Some friends and I are beginning to plan a multi-day seminar on Christian humanism to be given to a group of scholar-teachers from across the country next spring. As we consider themes that might prove both interesting and helpful to such a group, I’ve framed some elements (still well short of an outline) as follows:
Nascent learning outcomes
Definitions: What, simply defined, is Christian humanism (hereafter, “CH”)?
Scriptural warrants: What are some key scriptural foundations of CH?
Doctrinal warrants: In what key Christian doctrines has CH been grounded?
Chronological scope, depth in the tradition: How has CH been present and active in all periods of Christian history?
Patristic roots and forms: How were the Church Fathers Christian humanists?
Medieval roots and forms: How were the scholastics and renaissance thinkers Christian humanists?
Reformation roots and forms: How were the Reformers Christian humanists?
20th century: CH as a tradition reclaimed during times of crisis: What social circumstances and intellectual contexts led WW II – era thinkers to attempt to reclaim facets of CH for their time? Are there parallels between the crisis of that era (to which some thinkers responded by looking to re-excavate CH) and our own moment of multifaceted crisis?
21st century: Application today: If CH is appropriately considered as a “crisis philosophy” that has something to say to our moment, then do we need to recapture CH today – particularly in contemporary North American culture?
I’ve had occasion before to recommend on this blog the excellent magazine Common Good. Despite my occasional appearance in its pages, it’s just chock full of good stuff, and it’s well worth subscribing. Here’s a review of a fascinating new book (I don’t say this just because its author cites my Medieval Wisdom book a bunch) that they asked me to write – it’ll appear in an upcoming issue, no doubt improved from this draft by editor extraordinaire Aaron Cline Hanbury:
Jason M. Baxter’s new book The Medieval Mind of C S Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind is a suggestive introduction to the literary and theological substance of what we may call, following Baxter’s own clues, CS Lewis’s “long-medieval Christian humanism.”
It is suggestive in helping us understand Lewis’s mind better—Baxter starts the book by puzzling over the fact that despite lavish attention to Lewis the apologist and Lewis the fiction-writer, most modern readers know little to nothing about a “third Lewis”: Lewis the medievalist.
But more than this, it is suggestive in understanding Lewis’s distinctive approach to the cultural crisis of his lifetime – shadowed as it was by two World Wars – and in assessing what we can learn from that approach for our own troubled times.
On the efficacy of the active life as an aid to the contemplative life, Gregory’s understanding of “the mixed life”—especially, but (as we’ve seen) not exclusively for pastors and bishops—is one of his greatest legacies to the church. Bernard McGinn notes that while Gregory dwelt, “at times obsessively,” on married life’s dangers—especially owing to its unavoidable entanglements with the “outside” world—yet, “he believed that the combination of the vita activa and vita contemplativa to which the praedicatores [preachers] were called was the highest and most important form of life in the church.”[i]
The importance of this point may be seen in the fact that Gregory identified the two lives as oriented to the two parts of the “law of love” – love of God and love of neighbor.[ii]
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his own liberality with the coffers of the church on behalf of those in need, one of the elements of the active life that he taught pastors to practice was the economic work of providing for their people’s material needs and “earthly necessities.” In fact, he argued that if they did not do so, their words would not be heard well – and they would deserve it![iii]
Cuthbert Butler first points out that Gregory picked up Augustine’s teaching that “no one can come to contemplation without having exercised the works of the active life, so that the active life is necessary for all, whereas the contemplative is not necessary[, and thus] . . . optional.” (Butler, 249)
Gregory, in fact, not only asserts that the active life is necessary, but also that it has a chronological priority: it must be exercised before one can come to the contemplative life. In fact, he asserted this frequently:
“The active life is lived first, that afterwards the contemplative may be attained to.”[i]
“Perfectness of practice having been received, we come to contemplation.”[ii]
“Every one that is perfect is first joined to an active life for productiveness, and afterwards united to a contemplative life for rest.”[iii]
“The season for action comes first, for contemplation last. . . . The mind should first spend itself in labour, and afterwards it may be refreshed by contemplation.”[iv]
“We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of the active life.”[v]
“The active life is before the contemplative in time, because by good works we tend to contemplation.”[vi]
Augustine’s claim for the superiority of the contemplative over the active life, which sets the tone for the church for the next millennium, seems based on two things: (1) the early and medieval Christian understanding of the superiority of the eternal over the temporal life with all its struggles and unmet needs in the fallen world. Note we need not say “eternal/spiritual” and “temporal/material,” for there is a New Creation, with its own kind of materiality – so that is a false separation. I’m not sure whether Augustine makes that separation or not, but he does note that material need will be wiped away in the eternal life. Which brings us to Augustine’s second source on the preferability of the contemplative over the active life: (2) the Gospel story of Mary and Martha.
