A great battle about music from history (Part 2)

If you have not read Part 1 of this series, here is a link.

I have discussed recently on this blog how some people seem to be fascinated by the Middle Ages, considering that period to the be high point in culture.  The reason for this in a nutshell is that during that time, faith ruled the day rather than reason.

That sounds great but here is the big question: what was this faith in?

Sadly, their faith was largely misplaced.  Rather than being rooted in God, it was in a corrupt and often theologically-inept church.  In areas of culture and science, the church had largely accepted Greek mysticism and faulty science as a foundation.  I discussed in my last post the contributions of Pythagoras who believed that nature could be understood by mathematical relationships and those relationships should govern all aspects of life.  Some of his work was good.  To this day, we learn to calculate the length of one side of a triangle with the Pythagorean Theorem (whether he actually came up with this formula is debatable, but his work almost certainly contributed to it).

So to some extent, he was right.  There are important numbers in nature.  But Pythagoras went a bit too far, using mysticism to try to identify special numbers in one part of nature and then use those numbers to establish rules for other things.

Want an example? Plato, who was heavily influenced by Pythagoras believed that the ideal society would have 5,040 citizens.  Where did he get this? He thought the numbers 1 through 7 were special so he multiplied them together.   1 X 2 X 3 X 4 X 5 X 6 X 7 = 5040.  How nice!  (I hope no one ever died or babies were born.  Imagine the horror if the population increased to maybe 5,042.)

This kind of thinking sounds ludicrous today (mostly because it is).  But during that time (and for many centuries afterward), people lived their lives based on such superstitions.  And it soon made its way into the church which had only to convert the gods of the Greeks to the God of the Bible. Now, the rules of Pythagoras were God’s rules for nature and Christians became bound by them.

For example, the heavenly ratios of Pythagoras became the rule of law for building cathedrals. Church leaders prescribed proportions for the height, length and depths of those buildings based on Pythagoras’ mythical ratios.

And of course, Pythagoras ratios were expected to be observed in church-sanctioned music (there was very little Western music that was not church-sanctioned).

There were some little problems with their perspective.  For example, like ancient Greeks, church-sanctioned science did not accept the possibility of infinity, and the torture and execution of Giordano Bruno was a result of his assertion that the universe was more vast than previously believed.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the church was still persecuting and killing off those who dared to stand against this blissful ignorance that was disguised as “faith.”  The most famous case involved Galileo who was forced to recant his assertion that the earth revolved around the sun.

It is a good thing that God does not need a heavy-handed church to preserve his truth.  Through those dark times, the Bible was preserved even if it was not available to most people (that was fortunately about to change with the arrival of the printing press).

Now, you have a good idea of why I am so turned off by the idea that the Middle Ages was a pinnacle of anything that was good, even if there was faith involved.  Their faith was largely based on errant teaching that in fact had nothing to do with the God of the Bible.  While the scientists and philosophers of the Renaissance had their own set of problems, we owe them a debt for standing up to the foolishness of mysticism that had gripped the church.  In the end, they won the war.  If they had not, I shudder to think what our world would look like.

If you think that the church gave up on Pythagoras after the Renaissance, you would be largely right.  But, you might be surprised to learn that there are still remnants of his teaching out there to this day.  I am going to take a small detour in my next post to discuss a prominent music apologist who sounds suspiciously like Pythagoras. Stay tuned.

Here is the question for the day though and I would like your input.  Is there a place for mysticism in the church and in the lives of a Christian?  I don’t think this is quite as simple as it sounds.