Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages

By Richard E. Rubenstein, Harcourt Books, 2003.

At first glance, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages is a book about church history. The back cover includes this description: “The astonishing story of revelation and transformation in the Middle Ages.  When Aristotle’s lost works were translated and available once again, the medieval world was galvanized, the Church and the universities were forever changed, and the stage was set for the Renaissance.” Rubenstein’s well-documented work, however, is much more than another study of the forces that paved the way for the Renaissance and the modern period following it.

The author has a clear agenda: to plead for the reunion of faith and reason in our present secularized culture. He begins with a brief, non-technical history lesson, observing that in Aristotle’s day separating reason from faith (the religious world at that time) was not only unthinkable, but would have been deemed utterly foolish had anyone proposed such an idea.

Rubenstein contrasts this perspective with modern thinking that places science and reason outside the realm of religious faith and removes faith from the public square, confining it to expressions of individual piety.  He argues that this separation of reason and faith has been tragic, and states that “a [postmodern] world hungry for wholeness yearns” for their reunion. He introduces readers to “Aristotle’s children,” those who were privileged to be a part of the re-discovery, translation and communication of Aristotle’s writings to a world that had grown tired of papal authority and the irrelevancy of the Catholic Church.

Through the book, we find Aristotle’s children in various places at various times.  They gathered in Toledo, Spain, where Greek, Jewish and Arab scholars labored side-by-side in the 12th and 13th centuries to translate Aristotle’s classic works. They were influential faculty members in the emerging universities—Bologna, Paris, Oxford.  Rubenstein retells familiar stories from this vantage point, such as the famous medieval love affair between Abelard and Heloise, or the heretical Cathari. Individuals we expect to find in this family tree—Roger  Bacon, who helped to develop the scientific method, and the scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas—are given their due consideration as well.

One of the more helpful insights Rubenstein develops is the relationship between the medieval Catholic Church and the Aristotelian renaissance. He rightfully objects to the over-simplistic characterization of the medieval Church as being opposed to anything scientific or tied to rational thought. Yes, the Catholic Church did condemn Galileo for challenging the Church’s centuries-old, earth-centered model of the universe, and did at times ban the reading, translation and use of Aristotle’s works in the universities. The Church went so far as to implement the Inquisition to deal with what it deemed heretic thinking.

On the other hand, as the author notes, the universities themselves were creations of the Catholic Church, For example, Abelard was an abbot and Thomas Aquinas a celebrated Catholic scholar. Regarding the Renaissance itself, centuries later, it is thus no surprise that the (Christian!) humanist Erasmus and Italy’s Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were directly connected to the Catholic Church. In addition, many Renaissance popes were patrons of the arts.

Rubenstein’s thesis that reason and faith need not stand in opposition is a welcome challenge to the current state of affairs in which, as he puts it, “Science, deprived of its connection with religious faith, has become increasingly technical and ‘value-free,’ while religious commitments, cut loose from their naturalistic moorings, seem increasingly a matter of arbitrary ‘instincts’ or tastes.”

When it comes to practical relevance, the author is content to simply challenge the status quo, leaving the reader to speculate how, specifically, reason and faith can be rejoined for a postmodern culture. The challenge is effective. One cannot help but feel incensed that our modern culture has gotten away with separating rational thought from religious faith!

Evangelical Christians have often been labeled as obscurantist—being in the dark and keeping others in the dark. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence abounds for this pejorative assessment. Evangelical leaders today can take heart from Rubenstein’s thesis and historical survey. His writings support the notion that one can be an evangelical believer—with a high view of Scripture—and have a faith that enlightens rather than obscures the world around us.



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1 Response to Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages

  1. Marty says:

    The “value-free” result you summarized from the text seems to be at a “critical” stage in our culture today. It was important for me to think about this today. I know I’d enjoy the historical approach — Aristotle, Bacon, Aquinas, Erasmus — are always interesting reads. As you mention, it would be nice to have a chapter on how to rejoin faith and reason. I would like to read that, too. A few Christian philospers are trying, but it’s difficult work. Thank you for this cogent and engaging review!

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