Part Two: Thomist Millennium: Natural Law and Western Civilization

8 / Summa: One Law to Bring Them All and In the Darkness Bind Them


Part Two of The Creation Project emphasizes how, in the past millennium, the terrestrial power of the Catholic Church has derived from the mediating authority of its practices and institutions. The Church has positioned itself between each human soul and God.

In a similar manner, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica has functioned as a revelatory text mediating the relationship of believers to Scripture, particularly concerning matters relevant for the exercise of Church power.

As a comprehensive, fixed, and unchanging perspective on the natural order of the world, the Summa supported consolidation of the Church’s legal and spiritual authority in the 13th century.

In subsequent centuries, concepts of natural law in the Summa – the God-derived order of things – became inseparable from the very idea of Western civilization as the pinnacle of God’s Creation.

The precepts of Catholic-Thomist natural law understood nature as a hierarchy of creatures, each with a set of capacities (or modes of engaging the created world) conferred by a Creator God.

Because they had been created in the image of God, humans possess the powers (capacities) of reason, agency, and free will which (uniquely among species) mirrored on earth the magnificent world-creating, existence-creating powers of God.

9 / Marginal Revolution: The World Through the Wrong End of the Telescope


10 / Illumination: The Book and the Cathedral



These forms represented the terrestrial world, the City of Man, in its relationship to the spiritual City of God.

However, the Church, with its forms, and as mediating authority, could not contain the world.

Theologians, philosophers, and jurists might subscribe to abstract natural law ideals of humans as the imago Dei.

However, the experienced reality was intensely political and dependent on denials of this universal human status.

The rich and dense visual reality of life during the European Middle Ages reflected the direct influence of unmediated natural systems – climate, ecology, geology – that possessed their own mysterious internal causes and external effects.

The chaotic and unordered sensory reality of the Creation presented daunting challenges for the universal aspirations of the Catholic Church, with its focus on the power of the Creator.

Officials wanted the faithful to worship their Creator and subject themselves to the Church as the vehicle of their salvation.

However, the immediate, abundant, unmediated reality of the Creation itself typically overwhelmed the heavenly appeals.

Magical thinking absorbed much of this tension between Creator and Creation in traditional societies, but magic was also inimical to the emphasis on logic and reason characteristic of Thomist natural law philosophy.

The contradiction helps to explain the 13th-century emergence of the gothic style as a visually rich, vertically built architecture for sacred spaces.

Unlike the Romanesque style, Gothic is a spatial architecture that conforms to the existential assumption architecture encoded within the Thomist synthesis.

The gothic is an aspirational physical architecture that bridges body and spirit, earth and heaven, Creature and Creator, City of Man and City of God in a manner that fully confirms the formal, mediating authority of the Church.

11 / Abraham’s Children: The Crusades and the Invention of Western Civilization

The medieval Christian Church also possessed a fraught relationship with both its Abrahamic brethren religions, Judaism and Islam, and with splinter movements within the Church (such as the Cathars).

Those who would not conform or who it shunted to the margins constituted what we might call the not-Church.

The peoples who constituted the not-Church – those most at risk of contaminating and infecting the Church, and so most dangerous – were, more often than not, Jews or Muslims, fellow (almost-but-not-quite-Church) descendants of Abraham.

The idea of the West emerged from the Christian experience of engagement with everything that was not-Church, beginning with Charles Martel’s victory over the invading Islamic army in the 7th century Battle of Tours.

What the Church could not contain or absorb, it dehumanized and destroyed.

12 / Inquisition: The Body as Text

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, natural law’s ethical precepts and commitments guided the Catholic Church in the application of canon law to root out heresy, dispel magic, and deport Abrahamic rivals.

Philosophies of natural law were helpless to even comprehend, much less counter, the juridically conflagratory underpinnings of Crusades and Inquisitions incepted by Church canon law.

Revealed religion’s reliance on texts to access eternal or fundamental truths obscures how ritualized ceremonial and judicial practices created a liturgy of their own that inscribed and textualized the material world.

Iberian inquisitions of Jewish conversos and Islamic moriscos during the late Middle Ages “published” the bodies of the accused as texts, inscribed by “genre-like” rituals of forced conversion, expulsion, and torture and confession (illuminated by the fire of the auto-da-fe).

Lingering historical harms inflicted upon the Iberian Peninsula by these Inquisitional spasms (what we would today call ethnic cleansing) resulted in Iberia becoming a crucible, a compression point for tensions between Christianity and Islam, hardening and brutalizing relations between social classes on the peninsula, which of course culminated during the 20th century in the civil war in Spain (in this respect, Iberia itself becoming a text).