Dorothy L. Sayers: Reclaiming the “integrated medieval worldview” for today


I’ve been at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, IL for a couple of days now, looking through a slew of sources on C S Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton, who will be the key modern “guides” in my forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants. Below are notes from one fruitful source I ran into today, on Sayers.

The words in block capitals at the beginnings of some paragraphs relate to my chapter topics (search on the book’s title on this blog, or look back to early posts via the calendar, and you’ll find summary descriptions of each chapter). I’ve short-handed the thematic chapters Creation, Tradition, Theology, Ethics, Monks, Emotions, Incarnation, and Death. Here are the notes from my new-found source:

Lee W. Gibbs, The Middle Way: Voices of Anglicanism
(Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications, 1991)

[The “voices” are Richard Hooker, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, Joseph Butler, F. D. Maurice, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and William Temple]

From the Sayers chapter:

THEOLOGY          “Dorothy learned to play the piano and the violin, and even as a child she liked to sing hymns—especially those that were about ‘Prowl and prowl around, good swinging thick stuff, with a grand line or two about heresies and schisms, with all the sinners deeply wailing, the Father on His sapphire throne and the lowly pomp, and all the Good Friday hymns, wallowing in a voluptuous gloom.’” (95)

THEOLOGY          “It was also very early on that she was exposed to modest catechetical training. She found the doctrine of the Trinity intriguing and the language of the creeds overwhelming: ‘I know I should never have dared to confess to any of my grown-ups the over-mastering fascination exercised on me by the Athanasian Creed . . . So I hugged it as a secret delight.’” (95)

“In 1915 she took first class honors in modern languages, but did not receive her bachelor of arts degree until 1920, the year she was also awarded her master of arts. Sayers was among the first group of women ever to receive academic degrees from the University of Oxford.” (96)

ETHICS                 “Crime and punishment is a recurring theme in her novels. As she became more mature as an artist her treatment of this theme became more varied and subtle. Although she became progressively concerned that crime and punishment be viewed beyond the narrow scope of retributive justice, she always supported the enforcement of law and order, including capital punishment as the fit punishment for murder. This strict enforcement of retributive justice provides the backdrop for the repentance and redemption of victim and victimizer alike. In her essay ‘Creed or Chaos?’ she asserts that human law fully shares in human imperfection, yet it remains necessary ‘as a protective fence against the forces of evil, behind which the divine activity of grace may do its redeeming work.’” (98)

INCARNATION   “in 1938, Sayers was invited by the BBC to write a one-act play about the nativity of Christ, and this was broadcast on Christmas Day under the title He Who Must Come. In order to emphasize the point that Christ’s birth took place against a complex social and historical background, she laid the scene with ‘as many different types of character as possible,’ not in the traditional stable, but in a two-storied oriental inn situated somewhere on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Dramatized with realistic language and ‘natural’ character acting, [101] the play was widely acclaimed and repeatedly broadcast in subsequent years.” (100 – 101).

THEOLOGY, ETHICS          “She was the only woman invited to speak in 1941 at the Conference held at Malvern College. The Conference was convened and chaired by William Temple, who was at that time Archbishop of York. Opening the second session, she spoke on the subject, ‘The Church’s Responsibility,’ an address in which she anticipated several areas which she would especially emphasize in speeches and articles in the succeeding months: integrity in every work of the intellect, the neglect of the arts by the church, and the church’s promotion of a very restricted understanding of morality. She affirmed that ‘what determines the culture of a people is its religious outlook.’” (101)

DANTE                 “Sayers fell under the spell of Dante, and in order to read the poem in the original, she mastered medieval Italian in six weeks. From then to the end of her life her major ambition was to make The Divine Comedy available [103] to readers who, like herself, had avoided it because they lacked an understanding of the language, medieval catholic theology, scholastic philosophy, Italian history, the system of courtly love, and all the other studies so necessary to appreciate this masterpiece fully. She not only strove to achieve an accurate and scholarly translation utilizing Dante’s own verse form, but supplemented it with commentaries, footnotes, maps, diagrams, and glossaries that would clarify unfamiliar concepts and make the poem relevant to modern readers.” (102 – 103)

THEOLOGY, TRADITION, INCARNATION   “The lack of interest in writing systematic theology has prompted some to describe Sayers’ interpretation of religion in general and of Christianity in particular as ‘whimsical,’ in the sense that she employs ‘witty realism’ in her attempt to show that the Jewish and Christian aspect of western civilization still has something of utmost importance to say to modern men and women. Intellectuals like herself who still believed in the triunity of God and in the Incarnation were considered by many of her more ‘sophisticated’ peers to be whimsical, frivolous, or capricious. But to Sayers, the fact that God became man was the divinest whimsy, and the point on which she turned [106] all of her religious plays and apologetic thinking.” (105 – 106)

INCARNATION   Remember Sayers talking about how it was de rigeur for bishops in her day to deny the Trinity, Incarnation. Use this in the Incarnation chapter.

