Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Gen Eds H6b: Renaissance and a New World

This is the second half of my treatment of the period, "Renaissance and Reformation."

These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
The Renaissance
9. The Protestant Reformation broadly took place within the context of the Renaissance or what was seen as a period of "rebirth" of ancient Greek and Roman culture. Notice the implicit bias in such language.  The period before this rebirth comes to be known as the "Dark Ages" or the "Middle Ages." Middle between what, one might ask. The language implies the middle between a time thought to be alive and a time when culture was reborn again. The implication, again, is that the middle time was a time of death and darkness.

Of course Europe's greatest universities--Oxford (1096), Cambridge (1209), Paris (1150), Bologna (1088), Heidelberg (1386)--were founded in these "middle" ages. Perhaps some would see these foundings as the beginning of the rebirth. Yet they were founded to be places to study theology, not science or literature.

And there was a steady stream of thinkers throughout these "dark" times. In the Muslim world were philosophers like Ibn Sina (900s) and Ibn Rushd (1100s), through whom the works of Aristotle were preserved. Anselm in the 1000s. Abelard after him. Then Aquinas (1200s).

10. The beginning of this "rebirth" is sometimes traced to Petrarch (1304-74). It was Petrarch who called the time before him the "dark ages." It was he that rediscovered the writings of Cicero the Roman (106-43BC). Plato's Academy, the school he started in Athens in the early 300s BC, had been closed by the church in AD529. Petrarch and others would effectively reopen it, not literally, but culturally.

So we had a growing number of Italians reaching back into the writings of the ancient Romans. And since the Romans themselves borrowed a great deal of culture from the Greeks, we see the rebirth of interest in the Greco-Roman world of classical antiquity. [2] This renewed interest in the literature of the Romans and Greeks would soon spread to France and the rest of Europe.

"Humanism" arose, an interest in human culture and achievement. It is not that such individuals did not believe in God. But many of them began to focus on humanity as a subject in itself. They talked about humanity without necessarily talking about God. You might say that God was marginalized in their exploration of humanity. They operated more in line with the words of the ancient Greek Protagoras (487-12BC): "Man is the measure of all things."

11. There is something both exciting and discouraging about this flowering. We can ask the same question we might have asked about the scientific revolution. Why wasn't there a scientific revolution until people began to ask how the world might operate on its own without God's direct involvement? So with the clear flowering in art and literature that arose in the Renaissance, why did it take the marginalization of God and a focus on humanity for it to take place?

We don't see the need to hold God apart from science and art today. At least I don't. I find it easy to believe that God created a world that is distinct from him and that operates according to laws he has placed within the universe apart from his direct intervention. I find it easy to believe that God created the world to be beautiful on its own, that art and beauty do not need a justification or to make a theological point. The universe is beautiful beyond belief. Praise be to God!

So we do not need the word humanism. We can glorify God as we celebrate the beauty humans create and that they are. We can praise God for what he has enabled humans to accomplish. It glorifies God to celebrate the cultural achievements he has made possible. It glorifies God to create art and music and drama and literature. Shame on any church that has shut such wonderful expressions of the power God has placed within and among us! What are the Psalms, if not primarily the joy, sorrow, and anger of Israel, expressed in artful form?

But the context presumably for such a shift in focus was in part the general malaise of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. In the vacuum of spiritual expression, dormant forms of beauty were rediscovered. In the absence of a felt spiritual presence, science was born. And in the absence of spiritual authority came the Reformation. The plague of 1348-50 may also have played a role, as human life may have come to be seen as generally worthless.

12. We know the art of the Renaissance, and one of the ten subjects in this general education series will be "World Art and Music." The three greatest masters of Renaissance art were Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), although there were many others. The first two had much to do with the art in the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, reconstructed by Pope Leo X in the early 1500s. It was the way Leo raised money for these projects that incited the need for reformation in Martin Luther.

The New World
13. "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." We all know the legend. He was seeking a short cut to the Indies and hoped to go around the globe rather than going around the horn of Africa and back up east. However, he vastly underestimated the size of the earth and instead hit the island that today we call Haiti and the Dominican Republic. [1] Within a century, the native population was wiped out.

The Spanish and the Portuguese were the first to explore what we now call Central and South America. They were looking for gold and in the process decimated the indigenous Aztec and Inca peoples. In 1519, Hernan Cortez landed in Mexico, and by 1521, Aztec civilization was gone. The Incas in Chile were thoroughly defeated by 1536 and gone by 1572.

So the Spanish would conquer Mexico and much of South America. The Portuguese would end with Brazil. Texas, Florida and California  would also be either under Spanish or Mexican control. The French held Canada, Louisiana, and some of the Midwest.

The decimation and removal of native Americans in North America was slower. But as hoards of British arrived, native Americans were pushed further and further west. After the Civil War, those native Americans left in the south mostly moved to Oklahoma (since they were grouped along with freed slaves as non-whites). Meanwhile, those who were in the West were either sacrificed to the lust for land in the western expansion or were confined to "reservations."

The Ottoman Turks
14. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium, which had existed as a major center of power since the Roman emperor Constantine moved the capitol of the Roman Empire there in 330. This kingdom had begun in northwest Anatolia (modern day Turkey) in the 1200s but would steadily expand until its peak under Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566).

In the 1300s, the Ottoman empire would expand across into Macedonia and the Balkans. In the early 1500s, they would take Egypt. Then under Suleiman they would take Iraq and much of Hungary. Finally, Suleiman was stopped while trying to seige Vienna in 1529. The Turks would try one last time to take Vienna in 1683, and they would never try again.

The Ottoman Empire would continue to rule from Greece and Hungary to Egypt to Iraq for centuries. In 1821, Greece would break free. In the late 1800s, war with Russia would free Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Bosnia. Egypt and Saudi Arabia had become as much allies of the Turks as fully controlled territories. Finally, after World War I, the Turks would lose Syria and Iraq.

  • The labels we give to historical movements and periods reflect and propagate our biases and perspectives--they are not the facts of history itself.
  • There are periods of time when people call themselves Christians (or perhaps any religion), but those who truly believe and live out Christianity (or whatever religion) are almost always a much smaller number.
  • When the representatives of a religion is in power, it is then when they seem least likely to be authentic.
  • It's okay to explore science or to express ourselves in the arts as an expression of our love for God without imposing theology artificially on them. "Forced" faith-integration sometimes squelches the pursuit of truth and the brilliance of the expression.
  • The expansion of empire almost never has anything to do with God.
Next Week: The Age of the Church and Jihad

[1] Educated people at the time of Columbus did not think that the earth was flat. They did still think that the earth was the center of the universe, but most educated people had not thought the earth flat for centuries upon centuries.

[2] The Roman poet Horace (65-8BC) once noted that while Rome may have conquered Greece militarily, the Greeks conquered Rome with the arts.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

" The labels we give to historical movements and periods reflect and propagate our biases and perspectives--they are not the facts of history itself.
When the representatives of a religion [are] in power, it is then when they seem least likely to be authentic."

Bingo. Thanks.