Tag Archives: Incarnation

On how, and why, whole sectors of modern work were birthed from the heart and mind of the Christian church


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:

Our bodies matter.

Our minds matter.

Our relationships matter.

Our work matters.

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III


Miniature of Robin, the Miller, from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – early 1400s

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III

This is the conclusion, continued from part II.

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.”[1]

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

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II


Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II

Continued from part I.

So, back to Lewis’s words on Eros in the Four Loves:

The highest does not stand[118] 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

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


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.

So that’s “Why.” Now, “How”?

Continue reading

Interview on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog


medieval wisdom coverMany thanks to Scot McKnight for hosting Dave Moore’s interview with me on my new book, posted here today: at his Patheos.com blog. Patheos friend Kathleen Mulhern even featured the interview on the front page of www.patheos.com, which is “not chopped liver,” as they say–given that site’s millions of viewers monthly. It is tremendously gratifying to see folks picking this book up and engaging with it.

I also look forward to my visits to MacLaurinCSF at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St Paul) and Tyndale House College & University (Toronto) this fall, and to Upper House at the University of Wisconsin, Madison next spring, to explore these themes with students. I guess I’m a real author now, what with “book tours” and all . . .

How was C. S. Lewis influenced by the medieval era?


C S Lewis described himself as a “dinosaur” – a relic of the ancient and medieval past, stomping around in the modern world. In this last clip of an interview about my new book (which takes C S Lewis as its “docent” into the medieval world), I look at how this “medieval perspective” led Lewis to think differently – sacramentally, incarnationally – about the world around him.

The book is out! So here’s a link to a whole website about it, and an interview clip introducing it . . .


So, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, with C. S. Lewis is out, as of May 17th!

Check out www.medieval-wisdom.com (description, blurbs, first-chapter download, links to bookstores carrying it). Here’s the first of five clips from a video interview my publisher produced:

Wonder of Incarnation -> wonder of Creation


hehagiatrias

Another of the last few posts from my Getting Medieval: An Exploration with C S Lewis. Sorry the posts are sporadic – enjoying a wonderful junket in England. Was at the Kilns this afternoon – now back in London. 🙂

Attention to the Incarnation can also renew our sense of the wonders of Creation, as God not only Created the world but also came and participated in it, and in the process gave Creation a renewed dignity. The Incarnation is also, as John of Damascus argued at the Second Nicene Council in 787 (and the church agreed with him and made his position dogma), the warrant for the sacramental understanding of human-made material things such as icons.

First, the Incarnation prevents us once and for all from the temptation to talk about Creation – or any part of creation – as if it were inherently evil. For if it were inherently evil, then God could not have joined himself to it: “It has always been realized in the main tradition of Christianity that if the Word was made flesh, matter can never be regarded as evil in itself.”[1] Darrel Amundsen strengthens the connection by observing that “individuals or groups (e.g., Gnostics, Manicheans, Marcionites) on the periphery of Christianity who conceived of matter as inherently evil also balked at the doctrine of the Incarnation.”[2]

Second, in fact, this raising up of creation was the real and final purpose of the Incarnation. Lewis has this in Perelandra: “All which is not itself the Great Dance was made in order that He might come down into it. In the Fallen World He prepared for Himself a body and was united with the Dust and made it glorious for ever. This is the end and final cause of all creating, and the sin whereby it came is called Fortunate and the world where this was enacted is the centre of worlds. Blessed be He!”


[1] Herbert Butterfield, quoted in Darrel W. Amundsen, Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 332; cited in n. 23.

[2] Amundson, p. 332.

C S Lewis, incarnation and morality: Living what we are, and avoiding the super-spirituality trap


cslewis-pipe (1)Apologies for neglecting the blog – have been traveling in the UK. Hoping to visit the Kilns tomorrow! Here is one of the last bits of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C  S Lewis:

When we appreciate the humanity of humanity, and the ways in which Christ is incarnated not only in his own flesh, as a first-century Jew from Nazareth but also (though in a different sense) in his church and in all humanity – as Benedict saw – this will heighten our sense of the sacredness and dignity of others. It will change the ways we treat others in our ordinary lives – in our workplaces, our families, our societies.

There is an important corollary of this Incarnational principle in ethics: Incarnational morality is ordinary morality, of the sort Lewis portrayed so winsomely in the Household of St. Anne in That Hideous Strength. By seeing our own ethical lives in the light of our bodily limitations, illuminated further by God’s own assumption of, and elevation of, human nature, we are released from the pressure of perfection. Continue reading

Incarnation and compassion


passion medieval imageAnother “mini-post” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Compassion

A renewed incarnational awareness will also give us a renewed and particular energy toward compassionate ministry, as it did for 12th-13th c. Christians in the “charitable revolution” of those centuries – and indeed in the whole long Christian growth and development of the hospital. But more broadly in all forms of compassionate ministry. Medieval Christians’ acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Especially as they began to enter emotionally into the events of the Passion, that horrific demonstration of God sharing in our embodied suffering, the compassion for Jesus that this stirred in them became “enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again.

We have seen how attention to the humanity of Christ and his presence in others’ humanity encouraged hospitality and pastoral and even medical care, in Benedict’s and the Benedictines’ emphasis on “Christ in the guest,” in the particularity of the seven corporal (and spiritual) acts of mercy, in the specificity and concreteness of Aquinas’s ethical thought, and of course in the history of the innovative Christian institution we now call the hospital.

The Enemy of our souls will do anything he can to raise our eyes from the physical needs of others in a false super-spirituality, keeping us from achieving that incarnational awareness that would pour out from our hearts in compassionate ministry. As Screwtape tells the junior demon,

“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer’, humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. You will, of course, conceal from him the fact that the prayer for daily bread, interpreted in a ‘spiritual sense’, is really just as crudely petitionary as it is in any other sense.”[1]


[1] Screwtape Letters, letter 27, in Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 263-4.