its spiritually relevant import to the entire system and tradition from which it came. This mistaken handling of the material also ignores the historical milieu from which the thinker is working, therefore ignoring the questions relevant to the person attempting to provide answers for various quandaries. Moreover, if influential thinkers after them used elements of their thought for their own purposes, abusing an idea for a differing pet theory, the original thinker is blamed for the mistreatment rather than the one committing the act of intellectual thievery.
If this pattern is followed – the persistent stripping away of contextual relevance of a specific thinker – a villain is most likely being created to support an academic movement. This is almost a necessary step for an academic because the “villianization” of a person is usually juxtaposed with a proposed corrective theoretical remedy.
This is precisely what has taken place with Scotus and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. And despite many correctives being offered by the relevant Scotus scholars, one shouldn’t expect a change of tune any time soon. Scotus experts such as Thomas Williams, Richard Cross, Mary Beth Ingham, Daniel Horan, and others have offered corrective rebuttals to critics of Scotus, but to no avail. The “Scotus story” continues forward unabated. It is one thing to argue against the Subtle Doctor’s theory of the univocity of being, but it is quite another thing to identify that theory with the cataclysmic events following the institutionalization of modern ideals.
In addition to the “Scotus story,” I have now encountered this same pattern of critical reductionism in Eastern Orthodox criticism of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to the story being told, Augustine and Aquinas are responsible for planting the seeds, unbeknownst to them, for the development of modern atheism. I have been attempting to interact with these critical arguments with charity, which in turn forces me to dig deeper into the thought of these two great theological and philosophical masters. Despite my efforts, I am finding it very difficult to find the seeds of atheism lurking underneath the theological richness of Augustine’s work on the Trinity, Christian Doctrine, or the City of God; nor have I detected the detriments of atheism in the biblical commentaries of Aquinas. It is equally difficult to discover atheism among Augustine’s passionately devoted defenses of the true faith against Manichaeism and the Pelagian heresy. I have also been left empty handed when examining Augustine’s homilies and soliloquies. Augustine’s Confessions also brought me to a dead end in this investigation. Moreover, the view of nature these two put forth is unambiguously infused with telos, with a final end that ultimately glorifies God, nature’s transcendent Creator. So I am unable to find an atheistic understanding of nature in their ancient, organic view of the natural world.
It is difficult to take serious a genealogical narrative identifying the seeds of atheism in Augustine when it is his thought especially that influenced the development of Western Christendom in the first place. If an interpretative theory is identifying the downfall of a Christo-centric civilization in the thought of the very person responsible for influencing its actualization, then said theory has gone off the rails. Moreover, how atheism went unnoticed for several hundred years to only be recognized after the dreadful schism between the East and West is entirely mysterious. Not to mention that the Protestant revolt and the era of Enlightenment rationalism, which were movements dedicated to overthrowing the cultural hegemony of the Church, were motivated to move away from the Scholastic synthesis and its Patristic inheritance.
What these Eastern critics have actually accomplished by creating this narrative is to set up an impossible standard for doing theology and philosophy from a Christian perspective. If St. Augustine (who is recognized as a saint in the East) and St. Thomas Aquinas can be pinned with the responsibility of introducing, even if only latently, the errors of modern atheism, the standard of infallibility must be inexorably linked to the task of doing theology and philosophy. If atheism is the default critique concerning an area of disagreement with the theological articulation of an important position, then ideology, rather than serious charitable interaction may be guiding the critical project at hand.
According to what I have encountered within this narrative, Eastern critics of Augustine and Aquinas are treating them with the same pattern identified above regarding the “Scotus story.” And it is worth noting that those treating these two as the progenitors of modern atheism happen to be on the other side of a schismatic theological dispute. This is a convenience that is most likely being used to justify a specific religious identity. Just as Protestants must exert continued effort to not become too Papist in their thought, those on the East seem to be associating their identity with not being associated with the West.
To be sure, the specific arguments underpinning the narrative itself still need to be dealt with, but this does not prevent us from recognizing the enormous leap in logic needed to make such a claim regarding Augustine and Aquinas. The lesson to be learned is that we ought to be extra attentive of the desire for some to pin the downfall of an entire culture on a single individual in history. The picture is often much more complex than what is being suggested.
– Lucas G. Westman
NOTE: A specific book I have in mind making this argument concerning Augustine and Aquinas is, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, by David Bradshaw. There is much to learn from the book, but the overall narrative it is attempting to create in order to justify Eastern Orthodoxy as the true apostolic Church is, well, quite farfetched in my humble of opinion.