Monday, January 1, 2007

95)Philosophical Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the buiding of bridges.

Today's Globe and Mail has an interesting article describing "the (Catholic) Church's decision to embrace the intellectual heritage of the Greeks -- the pre-Christian parents of Western civilization."

Blogpost no.71 in my December archive shows the extent to which the wisdom of the ancients also impacted early Muslim civilization;

In fact, all three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam made valiant efforts to fuse their respective theologies with the rationalism of ancient philosophy. The fruits of these efforts can today also serve as one departure point for building bridges among the three monotheistic religions:

Keeping faith in western Civilization and its core values.

William Thorsell
ROME -- Our audience with Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled for noon. An hour earlier, we were ushered into a remarkable room atop the Vatican to await him.

This is the marvellous space where the Pope consults with the Cardinals -- and has done so for five centuries. In this context, it is the longevity of the Catholic Church that strikes the mind -- its potency through 1,500 years at the centre of Western civilization -- as the keeper of our core values while empires rose and flagged, reformations erupted, inquisitions responded, schisms divided and scandals undermined.

The Catholic Church has prevailed as no other institution in the world, by virtue of its passion to be sure, but more tellingly by virtue of its unique and even radical embrace of "pagan" values -- the operational values of the West. On Jan. 14, 1506, a man named Felice de Fredis came upon bits of marble while digging on his land in Rome -- the land of the once-Emperor Titus. Some bits. Some marble. Some land.

It was the missing Laocoon -- a legendary sculpture created in Rome around the time of Christ, described by Pliny the Elder as "superior to any other works of painting and sculpture." And, indeed, it is a wondrous work, showing sea serpents ensnaring a priest and his two sons in revenge for the priest's betrayal of certain gods in the siege of Troy. (The myth presages the founding of Rome.) Word of this discovery spread quickly, and Pope Julius II immediately ordered emissaries (including Michelangelo) to examine the site. "Day and night all the Romans set out in procession for that house, like a jubilee. The majority of Cardinals went to see . . ." wrote a correspondent at the time. Felice de Fredis kept the statue in his bedroom as the crowds converged -- and its market value rose.

Within three weeks, Pope Julius purchased the Laocoon and brought it to the Vatican for display (just four months before construction began on St. Peter's Basilica). And so the Vatican Museums were founded 500 years ago -- with the acquisition of a pagan work of Roman art marking a legendary event in the history of Greece and Anatolia.

This is why we were there to meet the Pope -- to celebrate the fifth centenary of the Vatican Museums. But above all, this occasion emphasized the Church's decision to embrace the intellectual heritage of the Greeks -- the pre-Christian parents of Western civilization.

The Hall of Statues in the Vatican venerates the art of the Greeks and pagan Romans, just as the scholarship of the Church through the "dark ages" kept the lamp of Greek philosophy burning. In retrospect, it was a bit of a bargain: If the Romans ultimately accepted Christianity because of its popularity, the Roman church embraced the Greek heritage because of its depth. So the West became whole.

Within four years of acquiring the Laocoon, the great patron Julius II engaged Raphael to work down the hall from Michelangelo, who was illustrating the life of Christ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In his adjoining rooms, Raphael painted the "School of Athens," depicting the great humanist Agora of Greek discourse with Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras. Christ and Plato in play: What better testifies to the genius of the Catholic Church in marrying its faith with the secular roots of Western thought than this brilliant juxtaposition in art?

What other core religion, ideology or empire so clearly valued its antecedents -- and embraced them with such intelligent passion?

The Vatican Museums and the Basilica of St. Peter's are eloquent material expressions of the Greek aesthetic, just as Catholic scholarship is a step-child of Greek philosophy. Pope Benedict claimed this ground again in his speech last fall at Regensburg, declaring that the heritage of ancient Greece "is an integral part of the Christian faith" -- particularly its faith in reason.
One might say that the glory of this faith is reason. One might say that faith in reason is the glory of the West.

We were called too soon from our reverie to meet the Pope. His attendants and orderlies appeared to be dressed by Armani, even as the Pope's wonderful reddish shoes peeked out from his elegant gown. The Vatican in most of its faces demonstrates excellent taste.

Pope Benedict read a letter extolling the value of art and culture at the centre of spiritual life, and of museums as agents of cosmopolitanism and peace. (Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had already observed that "Beauty, the product of human genius, is a reflection of the supreme Beauty that is God. Love of Beauty can then become desire for Good, a desire for God.") Of course, beauty has many faces.

The Pope was vigorous and observant as we met him -- "Ah, Toronto!" he said, having just appointed a new Archbishop in the city. Cultural diplomacy is the humanist base on which much of realpolitik thrives. (Canada does very little cultural diplomacy, the Vatican much.)

We are at a time in the history of the West when challenges to our heritage and values arise in a global context -- rather than from within as they did so toxically in the 20th century. Whether from within or without, the centre must hold, and it must hold over millenniums.

With all the ambiguities, contradictions and caveats, it is the Roman Catholic Church that has held for the West.

William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3