Here’s a new way I’m thinking of for developing the faculty seminar on Christian humanism I’m doing for my friend the Think Tank Director. I like this one better than the more chronological one shared earlier. I’ll share this in a couple of chunks because I went a little crazy with editorializing on it.
This reworking suggests that we use the seminar to explore the hypothesis that Christian humanism has found ways to keep together key dyads: divine-human, faith-reason, virtue-grace, heavenly-earthly, reason-imagination (or truth-beauty). And that the REASON the tradition has been able to do that is its strong grounding in the Incarnation.* We could look at each of those dyads through readings across the different periods, in a way that could attend to historic development without bogging down in the chronology/history.
* Arguably it’s not just the Incarnation but the almost shocking organic unity of the God-human relationship in early soteriology that grounds this whole thing: that is, the theosis understanding of salvation. But interestingly, both Luther and Calvin were similarly quite mystical and organic about the human-God relationship – there are great readings from both that show this.
NOTE: Stupid WordPress has no idea how to deal with the automatic numbering in MS Word, and I don’t have time to go in and change it. So please ignore the plethora of “1s” in the following!
Bouchard’s book shows that the longstanding scholarly claim that “the ideals of Cistercian monasticism and the rapidly developing economy of the twelfth century were incompatible” does not survive close analysis of the economic and religious records. So why was it made in the first place?
Another key reason for the scholarly claims about decline due to economic engagement is the existence of “The ‘legislation of 1134,’ setting out what types of property were and were not suitable for Cistercian monks.” Scholars have assumed this to be “a reiteration of what the monks had believed and practiced since Citeaux’s foundation in 1098.” The document raises up farming over other economic activities, so “scholars have treated the early Cistercians as exclusively farmers, who concentrated on opening up uncultivated lands and who were economic innovators only in their pioneering use of draining methods.” They have therefore taken the evidence for other kinds of economic transactions as de facto evidence of declension.[i]
Then the dissection of the paradigm begins. First Bouchard notes that it has had to be modified and re-modified in recent years, as evidence for non-farming economic transactions has pushed earlier and earlier,[ii] and as scholars have had to wrestle with a lack of any kind of numerical decline that would imply that the monks’ secular neighbors no longer valued them as holy men – quite the contrary, as the order continued to gain members and resources at a rapid rate. This has caused scholars to back away from harsher language of “decadence,” preferring instead to state that their “ideals” had not survived the encounter with certain “realities.”[iii]
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?
Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.
Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)
Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here! Continue reading →
Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:
A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.
Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’” Continue reading →
Council of Sens, 1140, at which Bernard of Clairvaux had Peter Abelard’s doctrine condemned
One more snippet on theology from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Here’s a cardinal truth about reading history: just because you hear a story again and again doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, it may indicate that a legend has taken on the aura of truth and is no longer being examined. That’s something like what I think has happened in the common “monasticism vs scholasticism” narrative you will often see in textbooks and hear in classrooms:
The “warfare thesis” projected backward
Now there is a modern scholarly narrative about scholasticism that you may have run across – it still seems quite popular. That narrative takes the politicized struggle between two strong personalities—Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard—and derives from it a thesis about the relationship between monastic and scholastic thinking: that the world of medieval theology was divided into obscurantist, fideist monastics who were afraid of using reason and dialectic and wanted to protect mystery, and intelligent, rational scholastics who didn’t care which sacred cows they slaughtered en route to a more “systematic” theology. In this story, Bernard of Clairvaux leads the charge against logic as the arch-monastic, and Abelard stands as the champion of logic and systematization. Continue reading →
Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.
Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:
So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.
For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology. Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.
If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who translates their medieval ideas for us.
 The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”
 By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.
These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), Vol. 3.in his series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).
As with the David Bell “glimpses” posted yesterday, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “D” means a definition of a term. “Use” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:
Q, 3: “The Middle Ages may be seen as the period when the primary focus of Christian thought about Christ shifted from what he was to what he did, from the person of Christ to the work of Christ.” Continue reading →
The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain’s jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm. (79) Continue reading →
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