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