Embodiment, emotion, death, asceticism . . . an attempt to describe the legacy of medieval faith

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...

A page from the Book of Kells

The book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, or as I think of it these days, Getting Medieval: A faithful tour of the Middle Ages with a little help from C S Lewis, is trying to be born, and I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m struggling to express an argument which will set up the medieval centrality of the Incarnation and Creation as that period’s most important legacy to us today.

What follows is just rough-draft wording of a short passage for the book’s introduction. Arguments and details still seem to pull in opposite directions, but I’m convinced of the truth, at least in outline, of what I’m struggling to express here.

Readers, I’d value your thoughts on this brief, rough, passage. Where can I go from here? How can I refine and add power to this argument? What am I missing? Where am I too negative about the modern church? Too positive about the medieval? Does this argument resonate at all with your experience or does it just seem to you to miss the mark? 


Question the modern (evangelical) Protestant idea that God left his church for 1,000+ years (roughly 500s through 1400s). Describe myself as truth-seeker, looking for the sustenance, the nourishing material, that God provided that age and that we have lost sight of.

People concerned with this historical amnesia and discontinuity with our own faith past suggest “break points”: some in the late 19th century (Lewis’s “De Descriptione Temporum” speech), others after the Enlightenment. My own sense: the scientific revolution and its sequels (the Enlightenment) began to sap the material world of its godly/cosmic significance, and that lessening has only continued and intensified up to today. We no longer recognize the spiritual importance of either Incarnation (God enfleshed) or Creation.

What does it mean to propose a godly significance of material realities—the kind of “world-sacramentalism” taught and practiced by Gregory the Great and Francis of Assisi, and almost everyone else from Gregory to the Reformation?

This sense of God at work in the material world and in our own embodied, related experience was (in the West at least) part of the orthodox Christian understanding of the world for the whole period and, in many circles, both before and after this period. This was not pantheism, but rather the sense both of God’s glory reflected in Creation and God’s grace working through ordinary things in Creation.

Since science, in the argument of Lewis’s Discarded Image, sapped the material world—indeed the solar system and beyond—of all life and mystery, including the life of God and the mystery of redemption, humankind found it a dull fact worthy of little interest that the supreme God over all the universe came in the flesh of a human being, entering into the world(s) he had made. All the rich resonances of Incarnation and all the glories and intricacies of human life within Creation were left for oddball romantic poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, in their fringe, irrelevant musings.

The world, of course, did not stop being charged with the grandeur of God. It did not stop flaming out, like shining from shook foil. But only the poets and the mystics noticed anymore.

In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, [quote Lewis, DI, on the vibrancy and wonder of the medieval cosmos].

Did such mystical understanding of the cosmos reduce God to some sort of magician, meddling in material stuff to gain cheap effects among his human audience? Did it encourage rank “superstition”—which is a modern term for attributing to spiritual origins anything we still don’t understand? That’s certainly the anachronistic approach of moderns faced with the “discarded image” of the Middle Ages, as we see in William Manchester’s atrocious book A World Lit Only By Fire: The Middle Ages is now supposed to have been an era blighted by impenetrable ignorance and intractable, dumb superstition; incapable of seeing the obvious truths that, hundreds of years hence, the simple empirical methods of science would make plain [connect with the myth that medievals believed in a flat earth].

It seems if we are to return to the nourishing truths of the Middle Ages, we will have to shuck off our own impenetrable materialist ignorance and intractable scientific superstition.

What this ignorance has looked like among the pious: a super-spiritualizing of faith. Faith deals with the realms of the spiritual and does not involve the realm of the physical (thank you, for example, Mr. Zwingli). The important thing about Christ is that he was divine, not that he was human.

We have not become, as some argue, gnostics. We are far too fond of our creature comforts for the dualism of that heresy, even if we pretend not to be. Rather, we just now pretend that those comforts are spiritually insignificant. In our Christology, we are functionally Apollinarians or Monophysites: the divine nature of Christ has completely absorbed and taken over his human nature. And this leaves us in our anthropology, not ascetically vicious with our own bodies, but rather heedless of their significance as the one and only “place” in which we meet God. We are not, pace modernist anthropology, brains on sticks or (in the evangelical version) spirits hovering around without bodies.

We do not live outside our experience of embodiedness and relatedness with other bodies. We do not live apart from sex. All we know how to do any more as evangelicals is to put up barriers and proscriptions: “NO sex before marriage.” “NO homosexual activity or feelings.” “NO abortion.” We do not know how to use the rich imagery of marriage and sexuality to talk about our own relationship with God, as Bernard of Clairvaux (and Origen long before him) did. We do not know how to see the mother- as well as the father-dimension of God, as Julian of Norwich did.

We do not live apart from the pleasures of the table. All we know how to do any more as evangelicals is to put up barriers and proscriptions: “NO overeating,” “NO laziness and lack of exercise.” We do not know how to use the rich imagery of convivial feasting, including the enjoyment of intoxicating beverages, to talk about our own relationship with God both in heaven and here on earth, as Margery Kempe did, or anyone else in the M.A. talking about the marriage supper of the lamb or savoring the wine of the Eucharist, with its potential for intoxication, as a created good. Or remembering Augustine’s cry: “Intoxicate me, O god!”

