Georg Northfor is Dead

Georg Northfor is dead.  He was knifed in the street, a suspected victim of the dual of ideas between the Realists and the Nominalists.  It’s not certain that the Reals murdered him, but the passion of both sides is extreme, and Northfor, in the influential position of Dean of Theology, was a Nominalist.  The move toward Nominalism, coupled with the study of the ancient writers, has many seized with panic.

This morning, not sleeping well, I went to the University early, arriving before the students, who are required to meet every morning at five.  Lamplight leaked around a partly opened door behind which a voice was raised.

“If we do not curb this obsession with humanities, it will be the death of the Christian faith!”  I recognized Antonius Beck, the new Dean of Theology.

“What should we do?  Keep our university the last bastion of the Middle Ages in all of Germany?”  This was followed by the distinctive cough of Ulrich Zasius, legal professor. 

“I’m sick of that term!” Beck said.  “The Middle Ages!  As if all greatness lies either in Ancient Greece or in these modern times.  As if a thousand years of good scholarship should be flipped away like a booger!”

Again, Zasius coughed.  “I think we have struck a balance.  We have a faculty adept in scholastic reasoning, but we also have men of humanities, like Dr. Reisch and young Eck.”

Dr. Beck snorted.  “I don’t wish to denigrate Dr. Reisch, whose Pearl of Philosophy is a fine work, or our young protegé, Eck, but this indiscriminate obsession with ancient authors will indeed take us back.  Back to a pagan religion and an immoral culture!” 

“But surely,” Zasius said, “that’s not the goal of any advocate of humanities.  No one has written more against immorality than Erasmus, and yet he’s the greatest master of good letters.” 

“You delude yourself,” Beck said, “if you refuse to see that Greek philosophy is in violent opposition to our Christian traditions.  The revival of the Greek spirit will usher in the revival of their skepticism toward religion.  That’s why some of these pagan authors–Ovid, Terence–have been banned for centuries.”

“But surely Plato and Aristotle were forerunners of the Gospel, equal in some respects to the Church Fathers.” 

Ovid in the Nuremberg Chronicle--1493

“I’m not debating that,” Beck said, “but you’ll find that all these authors taken together present a pagan way of life alien to Christianity.  Ovid was a scandal in his own time!” 

“But the classics make man a sounder moralist, a better philosopher–”

“A pagan moralist,” Dr. Beck snapped.  “A pagan philosopher.  Consider Lucian, Lucretius, Cicero, Plutarch, Pliny–skeptics, agnostics, even atheists!  How are they going to build faith in our young students–who are tomorrow’s clergy?  I swear I can imagine a world in which most theologians are atheists!”

Sutter gasped and ranted on, like a wagon careening downhill.  “With my own ears I have heard priests in Rome babbling the consecration of the Host.  ‘Bread thou art and bread thou shall remain.’  Oh my skin crawls!  Alighieri should have created a special level of hell for such heretics!  And why is this blasphemy allowed?  Because the Italians are atheists,” Dr. Beck rapped on some object to emphasize each word, “atheists steeped in pagan culture!”

“Such a thing would never happen in Germany,” Zasius said.

“Read Seneca and Plutarch,” Beck demanded, “where man worships himself, where self-knowledge and self-discipline are held up for their own sakes and not as a way to God.  Or perhaps, like Lucian, we should teach our young scholars to scoff at everything, as they do in Italy!”

“Dr. Beck, you are a nominalist.  You follow the way of Scotus and Ockham.”

“Yes I do.  They were men who thought, not just parroted some pagan writer!” 

“But was it not Ockham who set us on this path to skepticism when he taught that there are no ideals but only individuals?”

“That’s a heresy!  William of Ockham was a Franciscan, who always spoke of God in the most orthodox manner.” 

“But he denied a thousand years of scholarship when he said that reason cannot find God.”

“Faith is presented to the mind of man by revelation–not through man’s inferior capacity to reason.”

“But some have said that if God created man–and man’s reason–then man should be able to find God through his reason.  Ockham denied this.  Is it not the shortest step from Ockham to say that faith is unreasonable?  You criticise the humanities as leading to skepticism, yet the same criticism could be brought against your own theology.  But we must table this.  The students are arriving.”

I shifted in the shadows.  I loved classical studies, but Dr. Beck painted a grim picture of the future.  Surely he overstated his case.  A future world where theologians are atheists?  How absurd.

The two professors came out of the room together, their robes brushing the young monk, Michael.  The eyes of both passed over him, as if he, a student, were only another fixture of the lecture room, like a desk, though allegedly, it was his soul over which they argued.

 

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