Category Archives: Christian humanism

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.

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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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.