5. Reason and imagination (or maybe better, “truth and beauty”
Because WordPress does not allow for the “read more” section divider (crucial for shortening the part of each post that shows up on this blog’s main page) to be placed in the midst of a numbered list, I’m simply going to say here: this is the lastdyad of ideas that (in my opinion) Christian humanism often, in its history, attempted to bring together.
Actually, one more note too: After having proposed this Christian humanist “dyadic harmonization thesis” to our seminar development team, I started (the other day) reading the brilliant, clear, and well-researched account by Australian scholar Tracey Rowland of war-time and post-WW II German Christian humanism, Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism. In that book, I’ve already discovered plenty of evidence of such dyadic harmonization in the German Roman Catholic thinkers whose Christian humanist thought Rowland so clearly and persuasively summarizes. In another post I may note a few of those spots in Rowland’s book.But for now, the list . . .
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.
I haveargued that the faith & work conversation needs a stronger theological foundation, and that the long tradition of Christian humanism can and should provide that foundation. I recognize in making that argument that many questions now arise. So I am beginning to line up those questions. The following is a preliminary list, not yet carefully ordered nor comprehensive; I also recognize that any number of these overlap significantly with each other:
A friend asked me to write a short comment for the new scholarly journal 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.
Good brief article from Wheaton English professor and C S Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs over at the American Conservative website.
Here’s how he starts off:
Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here atThe American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.
I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.
So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.
Jacobs goes on to articulate three stances that he holds that may be considered “conservative”: (1) a consistent pro-life position, (2) support for the principle of subsidiarity in political and social thought, and (3) need to interact with tradition/the past.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the positions Jacobs identifies here. I am especially delighted to see subsidiarity articulately described and defended. I am with Novak, Nisbet, Chesterton, Belloc, certain encyclicals, and others on the necessity of protecting folks from “the ravishments of the centralized political state” (Nisbet). I also find this a powerful statement of one of our most urgent current tasks: “A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units.”
In the domain of religion and science, decisions, actions, attitudes, practices, and conflicts of the present moment require careful assessment for what they mean now and how they may affect the future. Conservative Protestants today, for example, offer many reasons for leaning against or actively combating the consensus of modern scientists concerning evolution. Some of those reasons concern narrowly defined issues of physical evidence or the interpretation of specific biblical passages, while others range to broader issues of theology, philosophy, ethnicity, family order, public education, or government. To offer historical explanations for the standoff, which this paper tries to do, is not the same as explaining the individual motives of those who engage such issues today. But it is a good way to see that contemporary stances represent an amalgamation of discrete attitudes, assumptions, and convictions, and that the components of this amalgamation all have a history.
The purpose of this paper is to specify fifteen of these attitudes, assumptions, and convictions, to indicate when they rose to prominence, and to suggest how they relate to affect contested issues of science and religion.
Says Jacobs: Anyone who wants to understand, rather than just pontificate about, the strange attitudes many American evangelicals have towards science should read this concise, clear, and authoritative essay by Mark Noll. (PDF)
Says me: I can’t wait to read this. I know it’s gonna be good. If you read it, I’d like to hear your comments.
In the domain of religion and science, decisions, actions, attitudes, practices, and conflicts of the present moment require careful assessment for what they mean now and how they may affect the future. Conservative Protestants today, for example, offer many reasons for leaning against or actively combating the consensus of modern scientists concerning evolution. Some of those reasons concern narrowly defined issues of physical evidence or the interpretation of specific biblical passages, while others range to broader issues of theology, philosophy, ethnicity, family order, public education, or government. Continue reading →
And here is a sample of this newly translated epic:
The startled glutton glared gruesomely,
grinned like a greyhound with grisly fangs
then groaned and glowered with a menacing grimace,
growling at the good King who greeted him angrily.
His mane and his fringe were filthily matted
and his face was framed in half a foot of foam.
His face and forehead were flecked all over
like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.
He was hook-beaked like a hawk, with a hoary beard,
and his eyes were overhung with hairy brows.
To whomever looked hard, as harsh as a hound-fish
was the hide of that hulk, from head to heel.
His ears were huge and a hideous sight,
His eyes were horrid, abhorrent and aflame,
His smile was all sneer, like a flat-mouthed flounder,
and like a bear his fore-teeth were fouled with rank flesh,
and his black, bushy beard grew down to his breast.
He was bulky as a sea-pig with a brawny body,
and each quivering lump of those loathsome lips
writhed and rolled with the wrath of a wolf’s head.
He was broad across the back, with the neck of a bull,
badger-breasted with the bristles of a boar,
had arms like oak boughs, wrinkled by age,
and the ugliest loins and limbs, believe me.
He shuffled his shanks, being shovel-footed,
and his knock-kneed legs were abnormally knuckled.
He was thick in the thigh and like an ogre at the hips,
and as gross as a grease-fed pig, a gruesome sight.
He who mindfully measured that monster’s dimension
from face to foot would have found it five fathoms.
By the time Milton reaches Book VII he has come to a kind of accord with his own frustration. All right, he says: I can’t get up to heaven, and if I try I “fall/Erroneous”. Writing purely about God, he comments, is like being an amateur rider on a particularly frisky winged horse. Humanity is the proper perspective for poetic endeavour; so he asks the Christian muse, Urania, to carry him downwards and deposit him safe in his “Native Element”. He will write now about the earth: about its nature, its making; about its creatures; about relationships and sex and intellectual curiosity and mistakes and sorrow and “the human face divine”.
This is most deeply God’s place to speak through his poet, he points out; singing amid violence; taking love into hell; readying himself for sacrifice, to be destroyed by the blind desires of an angry mob. The figure with whom he identifies in connection with this role is Orpheus, the prototype poet of myth. But, of course, he is thinking about Christ too, who in Christian theology is God suffering all that humans inflict on each other. There won’t be much explicit scope for Christ in Paradise Lost. But Milton sees his own position – surrounded by rabid Royalists, “fall’n on evil dayes”, slandered by “evil tongues” – as Christlike. In the face of violence, Milton too will sing.
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