THEOLOGY, TRADITION  “The Christianity which she so ardently believed and professed was not, in her view, personal invention but the orthodox faith of the historical church as preserved in holy scripture and in the great ecumenical creeds. She fully accepted the authority of the Bible as setting forth revealed truth concerning the creative activity of the triune God, the nature of humanity created in the image of God and fallen into sin, and redemption in and through the Incarnation.” (106)

THEOLOGY, TRADITION  “Sayers clearly delineates her position with regard to Christian tradition when she asserts that there is nothing [107] ‘original’ in her miracle play, The Just Vengeance [see my notes from conversation July 2010 at Wade Ctr with Chris Mitchell, about the link between her Zeal play and her first essays ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ etc.] ‘“Originality” in such matters is out of place: the thought is that of the church and the interpretation that of her doctors and confessors.’” (106 – 7)

“Because many of her contemporaries were either unfamiliar with or had come to reject the basic dogmas of the church as set forth in the creeds, Sayers wrote two essays that bear their meaning in their titles: ‘The Greatest Drama Ever Staged Is the Official Creed of Christendom,’ and ‘The Dogma Is the Drama.’ She criticized the churches, not for preaching dull doctrine, but rather for the neglect of traditional dogma that brings life and energy to the church’s earthly existence.” (107)

“Convinced that the dogmas affirmed in the Christian creeds provide the only real source of true religious conviction as well as of moral and cultural values, she devoted most of her time in her later years [!] to translating these ancient statements into the modern idiom—in as many ways and in as many places as she could. As a result, she became one of the great twentieth-century ‘popularizers’ of Christianity.” (107)

“In this attempt to defend orthodox Christianity in the modern world, Sayers, like C. S. Lewis, divided the world, not so much into many Christian communities confessing more or less the same thing, but rather into two rival camps: the believers and the unbelievers. She was writing her religious work at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear to many that philosophies based exclusively upon science and rational inquiry were insufficient for dealing with the crises of a society that had experienced the destruction of two devastating world wars.” (107)

“Viewing the past, Sayers identifies two basic themes in European history that created the atmosphere leading to the chaos of World War II: the changing status in the view of human nature [?], and the change in the concept of authority. In developing the first theme, she emphasizes [108] that in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was more of a unifying force than in the twentieth century, the ‘whole man’ was truly Christian in thought, word, and practice: ‘In this majestic theological structure there was, essentially, nothing that could impair the full development of every side of man’s nature.’ Acknowledging that in practice medieval society never achieved this ideal, she still proposes that it is the right goal to strive for after peace has returned to war-torn Europe.” (107 – 8 )

“In analyzing the changes brought about by new concepts of authority, S traces the loss of its theological character at the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, shows its later identification with the ‘national’ principle, and the subsequent changes brought about by the growth of democracy and by demands for greater liberty in every sphere. Europe, she argues, was dominated in succession by an incomplete view of human nature and society. In the eighteenth century, the rational element was overemphasized. The advance of natural science stressed ‘biological man,’ followed by ‘sociological man,’ and then ‘psychological man.’ Pleading for a return to the concept of the ‘whole man,’ not as an ideal but as a reality, she reminds her readers, both English and American, of their shortcomings, too often regarded as twentieth-century virtues, which desperately need to be excluded from the new order: the passion for absolutes, the yearning for an impossible static security, the dread of original thought, the repudiation of Christian morality, and the naïve faith in technology—both industrial and bureaucratic.(108 )

“Sayers is not so much anti-science or anti-technology as she is a Christian integralist who perceives that science and technology have become over-emphasized and predominant in the modern world, too often at the expense of theology and philosophy as equally valid and necessary paths to truth and knowledge. What she calls [109] for is a return to the more proper balance achieved during the Christian Middle Ages, where philosophy was seen to be a subdivision of theology, and science a subdivision of philosophy.” (108 – 9)

