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The Gods of the Seventeenth Century

A number of years ago, I started reading Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and was struck how little I had really thought about virtue and values, major themes under Nietzsche's attack. I then went to Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. It was a monumental work for me and the point he makes about the West having completely lost the ability to recognize and understand virtue has never been fallen out of my head. In fact, it made me go back to my personal academic library and begin reading chronologically, starting from Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher that believed everything was made of water, and moving forward.

Perhaps, reading chronologically was not the best strategy, but there were many ways I could have approached it. It was important for me to trace, as best I could with the resources I had already acquired, an understanding of how we got to where we are. There were major gaps in my knowledge and understanding that sat simply on my bookshelves. And I had accumulated through my undergraduate and post-graduate years a good number of books with aspirations to read them. Well, all excuses were over. The value of the material objects of books is increasingly contested these days. And my library means something more to me than a mere menagerie of ideas and stories.

So, I've worked through a great deal of material over the years and got stuck on Calvin's Institutes for years. It was a necessary read and rarely a pleasant one. Calvin was brilliant, but it is important to remember that he was trained as a lawyer before he became a theologian. He could be icily brutal at times and, for a man so caught up on God's grace, the fruits of his logic are remarkably ungracious. I recently finished reading Descartes' Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, which was interesting in how different it was than the medieval and Reformation work I had read, but that it was still grounded in theology, while embracing the mechanics of the new physics. Descartes' God plays a critical role in epistemology and nature and all else. I read a bit about Thomas Hobbes and have come to the conclusion that Leviathan is Calvin's statecraft (Institutes IV.20) drawn out. I may probably be wrong on that, but that's my impression. Remarks on Baruch Spinoza were fascinating and I am surprised that, one, more natural scientists who would like to entertain some kind of god don't read him and, two, Spinoza is not utilized as a weapon against the Intelligent Design/Creationists in school board debates. Why isn't Spinoza taught in the science curriculum? He shouldn't be, but I can see his panentheism causing considerable consternation to evangelicals. The Divine Designer as Nature forces them to deal with the issue of understanding divine action and transcendence. I'm now reading about Nicolas Malebranche, who was determined to combine Augustinian theology with Cartesian philosophy. He was excoriated for it, but the debates opened up new territory for modern philosophy. Still God is present in all of this.

And that's the thing we see here, that "god" is alive and well in seventeenth century philosophy, a philosophy increasingly . There is still a Creator, a Mover, and a Revealer. Now this god (or rather these gods), while influenced by the Catholic and Protestant understandings of the divine, is starting to become unmoored from the doctrines of the Church, i.e., the Vatican is losing sway, which is why it will fight a pitched battle against Modernity that becomes quite fierce until Vatican II, when it opens its windows to let a very modern breeze blow in. This is all to say that the seventeenth century was a hammerstrike and it was a rich time for the ideas that still shape us today.

I guess this post was really just to serve as a marker for myself. If anything, this is about how we begin to see the cracks in the foundation that set us up for theology now. Here we see a crisis of understanding among thinkers, attempting to wrestle with the new knowledge they have about how the world functions. This is all intellectual discourse, but it will trickle down to the general population, eventually.

Remember that we must be taught that the earth goes around the sun and that the moon goes around the earth. If were were taught that as adults and not children, would we be so trusting of what we encounter, what we learn, and what we believe we know?

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