Here is Augustine on both of these themes:
“Martha chose a good part, but Mary the better. What Martha chose passes away. She ministered to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless: but all these pass away,–there will be [a time – or rather, an eternity] when none will hunger nor thirst. Therefore will her care be taken from her ‘Mary hath chosen the better part . . . which shall not be taken away from her.’ She hath chosen to contemplate, to live by the Word (Sermon clxix.17).” (in Butler, 233)
Note this early identification, in Augustine, of the active life with Matt 25 type works of compassion to those in need. It is clear that he is not here denigrating Martha’s choice or the active life entirely:
Continued from part III, and repeating the last couple of sections of that article:
Clearly, Augustine is not dismissing the active life (though he has also not yet fully defined it). He is pointing, in fact, to a sanctifying function in that life.
In a similar text, with a less absolute division between the two lives, Augustine says the following (I give it in two translations – the first from the Cuthbert Butler book cited above, and the second, again, from an online NPNF version):
“Two virtues are set before the soul of man, the one active, the other contemplative; the one whereby we journey, the other whereby we reach our journey’s end; the one whereby we toil that our heart may be cleansed for the vision of God, the other whereby we repose and see God; the one lies in the precepts for carrying on this temporal life, the other in the doctrine of that life which is eternal. Hence it is that the one toils, and the other reposes; for the former is in the purgation of sins, the latter in the light [or illumination] of the purgation effected. Hence it is that, in this mortal life, the former consists in the work of leading a good life, the latter more in faith, and with some few, through a mirror in enigma and in part, in some vision of unchangeable Truth. These two virtues are seen figured in the two wives of Jacob. . . . the three first evangelists, who principally record the words and deeds of our Lord for the right conduct of the present life, are chiefly concerned  with active virtue; but John is chiefly concerned in commending contemplative virtue.”[i]
Then we find in Augustine a view we might almost describe as “pragmatic” – that the active life is simply necessary to us, as beings of the sort we are, and though we might desire to fly directly to the contemplative life, we cannot do so – and that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’ll take it piece by piece, reflecting on each as we go:
First, then, the “busyness thesis,” as read by such thinkers as Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great.
Augustine of Hippo described two kinds of life: the active life and the contemplative life. His reflections on the relationship between these set the theological tone for the entire era of the Middle Ages on this aspect of the relationship between spiritual and economic work—though as we’ll see later, we already find some monastic pioneers a generation or two before Augustine who were concerned with the potential for a busy life with lots of human responsibilities to crowd out the quest for personal holiness.
From his writings on this matter, it is clear that he sees both kinds of life as necessary and that the active life comprises most of our experience here on earth. Second, it is also clear that the contemplative life is above all desirable, unites us to our true God, and comprises tastes of heaven for us – thus the descriptions of the contemplative life in the long list of dyads in his most famous passage on the subject, below, is a kind of travel brochure or gift catalogue for the contemplative life, designed to stir up our desire for it. One may see such language as a clue to why so many entered an ascetic, and so many more a fully cloistered monastic, life in the time between Augustine and Luther: only strong desire could so move them:
In the first part of this essay, I offer three potential medieval objections to the compatibility of spiritual and economic work–the “busyness thesis,” the “mammon thesis,” and the “worldliness thesis”; then I continue:
Of course, one thing we can say to these three theses is “Yes, at some points in some places in the vast and complex thousand-year landscape of medieval Europe, all three of them have been argued by Christians.”
But, I suggest two further responses to this observation:
First, remember that what we are trying to do is not to prove that these theories were absent everywhere and always in the Middle Ages. It is rather to select countervailing historical instances that challenge the oft-encountered modern scholarly assumption that medievals always or as a rule found economic and spiritual work incompatible – thus either explicitly proscribing economic activity for the spiritually serious (whether monastic or lay), or judging those serious folks who do engage in economic work as derelict in their self-sworn spiritual duties and principles.
Second, we will attend to the very significant social and economic changes in the so-called “high medieval period” in the West (roughly 1050 – 1300) that began to broaden the spiritual life – the via apostolica – from the monastic cloister to the marketplace. This was a period of “increasing population, land reclamation, urban growth, expansion of education opportunities, new trade routes, [and] an emerging merchant class.”[i] So we will be recognizing, if not much geographical variation, at least temporal variation.
However, we should be careful – these social changes do not mean (as some have interpreted) that monasticism and its disciplines was either (1) fully retrenched and retracted into itself, as might be assumed from looking at the austere reforms of the Cistercians and of monastically trained Gregory VII or (2) discarded as a model for the spiritual life of the laity, as one might assume toward the end of the era. Even in the expansion of lay spirituality from the high through the late medieval period – that is, the 500 years before Luther – monasticism continues to be a central character in the story of the relationship between economic and spiritual work.
A few years ago I was invited to present a paper at a colloquium of scholars gathered to discuss topics related to the intersection of faith and economic work in the history of the church. What I presented was a first stab at a research agenda: 2/3 of a larger idea about a certain theme in medieval Christianity. Since the paper was never published, I intend to blog it here in sections. So, to begin:
The question of this paper is this: Was there, in the Middle Ages, an understanding of economic labor as inherently inimical to the spiritual life – especially as modeled by monasticism?
It is certainly true, as the great medievalist R. W. Southern says, that through its 1,200+ late ancient and medieval years of activity, monasticism was often involved in and compromised by the world. R. W. Southern talks about this complexity:
“Everywhere in the history of the religious Orders we find that associations which were founded as a protest against the world and all its ways had their destinies shaped for them by the society in which they had their being. There were many forces which shaped them, even against their will: their property, their family connexions, their secular functions, and the opportunity which they offered their members for advancement to the highest places in the social order. The ‘worldliness’ of medieval religious communities has often been remarked and generally criticized, and it is true that anyone who looks at these communities for a pure expression of the aims of their founders must very often be disappointed. The states of mind and aspirations expressed in the Rules and Foundation deeds of the various Orders were not realized in any large measure. The driving forces in their development were quite different from those of the original founders.”[i]
But the question is, would medievals themselves share the underlying assumption of this analysis: the supposed “fact” that economic work must, by its very nature, hamper spiritual formation?
Dr. Mary Hirschfeld of Villanova University, author of Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, is one of the few true economist-theologians I know of. Harvard-trained economist, Notre Dame-trained theologian, adult Roman Catholic convert, Dr Hirschfeld was recommended to me by a number of friends as a speaker for a symposium I organized in partnership with the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America (and hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in DC) this past March. Four papers by theologically minded economists and economically minded theologians – Dr Hirschfeld among them – anchored two solid days of tremendously broad, deep, and gracefully collegial conversation. (The four papers, by the way, will be published in an end-of-2022 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.) And it was a delight to meet and work with all of them, but particularly Dr Hirschfeld, whose paper impressed and engaged everyone in the room.
On returning from that symposium, since everyone was telling me I must read Aquinas and the Market (which I commend to everyone interested in the intersection of theology and economics) I’ve been meeting with two friends on a monthly basis to work through the book. To launch our reading group together, we watched a half-hour video interview with Hirschfeldposted last November by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. In preparation for our discussion of that video, I drafted the summary notes below. The interview is worth watching, but this will give you a quick study:
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