Tag Archives: Incarnation

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. III


Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

. . . continued from part II

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.

The church, therefore, could and did speak to every nook and moment of human life, certainly including the experiences of work and vocation. In an age so full of incarnational, creational, sacramental awareness, faith and everyday life could never be separate. God was met at every turn.

A key early example of how this sacramental worldview impacted medieval views of work and vocation was Gregory the Great, who insisted that while pastors or laypeople are engaged in the active life, working on behalf of their neighbor in the material world, everything in their experience of that world became a potential instrument of God’s direct, special communication to them. Where his predecessor Augustine had emphasized God’s hiddenness, Gregory believed God is always speaking to us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. He is always sustaining the sacramental presence of spiritual truths in the things of this world.

This sacramental sense of God at work in the material world and in our own embodied, material, social, and cultural experience became part of the orthodox Christian understanding of the world for the whole period from Gregory to the Reformation — and, in many circles, continuing long after this period.

Again, a Christian age that saw the world through sacramental lenses could not also separate their faith from their work. Having bought modern Enlightenment portraits of medieval stupidity and superstition, we have missed the powerful cultural generativity of their world-sacramentalism: Medieval Christians invented the hospital, created the breathtaking artistry of the Gothic cathedrals, laid the groundwork for modern law and politics, and pioneered modern Western science through a new institution: the university. These are four huge modern work sectors — health care, the arts, the civic and political arenas, and higher education — each underwritten by this same lively, creational, and incarnational sacramentalism.

The Protestant stereotype tells us that all medieval people felt only monks and nuns had “vocations.” But that simply wasn’t so. Read, for example, the late 13th- and 14th-century German Dominican friars Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler. Along with other Christian mystics of their day, Eckhart and Tauler affirmed a non-monastic call of God — just as the hugely influential Gregory the Great had done centuries before them. For these friars, not just monks and nuns but also ordinary working folk could achieve the highest title of traditional monasticism, “friend of God.”

“We are brought forth into time,” wrote Eckhart, “in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God.” Thus “one can gather nettles and still stand in union with God.”

Tauler criticized those who believed the work of the businessperson who “knows all the secrets of commerce” to be a spiritual obstacle: “It is certainly not God who has put this obstacle,” he insisted. Rather, the working life of active service is simply a different way of serving and knowing God. The person who obeys God in their work “with singleness of purpose” is truly on the way to God.

More could be said. But what might it look like if you and I brought this idea of world-sacramentalism to our lives and work?

Continued in part IV.

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. II


Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

. . . continued from part I

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.

In his short testimonial memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis described early experiences of deep longing and yearning for something beyond the bounds of this world. This longing he called simply “joy.” Paradoxically, although these experiences pointed to something transcendent and immaterial, they always came through the most vivid, material, sensory images — distant green hills, a toy garden in a biscuit-tin lid, powerful images of “Northernness” from Norse myths. These pointers to the metaphysical were thus simultaneously profoundly physical. And when such experiences finally led him to God, he called himself an “empirical theist” who “arrived at God by induction.”

So what did the imagination of this man who became both a Christian and a professional medievalist find in our medieval Christian heritage that can help us draw from the doctrines of creation and incarnation to find meaning in our work?

Lewis was more than a medieval scholar. He was a medievalist in his imagination, in his intuitions about life, and in his practices. And he found the medieval era he loved to be a time in which the very character of the Western world — every institution, custom, or practice that touched human material and social bodies — reinforced the link between the material and social world on the one hand, and the divine on the other.

In various descriptions, Lewis shows us the medieval view of the material world as charged with the spiritual, “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine,” and “a world of built-in significance.”

Lewis also painted this world of vibrancy and wonder in his fiction writing. Early in Out of the Silent Planet, the protagonist, Ransom, peers out of the window of a spaceship to see — not the black void of space, but a pulsing, glowing matrix of glory (love the resonance of this literary image with the photograph at the beginning of this article!). This resonates with a description Lewis once gave of the medievals’ vision of the cosmos, which borrows phrasing from 14th-century Italian poet Dante: “Each [celestial] sphere,” that is, each planet and heavenly body, “is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by ‘intellectual love’ of God.”

