Spirit of the Age: The medieval strikes a chord

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The Independent Culture
THE VIDEO of The Name of the Rose sits oddly amid the tomes of medieval Latin on Denys Turner's shelves. Yet if it feels an anachronism, it is by no means an exception. In pop, there are the Medieval Baebes. In classical catalogues, the music of the Middle Ages is the largest growth area. In pulp fiction, there are the best-selling early medieval mysteries of Ellis Peters' modern-minded Brother Cadfael. All things medieval are now the fashion.

Hardly surprising, then, that the newest professor of divinity at Cambridge is to be a medievalis - Denys Turner, currently head of the theology department at Birmingham. So I went to his study there to ask what lessons we should draw from the current fad. Isn't interest in the Middle Ages just a lot of romantic escapism?

He began, as academics do, by taking issue with my vocabulary. "The very term `Middle Ages' suggests an impoverished period which merely connects two important ages - the Classical and the Renaissance," he began. "It assumes that in that degenerate and corrupt period - after Augustine in the fourth century and before Luther in the 16th - nothing important happened. But the idea of ignoring more than half of the entire history of Christianity is eccentric."

In any case, the medieval is very post-modern, if you focus on its tradition of mysticism rather than on the fact that life in those days was, in Hobbes's caricature, poor, nasty, brutish and short. "There's a strong revival of interest in that area - Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Margerie Kempe.People are groping back through modernism to that pre-linguistic, ineffable experience of transcendence which is indescribable in scientific language."

Professor Turner doesn't seem terribly keen on science - or, at least, on its current inability to look beyond the bounds of the provable. The real Middle Ages, he reckons, is the time between 1470 and 1970. "It is then that the longer traditions of European thought were interrupted by capitalism and science - and the Enlightenment insistence that there's a rational answer to everything, that there is a grand historical narrative leading to the present moment, and that through instruments of reason and technology, humans can master nature."

This is not what I expected from a medievalist, but it seems to make contemporary sense. Our new ecological awareness now questions the assumption that put humankind at the centre of the universe, displacing both God and nature. Our new consciousness of the fallibility of language has made us impatient with the cul-de-sac of epistemology. And the myth of progress has been the subject of increasing scepticism, especially in its tendency to equate technological progress with moral superiority.

Exactly, said Dr Turner. "Post-modernism - with its deconstructive, sceptical, ironic, almost nihilistic suspicion - is saying that there are alternative ways of thinking to the `common sense' of modernity."

So, ditch the romantic medievalism of Chesterton, harking back to a golden age of Christendom, and William Morris trying to recapture a pre-capitalist idyll. And ditch their New Age equivalents, which Turner dismisses as "the religion of late capitalism - entirely parasitic upon what it rejects, repeating the mistakes of established religion, only the second time as farce".

Instead, he said, there is something real to be discovered by reuniting the traditions of mysticism (which is subjective and hard to describe) with theology (which is conceptual and non-experiential). "Western Christianity has let the two fall apart. In our time, we are witnessing a sense that we need to bring them back together."

What the medievalists understood was that "only negative statements about God are true; affirmative ones are always insufficient and inappropriate", he said. That is why Meister Eckhart said "a person must take leave of God, in order to find God". And the greatest of the medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas, insisted that it is better to say that God does not exist than to say he does - for, as with all linguistic formulations, it can only diminish the Great Reality.

"It is only when you begin to push the bounds of language that you are doing real theology," said Turner. "Language has to become disordered before we can begin to talk of God." Here, the links between contemporary views of language, meaning and value and those of the medieval mystics are manifold. Aquinas meets Wittgenstein not in what they said so much as in their approach. "How can you say that Christ is really present in the Eucharist? To do so, Aquinas has to develop a pretty sophisticated account of what language is, and how it hooks into the real world."

This has nothing to do with the God that modern atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, attack. It sets on one side the deist account of God as a bloke who is just bigger than everyone else and pushes everything else out of the way. People like Dawkins, says Turner, have trouble with the idea that the world was created out of nothing precisely because they use phrases such as "out of", which set the mind up to presume that even nothing is a funny kind of something. That is making the mistake of assuming that the universe is just a big place, even as he thinks God is just a big bloke.

"The big question for post-modernism is whether all this deconstruction offers a way forward, or is just in danger of disappearing up its own fundament," said the new professor of divinity. "The medievals can, perhaps, help us sort out the one from the other. Of course, you can't restore their confidence in creation merely by manipulating language. But it may offer clues as to where we go next."