Sacramentalism provided the seedbed for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, especially in the high-medieval period of the birth of the universities (from the 11th to the 14th centuries). In part, it did this by birthing – and this is our fifth fact – a truly devotional, awe-filled approach to that pursuit.
Think about it: when we may look at the natural world not only as the arena of God’s work but as a physical reality that reflects his divine glory, then how else would we approach it but with awe and wonder? And since medieval and early modern followers of Christ indeed believed this, they approached their study of the world not only out of a duty to apply the gift of reason, but also out of a sense of awe that the world is a conduit to God’s presence and glory. Should it surprise us, then, that the natural philosophers of that age spent hours and days and years of their lives in meticulous proto-scientific experimentation and hypothesizing?
I commend to you Common Goodmagazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.
In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:
The Work of Genesis How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations
Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.
The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.
Scholastic humanism and the social world
For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.
The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”
In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.
Lewis’s incarnational appreciation for the earthiness in medieval literature and drama—including the mystery plays—can be seen in an interview from months before his death. The interviewer asked Lewis about the source of the “light touch” in his writing, even when dealing with “heavy theological themes.” Lewis responded, “I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages [Chaucer and Dante at least, one would think], and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton[, who] was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way, the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”
Those who know the medieval miracle play (or “mystery play”) tradition will recognize at once how themes of desire and death get treated in this way – with the earthy, humorous touch of buffoonery and farce. As for death, I think of the crucifixion play in the York cycle. The nailers’ guild (who had the hereditary responsibility for the play) had the workmen, as they prepared the cross and pounded the nails through Christ’s hands and feet, keep up a stream of complaints at the difficulty and boredom of the work, oblivious to the divine significance of what they were doing.
In his Life of Christ, Bonaventure (1221–74) had counseled: “You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance.” The plays helped their audiences do this by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous, heightening the bizarre reality of a God who becomes human and dies at the hands of those he created.
One might find here the same sort of what we might call “sacramental use of humor” we find in Lewis’s treatments of Eros and death. This is a farcical way of talking about our bodily, material lives so as to both challenge our bodies’ insistent claims to ultimacy and remind us that our bodily experiences point beyond our proximate desires to the desire for heaven. “Sacramental humor” thus reinforces the truth that our God, who came to us bodily in the Incarnation, still meets us in our bodies.
I would argue that this is in fact one of the most central insights of medieval faith, fixated as it was on the Incarnation. Continue reading →
So, back to Lewis’s words on Eros in the Four Loves:
The highest does not stand without the lowest. There is indeed at certain moments a high poetry in the flesh itself; but also, by your leave, an irreducible element of obstinate and ludicrous un-poetry.
Then, a few lines down, Lewis bridges from Desire and Eros to Death once again:
Pleasure, pushed to its extreme, shatters us like pain. The longing for a union which only the flesh can mediate while the flesh, our mutually excluding bodies, renders it forever unattainable, can have the grandeur of a metaphysical pursuit. Amorousness as well as grief can bring tears to the eyes. But Venus does not always come thus “entire, fastened to her prey”, and the fact that she sometimes does so is the very reason for preserving always a hint of playfulness in our attitude to her. When natural things look most divine, the demoniac is just round the corner.
Here we have a bridge between sexual desire (Venus, a component of Eros) and death. Both involve states of the body, which drag us into the realm of the comic, the un-poetic. That element in the experience of embodiment keeps us from taking any bodily experience too seriously – from making anything bodily ultimate. This comic element, this limitation and haltingness of embodiment, keeps us, in short, from idolatry. It keeps us from the Materialist error, while still leaving open to us a sacramental understanding of our bodily experience as the frequent, or at least potential, gateway to something higher than ourselves. This is where desire reaches out to divinity, or suffering to sublimity. Continue reading →
Each May since 2012, I’ve been presenting at the largest annual academic conference on medieval studies: the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. My papers have always explored some aspect of the medievalism (a term meaning “modern interpretation and use of medieval ideas or practices”) of C S Lewis – and the richness of medieval Christian traditions from which Lewis drew in his own theological and spiritual thinking, doing, and teaching.
This year’s paper was a shorter than usual offering – really more of a suggestive sketch of a research question. It was given as part of a five-person panel on “Lewis and Death”:
Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in C S Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part I
Why look at Death and Desire together, in Lewis or any other Christian source?
