Introducing Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis – part 2

St Valentine's relicsThe alienness of it all – and, on not being an antiquarian

I don’t deny that the terrain of the medieval church seems alien to most of us today. Before us, relics peer out from within gilded boxes, and the devout approach them as conduits to divine power. Above us, saints hover supernaturally, and the earthbound plead for their intercession. At the high altar, the priest, back to congregation, performs an elaborate sacred drama, elevating the bread and wine, pronouncing the Words of Institution, and the devout await the ringing of the bell, at which time they gaze at those same elements and see the literal body and blood of Christ. Within the confessional, the penitent kneels, receives absolution, and hears the works of satisfaction she must perform for her soul’s sake. And in cloisters, cathedrals, and cow pastures, tonsured monks sing Psalms, mitered bishops pronounce on doctrine, and ragged peasants supplicate Mary with weeping.

It seems to me, however, that the chasm between us and our medieval forefathers and -mothers in the faith has less to do with any intrinsic oddness about the Christians of that time, and more with certain philosophical and cultural presuppositions of our own. So, though may seem odd for a book about “medieval wisdom” to start with an assessment of the church today, this one is about to do that, for two reasons:

First, this is my scholarly center of gravity. I come to the wisdom of medieval faith not through long technical study of the church of the Middle Ages (though I have read many of the key primary works in translation, along with many helpful secondary sources), but through scholarship on American Christianity that, alongside daily experience in many Western evangelical ecclesial settings, has given me an acute sense of some deep needs of these churches today.

Second, though “presentism”—an approach to historical periods that presses it to answer modern questions alien to its own realities—is rightly condemned in the historical guild, nonetheless a historical approach that does not account for the value of its subject for us today may quite literally be worse than useless.[1] Finding moral, intellectual, spiritual value for our own lives is the whole point of doing history. And there is no way to understand the value of the past for our present experience without understanding our own time well.

Of course I see the Middle Ages through modern lenses. But so do even the most careful of scholar-specialists. Indeed, the best of them do this not only unconsciously, but also quite intentionally. They know that to fail to connect a past period to our own is to fall into mere antiquarianism—like the numismatist collecting rare coins for no purpose higher than the sheer pleasure of having them. Chesterton thought you could not be a proper medievalist until you cared deeply enough about today to apply your medieval insights to your own life and thinking. I think he’s exactly right. To be an antiquarian—beguiling yourself with stories and collecting facts like butterflies but never asking what it all might mean for us today—is to fail to be a useful historian, no matter what era turns your crank.

So the only sensible reason to care about the past is that through knowing it, you believe you can make a better present. The chief purpose of history is moral improvement. This means we must derive lessons for today from our study of history. But to do so, we must discern our own time, too.

[1] See Lewis’s comments, in the Screwtape Letters, about “historicism” noted in the Tradition chapter of this book.

3 responses to “Introducing Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis – part 2

  1. Reblogged this on Sacred Foundations, Inc. and commented:
    Part 2 of Introducing Medieval Wisdom.

  2. I agree. To know ourselves fully today whether as individuals or on a more societal level, we must go back and bring forth the wisdom that makes us all more whole. We cannot truly know ourselves without knowing our history. To toss away customs that are alien to us without reflection truncates who we are today. This is the work of ‘re’ – ‘membering’ that builds sacred bonds of hospitality and community; that weaves together the church of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

  3. Reblogged this on Debrymothership's Blog and commented:
    Part 2 of Medieval Wisdom.

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