Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. III


Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

. . . continued from part II

The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world, as Lewis well knew, is sacramentalism. This is a linked set of beliefs, first, that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator; and third, that God is present in and through every square inch of his world. While these beliefs are linked with the more limited, liturgical sense of the word “sacrament,” they amount to an understanding of the whole material world.

The world-sacramentalism of medieval Christians was rooted in a lively engagement with the doctrine of Creation — through an even livelier engagement with the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation was the central preoccupation of medieval Christians. Art, theology, church life, and private devotion all focused on the incarnation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bodily life and death became the medieval “canon within the canon”; the puzzle of why he had to come and die was the great theological obsession.

And in the midst of it all came the insight that, as Christ raised humanity by taking on humanity, he also in some mysterious sense, by taking on created form in his own creation, also raised up the whole world toward its new-creation destiny — such that even the rocks cry out and creation groans as it awaits that fulfilment.

In light of that cosmic redemption, and quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval Christians affirmed the material and social dimensions of our created human lives (our eating, drinking, working, marrying, getting sick, being healed, and eventually dying) as transcendentally important.

The church, therefore, could and did speak to every nook and moment of human life, certainly including the experiences of work and vocation. In an age so full of incarnational, creational, sacramental awareness, faith and everyday life could never be separate. God was met at every turn.

A key early example of how this sacramental worldview impacted medieval views of work and vocation was Gregory the Great, who insisted that while pastors or laypeople are engaged in the active life, working on behalf of their neighbor in the material world, everything in their experience of that world became a potential instrument of God’s direct, special communication to them. Where his predecessor Augustine had emphasized God’s hiddenness, Gregory believed God is always speaking to us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. He is always sustaining the sacramental presence of spiritual truths in the things of this world.

This sacramental sense of God at work in the material world and in our own embodied, material, social, and cultural experience became part of the orthodox Christian understanding of the world for the whole period from Gregory to the Reformation — and, in many circles, continuing long after this period.

Again, a Christian age that saw the world through sacramental lenses could not also separate their faith from their work. Having bought modern Enlightenment portraits of medieval stupidity and superstition, we have missed the powerful cultural generativity of their world-sacramentalism: Medieval Christians invented the hospital, created the breathtaking artistry of the Gothic cathedrals, laid the groundwork for modern law and politics, and pioneered modern Western science through a new institution: the university. These are four huge modern work sectors — health care, the arts, the civic and political arenas, and higher education — each underwritten by this same lively, creational, and incarnational sacramentalism.

The Protestant stereotype tells us that all medieval people felt only monks and nuns had “vocations.” But that simply wasn’t so. Read, for example, the late 13th- and 14th-century German Dominican friars Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler. Along with other Christian mystics of their day, Eckhart and Tauler affirmed a non-monastic call of God — just as the hugely influential Gregory the Great had done centuries before them. For these friars, not just monks and nuns but also ordinary working folk could achieve the highest title of traditional monasticism, “friend of God.”

“We are brought forth into time,” wrote Eckhart, “in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God.” Thus “one can gather nettles and still stand in union with God.”

Tauler criticized those who believed the work of the businessperson who “knows all the secrets of commerce” to be a spiritual obstacle: “It is certainly not God who has put this obstacle,” he insisted. Rather, the working life of active service is simply a different way of serving and knowing God. The person who obeys God in their work “with singleness of purpose” is truly on the way to God.

More could be said. But what might it look like if you and I brought this idea of world-sacramentalism to our lives and work?

Continued in part IV.

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. II


Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

. . . continued from part I

Ironically, this detachment sometimes looks like worldliness or materialism: the typical modern Western mode of effectively living for material pleasures and material accumulation. Though Christians are unlikely to profess that wry modern creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we are quite capable of sacrificing a great deal to the idols of career success, in order to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, all the latest iDevices, regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. And these habits, too, separate the material world of jobs and careers from the spiritual world of the church. Because, as Saint Augustine taught, when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we decouple or disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.

