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?
Over the centuries, it’s been distorted, but history also sharpens our view of every Christian’s calling.
Chris R. Armstrong
In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn’t see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.
If that’s true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn’t so much taught as caught. Continue reading →
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