Part Two: Thomist Millennium

Chapter 8 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. The Church is the keymaster of the Stairway to Heaven.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica functioned as a text of revelatory magnitude that in similar fashion mediated the relationship of believers to Scripture, particularly concerning terrestrial matters in the City of Man relevant for the exercise of Church power. As a comprehensive (the text contains 4 million words!), 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, the Summa served as the basis for the formulation of the enduring architecture of assumptions – the One Law that binds us – that underpin the very idea of Western civilization.

Chapter 9 of The Creation Project suggests how the great legal sorting undertaken by the Church to establish an enduring terrestrial presence may teach us more if we focus on what was left out of the final synthesis, rather than what was merely included. Of course, the claim to universality of the Catholic Church was itself a fabrication (as we are learning today in the United States, where and how one builds the walls of a village, or a nation, discloses everything about what a community values and cherishes, and what it fears and loathes).

However, juxtaposition of the core values, beliefs, and practices of the Church with those of groups and communities it shunted to the margins, usefully redirects our attention from the core to the periphery of the most powerful medieval institutions. surfaces the idea of a marginal revolution (in society and in ideas, as well as in markets) by using the wrong end of the telescope to examine the ideas and individuals and movements that remained outside of the Thomist synthesis. While the chapter focuses directly on the Franciscans, particularly Francis of Assisi, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham, the exploration will extend to consideration of historic Church outliers such as the Gnostics.

Chapter 10 of The Creation Project explores the visual reality of the European Middle Ages and the daunting challenges this sensory reality presented for the universal aspirations of the Catholic Church. As Keith Thomas wrote in Religion and the Decline of Magic, while officials wanted the faithful to worship their Creator and subject themselves to the Church as the vehicle of their salvation, the immediate, abundant, unmediated reality of the Creation itself would have typically overwhelmed the heavenly appeals.

This 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 apparent (or surface) chaos of this natural environment (Creation) challenged the universal governing aspirations of the terrestrial Church. The precepts of Catholic-Thomist natural law interposed an alternative understanding of nature as a hierarchy of capacities (or modes of engaging the created world) conferred by a Creator God, organized by a human species endowed with reason, agency, and free will that (uniquely among species) mirrored on earth the magnificent world-creating, existence-creating powers of God.

Magical thinking absorbed much of this fraught 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 mediating authority of the Church.

Chapter 11 of The Creation Project explores the fraught relationship between the medieval Christian Church with both its Abrahamic brethren religions, Judaism and Islam, and with splinter movements within the Church (such as the Cathars). The thesis of this chapter is that the Church did not and could not contain the world. 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.

While theologians, philosophers, and jurists might subscribe to abstract natural law ideals of humans as the imago Dei, the experienced reality was intensely political and dependent on denials of this universal human status. What the Church could not contain or absorb, it dehumanized and destroyed. And the people 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.

Chapter 12 of The Creation Project explores the ways in which natural law’s ethical precepts and commitments guided or influence the Catholic Church in the application of canon law to root out heresy, dispel magic, and deport Abrahamic rivals between the 12th and 16th centuries. The chapter emphasizes that 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 the extent to which ritualized ceremonial and judicial practices created a liturgy of their own that inscribes and textualizes the material world. The chapter also explores how the 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).

Finally, Chapter 12 presents the lingering historical harms inflicted upon the Iberian Peninsula by these Inquisitional spasms (what we would today call ethnic cleansing). Iberia became 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).

on Content

Part Three – Emergence: Anthropogenesis and Self-Organizing Social Systems in Early Modern Europe

Chapter 13 of The Creation Project approaches the Protestant Reformation as a fascinating and preliminary instance of a modern phenomenon – the liberation of content from its form. Indeed, this conception of liberated content is an essential feature of engineered technologies associated with both the industrial and digital revolutions of the modern era (the paradigmatic example perhaps being the use of data tags and data schemes to separate digital content from its HTML). In this sense (without being too anachronistic), we can refer to the liberation of Scripture, and of the entire spiritual journey of the individual soul, from the universal liturgical and legal forms of the Catholic Church, as a disruptive innovation in spiritual technology.

Extending this metaphor of content liberated from form helps us to begin thinking about the social impact of anthropogenesis and the geologic phenomenon of the Anthropocene, specifically with regard to the emergence of self-organizing, complex social systems that characterize the modern world and launched through this liberation of content from its traditional forms: global capitalism, cities, international relations regimes, and memetic systems of information exchange beginning with mechanical reproduction and culminating with the revolution in digital technology. The chapter also considers the non-linear, fraught impact of these transformations on the Catholic Church and on natural law moral philosophy as a (cracked, refracting) mirror of the human search for order.