A generation after Augustine, believers of the Middle Ages, unlike our contemporary Western moment, did indeed find ways to keep the spiritual and the material together. And at least one very prominent modern Christian thinker followed that age’s integrative lead. So let’s enter that age through that modern figure.

Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was nine, this man read voraciously and omnivorously from his earliest years. By the age of eight, he was writing stories about “dressed animals” with his brother. In his teen years, learning classics under an Irish schoolmaster, he learned to appreciate the quest for truth not as an idle intellectual exercise, but rather as a search for the truth about what is real and true in the world — and for the wisdom necessary to live the good life. And that quest led him first to a lifelong concern for moral philosophy, and then, eventually, to a vocation as a professor of medieval literature.

In his short testimonial memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis described early experiences of deep longing and yearning for something beyond the bounds of this world. This longing he called simply “joy.” Paradoxically, although these experiences pointed to something transcendent and immaterial, they always came through the most vivid, material, sensory images — distant green hills, a toy garden in a biscuit-tin lid, powerful images of “Northernness” from Norse myths. These pointers to the metaphysical were thus simultaneously profoundly physical. And when such experiences finally led him to God, he called himself an “empirical theist” who “arrived at God by induction.”

So what did the imagination of this man who became both a Christian and a professional medievalist find in our medieval Christian heritage that can help us draw from the doctrines of creation and incarnation to find meaning in our work?

Lewis was more than a medieval scholar. He was a medievalist in his imagination, in his intuitions about life, and in his practices. And he found the medieval era he loved to be a time in which the very character of the Western world — every institution, custom, or practice that touched human material and social bodies — reinforced the link between the material and social world on the one hand, and the divine on the other.

In various descriptions, Lewis shows us the medieval view of the material world as charged with the spiritual, “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine,” and “a world of built-in significance.”

Lewis also painted this world of vibrancy and wonder in his fiction writing. Early in Out of the Silent Planet, the protagonist, Ransom, peers out of the window of a spaceship to see — not the black void of space, but a pulsing, glowing matrix of glory (love the resonance of this literary image with the photograph at the beginning of this article!). This resonates with a description Lewis once gave of the medievals’ vision of the cosmos, which borrows phrasing from 14th-century Italian poet Dante: “Each [celestial] sphere,” that is, each planet and heavenly body, “is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by ‘intellectual love’ of God.”

As alien as such a view of the cosmos may seem to us, it runs on a coherent “theo-logic”: First, the medieval person understood — based on the scriptural account of the creation — that the material world is not evil. Nor is it (as we moderns are more tempted to believe) irrelevant to God’s purposes and our spiritual lives, for it all was made by God and bears his imprint. Second, though, the medieval person also understood that the material world cannot hold the ultimate end and fulfilment of human life. Where do we find that end and fulfilment? As Augustine, Boethius, and all who followed insisted, only in God himself. The middle way medievals hewed between the gnostic and the materialistic error about the material world was to understand that because of God’s action in first creating, and then indwelling it, and then continuing to love and care for it, the world must be shot through with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the trinity itself. It must be a place of God’s presence and glory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Continued in part III

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. I


John Everett Millais – “Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter’s Shop’)”; Wikimedia Commons

I commend to you Common Good magazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.

In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:

The Work of Genesis
How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations

Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.

From the Genesis account of creation, it’s reasonable to say that work is an essential part of what it means to live on earth as an image-bearer of God. Work is a mandate, not a curse. Related, the reformer Martin Luther’s teachings on vocation and the Reformation concept of “common grace” show us that God uses people’s work, whether they name the name of Christ or not, to provide for the needs of other people.

The Protestant tradition has taught that we have not only particular vocations — particular kinds of work that we are called to in the world, to serve bosses, or customers, or spouses, or children, or our city — within the structures of God’s common grace. We also have general callings or vocations, which we may fulfil only by God’s saving grace through Christ, and as empowered by his Holy Spirit. And in fact, in both Scripture and the early church, where we encounter the language of “calling” or vocation, it is almost always in connection with these general vocations.

