Category Archives: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants

CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers thought medieval faith provides antidotes to modern malaises. So do I.

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.

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. II


Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

. . . continued from part I

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

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:

Continue reading

On how, and why, whole sectors of modern work were birthed from the heart and mind of the Christian church


Been very busy over the past few years, and a bad blogger – not posting much at all.

Among other pieces I’ve posted elsewhere but forgotten to link here at the Grateful To the Dead blog is this one, featured at The Public Discourse blog – run by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton. The piece is a fairly brief meditation on what the Incarnation has meant in Western culture. It contains some ideas that I first published in the Medieval Wisdom book, and that I’m looking forward to extending in my next book. That book will most likely explore how entire sectors of human work that foster and support the material and social dimensions of human flourishing emerged ex corde ecclesia – from the heart of the church (and informed by the mind of the church!):

Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born as a human baby in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.

. . .

Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.

Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.

And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.

Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:

Our bodies matter.

Our minds matter.

Our relationships matter.

Our work matters.

In which, identity politics poisons yet another community once ruled by love (of their subject): the guild of medievalists.


A New York Times article can’t resist the obvious and amusing verb as it describes an ugly scuffle within the guild of those who study the Middle Ages: “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.”

The article chronicles an unedifying tale of buffoonish clashes between the grievance-identity guerillas and the tone-deaf Old Scholars Club. My first reaction was to dismiss the whole donnybrook as yet another illustration of Sayre’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre%27s_law).

But then I realized that the humor here is only surface-deep: I have attended the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo for the past seven years as a fascinated scholarly outsider (my field is the history of Christianity in the nineteenth century). In that time, I have found medievalists to be, more than the scholars in any other field I know, “amateurs” in the best sense of that term. That is, even the best credentialed and most published among them tend to study what they study out of pure fascination – love (the root amare, from which “amateur” is derived) is not too strong a word. This political posturing is a distraction and a blight in the midst of a Guild of Extraordinary Geeks who study what they study out of no other agenda than coming to a deeper acquaintance with fellow humans long dead–whose lives, cultures, and ideas compel them to long, late nights of study, and all the accompanying sacrifices of the academic life.

This vitriolic battle among the lovers of medieval knowledge is also sad because while courtesy, circumspection, humility, wisdom, and so many other (intellectual) virtues all fall among the first casualties, at the same time careers are being made–and everyone knows it.

And this just shows how deep the infection of political posturing runs in academe as a whole, and how unlikely it is that it will heal itself anytime soon.

(Tangent-that’s-not-really-a-tangent: while I was at Duke University in the late ’90s, I heard a distinguished and celebrated Americanist call some figures from American history “fascists.” The parallel (though I don’t remember what group he was attacking) was simply ludicrous. This historian was clearly subsuming responsible scholarship and teaching to partisan attack. In that moment I lost all respect for him–and I started developing my “crap detector” for such unhelpful polemic. I hasten to add that, in the classes (at least) that took, that detector almost never went off around professors. Unfortunately, however, when it came time to start teaching undergraduates at that same university, I could barely hear myself think for the jangling of that detector’s alarm. The sport of elite undergraduate students appeared to be that most ugly and unpleasant game of heated, moralistic attack-dogging.)

A final word: this present climate constrains me to add: I find the poison on the left and the poison on the right here equally, well, poisonous. A pox – or (why not) a full-on medieval plague – on both their houses!

Let us learn from such “jousts” what we should certainly learn: to discern where our work may illegitimately and harmfully minimize past sins or silence present voices. But also, to discern where the agendas of a variety of “culture wars” have rendered us useless as scholars. Let us not allow an honest desire to redress scholarly wrongs to become yet another one of those currently ubiquitous self-righteous and self-aggrandizing crusades (yes, I used the word), waged from the saddle of that most ugly of animals: the Moral High Horse.

And then, having dismounted and recovered what may be the dim and fragmented light of truth from the smoking furnace of polemical heat, let us return to the field of the Passionate Intellect with a redoubled will. For honest scholarship that follows wherever the evidence leads is a balm in a time of turmoil.

New issue of Christian History fights back against the church’s modern amnesia


Let’s get medieval on the church today!

Image may contain: indoor
Seriously, it’s great to see this article, and this whole issue – which Joel Scandrett and I first envisioned many moons ago – come to fruition through the as-always-excellent work of Jennifer Woodruff TaitDawn Myers-MooreDoug Johnson, Dan Graves, Joeli Banks, Meg Goddard MossEdwin Woodruff Tait, Kaylena Radcliff, Deb Landis, and of course our redoubtable Executive Editor Bill Curtis. You can peruse every page in glorious color at https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/…/issue/modern-amnesia. And if you like it, don’t forget to subscribe! (It’s on a donation basis.)

 

Another testament to the “earthiness” of medieval culture


Now this is fascinating.

