So now we come to Christian humanism. What is it? And what has it had to teach us about the world and about humanity? As a preliminary definition, I offer the following:
Christian humanism is a longstanding philosophy of culture that has drawn from the doctrines of Creation and of the Incarnation for its understanding of the world, of human nature, and of our culture-creating work dedicated to serving our full flourishing as embodied, rational, social beings living in the world. And this Christian humanist philosophy has upheld the central value—often mistaken for the innovation of a secular Enlightenment—of universal human dignity and equality, with its eventual social outworkings in rule of law, democratic government, free trade, and the fostering of human work as the exercise of creativity and rationality to steward and improve the world’s resources. Arguably in the past two centuries the result of these and other outworkings of Christian humanist values has been tremendous growth in global economic prosperity, even as these values have become almost entirely separated from the Christian faith that originated them.
To get to a point-by-point summary of how Christian humanism can help us address the American Christian faith-work problematic, we need to sketch key moments of its development. And to ground this historical sketch, we begin with biblical and doctrinal sources:
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.
What we are doing in stepping back into the Middle Ages with Lewis’s guidance is attempting to challenge that “line of immediatism” in two ways:
First, from the 17th c. to today, the primary religious authority of scripture/tradition has increasingly given way to that of reason/experience. To desire to learn from the cloud of witnesses or “church triumphant” – those one whose shoulders we stand – is to shift authority back to the older style, weighting Scripture-read-through-tradition more heavily than the dictates of individual reason and experience.
Second, from the 17th c to today, the primary way individuals have met God has shifted from a church-mediated to an individual, unmediated mode. Any full and useful appropriation of the past—that is, one not content just to offer doctrinal direction—will likely seek to return to some form of churchly mediation, whether of liturgical forms, priestly role, or both, attempting to reverse this post-Enlightenment trajectory.
Look, feel, and results of immediatism
What, then, does immediatism look like in evangelical churches today, and how does that degrade our ability to gain benefit from the church of the past? Continue reading →
Civil War era Moravian band – this pietist group has always been known for its music
Great piece today over at the Daily Beast on the very first July 4th celebration. A sample:
They also had a strong pacifist tradition, dating to their founding amid the religious struggles of the 15th century as a “peace church.” Members were forbidden to serve in the military. They lived by the teachings in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
It’s little wonder that by 1783, the Moravians in Salem were thrilled that the battles were over. During the Revolution, both British and rebels harassed them, collected fines, and even attacked them physically. Some young men hid in the forest to escape being pressed into service. A few did join with the rebels; the church forgave them later.
Too, the Moravians, despite their reluctance to bear arms, were pleased to be part of the new country, now that it was at peace. They heeded the governor’s proclamation. And eight years later, in 1791, they welcomed President George Washington for a two-day stay and tour of the settlement.
Where the medievalist C S Lewis and friends (many of them also medievalists) often hung out
Hi all! Apologies for the looooong stretch of relative silence and inactivity. Life has been more than ordinarily full, especially as I have taken on directorial duties with a major grant initiative at my seminary (the “Work with Purpose” initiative – website soon to be up and running, and I’ll post the link here when it is).
The other thing keeping me busy these days is writing my forthcoming book Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. I recently traveled to UNC-Chapel Hill to work in their rare book room on a number of medieval books (modern editions of) that were owned and heavily annotated by Lewis. And I am currently (stuck) drafting the chapter on the medieval passion for theology.
What I intend to do during the coming month, as I race toward the Sept. 1 deadline, is reactivate this blog by sharing snippets of the book as they take shape.
In other news, I will soon be heading up a team launching a brand spanking new online faith-and-work channel over at patheos.com. The funding is in place, the organizing meeting is in a few weeks in Boston, we start work in earnest on Oct 1, and “God willin’ an’ the creek don’t rise,” the channel will launch on Dec 1. At that point the reflections on the theology of work, vocation, and economics that have dotted the pages of this blog during the past year will disappear (or compact into brief one- or two-sentence links pointing to that blog).
Ahhhh. It’s good to be back.
Watch this space.
Peace, joy, and the stimulating exercise of our God-given minds together,
Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin’s best likeness. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Friend Ken Stewart has a new book out, and Scot McKnight is blogging through it in his inimitable style. Well worth reading. A few samples from today’s “episode”:
We are in Ken Stewart’s debt for his enough-is-enough book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Non-Calvinists are not always informed about Calvinism, and are sometimes fond of pointed jabs that do not describe Calvinists accurately, and so a book like this that shows both deep commitment to Calvinism and friendly fire is one we all need. He is also concerned as well with those Calvinists who think they’ve got it figured out but don’t. What Stewart’s book will do is humble Calvinists into thinking their family is more diverse than is often supposed.
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