Included in these general callings is the creation mandate, as well as the law — as expressed, for example, in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount — and the summing up of the law in what we might call the “love calling” or “love vocation” expressed in the great commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

When Luther talked about the particular callings in which we serve others by our particular gifts, he spoke of them as multiple and relational. In other words, according to Luther, we have vocations not only to paid work in the marketplace and public square, but also to the relational work of being a sister, mother, neighbor, citizen, volunteer, and more.

Thus the Protestant evangelical tendency to think of vocation as the “one big mysterious job God has for you on earth,” which he holds in his mind and which you must search out and discern through prayer, is quite simply inconsistent with Reformation teaching on vocation.

We could summarize at this point with a quick, one-sentence, Christian definition of vocation. Psychologist Bryan Dik defines vocation as “a summons to meaningful work in service to others.”

Note that this definition doesn’t mention personal strengths. It leaves room for callings to things we’re good at and to things we’re bad at.

In the few biblical stories where someone received a direct call from God to some work, what was the first thing they typically said in response? “God, you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t have the gifts for that work. I could never do it.” But God doesn’t make mistakes. So if we find ourselves in a difficult and challenging relationship that we would not have chosen for ourselves — say with a disabled child or a parent with dementia —, then this is just as truly a vocation as our chosen (paying) jobs.

Creation, incarnation, and work today

You may be familiar with the kind of “hierarchy of jobs” that has long marred churches’ treatment of work. You know, pastors and missionaries at the top, business people and politicians at the bottom — with the value judgement being based on the perceived “spirituality” of the work, or even with how much God is presumed to care about the work or how much the work is presumed to serve his purposes on earth. Many jobs are quite simply assumed to be “secular” — detached from God and his purposes.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this secularization of vocation in the churches. But one of the biggest is how we relate to creation.

Bluntly put, since around the 17th century, the faith of modern Western Christians has become steadily both more privatized and more spiritualized; that is, detached from the world. And at the same time, the world around us has become “scientized,” understood only in objective, empirical, material categories, and thus detached from the church. And since our work takes place in this material, de-spiritualized world, we have fallen into the habit of treating most kinds of ordinary work, which typically serve very earthly, material, and social human needs, as if by their very “earthiness,” they intrinsically have very little to do with.

Continued in part II.

Why we need scholarship on flourishing


“My sister and her baby”
Joy Coffman from San Diego, CA, US
Creative Commons

A friend asked me to write a short snippet for a new journal on Faith & Flourishing on the question, “Why is the flourishing of the world an important subject for scholarly inquiry?” My response:

Christianity’s absorption and reinterpretation of the classical tradition, as described for example in the work of Robert Louis Wilken, included in every age—from Irenaeus to Augustine to Aquinas to the Reformers to the post-WW II resurgence described by Alan Jacobs in his Year of Our Lord: 1943—a strong commitment to flourishing. This was especially the flourishing of humans in all our dimensions (salvation = wholeness). The evergreen Christian humanism forged in that Christian-classical synthesis—which has amounted, as Jens Zimmermann has said, to a coherent Christian “philosophy of culture”—took different forms in every age but was never seriously challenged until the modern era.

By capitulating to the disenchantment of the world—and of humanity—that was insisted upon in the materialist biology of Darwin, the materialist psychology of Freud, and the materialist social teachings of Marx (among others), we have entered an age when a purely naturalistic “exclusive humanism”—one kind of “closed immanent frame”—to use two of Charles Taylor’s labels, has become convincing to many as a way of understanding humanity and human flourishing. And the church of the 20th and 21st century has no coherent answer. Having lost track of that older tradition of Christian humanism despite strong advocacy on its behalf by writers as diverse as C S Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope John Paul II, we have spiritualized faith beyond all recognition, removing it from the ordinary workings of the world and society.

