23 November 2009

Charles Freeman

I'm looking forward to getting hold of a copy of Charles Freeman's new book, "A New History of Early Christianity".

The book was just published by Yale University Press and there are not many reviews around. A description of the book, taken from Yale U.P., is as follows:
The relevance of Christianity is as hotly contested today as it has ever been. "A New History of Early Christianity" shows how our current debates are rooted in the many controversies surrounding the birth of the religion and the earliest attempts to resolve them. Charles Freeman's meticulous historical account of Christianity from its birth in Judaea in the first century A.D. to the emergence of Western and Eastern churches by A.D. 600 reveals that it was a distinctive, vibrant, and incredibly diverse movement brought into order at the cost of intellectual and spiritual vitality. Against the conventional narrative of the inevitable 'triumph' of a single distinct Christianity, Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. Tracing the astonishing transformation that the early Christian church underwent - from sporadic niches of Christian communities surviving in the wake of a horrific crucifixion to sanctioned alliance with the state - Charles Freeman shows how freedom of thought was curtailed by the development of the concept of faith. The imposition of 'correct belief', and an institutional framework that enforced orthodoxy were both consolidating and stifling. Uncovering the church's relationships with Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman society, Freeman offers dramatic new accounts of Paul, the resurrection, and the church fathers and emperors.
Judging from his earlier book, "The Closing of the Western Mind: the Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason", where Freeman gives a superb account of how, around the 4th c. AD, there was a phase transition: whereas science and reason was thriving in the early AD years as a direct continuation of the ancient Greek tradition, something happened in the 4th c., and rationality was suddenly lost; science was condemned and even thinking was considered dangerous. We all know what followed for hundreds of years to come. In the words of Freeman himself,

My thesis is that Christianity was heavily politicised by the late Roman empire, certainly to the extent that it would have been unrecognisable to Jesus. Note the linking of the church to the empire's success in war, opulent church building and an ever narrowing definition of what beliefs one had to hold to be saved. (Hand in hand with this went an elaboration of the horrors of hell, a radical and unhappy development which can only have discouraged freedom of thought.) My core argument is that one result of the combination of the forces of authority (the empire) and faith (the church) was a stifling of a sophisticated tradition of intellectual thought which had stretched back over nearly a thousand years and which relied strongly on the use of the reasoning mind.
I did not depend on Gibbon. I do not agree with him that intellectual thought in the early Christian centuries was dead and I believe that the well established hierarchy of the church strengthened not undermined the empire. After all it was the church which survived the collapse of the western empire. Of course, Gibbon writes so eloquently that I could not resist quoting from him at times but my argument is developed independently of him and draws on both primary sources and recent scholarship.
On the relationship between Christianity and philosophy I argue that there were two major strands of Greek philosophy , those of Plato and Aristotle. The early church did not reject Greek philosophy but drew heavily on Platonism to the exclusion of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century Christianity was reinvigorated by the adoption of Aristotelianism , notably by Thomas Aquinas. It seems clear that Christianity needed injections of pagan philosophy to maintain its vitality and a new era in Christian intellectual life was now possible. I don't explore it in this book. Even so, when one compares the rich and broad intellectual achievements of the `pagan' Greek centuries with those of the Middle Ages, it is hard to make a comparison in favour of the latter. Where are the great names? (The critic who mentioned the ninth century philosopher Erigena should also have mentioned that he was condemned as a heretic.)
When one reads the great works of second and third century AD thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy and Plotinus, which are remarkable for their range and depth, one cannot but feel that much has been lost in the west by the fifth century. Something dramatic happened in the fourth century. In 313 Constantine brought the traditional policy of Roman toleration for different religious beliefs to its culmination by offering Christians (who had condemned the pagan gods as demons) a privileged place within the empire alongside other religions. By 381 the Christian emperor Theodosius when enforcing the Nicene creed condemns other Christians as `foolish madmen.. We decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics . . .they will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority , in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decided to inflict'.If this is not a `closing of the western mind' it is difficult to know what is. It goes hand in hand with a mass of texts which condemn rational thought and the violent suppression of Jewish and pagan sacred places. There is no precedent for such a powerful imposition of a religious ideology in the Greco-Roman world. The evidence of suppression is so overwhelming that the onus must be on those who argue otherwise to refute it.
Some readers have related my book to the present day- I leave it to them to do so if they wish -it is important to understand ANY age in which perspectives seem to narrow and religion and politics become intertwined as they certainly did in the fourth century. After all American Christianity was founded by those attempting to escape just such political straitjackets. Christianity has never been monolithic or static. In fact,as my book makes clear, one of my heroes is Gregory the Great who, I believe, brought back spirituality, moderation and compassion into the Christian tradition after the extremes of the fourth century. It is the sheer variety of Christianities which make the religion such an absorbing area of study.
I hope Amazon readers will continue to engage with my arguments whether they agree with them or not. Keep the western mind open and good reading!

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What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant