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 . . .
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.
Classical origins: virtues – character and education for citizenship: What is human excellence?
Patristic phase: anthropology – Incarnation, soteriology (theosis): How does God prepare us for full human flourishing?
Medieval phase: the sectors – education, sciences, arts, and healthcare: How can reason and tradition help us foster flourishing in response to God?
Early modern phase: common good – vocation, the family, the polis, the markets, and secularization: What values will guide our life together?
19th & early 20thcentury: anti-humanisms – the fruits of secularization: What are we without God? (the “abolition of man”)
The post-WW II phase: thehumanities – literature, “great books,” beauty: How can we reclaim our common humanity and train our imaginations & affections?
Epilogue: lessons for the current crisis and a closing look at inter-traditional dialogue in a postsecular age
Now we have to ask (1) do these pieces work well together? (coherent whole? logical flow? right size?), (2) would this framing serve faculty seminar participants well? and (3) what readings would support each unit?
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:
In light of theologically, biblically, and historically weak popular presentations of faith & work arguments, we must speak primarily in theological terms
We must not speak in narrowly theological terms
In other words, we must draw on a theological discourse that embraces and can be embraced by all current Christian traditions (e.g. not a discourse that is exclusively neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian, or Wesleyan/Pentecostal, or grounded in Catholic social thought, etc., but informs and converses with all of those traditions and more)
We must draw on a theological discourse that stretches back to the earliest church
We must draw on a theological discourse that is clear about what human beings are, how we (are to) flourish, and how we are (to be) redeemed
We must draw on a theological discourse that is not narrowly “spiritual,” but instead addresses the broadest possible range of human activities (including all major sectors of work) and that affirms material and social as well as spiritual flourishing
We must draw on a theological discourse that therefore includes a well-articulated approach to human cultural (including economic) activity
We must draw on a theological discourse grounded in undeniable major orthodox doctrines such as creation, the incarnation, and the atonement, and with clear scriptural foundations such as Genesis and the Gospels
Christian humanism is the only theological tradition I know of that fulfils all of the above criteria
Some key points, drafted by C Armstrong, 2-25-21 in engagement with Jens Zimmermann
The following are some key points I drafted early (Feb 2021) in my exploration of the link between Christian humanism and the “faith, work, and economics” conversation, interacting with the work of Jens Zimmermann, JI Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. These themes are informing my work in that conversation at the Kern Family Foundation (Wisconsin), engaging a national network of seminaries and Christian colleges preparing future pastors (note that the book cited parenthetically as “Re-Envisioning” at a number of points below is the Zimmermann-edited volume Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity):
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.
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.
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