Medieval image for women-in-drag piece“Knighton may confirm some of our Game of Thrones-esque expectations about the European Middle Ages, one marked by God’s wrath and a conservative religiosity. But, despite his intentions, Knighton also undermines our expectations by showing us a vibrant Middle Ages filled with color, pageantry, laughter, and performance – one in which people don’t act like we think they’re “supposed to.” In other words, Knighton almost by accident shows us a slice of the real Middle Ages, populated by living, breathing human beings.”

Any thoughts on this out there in Friends-of-Grateful to the Dead-Land?

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III


Miniature of Robin, the Miller, from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – early 1400s

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III

This is the conclusion, continued from part II.

Lewis’s incarnational appreciation for the earthiness in medieval literature and drama—including the mystery plays—can be seen in an interview from months before his death. The interviewer asked Lewis about the source of the “light touch” in his writing, even when dealing with “heavy theological themes.” Lewis responded, “I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages [Chaucer and Dante at least, one would think], and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton[, who] was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way, the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”[1]

Those who know the medieval miracle play (or “mystery play”) tradition will recognize at once how themes of desire and death get treated in this way – with the earthy, humorous touch of buffoonery and farce. As for death, I think of the crucifixion play in the York cycle. The nailers’ guild (who had the hereditary responsibility for the play) had the workmen, as they prepared the cross and pounded the nails through Christ’s hands and feet, keep up a stream of complaints at the difficulty and boredom of the work, oblivious to the divine significance of what they were doing.

In his Life of Christ, Bonaventure (1221–74) had counseled: “You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance.” The plays helped their audiences do this by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous, heightening the bizarre reality of a God who becomes human and dies at the hands of those he created.

One might find here the same sort of what we might call “sacramental use of humor” we find in Lewis’s treatments of Eros and death. This is a farcical way of talking about our bodily, material lives so as to both challenge our bodies’ insistent claims to ultimacy and remind us that our bodily experiences point beyond our proximate desires to the desire for heaven. “Sacramental humor” thus reinforces the truth that our God, who came to us bodily in the Incarnation, still meets us in our bodies.

I would argue that this is in fact one of the most central insights of medieval faith, fixated as it was on the Incarnation. Continue reading

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II


Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II

Continued from part I.

So, back to Lewis’s words on Eros in the Four Loves:

The highest does not stand[118] without the lowest. There is indeed at certain moments a high poetry in the flesh itself; but also, by your leave, an irreducible element of obstinate and ludicrous un-poetry.

Then, a few lines down, Lewis bridges from Desire and Eros to Death once again:

Pleasure, pushed to its extreme, shatters us like pain. The longing for a union which only the flesh can mediate while the flesh, our mutually excluding bodies, renders it forever unattainable, can have the grandeur of a metaphysical pursuit. Amorousness as well as grief can bring tears to the eyes. But Venus does not always come thus “entire, fastened to her prey”, and the fact that she sometimes does so is the very reason for preserving always a hint of playfulness in our attitude to her. When natural things look most divine, the demoniac is just round the corner.

Here we have a bridge between sexual desire (Venus, a component of Eros) and death. Both involve states of the body, which drag us into the realm of the comic, the un-poetic. That element in the experience of embodiment keeps us from taking any bodily experience too seriously – from making anything bodily ultimate. This comic element, this limitation and haltingness of embodiment, keeps us, in short, from idolatry. It keeps us from the Materialist error, while still leaving open to us a sacramental understanding of our bodily experience as the frequent, or at least potential, gateway to something higher than ourselves. This is where desire reaches out to divinity, or suffering to sublimity. Continue reading

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in C S Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part I


Each May since 2012, I’ve been presenting at the largest annual academic conference on medieval studies: the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. My papers have always explored some aspect of the medievalism (a term meaning “modern interpretation and use of medieval ideas or practices”) of C S Lewis – and the richness of medieval Christian traditions from which Lewis drew in his own theological and spiritual thinking, doing, and teaching.

This year’s paper was a shorter than usual offering – really more of a suggestive sketch of a research question. It was given as part of a five-person panel on “Lewis and Death”:

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in C S Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part I

Why look at Death and Desire together, in Lewis or any other Christian source?

Simple: Biblical language of crucifying our disordered desires as a means to cultivate the new life in Christ—or on the contrary, of gaining the world (fulfilling our earthly desires) but losing our soul (fulfilling our heavenly desires)—brings desire and death together in a theological concept of a salutary sort of “death” that helps us realize our (properly ordered) spiritual desires for God.

That is, as Calvin wrote in the third book of his Christian Institutes: We must mortify the sinful self to vivify the spiritual self.

Or, to anchor this more firmly in Lewis’s medieval sources, as that 5th/6th-c. taproot of medieval spiritual practice, Pseudo-Dionysius, taught: the soul ascends to God through a movement of mortification->illumination->union. Lewis found this common medieval formulation of the spiritual life in many medieval places, including the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica, and Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection.

So that’s “Why.” Now, “How”?

Continue reading