Medieval Space Cadets and Modern Time Travelers
Again, it was as if they lived in space, not time; or at least a very different mode of time -- one that didn't "progress," and which contained its own more encompassing order. Denying this order would be like denying the seasons, or trying to make spring follow summer.
Thus, man lived more in vertical space than in horizontal time. And this space was hierarchically ordered from top to bottom. There was no such thing as "empty space." Among other things, it was filled with angels, gnomes, sprites, fairies, and various forces -- the "evil eye" of a neighbor troll, for example. But one of the accomplishments of scholasticism was to order this space in an intelligible manner. Analogously, if you think of the way that moderns organize time in such an obsessive manner, this is what premodern people did with space.
For example, here are a couple of pictures of the cosmos, circa 1300, one from before color TV, the other one after:
So space was not the empty abstraction that it later became with classical (Newtonian) physics. Interestingly, with the Freudian and Einsteinian revolutions, neither psychic nor physical space can any longer be thought of as "empty," but the ontological revolution has been slow to trickle down to the scientistic masses.
We still live in a primitive world of scientistic superstition, in which the mind is thought of as a bag with stuff in it, and the cosmos a machine consisting of particles and laws -- particles that are wholly external to one another, and invariant laws that are held to be universally valid while magically operating without transcending that which they operate on. Metaphysical incoherence rules the day, and systematic incoherence is always crazy making.
Metaphysically speaking, space and time are necessary reflections of the Absolute. Both time and space have their infinite and absolute modes. For space, the absolute is the point, or axis, while for time it is the now. In the premodern world, both space and time were bound, made to measure for man's psyche.
But for modern man, who buys his ill-fitting spacetime suit off the rack, they are "infinite." Thus, Pascal's crack about being alarmed by "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces," and feeling "engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me." This signals an obvious change in man's orientation to the cosmos, from absolute to infinite -- or to infinite space unconstrained by any (relatively) absolute structure.
So modern man becomes dis-oriented; or, he becomes reoriented to matter only. The axis of the cosmos is now upside down, and man is inverted with it. But this all goes back to the nominalist revolution that swept aside the intelligible and hierarchically ordered space of the medieval world.
As Gillespie explains, "to think of oneself as modern is to define one's being in terms of time," which is an extraordinary thing. "In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time." Premodern peoples temporally orient themselves around a primordial event of some kind -- this became their temporal axis -- but it is again quasi-absolute, not infinite.
But to even call oneself "modern" is to not only define oneself over and above another period of time, but to have entered another kind of time altogether. And as we shall see, it is not a "human time," for there is nothing less humanistic then secular humanism, which tries to adapt man to non-human modes, thus abolishing man.
In any event, "To be modern is to be 'new,' to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, not even a form of being but a form of becoming."
It is also to "understand oneself as self-originating, as free and creative in a radical sense, not merely determined by tradition or by fate or providence." It is "not merely to be in history or tradition but to make history" -- a power that was previously limited to gods and mythic heroes.
I think you can immediately see the (qualified) upside of this liberation from the absolute into the infinite, in that man himself becomes a "mode of the infinite" with virtually unlimited potential. This is a critical point, for the nominalist revolution, in smashing that medieval cathedral of space, utterly transformed our relation to God. But this transformation ramified in two directions, one of them emphasizing the divine end and minimizing man's own significance. This was the extreme direction Luther took, culminating in predestination and the utter rejection of the idea that man's works could have any influence on his own salvation.
I would suggest that that is a profoundly unhumanistic stance, and I am sure Luther would agree with me. His response would be, "so what? Why do you care about these worthless sinners? Almost all of them are condemned to hell anyway, except for those pre-chosen by God for reasons we cannot fathom anyway."
The chapter on Luther was a real eye-opener for me, as he strikes me as unpleasant in the extreme (but of course, in his defense, he was responding to some rather unpleasant and thoroughly corrupt people). He was initially a nominalist, to such an extent that "he considered Ockham his master." This provoked his own profound spiritual crisis, as he concluded that the scholastics were incorrect, and that there was nothing one could do in this life to merit salvation. "He thus lived in terror of a wrathful God," and his later theology was largely a way to come to terms with this terror.
Luther resolved his existential terror in a zen sort of way. Since man cannot save himself, why worry? Rather "he can only be saved by faith alone," which "arises through grace and grace only through Scripture." Thus, his central insight "was that no works can satisfy such a God but also that no works are necessary," since all we have to do -- all we can do -- is believe in him.
Again, the human qua human is nearly entirely expunged from this formulation. Ancient ideas about cultivating virtue become arrogant attempts to appropriate God's powers. Cicero? Gone. Plato? Adios. Boethius? Get out. Again, only God can save you. Reason no longer matters, but only biblical exegesis. And "because there is no continuum that connects creator and creation, there can be no levels of ontological perfection." To put it another way there is no (↑) at all, only (↓), which most assuredly blows where it will.
Another key point for Luther is that (non-biblical) language no longer becomes a vehicle of truth, "for the truth comes about as a result of an inner experience of the divine that cannot be adequately captured in words." To pretend to understand God is only a form of "sinful pride." "[E]verything that occurs happens as a result of God's willing it to be so," which immediately implies that God is responsible for evil.
Luther had no logical way to deal with this objection, since he didn't believe in free will, so he basically evaded the issue by insisting that we shouldn't dwell on it, but rather concern ourselves only with what we can do about it, which again comes down to faith, and faith only. And even then, there's nothing to worry about, since faith "arises only through grace," again, because humans can do nothing to save themselves. God's omnipotence explains everything, but in so doing, explains nothing.