THEOLOGY          “The basic presupposition and theme of all of Sayers’ theological works is that Gode became man in Jesus of Nazareth in order to redeem humankind. In all of her works, human beings must arrive at the recognition that they are not a law unto themselves, admit that they have violated God’s law, repent, and ask for forgiveness. God grants such forgiveness—an action made possible because Perfect Innocence, Christ, motivated by sacrificial love, has destroyed humanity’s guilt in his own death, thereby uniting redeemed sinners with God forever.” (109)

“Sayers is equally clear in affirming the orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that the God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is one of the persons of the divine Trinity. She most fully explicates her interpretation of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity in her essay, ‘Towards a Christian Aesthetic,’ and especially in her treatise, The Mind of the Maker.” (109)

CREATION           On Mind of the Maker, [and think of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation”]: “In a highly original and creative way, she finds a correspondence between the three-fold activity of the crdeative artist (the idea, its energy or expression, and its power, or, alternatively, the artist, the work, and the work’s influence upon other people). The principle here set forth that God ‘hath made man in His own image, a maker and craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of his triune majesty,’ became the basic presupposition of her [110] sacramental view of the universe, of art, and of work.”

6 responses to “Dorothy L. Sayers: Reclaiming the “integrated medieval worldview” for today

  1. First of all, “integralism” is used in Roman Catholic circles to mean a kind of fundamentalist traditionalism, which I don’t think we are talking about here.

    But more to the point, Magdalena, I’m not sure what kind of Anglicanism you are talking about. You have disparaging words for the “Gothic” Anglo-Catholicism of the 19th-century and the “Celtic” mythos popular today, but you seem to think that there’s a coherent theology called “Anglicanism” that is close to Eastern Orthodoxy. Where are you getting this from? Sayers was actually a fairly straight Puseyite.

    When did Anglicans have this “simple piety”? What is it?

    I’m sorry to sound facetious, but as an Anglican myself I have encountered these kinds of claims over and over, and so far they have always turned out to be, in your own words, mostly made up.

    If there’s an “original” (post-Reformation) Anglicanism, it’s a kind of moderate Reformed theology. Maybe that’s what you are talking about. Maybe you have Hooker in mind, who is already taking that moderate Reformed theology in a somewhat different direction, but perhaps could be seen as the embodiment of classic Anglicanism. But whatever we say about Hooker, I wouldn’t call him simple!

    If by “simple, daily piety” you mean the practice of the Daily Office from the BCP, I agree that this is one of our greatest strengths, but I wouldn’t say we’ve entirely lost it. If you mean something like Herbert’s “A servant with this clause,” then I’d say that this isn’t distinctively Anglican, but as long as it isn’t interpreted so as to forestall any criticism of social injustice I would agree that it’s definitely one of our strengths, again.

  2. “Low church” is a pro-Protestant reaction to the ceremony of the Puseyite movement. The Oxford men wanted to take the church back to a purer Gothic ethic in everything. Of course, it was mostly made up. So Anglicanism has gotten muddied a bit in the last 150 years. It is “integralist” in that very sense of sacramentalism that is now expressed in a neo-Celtic movement, which is just about as false as the 19th century neo-Gothic movement. Still, it doesn’t need to isolated and called out by another name. Anglicans were once the envy and scandal of Europeans for their simple, daily piety, which Anglicans need to regain and offer again to the world.

    Having been educated at a Catholic University and then becoming thoroughly Anglicized at seminary, I’d say that Anglican theology is NOT Catholic, in the sense of being derived from Roman thought. It is nearer to Eastern Orthodox in many ways, which is why dissaffected Anglicans often jump to the American Orthodox churches. Anglican theology stands on its own, despite a shared history. So many of our theological battles seem to have been on that very point.

  3. Would you say the Anglican Church is “integralist” insofar as it retains Catholic theology about the sacramentality of life?

  4. Magdalena,

    Well, I think you’re right as long as you aren’t talking about low church Anglicanism. Our own congregation (officially my wife’s, which I sometimes attend) is just Protestant enough to be lacking that sense of sacramentalism–not just about Christ’s presence the Eucharist, but about God’s presence everywhere in creation–that I think is necessary for a truly “integralist” perspective.

  5. “Christian integralist” is a good way to descrine the complexity and fullness of Anglican theology. The Church of England is not just a denomination, but an entire theological system; Sayers is an excellent modern example of a truly Anglican scholar and theologian.

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