Sunday Salon – Review of “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and The Fall of Reason” by Charles Freeman

The Sunday Salon.com

This book may seem formidable, but it’s so fascinating, you will find yourself turning the pages much as you would a somewhat complex mystery novel.

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This is a well-researched, important work on the history of the rise of Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and the concomitant stifling of rational thought that accompanied it. Freeman gives a detailed description of the sources and authorities for the materials we now refer to as the Synoptic Gospels and New Testament. Books comprising the New Testament were selected from many competing texts on the basis of their conformity with evolving doctrine. The notion of direct revelation was rejected in favor of these select texts. Further, as Christianity spread, there was an increasing stress on institutional hierarchy. Claims for power throughout Constantine’s Empire were played out as doctrinal schisms, giving the claimants a divine authority. With the Emperor’s favor of one doctrine over another, conforming bishops came to have access to vast wealth, prestige and influence, and in turn, Constantine got support for his Empire. Heavenly truth was now intimately associated with earthly power. Gone were the Greek and Hebraic traditions in which there are many ways to the truth; Christian doctrine established that wisdom rests with God alone (and his favored interpreters).

By the end of the fourth century the silencing of debate extended beyond the spiritual and across the whole intellectual spectrum. Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, echoed St. Paul’s condemnation of “the philosophers” by exhorting “let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason…” Without any theory of note, Christianity in the fifth century lapsed into defining itself, much as Paul had done, largely in terms of its enemies (read: Jews, pagans, and heretical Christians).

In his Epilogue, Freeman remarks:

The troubles described in this book come not from the teachings of Jesus or from the nature of Christians themselves (though arguably one can trace them to Paul), but from the determination to make “certain” statements about God. … If there is no external standard by which one can define God, then figures who have the authority to define him for others have to be created and this authority given ideological support. This invariably means the suppression of freedom of independent thought.”

In other words, power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Freeman tells the story in a fascinating, detailed way, and doesn’t lose our interest in spite of its scholarly tone. It is worth comparing this reading to No God But God by Reza Azlan for a very analogous exposition of the Muslim experience.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by William Heinemann, 2002; by Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

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