Nor did contemporary observers seem to think the Cistercians were defined by their economic activities – either used or eschewed.[i]
And indeed, even the document considered to have been written in 1134 didn’t single out “pawning, leasing, sales, and exchanges” for censure.[ii] (196)
She concludes that the Cistercians “participated vigorously in the economic changes of the twelfth century while retaining the solitude of their houses and granges and the simplicity of the food, clothing, and liturgy that made them appear so intensely holy to their neighbors.” (196)
By this example of simplicity and austerity, Bouchard argues, the knights were attracted to them “psychologically,” as they were “reaching a level of social prominence . . . at the beginning of the twelfth century,” thus “just reach[ing] the point both of being able to enjoy [the] comforts [of the aristocracy] and of recognizing that the soul’s salvation might lie in the rejection of them.” (197)
But at the same time, there was a “social” appeal of the Cistercians to the knights as well, “because the Cistercians were integrated into the rural knightly system of ‘give-and-take,’ where property transactions were used not only to transfer ownership of property but also to bind people together.” (197)
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.
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!
On the efficacy of the active life as an aid to the contemplative life, Gregory’s understanding of “the mixed life”—especially, but (as we’ve seen) not exclusively for pastors and bishops—is one of his greatest legacies to the church. Bernard McGinn notes that while Gregory dwelt, “at times obsessively,” on married life’s dangers—especially owing to its unavoidable entanglements with the “outside” world—yet, “he believed that the combination of the vita activa and vita contemplativa to which the praedicatores [preachers] were called was the highest and most important form of life in the church.”[i]
The importance of this point may be seen in the fact that Gregory identified the two lives as oriented to the two parts of the “law of love” – love of God and love of neighbor.[ii]
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his own liberality with the coffers of the church on behalf of those in need, one of the elements of the active life that he taught pastors to practice was the economic work of providing for their people’s material needs and “earthly necessities.” In fact, he argued that if they did not do so, their words would not be heard well – and they would deserve it![iii]
Cuthbert Butler first points out that Gregory picked up Augustine’s teaching that “no one can come to contemplation without having exercised the works of the active life, so that the active life is necessary for all, whereas the contemplative is not necessary[, and thus] . . . optional.” (Butler, 249)
Gregory, in fact, not only asserts that the active life is necessary, but also that it has a chronological priority: it must be exercised before one can come to the contemplative life. In fact, he asserted this frequently:
“The active life is lived first, that afterwards the contemplative may be attained to.”[i]
“Perfectness of practice having been received, we come to contemplation.”[ii]
“Every one that is perfect is first joined to an active life for productiveness, and afterwards united to a contemplative life for rest.”[iii]
“The season for action comes first, for contemplation last. . . . The mind should first spend itself in labour, and afterwards it may be refreshed by contemplation.”[iv]
“We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of the active life.”[v]
“The active life is before the contemplative in time, because by good works we tend to contemplation.”[vi]
Augustine’s claim for the superiority of the contemplative over the active life, which sets the tone for the church for the next millennium, seems based on two things: (1) the early and medieval Christian understanding of the superiority of the eternal over the temporal life with all its struggles and unmet needs in the fallen world. Note we need not say “eternal/spiritual” and “temporal/material,” for there is a New Creation, with its own kind of materiality – so that is a false separation. I’m not sure whether Augustine makes that separation or not, but he does note that material need will be wiped away in the eternal life. Which brings us to Augustine’s second source on the preferability of the contemplative over the active life: (2) the Gospel story of Mary and Martha.
Here is Augustine on both of these themes:
“Martha chose a good part, but Mary the better. What Martha chose passes away. She ministered to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless: but all these pass away,–there will be [a time – or rather, an eternity] when none will hunger nor thirst. Therefore will her care be taken from her ‘Mary hath chosen the better part . . . which shall not be taken away from her.’ She hath chosen to contemplate, to live by the Word (Sermon clxix.17).” (in Butler, 233)
Note this early identification, in Augustine, of the active life with Matt 25 type works of compassion to those in need. It is clear that he is not here denigrating Martha’s choice or the active life entirely:
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?
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):
Let’s jump right in. I’m going to frame each of these four issues in the form of a question that may stand between us and a sense of Christian vocation in our work.
Here’s the first question that may be nagging us as we seek a sense of vocation in our work:
Does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls?Is there an inherent tension or contradiction between the “worldliness” of work and the “spirituality” of faith?
A century or two before the opening of the Middle Ages, the theologian whose influence would become definitive for the next thousand years, Augustine of Hippo, distinguished two spheres of human endeavor: the “active life”—our work in the world—and the “contemplative life”—our private worship and prayer. The active life could be good, but the contemplative life, such as that enjoyed by monks and nuns, was much better—and indeed safer for our souls.
Augustine’s bifurcated view of work has persisted in some circles right up to this day – but it was quickly challenged by the man some consider the spiritual father of the medieval church, as Augustine was its theological father.
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