And now we are surprised when ordinary Americans (for instance) see the truth that this denatured faith has nothing to offer to our ordinary life in the world—and they are leaving the church in droves. We must retrieve our heritage: the long and strong tradition of pro-creation, pro-material, pro-embodiment, pro-social Christian humanism grounded in the claim that the incarnation has inaugurated a new humanity. We must again, to adapt Pierre Hadot’s phrase, practice “theology as a way of life”—not as a disembodied and detached technical pursuit.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part IV (final part)


Protestant Reformers, unknown artist (18th c.), Wikimedia Commons

Social dimensions of Christian humanism – scholastic, renaissance, and Reformation developments

This article continues from part III.

The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.

Scholastic humanism and the social world

For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.[1]

The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”[2]

In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.[3]

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Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part III


Saint James as a Pilgrim with a Purse and Staff (detail), Workshop of the Bedford Master, Paris, about 1440-50, Book of Hours (text in Latin). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 6, fol. 203v

This article continues from part II.

Scholastic humanism

Skipping ahead, from the 11th through the 13th century, a new phase of Christian humanism arose – in the thought and work of “scholasticism” – a movement in Christian thought that is understood by historians to have its intellectual foundations in Augustine, its early formulation in the work of Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and its pinnacle in the grand system of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th.

The medieval scholastics continued and intensified the high humanist evaluation of human reason. As historian of science Edward Grant has comprehensively shown, no line can be drawn between the Middle Ages as a supposed “age of faith” and the 17th and 18th century “age of reason,” for both ages shared “the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated” and “medieval university scholars and teachers . . . placed a heavy reliance on reason,” and in fact, “in the history of civilization, they were the first to do so self-consciously on a grand scale.” Building on over a millennium of Christian thought about the Genesis portrayal of the imago dei, passed on from patristic thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo, the scholastics argued like this:

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Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part II


“Crosswalk,” Ryoji Iwata, Unsplash free use

This article continues from part I

Humanism: a brief definition

So now we come to Christian humanism. What is it? And what has it had to teach us about the world and about humanity? As a preliminary definition, I offer the following:

Christian humanism is a longstanding philosophy of culture that has drawn from the doctrines of Creation and of the Incarnation for its understanding of the world, of human nature, and of our culture-creating work dedicated to serving our full flourishing as embodied, rational, social beings living in the world. And this Christian humanist philosophy has upheld the central value—often mistaken for the innovation of a secular Enlightenment—of universal human dignity and equality, with its eventual social outworkings in rule of law, democratic government, free trade, and the fostering of human work as the exercise of creativity and rationality to steward and improve the world’s resources. Arguably in the past two centuries the result of these and other outworkings of Christian humanist values has been tremendous growth in global economic prosperity, even as these values have become almost entirely separated from the Christian faith that originated them.

To get to a point-by-point summary of how Christian humanism can help us address the American Christian faith-work problematic, we need to sketch key moments of its development. And to ground this historical sketch, we begin with biblical and doctrinal sources:

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Worth reading: Christian humanist/medieval “retrievalist” Remi Brague


Soon I intend to post part II of the “Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation” article. For now, though, I want to share a scholar who just came onto my radar:

Friend Andrew Hansen at Anselm House Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota passed along to me the name of a scholar I can’t wait to read. For a peek into French historian of philosophy Remi Brague’s work, see this review of Brague’s 2019 book Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (so widely read and well-received that it was reissued in 2022). [Love the subtitle – it has a familiar ring!] A quick excerpt:

“G. K. Chesterton was right: the modern thinkers were thieves and counterfeiters. They lifted truths embedded in medieval culture and articulated by pre-modern thinkers, reworked them, and passed them off as new, emancipatory, and empowering. The stolen ideas were pressed into the service of a vast new enterprise, “the modern project.” Proponents of the project promised that henceforth man could make his own way in the world, without any higher assistance or guidance whatsoever. Brague calls this “exclusive humanism,” because it excludes any higher Instance—cosmos or Creator or binding tradition—in the understanding and fulfillment of the human.”

