Things Medieval – a podcast conversation with Dr. Grace Hamman


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Dr. Grace Hamman invited me to join her on her podcast, Old Books with Grace, and we had an enjoyable and wide-ranging conversation–largely about Things Medieval and why they still matter today. Boethius, Anselm, Margery Kempe, and Christian humanism all made appearances, among other people and topics. Thank you, Grace! You can find her podcast on all major platforms; for convenience, here’s a link to this new episode on one of those.

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.

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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.

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


John Everett Millais – “Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter’s Shop’)”; Wikimedia Commons

I commend to you Common Good magazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.

In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:

The Work of Genesis
How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations

Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.

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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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Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part II


“Crosswalk,” Ryoji Iwata, Unsplash free use

This article continues from part I

Humanism: a brief definition

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:

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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.

Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation


Workers in a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil; by Guilherme Cunha, Unsplash, free use

First, my apologies to regular readers and subscribers for disappearing for a while. For the past 6-9 months (or more), this blog has been offline, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, but seeming to have to do with its attachment to an old email address to which I no longer had access. But even before that, I had for years not updated the blog on any but the most sporadic basis. I intend for that to change now, as I am working on a new book (on which, more anon) and will most likely blog through the process as I did with Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, published back in 2016. So, as a first shot across the bow . . .

[The talk from which the following is excerpted was presented by Dr. Chris R. Armstrong at the Ciceronian Society annual meeting at Grove City College in March, 2022. As always, this material is not to be reproduced or distributed in any form without the express permission of the author.]

Introduction: Disenchantment and the sacred-secular divide

The faith-work problematic

American Christians has been wrestling with a problem for decades. The problem is that many Christians in this country experience a separation in our lives between supposedly sacred activities and supposedly secular activities – and that furthermore our work, which may in the end account for some 100,000 hours of our lives, falls largely in the latter category.

You may say, “Wait a minute – what about the torrent of books, blogs, websites, podcasts, and conferences on this subject in the last few decades? Are we really still unable to resolve this existential issue?” And I would respond, “Yes, because we still have no stable, faithful, well-worked-out theological understanding of what work is and how it relates to central teachings of our faith.”

In other words, despite some excellent scholarly treatments, the faith and work conversation remains largely ungrounded in three ways: philosophically, theologically, and importantly, historically. Having by the mid-nineteenth century discarded much of the Christian knowledge tradition, American Christianity—or at least, American Protestantism—now unsurprisingly finds itself with precious few resources to address what, at the very least, must be seen as a colossal failure of pastoral care.

In this paper, I propose that the longstanding and biblically faithful tradition of Christian humanism—a philosophy of culture that is faithful to central biblically derived doctrines—can and should provide this tripartite grounding, and that scholars who are engaging the faith and work conversation should be recovering and drawing from that tradition today.

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