We do not live apart from emotion–strong emotion. All we know how to do any more as evangelicals is to channel all of that emotion to God; some quietly, in private devotion or sitting in solemn reverence in the sanctuary, and some more expressively, in charismatic worship. We don’t know what to do with it in our relationships, other than to counsel sober good sense and careful reining-in of the “passions.” And of course, that’s wise. That stuff is dynamite. But if God wants to work in our everyday emotional lives, our relationships and pleasures and temptations and sins, well, we don’t know anything about that. Sounds dangerous. Better keep that stuff to church services and prayer closets.

And because we think these things–sex, food, emotion–have to do only with biological matters of reproduction and sustenance, or with unfortunate physical tendencies that cloud our judgment and confuse our ability to see truth, and that they have no spiritual significance, we live our lives with God as a giant game of pretend. We pretend that the only part of us that matters is our “spiritual” part. We pretend we can sustain relationship with Him by attending only to that part. We pretend that a vertical relationship is enough, and that our horizontal relationships with spouses, children, parents, co-workers will simply sort themselves out if we spend enough time alone in our prayer closets—as if “alone” is the only place God can be met.

And because of all this, we cannot take seriously the power of disciplines such as celibacy (temporary or lifelong) or fasting (brief or protracted) or stability within one church, one monastic community, one town. Since the body is not a place where spirituality gets done, mortifying the body is not part of our spirituality. Fasting is no gift to God, for the material has no significance. Keeping the heart for God by abstaining from sex is no important spiritual discipline, for God does not care about what we do with our bodies in the intimacy of our bedrooms. Keeping fidelity to one community is no way to serve God, because the social dimension lacks spiritual significance. He is a God of the spiritual things, not of the material things. He is a God who came, in Jesus, as a spiritual being, not as a material being. So that bodily realm has no spiritual significance for us. It is not evil, as the gnostics held. It is simply irrelevant.

And because this is in fact not true—rather a giant game of “let’s pretend”—divorce rates are the same for Christians as for non-Christians. We have no lower rate of obesity than do non-Christians (perhaps worse, as a study some time ago of Southern Baptists suggested—because eating is the one vice left to a group hedged around with the “NO” signs). We do not make art worth looking at. We do not write poems worth reading. We do not build churches worth walking into or worshiping in. We do not give council to married people worth hearing. We do not understand how to pass on our faith to our children, the fruit of our loins.

If we think our material existence is irrelevant, then of course we do not study how to live bodily “as unto God.” On the one hand, our devotion is not “full boisterous” and we do not engage in “dalliance” with our Lord, as was the case with Margery Kempe. In our worship, we abstain from kneeling, prostrating ourselves, crossing ourselves, incense, art, vestments, and all that other “medieval” (or “Catholic”) stuff. After all, that stuff would drag us back down into our embodiedness–into the material world that as we scientific moderns know has no spiritual significance.

On the other hand, we do not take seriously the ascetic disciplines that address our pressing, spiritually engaged bodies in ways that turn them always back to our Lord. And, it should be said, we have forgotten “the Art of Dying Well” that was so well understood and lavishly explained in the late M.A. especially. If our bodily lives lack spiritual significance, then so too do our bodily deaths. And again, because we downgrade our horizontal relatedness in the quest for vertical relatedness, we find the idea of mystical communion and fellowship with “saints” who have gone on before us both irrelevant and indeed irreverent.


Well, there it is. Any quick responses? No doubt others have said such things as these more clearly, more powerfully, more correctly. But as for me and this book, again, how can I refine and add power to this argument? What am I missing? Where am I too negative about the modern church? Too positive about the medieval?

9 responses to “Embodiment, emotion, death, asceticism . . . an attempt to describe the legacy of medieval faith

  1. Hi Dr. Armstrong,
    I’m new to your blog, and am so thankful I found it. I’ve been wrestling desperately with modern – medieval disagreements ever since I read some of the Reformers and got a cursory experience with Ockham.

    I’m gripped by what you wrote, though I am uncertain how you would relate this to modern evangelicalism other to destroy it. The problem seems to me that your differences with modern Christianity in America stem all the way back to differences with late medieval thinkers (as much as I don’t understand Ockham, it seems you primarily differ with his metaphysics) which would understandably isolate you from mainstream evangelicalism. I don’t mean to sound bleak (perhaps what I’m saying isn’t new to you) but I have a hard time seeing how this could relate in any other way than to challenge some core perspectives of the Reformation (the eucharist in particular comes to mind) and by extension evangelicalism. Perhaps this is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just so smackingly anti-modern haha!

    On another note, I’m not sure I entirely agree with your assessment of evangelical perspective on physical matter. While I think tattoos and piercings are evidence enough that we have lost the sacred perspective of our physical being, I think evangelicals are more concerned with idolatry of the material that they will always appear to be semi-gnostics (even though we continue to build megachurches). Perhaps we see the physical as so alluring that we are concerned with idolizing it.

    All that said, I’m entirely new to your blog so I’ll be sure to read up more on some of your perspectives.


  2. Very good thoughts. I’d read the article Rob linked from Thomas Lynch, then a passage from John Ortberg’s book Faith and Doubt on how Jesus cried, raged, and was joyous – emotions that are very human and not at all reserved – right prior to reading this post. I particularly resonated with the part about our biological functions as having no spiritual significance. The fact of Jesus’ humanity is a struggle to take in sometimes, especially when the implications kick in.
    The discipline of staying in a community, living out our faith in relationship – not only to God but to our fellow Christians (1John) – make this important to take in and work out. I’m an Anglican and enjoy the wrestling with these concepts – even as they tell me that I have much work to do, with God’s help.

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