As alien as such a view of the cosmos may seem to us, it runs on a coherent “theo-logic”: First, the medieval person understood — based on the scriptural account of the creation — that the material world is not evil. Nor is it (as we moderns are more tempted to believe) irrelevant to God’s purposes and our spiritual lives, for it all was made by God and bears his imprint. Second, though, the medieval person also understood that the material world cannot hold the ultimate end and fulfilment of human life. Where do we find that end and fulfilment? As Augustine, Boethius, and all who followed insisted, only in God himself. The middle way medievals hewed between the gnostic and the materialistic error about the material world was to understand that because of God’s action in first creating, and then indwelling it, and then continuing to love and care for it, the world must be shot through with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the trinity itself. It must be a place of God’s presence and glory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Continued in part III

Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. I


John Everett Millais – “Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter’s Shop’)”; Wikimedia Commons

I commend to you Common Good magazine. 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.

From the Genesis account of creation, it’s reasonable to say that work is an essential part of what it means to live on earth as an image-bearer of God. Work is a mandate, not a curse. Related, the reformer Martin Luther’s teachings on vocation and the Reformation concept of “common grace” show us that God uses people’s work, whether they name the name of Christ or not, to provide for the needs of other people.

The Protestant tradition has taught that we have not only particular vocations — particular kinds of work that we are called to in the world, to serve bosses, or customers, or spouses, or children, or our city — within the structures of God’s common grace. We also have general callings or vocations, which we may fulfil only by God’s saving grace through Christ, and as empowered by his Holy Spirit. And in fact, in both Scripture and the early church, where we encounter the language of “calling” or vocation, it is almost always in connection with these general vocations.

Included in these general callings is the creation mandate, as well as the law — as expressed, for example, in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount — and the summing up of the law in what we might call the “love calling” or “love vocation” expressed in the great commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

When Luther talked about the particular callings in which we serve others by our particular gifts, he spoke of them as multiple and relational. In other words, according to Luther, we have vocations not only to paid work in the marketplace and public square, but also to the relational work of being a sister, mother, neighbor, citizen, volunteer, and more.

Thus the Protestant evangelical tendency to think of vocation as the “one big mysterious job God has for you on earth,” which he holds in his mind and which you must search out and discern through prayer, is quite simply inconsistent with Reformation teaching on vocation.

We could summarize at this point with a quick, one-sentence, Christian definition of vocation. Psychologist Bryan Dik defines vocation as “a summons to meaningful work in service to others.”

Note that this definition doesn’t mention personal strengths. It leaves room for callings to things we’re good at and to things we’re bad at.

In the few biblical stories where someone received a direct call from God to some work, what was the first thing they typically said in response? “God, you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t have the gifts for that work. I could never do it.” But God doesn’t make mistakes. So if we find ourselves in a difficult and challenging relationship that we would not have chosen for ourselves — say with a disabled child or a parent with dementia —, then this is just as truly a vocation as our chosen (paying) jobs.

Creation, incarnation, and work today

You may be familiar with the kind of “hierarchy of jobs” that has long marred churches’ treatment of work. You know, pastors and missionaries at the top, business people and politicians at the bottom — with the value judgement being based on the perceived “spirituality” of the work, or even with how much God is presumed to care about the work or how much the work is presumed to serve his purposes on earth. Many jobs are quite simply assumed to be “secular” — detached from God and his purposes.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this secularization of vocation in the churches. But one of the biggest is how we relate to creation.

Bluntly put, since around the 17th century, the faith of modern Western Christians has become steadily both more privatized and more spiritualized; that is, detached from the world. And at the same time, the world around us has become “scientized,” understood only in objective, empirical, material categories, and thus detached from the church. And since our work takes place in this material, de-spiritualized world, we have fallen into the habit of treating most kinds of ordinary work, which typically serve very earthly, material, and social human needs, as if by their very “earthiness,” they intrinsically have very little to do with.

Continued in part II.

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: