4. Grace and virtues (the Christian moral life and Christian social ethics)
Other than dissenters such as Tertullian, the early church was happy to absorb and adapt much of the non-Christian knowledge of the time (classical philosophy). This included knowledge in the realm of ethics and politics (e.g. Aristotle’s Ethics – see e.g. Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Thus the substance of Aristotelian virtue ethics was absorbed into Christian ethics, culminating in Aquinas’s Summa.
More recently, Protestant as well as Catholic readers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other modern Christian virtue ethicists have also been willing to consider the older Christianized classical virtue ethics tradition as important and helpful for today. However, there is still a tension between that tradition and the Augustinian understanding of the primacy of grace (given the extreme effects of the Fall) in human moral life. Again Christian humanism has worked to sustain a synthesis in this tension of virtue and grace, to various degrees in various phases of the tradition.
It’s all very well to talk about monasticism as something we COULD learn from today. But is anyone ACTUALLY learning? Short answer: Yes. This is the last clip I’ll post from the monasticism chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:
For much of this chapter, I have been treating modern appropriation of monasticism as a “What if?” The truth is, however, that despite the plunging statistics in traditional Roman Catholic monasticism in the West, recent decades have seen a renewed and widespread interest in adapting parts of the medieval monastic heritage for modern use.
Do the spiritual resources of the monastic tradition have anything to offer to the person who has made commitments to spouse and family, or is pursuing a secular vocation—or someone who simply does not desire, or does not sense God’s call—to make the lifelong vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience required of monastics? History gives a resounding “yes.” After all, monasticism was never intended to encompass a different set of spiritual values than those followed by all Christians. It offered a means of living the Christian life with more single-minded intensity.
For nearly a millennium, there have been people (one might call them “monastic groupies”) who have connected themselves to a monastery in a less formal way, dedicating themselves to certain spiritual disciplines while remaining in the world. Continue reading →
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.
In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.
Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. Continue reading →
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