Summary: Global cooling, Ockham, the Black Plague and the place of faith.
Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2017
The miracle of the bronze serpent is one of the most remarkable of the OT stories of Moses and the Israelites. Because of their infidelity, the people were afflicted and killed by seraph serpents. They repented, and Moses set up a symbol of the affliction and of God’s mercy as a bronze serpent on a tall pole. If you go to Mount Nebo in Jordan, overlooking the Holy Land, you can see a reproduction of this image.
Now the bronze image was a sign of the affliction and a sign of the healing. Jesus predicted that His cross would be both a sign of affliction–His crucifixion–and of healing–forgiveness of all the sins of the world. And so it was, and is, the sign that Christians identify themselves with. There is a passage in Paul’s letters that even suggests that Paul preached with a crucifix. The cross is the sign of our salvation, just as it was the instrument of that salvation. But it is only that because it bore the Body of the Son of God who poured Himself out as a sacrifice on it as an altar. It is His resurrected Body that we take whenever we come to communion.
When we consider the tragedy and triumph of the fifteenth century, we need to become aware of the context of the revolution of 1517. There was a climate change, a general global cooling that had a direct impact on European religion and culture. It started midway in the twelfth century, but really accelerated during and after the 1400s. In Norway, for instance, by the end of the thirteen hundreds, production and tax yields were down from the year 1300 by at least thirty percent. What was happening is that the growing season was getting shorter, and grain and cattle production were falling. With reduced food, the population of Europe, which had been growing, could no longer be supported at that level. Whole populations declined in health. Infant mortality increased. Greenland, for instance, which had a robust population going into the millennium, was gradually abandoned because the people sickened and died.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, in England, deaths outnumbered births. The Black Death, bubonic plague, ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, and kept recurring so often that it took three hundred years for the world population to recover. Remember that this awful disease is spread by vermin, so it was most prevalent in the larger cities and monasteries. Much of the scholarship that had blossomed with Thomas Aquinas and others in the thirteenth century was eclipsed by the death of so many philosophers, theologians and saints. Into this sad, almost dying civilization were born those who would figure most prominently into the revolution and reformation.
Of these, one early philosopher was William of Ockham who lived about 1287–1347. He “was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century.”
He “believed ‘only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.’ Ockham's theism was based solely on private revelation and faith. He believed that science was a matter of discovery and saw God as the only ontological necessity. His importance is as a theologian with a strongly developed interest in logical method, and whose approach was critical rather than system building.” In other words, he was anti-Aquinas. His teaching led many to believe that reason was fundamentally flawed, that we cannot know much of anything by reason, and that only faith was useful for our understanding of life and of God. That sounds good, but it ultimately undermined the theology that had grown up from Augustine to the Scholastics. Occamite thought led Luther to state that “philosophy is the devil’s whore.”
In other words, Luther had a very biased and shallow philosophical foundation, and that lay underneath some of his misreadings of theology and scripture. This problem ultimately led the Catholic reformers to insist that priests in formation get a very thorough education in Thomistic philosophy. Even today, that is critical in seminary education.