Ideas before their time

In this article I explore one of the underlying themes of Ikon, the new novel  which is set in the 15th Century in the Eastern Mediterranean. What follows comes from the research that I  undertook to write the novel. Its style is not that of the novel itself, tending  towards the academic; it may, however, be of interest.

To sample the book itself click here to go to the page entitled ‘Ikon, an excerpt’.

It is fascinating to examine the mechanical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci

Here are helicopters(above), flying machines, even a submarine, machines that would not be seen for another four hundred years.

Human thought is like that. Progress, be it scientific or philosophical, is not always linear in its development. Every now and then ideas appear which seem to be much before their time. By the contemporaries of these ‘eccentrics’ (by which I mean the ideas, not their authors) they are regarded with mystification and incomprehension.

Very occasionally eccentics of this kind happen in the long discourse of religious thinking, conceptions that seem to take (in retrospect) giant steps forward but whose nature seems to wither at the demise of their progenitor, not to be seen again for, sometimes, centuries.

To a degree this happenened to the Ancient Greek thinkers, Plato and especially Aristotle. Their works disappeared in the West until rediscovered in the Renaissance. In fact they had not disappeared but were recovered in the 8th Century by Islamic scholars, primarily in Baghdad. It is not widely recognised how much Western culture to this day owes to the civilising work of Muslim culture and scholarship.

It happens, as well, in religious thinking or, to be more accurate, religious writing. Every now and then a religious writer finds herr or his way to concepts which to us look far more modern than their time. Often they are destined to be ignored by their dogmatic contemporaries who cannot understand their radical conceptions. Sometimes they can be persecuted for what are regarded as their heretical views, much as was Galileo.

Such figures include the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) and the anonymous author of that classic of English medieval spirituality The Cloud of Unknowing (late 14th Century). Their internalising of God as spiritual goal really only emerges again in the last century and the Roman catholic church is still ambivalent as to whether Meister Eckhart is heretical.

John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish poet and Carmelite monk clothed his radical ideas in intense poetry and allegory. In a sense he not only reached forward to a modern understanding but also backwards to the Old Testament and the Song of Songs.

D.F.Strauss (1808-1874) was the first to expound the mythic nature of Christian scripture. His major work The Life of Jesus which demythologised these stories shocked at first but was then ignored by the mainstream church for well over a century. In 1977 with the publication of The Myth of God Incarnate Strauss’s approach to Christian dogmatics returned. A series of essays edited by John Hick, Professor of Theology at Birmingham, this book caused a considerable furore taking, as it did, a radical stance on the virgin birth and the theology of incarnation, just as did Strauss’s work 140 years previously.

Fredeick Nietzche (1844-1900), who undoubtedly regarded himself as an atheist declared ‘The Death of God’. Others had hinted at this before him but Nietzche placed it fairly and squarely on the table. As with so many others he was ignored and discredited and ‘The Death of God’ did not appear again for at least one hundred years. Now, although not mainstream dogma, it is a concept accepted by most theologians.

The development of human thought, thus, is never linear. Radical perceptions appear and yet are seen to be dangerous and subversive. It is one of the issues which underpins my new novel, Ikon; facing up to the question ‘how to be religious in the absence of God’, a dilemma as new and as pertinent as it might have been in the 15th Century.

(To order a copy of Ikon click here)

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