Chapter 15 of The Creation Project suggests that European nation-states formed in the context of ocean exploration and imperial competition, and that the state apparatuses that emerged were largely organized to fight wars. At the same time, the creation of national identities and loyalties did not eliminate the parcelized and tribal loyalties of the Middle Ages, and instead constituted a new sedimentary social and political layer that compressed and fractured those more traditional loyalties (today, we might call this compressed and fractured layer “illiberalism).

This chapter spotlights the interplay, then, between layers and domains in which, much as with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, dynamic transformations in one layer or domain engendered corollary (or compensatory) responses in related layers and domains. The model is important because this condition of what we might call geared flux – with ratcheting feedback loops between domains – is characteristic of complex, self-organizing systems, but entirely foreign to the agent-specific logic of Thomist natural law.

We see this new conception of legal identity reflected in the 16th-century and 17th-century development of new concepts of national sovereignty, just war, and the law of nations from (quite theologically radical) Protestant jurists such as Hugo Grotius that, while accepting the Creator-centric focus of revelation-derived natural law, focus on the nation-state, not the individual, as the rational, acting agent.

Chapter 16 of The Creation Project extends development of the complexity model of modernity through examination of the stunning growth of cities in the 16th and 17th centuries, fueled by both imperial exploration and the emergence of the war-focused nation-state. Cities in this context represented an independently spinning wheel geared in relation to the larger wheels of nation-state and empire.

This chapter emphasizes the incredible dynamism and vitality of early modern cities, the outcome of kinetic energy generated from the intersection of population density and population movement. While the energy and flow of urban environments transcended the agency of specific individuals, these environments also created spaces that preserved anonymity and privacy and allowed the flourishing of a previously unknown interior space for individuals.

Chapter 17 of The Creation Project considers the general phenomenon of revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, encompassing science, industry, politics, and culture. My argument is that each of these “types” of revolution shared common features that we can associate with complexity and with anthropogenic emergence. I suppose the counterfactual would be the stillbirth of any of these revolutions in the absence of the Reformation and the Age of Empire, Exploration, and Ocean Crossing, which together multiplied the layers of identity, awareness, and possibility (in directions both inward and outward) and allowed for the recombination of content independently of its historic and customary forms. For this reason, we might add to this list of revolutionary spheres a phenomenological revolution involving awareness of and relationships between time and space.

The chapter folds this general idea – that revolution is a consequence of the liberation of content from its traditional forms – into a tectonic perspective of subductive layers of culture, consciousness, and identity that revolutions, far from concealing or eliminating, can disturb and surface. In a process that is fractal, recursive and endogenous, liberated content can reattach, or return to, original forms brought to the surface because of revolutionary activity itself.

This model provides an abstract framework for understanding historical episodes of illiberalism or revanchism that possess a fundamentally territorial, brutalist, zero-sum animus. Relationships between racial and ethnic groups illustrate this dynamic, in which revolutions that liberate the content of identity (my race) from its form (my relative status and position in society) generate emotionally negative energy from groups historical accustomed to controlling these forms. This subterranean energy simply blows away formal and legal (natural law-derived) conceptions of human similarity and equality – as rational, responsible agents created in God’s image

Chapter 18 of The Creation Project closes the second section of the book with reflections on the use and abuse of science to justify and promote fascism, national socialism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The chapter specifically addresses the engineered and instrumented approaches to applied science that one can associate with the zero-sum, extractive, brutalist mentality. The point being that the complex dynamism of this revolutionary era does not preclude reversion to primitive, identity-driven irruptions, for the conditions for these irruptions have never vanished, but only been submerged, and the dramatic tidal shifts of exponentially more complex environments actually creates more opportunities for this type of malefaction (of the Trumpist variety) to slither forth (this condition one that Freud’s notion of cathexis aptly characterizes).

The Spanish Civil War offers the most poignant and powerful example of the potential for extreme polarization these subdural tensions can create, with a very conservative Catholic Church aligned with reactionary landowners and a fascist military against a loose collection of radicalized urban workers and middle-class professionals and intellectuals – the political center of an already geographically fragmented nation having entirely dissolved.

The Spanish Civil War indeed may provide the closest analogy to the situation we face today in the United States, which we might term an “identity crisis” of epic scale that natural law conceptions of reason, selfhood, and agency cannot encompass (calling to mind the identity conundrum of the HBO series, Westworld). The chapter concludes with reference to the 20th-century Thomist philosophical revival in Europe led by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, great Christian Democrats each, and courageous in their own ways, but with a fidelity to Catholic-Thomist natural law philosophy that left them entirely unequipped to grapple with the dark challenges of fascism.