Simple: Biblical language of crucifying our disordered desires as a means to cultivate the new life in Christ—or on the contrary, of gaining the world (fulfilling our earthly desires) but losing our soul (fulfilling our heavenly desires)—brings desire and death together in a theological concept of a salutary sort of “death” that helps us realize our (properly ordered) spiritual desires for God.
That is, as Calvin wrote in the third book of his Christian Institutes: We must mortify the sinful self to vivify the spiritual self.
Or, to anchor this more firmly in Lewis’s medieval sources, as that 5th/6th-c. taproot of medieval spiritual practice, Pseudo-Dionysius, taught: the soul ascends to God through a movement of mortification->illumination->union. Lewis found this common medieval formulation of the spiritual life in many medieval places, including the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica, and Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection.
After a hiatus, I’m back. Sorry friends – it’s been a crazy life this past year or more. If anyone ever asks you to start an entrepreneurial initiative at a conservative religious college, maybe think a couple times before saying “yes” . . .
So, on the question above: “Can we find Christian vocation in the “secular” world of work?”
First I should say (but you know this already): It ain’t easy. It ain’t obvious. And for a lot of us, we’re just not sure it can ever really happen.
The other day I was at Upper House – a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison – and I talked about this with a group of marketplace folks & pastors. Thought you might be interested to see the four stories I told to answer the question. [If these help you, or confuse you, or you think they’re bunk – unleash a comment or two. I’m always happy to engage.]
For those in a hurry, here’s the nutshell:
(1) This question is important to me personally
(2) There are (it seems to me) at least four questions lurking behind this question for many Christian folks
(3) Being a historian, I rooted around in the cellar of history and found four folks who I think can help us out with those questions
(4) Spoiler alert: Their names are Gregory, John, Charles, and . . . well . . . Clive.
OK, here goes, in five linked posts (my intro + the four guys & their answers):
What lessons, then, can we carry away from this survey of medieval attitudes to creation? First, that their sacramentalism valued creation neither less nor more highly than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously Gnostic and materialist age. Second, that their theological reading of Creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life: work, play, relationships, arts, culture—a blessing to our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material. Third, that this sacramental attention to a creation that everywhere bespeaks its Creator underwrote a medieval cultural mandate, birthing a lavish growth of universities, sciences, and arts—a desperately needed correction to evangelical otherworldliness.
On this last point, I am reminded that the Reformed evangelical historian who pointed out the vacuity of evangelical culture in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll,subsequently found Catholic Notre Dame a much more congenial place to do his cultural work of history-writing than the evangelical Wheaton College. As Hans Boersma concluded in his study of medieval sacramentalism, “only a heavenly minded Christian faith will do us any earthly good.” 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 →
Continuing work on the “morality chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I come now to an illustration of the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. This is post 1 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory.” Post 2 is here.
In setting up this medieval section of the chapter, I’ve talked about the absence of objective value/truth in our modern reality, and Lewis’s recovery of that objective value from classical and medieval sources. I’ve also talked about how virtue gets taught in stories in the Middle Ages. But these are not the only things—maybe not even the most valuable things—we can learn from the characteristic “moral fabric” of the medieval world. For as I came to discover a few years ago in a wonderful summer seminar at Calvin College, that tradition contains riches of precision, practicality, and passion that can equip us for tremendous progress in our moral lives.
This came to me as a thunderclap out of the clear blue sky. I was born in 1963 and came of age in the 1970s. I didn’t even like the word “responsibility,” let alone anything that cramped my freedom to self-express, to enjoy the good things of the world. It has been easy for me to write the “getting earthy” chapter about enjoying God’s beauty and the “getting passionate” chapter about the emotional riches of medieval faith. Those are natural values not only of my coming-of-age but also of my entering the charismatic movement in the 1980s. But this stuff about moral correction and transformation is a whole different deal. It confronts me quite uncomfortably with the ways in which my character has been deformed by my roots in the “me generation.”
The scene was the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar of summer 2010, a gathering of scholars in philosophy, theology, and literature to discover and discuss this particular part of the medieval moral tradition. As we gathered around this material through the sultry summer days, reading late into the evenings and rejoining the group each morning, most of us reported the same thing: at every turn we found both illumination and conviction. Continue reading →
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