Religion and the Modern Mind

by W.T. Stace


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Part 1: Section 1 - The Medieval World Picture

THE THOUGHTS AND ACTIONS OF MEN TEND TO BE GOVERNED, or at least influenced, by some set of general ideas about the nature of the world and man's place in it. A set of general ideas of this sort may be called a world-picture or a Weltanschauung. Sometimes, by scholars, scientists, or philosophers, a world-picture is more or less explicitly articulated. But in the majority of men it works unseen, a dim background in their minds, unnnoticed by themselves because taken for granted. Usually a particular epoch in a particular culture will have some such set of ideas which is peculiar to it and which pervades the whole culture at that time. Sets of general ideas change in the course of history under the impact of the incoming fresh experiences of the race of men.

Such changes are usually slow. But in the seventeenth century of the Christian era there occurred a series of events which caused what seems in retrospect like a sudden revolutionary change in the world-picture of European man. This was the century which saw the birth of modern science. It was the century in which the main work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton was done. Of course science had its roots in the past. Revolutions, whether political or intellectual, are never so sudden as they are apt to appear at a quick glance. But in this book we shall be concerned with the

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consequences of the seventeenth century scientific revolution, not with its causes, which we can therefore leave unexamined. Hence any over-simplification which is involved in speaking of the rise of science as "sudden" can be ignored. And although the process of history is an unbroken stream of events, exhibiting continuity and slow change, yet there are periods during which the rapidity of change is greatly accelerated. Thus without too great a distortion we can speak of the modern mind as something clearly distinguishable from the medieval mind. And we need not make too much of the fact that what we here call the medieval mind itself underwent great changes during the centuries. What the thirteenth century thought was not exactly what the tenth century thought. But still we can say that the world-picture of medieval man was dominated by religion, while the world-picture of modern man is dominated by science—which is not to say, of course, that in medieval times there was nothing which could be called science, nor that in our own age there is no religion. With this broad contrast, ignoring for the present the innumerable detailed qualifications which might well be made in it, we may profitably begin our discussion.

We may remind the reader first of some well-known facts.

Throughout the middle ages the geocentric theory of astronomy held undisputed sway. The earth stands motionless at the center of the universe. Sun, moon, planets, and stars revolve around it in circles. In the ancient Greek world the idea that the earth is a moving planet had been more than once suggested. In the sixth century B.C. Pythagorean philosophers speculated that the earth, along with other heavenly bodies, moves round a "central fire" which is always hidden from us because it is on the other side of the earth; the central fire was thus not the sun. At a later date the Greek astronomer Aristarchus definitely proposed a heliocentric view. But in the middle ages these ideas were ignored and forgotten, chiefly under the influence of Aristotle who espoused the geocentric theory. No one, at any rate no one of importance, from the rise of Christianity to the time of Copernicus, doubted that the sun and the stars move round the motionless earth.

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The world was created by God in the manner set forth in the early chapters of Genesis. The date of its creation was uncertain. A popularly accepted date was 4004 B.C., derived by adding together the ages of the generations of Adam as given in the Bible. But other dates were sometimes proposed. Dante believed the creation took place in 5200 B.C. The universe was in any case only a few thousand years old.

At some not far distant date in the future, on the day of judggment, the material universe would be brought to an end. This might happen in 4004 A.D., so as to make the history of the world symmetrical, with the life of Christ in its exact temporal center. Dante again differed. He thought that the world would come to an end in 1800 A.D. In any case the whole history of the universe, from its first day to its last, would be only a matter of a few thousand years.

This whole world history, from the creation to the day of judgment, would constitute, according to St. Augustine, a sort of religious drama in which three great crises could be discerned. The first was the Fall of man. Man, having eaten of the forbidden fruit, became sinful and accursed. In the justice of God atonement for man's sinfulness was required, for without such atonement all men would have to be condemned to limbo or eternal torment. Hence the second great crisis came with the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus and his death upon the cross, which constiituted the required atonement. The third and final crisis, the denouement of the world-drama, would be the day of judgment. On that day the wicked would, in Santayana's words, "behold with dismay the Lord visibly coming down through the clouds of heaven, the angels blowing their alarming trumpets, all generations of the dead rising from their graves, and judgment without appeal passed on every man. Whereupon the blessed would enter eternal bliss with God their master and the wicked everlasting torments with the devil whom they served."[1]

The world-drama was enacted and controlled by purposes in

1 The Philosophy of Santayana, Selections, ed. Irwin Edman (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), p. 177.

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the mind of God. Everything which happened somehow fitted into the divine plan. Why was the world ever created at all? This seemed very puzzling since God had existed by himself through an eternity without needing a world. This, of course, was beyond human comprehension, but presumably creation was in some way for the purpose of the glorification of God. Or perhaps man and the world in which man was placed, were needed as objects of God's love. Or perhaps God's superabundant being simply overflowed itself in such a manner that the overflow became the universe.

Not only must the existence and history of the universe as a whole have a purpose. Every object which exists in the universe, every event which occurs in it, must have its purpose. And every such detailed purpose must fit into the grand scheme and the general plan of the whole. To some extent one could see the purposes of things. The sun obviously existed to give man light during the daytime, the moon to provide him with illumination at night. Herbs and animals existed to be man's food, water to assuage his thirst. Rainbows, as we are explicitly told in the Bible, were put in the sky when it rains in order to remind man of God's promise never again to destroy the human race by flood as he did in the days of Noah. Why bugs, mosquitoes, serpents, dirt, warts, and tornados exist one cannot say, though they may have something to do with punishment for man's original sin. The puny mind of man cannot, of course, expect to unravel all the mysteries of God's plan. While in a few cases, such as the existence of the sun and the moon and food-providing animals, the purposes are obvious; and in other cases, such as rainbows, their purposes have been revealed; for the most part we have to take the purposes of things on faith. But one can be sure of the general principle that everything has a purpose.

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Next: God and the World Purpose




W.T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy

W.T. Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

W.T. Stace: Theory of Existence and Knowledge

The problem of evil assumes the existence of a world-purpose. What, we are really asking, is the purpose of suffering? It seems purposeless. Our question of the why of evil assumes the view that the world has a purpose, and what we want to know is how suffering fits into and advances this purpose. The modern view is that suffering has no purpose because nothing that happens has any purpose: the world is run by causes, not by purposes.
         ... W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind