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!
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
But there is more: A third foundational fact in the Christian development of science and technologies was that the early and medieval Christians understood that God intended they apply the gift of reason to understanding and ordering the gift of Creation—for our flourishing. They saw this important role of reason in the cultural mandate already in Genesis—for example, in the task assigned to Adam and Eve of naming the animals, or God’s charge to them to cultivate and keep the garden.
That the medieval church was not afraid to exercise this mandate of applying reason to the world is illustrated in the story of the man who became pope just before the turn of the millennium – in 999 AD. Of humble origins, Gerbert of Aurillac – who was perhaps relieved to be able take the papal name Sylvester – had developed through talent and education into Christendom’s foremost mathematician. A teacher of arithmetic, astronomy, and harmonics, Gerbert’s knowledge in these fields was admittedly hampered by his inability to read Greek—and therefore to read the best of the ancient pioneers of those fields. But his career showed that even in those so-called “dark ages,” the study of natural philosophy (what we have called “science” only since 1834) was no impediment to a highly successful career in the church. And why should it be? For early and medieval Christians adapted that field of study, “natural philosophy,” from the Greek philosophers, only now understanding it as the study of God’s wisdom as reflected in his creation.
In fact, a couple of hundred years after Gerbert, another Christian scholar, Hugh of St. Victor, described the natural world as a book written by God’s finger – and therefore just as appropriate for Christians to study as the Bible.
For medieval natural philosophy to develop into science as we know it today, however, it needed two more understandings.
I find in C S Lewis a modern person who, throughout his life, lived and worked according to this medieval-inflected, sacramental, incarnational way of seeing and being. So it may be worth looking at a few ways he did that. We can start, again, with his imaginative writings. One is reminded, for example, of the wonderful image of a loving and materially comfortable domesticity in the beaver family portrayed in Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe — which in turn was so like the similarly convivial, rustic life of his friend Tolkien’s hobbits in the Shire with their love of pipes and parties and meals together. Or his novel That Hideous Strength, which is from one end to the other a defense of the real holiness of ordinary virtues of embodied life — work, married sexuality, household life, and all — against the gnostic technocrats who would strip away all material mediations of sacred meanings and virtues in our ordinary lives.
In his letters, too, you can often find Lewis celebrating the sacred in the materiality of our ordinary life and work, even as he recommended to his correspondents that they read medieval writers for the good of their souls. He liked to sign his letters with that very embodied moniker Saint Francis of Assisi had used for himself: “Brother Ass.” And in one of those letters to a sick friend, he said of his own aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”
The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world, as Lewis well knew, is sacramentalism. This is a linked set of beliefs, first, that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator; and third, that God is present in and through every square inch of his world. While these beliefs are linked with the more limited, liturgical sense of the word “sacrament,” they amount to an understanding of the whole material world.
The world-sacramentalism of medieval Christians was rooted in a lively engagement with the doctrine of Creation — through an even livelier engagement with the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation was the central preoccupation of medieval Christians. Art, theology, church life, and private devotion all focused on the incarnation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bodily life and death became the medieval “canon within the canon”; the puzzle of why he had to come and die was the great theological obsession.
And in the midst of it all came the insight that, as Christ raised humanity by taking on humanity, he also in some mysterious sense, by taking on created form in his own creation, also raised up the whole world toward its new-creation destiny — such that even the rocks cry out and creation groans as it awaits that fulfilment.
In light of that cosmic redemption, and quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval Christians affirmed the material and social dimensions of our created human lives (our eating, drinking, working, marrying, getting sick, being healed, and eventually dying) as transcendentally important.
Ironically, this detachment sometimes looks like worldliness or materialism: the typical modern Western mode of effectively living for material pleasures and material accumulation. Though Christians are unlikely to profess that wry modern creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we are quite capable of sacrificing a great deal to the idols of career success, in order to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, all the latest iDevices, regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. And these habits, too, separate the material world of jobs and careers from the spiritual world of the church. Because, as Saint Augustine taught, when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we decouple or disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.
A generation after Augustine, believers of the Middle Ages, unlike our contemporary Western moment, did indeed find ways to keep the spiritual and the material together. And at least one very prominent modern Christian thinker followed that age’s integrative lead. So let’s enter that age through that modern figure.
Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was nine, this man read voraciously and omnivorously from his earliest years. By the age of eight, he was writing stories about “dressed animals” with his brother. In his teen years, learning classics under an Irish schoolmaster, he learned to appreciate the quest for truth not as an idle intellectual exercise, but rather as a search for the truth about what is real and true in the world — and for the wisdom necessary to live the good life. And that quest led him first to a lifelong concern for moral philosophy, and then, eventually, to a vocation as a professor of medieval literature.
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.
Been very busy over the past few years, and a bad blogger – not posting much at all.
Among other pieces I’ve posted elsewhere but forgotten to link here at the Grateful To the Dead blog is this one, featured at The Public Discourse blog – run by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton. The piece is a fairly brief meditation on what the Incarnation has meant in Western culture. It contains some ideas that I first published in the Medieval Wisdom book, and that I’m looking forward to extending in my next book. That book will most likely explore how entire sectors of human work that foster and support the material and social dimensions of human flourishing emerged ex corde ecclesia – from the heart of the church (and informed by the mind of the church!):
Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born as a human baby in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.
. . .
Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.
Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.
And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.
Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:
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 →
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