Friday, January 9, 2009

History 112: More on Giordano Bruno and the Challenge of Skeptical Relativisim

To continue with our discussion from the other day, you remember our friend Giordano Bruno, the renegade Dominican. If you were paying attention to your reading you may have noticed that he was mentioned in the section about Rudolph II. Rudolph II and his circle are an example of what Frances Yates argued, mainly that the Scientific Revolution had its origins in Renaissance magic. Rudolph II was into the occult and he gathered around him magicians, alchemists and astrologers from around Europe, one of them being Giordano Bruno. You might think that all this magic and occult has nothing to do with “science.” Except that one of the characters hanging around Rudolph II’s court is a man by the name of Johannes Kepler, one of the founding figures of modern physics.

Yesterday, in class, Dr. Breyfogle talked about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having someone like Giordano Bruno offers an interesting perspective on the Reformation and the origins of modern secularism. One of the million dollar questions of early modern history is where does modern secularism come from. In the United States today only a third of all Americans go to a religious service on a weekly basis. Now America, by Western standards, is a very religious country. We have the second highest per capita level of church attendance of any Western country. Ireland is first. We tend to think of medieval Europe as being dominated by religion and people living in the Middle Ages as being very religious. Accepting this assumption, and it is actually not so simple, one is left with the question as to how and why things changed; if people were once very religious during the Middle Ages how and why did they become secular in modern times. Giordano Bruno is interesting in that he serves as a half way point. He rejected Christianity, as we are used to thinking about it, creating his own religion based on hermetic magic and Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, yet he viewed himself as a Christian trying to restore “true” Christianity, as practiced by Jesus and the Apostles, from the corruptions of the Middle Ages. In this he was like Luther. So when does someone stop being a Christian? When you deny the authority of the Pope, of Church councils and most of the sacraments, like Luther did? What about if you deny transubstantiation, like John Calvin? What if you deny the Trinity, like Isaac Newton and John Locke? Luther saw himself as restoring Christianity to the way things were in the Bible. The Bible says nothing about a pope so let us get rid of popes. Of course the Bible says nothing about transubstantiation so you have Calvin getting rid of that; no more Fourth Lateran Council. At the end of the day, though, the Bible says nothing about a Trinity so if you are Newton you can go and dump Nicaea overboard. From this perspective a Giordano Bruno makes perfect sense; you can believe in nothing and still call yourself a Christian.

As we talked about last time, in this class you will be learning about the historical method. History is a lot more than just names and dates, though you do need to have some knowledge of these things. History is a method of thinking, one that is useful beyond the narrow confines of history. Just as the scientific method is a means of thinking that goes beyond “science.” As a method of rational inquiry, the historical method, as with the scientific method, is premised on the notion that the human mind is capable of coming to know certain truths. This is the counter of what I like to refer to as the skeptical relativist position. Scientists have done a better job at presenting their method to the public. They have not had the luxury of other fields not to do so. As a historian I will never have to get up in front of a school board in Kansas or any other place and defend the proposition that the existence of a Napoleon Bonaparte is historical fact and that anyone who thinks otherwise deserves a straightjacket, a padded cell and a lifetime supply of happy pills.

Last time we considered a skeptical relativist position, that my blog, Wikipedia and the scholarship of Frances Yates are all the flawed products of the human mind and human biases and therefore are all equal; one is not really better than the other. Who would support such a position? We are used to thinking of relativism as product of liberal secularism. We are used to hearing from secularists that all values are relative and there are even those who would apply this relativism to science. Now there is another group that has the same interest, religious fundamentalists. In my opinion one of the major misunderstandings of religion in the modern world is the equation of skepticism and relativism with secularism; religious fundamentalism is also built around extreme skepticism and relativism. What is left standing if all human knowledge collapses and no longer can claim any authority? (In a Southern drawl) “The Bible! The Bible is word of God. All those so called scientists and scholars they do not really know anything. You need the Bible to set you straight.” If you have ever been around campus come summer time, you will hear people like this, standing around on the oval. Now I grew up dealing with Jewish fundamentalism, it sounds a bit different. (Yiddish accent) “Mimelah all the scientists are bunch of apikorsim (heretics) and what you need is to have emunah pshuta (simple faith) in the Torah hakodosha (the holy Bible).” This is an example of Yeshivish. Think of it as a sort of Jewbonics.

So all of you here! You are my deputy historians. We stand against skeptical relativism in both of its forms. We believe in the power of human reason and over the course of this coming quarter we are going to see the historical method in action as it takes apart texts.

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