“. . . It certainly does not mean repudiating the modern world in all its aspects and works. That world has “precious gains” that should be “safeguarded.” However, we must understand the core tenets of the medieval worldview (starting with creation and providence) that gave rise to these positive truths. It means noting what is missing or garbled in the extracted modern versions. It means bringing the two together in a new synthesis, one that neither party could effect in their day. Rather than a reactionary appeal, therefore, “medieval wisdom for the modern age” is a contemporary call for an unprecedented synthesis.”

Having received Andrew’s tip and read the above review, I immediately asked friend and prolific scholar of Christian humanism Jens Zimmermann at Regent College what he thought of Brague. Had he read him? Most certainly! And in fact he compared Brague favorably to one of the most influential philosophers in my own intellectual pedigree, Charles Taylor. Well, that got my attention! I’m eagerly awaiting copies of several of his books and look forward to delving into them.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation


Workers in a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil; by Guilherme Cunha, Unsplash, free use

First, my apologies to regular readers and subscribers for disappearing for a while. For the past 6-9 months (or more), this blog has been offline, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, but seeming to have to do with its attachment to an old email address to which I no longer had access. But even before that, I had for years not updated the blog on any but the most sporadic basis. I intend for that to change now, as I am working on a new book (on which, more anon) and will most likely blog through the process as I did with Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, published back in 2016. So, as a first shot across the bow . . .

[The talk from which the following is excerpted was presented by Dr. Chris R. Armstrong at the Ciceronian Society annual meeting at Grove City College in March, 2022. As always, this material is not to be reproduced or distributed in any form without the express permission of the author.]

Introduction: Disenchantment and the sacred-secular divide

The faith-work problematic

American Christians has been wrestling with a problem for decades. The problem is that many Christians in this country experience a separation in our lives between supposedly sacred activities and supposedly secular activities – and that furthermore our work, which may in the end account for some 100,000 hours of our lives, falls largely in the latter category.

You may say, “Wait a minute – what about the torrent of books, blogs, websites, podcasts, and conferences on this subject in the last few decades? Are we really still unable to resolve this existential issue?” And I would respond, “Yes, because we still have no stable, faithful, well-worked-out theological understanding of what work is and how it relates to central teachings of our faith.”

In other words, despite some excellent scholarly treatments, the faith and work conversation remains largely ungrounded in three ways: philosophically, theologically, and importantly, historically. Having by the mid-nineteenth century discarded much of the Christian knowledge tradition, American Christianity—or at least, American Protestantism—now unsurprisingly finds itself with precious few resources to address what, at the very least, must be seen as a colossal failure of pastoral care.

In this paper, I propose that the longstanding and biblically faithful tradition of Christian humanism—a philosophy of culture that is faithful to central biblically derived doctrines—can and should provide this tripartite grounding, and that scholars who are engaging the faith and work conversation should be recovering and drawing from that tradition today.

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On how, and why, whole sectors of modern work were birthed from the heart and mind of the Christian church


Been very busy over the past few years, and a bad blogger – not posting much at all.

Among other pieces I’ve posted elsewhere but forgotten to link here at the Grateful To the Dead blog is this one, featured at The Public Discourse blog – run by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton. The piece is a fairly brief meditation on what the Incarnation has meant in Western culture. It contains some ideas that I first published in the Medieval Wisdom book, and that I’m looking forward to extending in my next book. That book will most likely explore how entire sectors of human work that foster and support the material and social dimensions of human flourishing emerged ex corde ecclesia – from the heart of the church (and informed by the mind of the church!):

Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born as a human baby in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.

. . .

Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.

Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.

And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.

Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:

Our bodies matter.

Our minds matter.

Our relationships matter.

Our work matters.