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Robin Hood and Christian Humanism

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Okay, I’m not really going to talk abou Robin Hood, even though it’s one of those things that make me all kinds of  nuts. 

If you want to judge just how incredibly messed up our understanding of the Middle Ages really is, Robin Hood would be a good place to start.  We’re told that Robin “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” as if he were some kind of protoCommunist looking to redistribute wealth.

What Robin Hood actually did was rob the tax collectors and give the people back their money.

Think about that for a moment.

And, okay, I did talk about  Robin Hood.

Christian Humanism is, obviously, something else.  For one thing, “Humanism” was the term scholars and  artists in the Renaissance applied to themselves. 

But what’s important here is that Christian Humanism started as a movement in theology, not in the arts or philosophy.

Most Medieval theologians took seriously their mandate to “explain God to man,” and in that capacity wrote mostly about the nature of God and of “things unseen,” and on the nature of revelation.

Aquinas is an obvious exception to this, since Aquinas wrote about everything, but the emphasis in Medieval theology was on the nature of God. 

Christian Humanism begins with a movement among theologians to begin to write and think about the relationship between God and man.  Man is made in God’s image–what did that mean?  If man was such a miserable, sinful creature, then why did God send his Son (who is also Himself) to suffer and die for him?  How was the Bble written, and do we really understand it?

As part of this movement, a number of very important things were done that would have enormous effects later.

The first of these was the production of what were called “parallel texts,” editions of the Bible printed in columns showing the text in various editions and languages.

The two most famous of these were the  Complutensian Polyglot and the Textus Receptus.  The first is traditionally attributed to Ximenes in Spain.  The second is certainly the work of Erasmus in Holland.  The Polyglot is important for its Old Testament.  The Textus Receptus is important for its New.

And both of them made plain to any educated reader that the texts of the scriptures were often different in different places and times, usually only in minor ways, but sometimes with more serious implications.  The texts had not come down to us pristinely, and where there was an issue of translation between languages, there were some issues that definitely needed to be addressed.

The parallel texts marked the beginning of Biblical scholarship as scholarship, rather than just as exegesis.  They also marked the beginning of skepticism for the sake of skepticism, and coupled with the newly wide distribution of ancient texts that had been lost or unavailable for general use for some time, the beginning of what I think of as the quasi-pagan artist.

I don’t mean to imply by that that figures such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo were not believers.  They were believers, passionate believers.  They just also imported, into their art and lives, classical elements that would not have been possible for them at an earlier time.  Not the least of these was a reworking of the status of homosexuality from an unnatural abomination to a sin that was, well, only natural. 

Renaissance Italy was good for that kind of thing.

I’m not an expert on painting and sculpture, but if we believe the people who wrote at the time, the new style, not only the rise and spread of the use of perspective, but the tendency to idealize the human form whether it was presented as human or divine, human or angelic, was directly related to that new theological concern–what does it mean that man is greated n the image of God? 

If man is created in the mage of God, maybe, when we paint and sculpt him, we ought to make him look like it.

What’s always interested me is that the one place where a Renaissance artist could be counted on to produce the figure of a human being that looked realistic and not idealized, it was in images of Christ Incarnate.  Adam reaching out to touch the finger of God on the Sistine is a triumph of human beauty.  Christ lying dead across the lap of the Virgin in the Pieta is as brutally realistic as any corpse in the morgue. 

And with that, I think I’ll head out for the harpsichords.  I know it’s only Saturday, but what the hey.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2009 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Robin Hood and Christian Humanism'

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  1. Robin Hood as the original anti-tax libertarian? Makes sense, actually, except I think he probably kept the money for himself, and the resentful taxpayers just fantasized about someone who would send it back.

    I don’t think I ever heard the term ‘Christian Humanism’, although I’ve heard lots about the attempts to understand the nature of God and to explain the ways of God to Man etc.

    I don’t think I’ve ever made the connection to the dramatic change in artistic style, either.


    24 Oct 09 at 8:50 am

  2. In the post from a couple of days ago, “Really wandering around in the fog here,” the question was when did the perception of believers in God as unintelligent begin. I understand from the following two posts, that what began as questioning and examination of the nature of God moved through the centuries toward atheism. In this century, then, are all believers in God–those who interpret the bible literally without question and those who do question but still believe, being lumped together as unintelligent?


    25 Oct 09 at 11:34 am

  3. Lumped together and treated as unintelligent by whom? By some, certainly. Not by all, equally certainly.

    And how easily this narrative can be re-told as a version of, I forget the name, the idea that all human society is inevitably progressing towards perfection, and our current society is the best ever in every concievable way. That is, how easily it is to assume that the human race progessed step by step from polytheistic thunder gods through monotheistic personal gods to our present perfect knowledge revealing no gods at all.

    Of course, that requires ignoring quite a bit of intellectual history about various people’s ideas on the nature of humankind, reality, and God.


    25 Oct 09 at 12:10 pm

  4. Not to mention the perfectability of the human and/or society is one of the more stupid concepts ever invented. Perfection is stasis, since no improvement can be made. Who in their right mind *wants* stasis, other than the one guy at the top who has everything he desires?

    Gah. Without a goal, life really isn’t worth living.


    25 Oct 09 at 2:22 pm

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