Tag Archives: Middle Ages

“Raiders of the lost Incarnation”: The beginning of the end of my book about C S Lewis and the manifold wisdom of medieval faith


Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.

Illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, ca, 1440. God the Father launches the Dove of the Holy Spirit and the naked Christ child to earth, symbolizing the Incarnation—the moment the Virgin Mary conceived. The fishing nets and traps below make a further reference to the Incarnation, representing the corporeal prison of the soul.

 

Now we begin what my editor friend Jenn Woodruff Tait calls the “final peroration” (and I call the “trumpets and cymbals”) of my book’s closing chapter.

The whole thrust of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis has led up to this last, rousing call to my fellow modern Christians – especially those with whom I most closely identify: American evangelicals.

To adapt the blunt phrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the Incarnation, stupid.”

Yes, the Incarnation of Christ launches the redemptive plan that leads to cross, the tomb, and the resurrection and ascension. But it is more. It is the Creator God entering his Creation. And not only entering Creation, but entering the part of Creation that is us. In the Incarnation, God experiences us from the inside.

This stunning event exalts two things: First, the humanity of Christ. Second, the humanity of humanity – of ourselves. To really “get” the Incarnation allows us to live all of life in light of Jesus Christ, and to affirm our own humanness—our own materiality, our own affectivity, our own rationality, our own cultural creativity.

It wipes away the Gnostic super-spirituality that is a serious problem of modern evangelicalism.

The medievals “got” the Incarnation with a particular acuteness that we can learn from – and it affected everything else they did. It allowed them to value their bodiliness, although not always their sexuality; to value their affectivity; and to value their rationality. It allowed them to value their culture: to keep Word and world, science and religion together.

The Incarnation was the linchpin of their theology, and the linchpin of their spirituality.

We don’t get this Incarnational correction, of course, just from medievals. We get it from Scripture and from Christian tradition – the two thousand year, worshipful, moral tradition of exegesis of scripture.

But Protestants who wish to grasp the Incarnation again are fighting upstream.

To take just one example: In a crucial (quite literally) sixteenth-century moment, a central symbol of the Incarnation was removed forcibly from the church. This was the moment when some zealous Reformers, disturbed by the questionable accretions of a millennium of medieval tradition, went beyond tearing down paintings and smashing statues to take the very body of Christ off of the crucifix. Left behind was only an abstract symbol of a judicial transaction.

The difference between worshiping in a space where there is no body of Christ on the cross, and worshiping in a space where there is a body of Christ on the cross, is that in the latter space, you cannot ignore the humanity of Christ. In that space, your own humanity—bodiliness, affectivity, rationality, community, society, culture—always stands (no, hangs) before you in the person of, the body of, the humanity of Jesus Christ the Lord.

And we wonder why so many Protestants look yearningly across the Tiber to the Roman Catholic Church.

In a sense, this whole book has told the story of what happens when you lose your hold on the Incarnation. But as I conclude, I think of a particularly personal example that has occupied me during the last two years.

Over the past two years I have been involved in founding and running a center for re-engagement between our faith and our work. I remember the moment, while directing this initiative and writing this book, that I realized the link between the two: The reason we have to have such a center is that by losing a vivid sense of the Incarnation, we have lost the sacredness of our own work.

How do we get back to understanding that our very daily work must nourish itself from our identities in Christ? We dwell, focus, meditate on the Incarnation—as the medievals did.

We must once again allow the world-changing miracle of the Incarnation to become, not just a part of our theology, but the beating heart of our theology and our spirituality and the way that we live our Christian lives.

We should get up every morning and look at a painting, a sculpture, an image of Jesus Christ in the flesh.

We should meditate not only on how Christ’s precipitous descent into the flesh and blood of humanity makes possible the sacrifice he made for our sins, but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity. We humans are not explained, in a Darwinian sense, by biology. Not even, in a Kantian sense, by morality. No, we must hear again the truth Athanasius so staunchly defended, the medievals so lavishly celebrated, and modern imaginative writers such as C S Lewis captured again in the only way it really can be captured, apart from worship: in story that speaks to imagination: We were created in God’s image, and when that image was stained and saddened by sin, God became man so that we could become (again) gods—and reflect (again) that image.

Protestant readers in particular—I want you to ask yourself the question I began to ask on that sleepy Wednesday night, alone on the top floor of Christianity Today’s Carol Stream, Illinois offices, across from the Aldi’s grocery store and the MacDonalds restaurant, as I worked on an issue of Christian History magazine about “Mary in the imagination of the church”:

Why do we skip over the Incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ, in our theology and devotion?

Must we leave behind entirely the wisdom of the medieval period—the period that birthed both lavish Marian devotion and the Eucharistic theology of transubstantiation, as it attempted to get as close as possible to the physical, embodied Christ? (What, after all, is our questionable theology of an imminent “rapture” but the attempt to recapture that closeness – if only in our imaginings of the future?)

And if we did recapture the wisdom of the Middle Ages, then how could this medieval learning be reflected in Protestant practice?

Renewed emphasis on physical aspects of worship, such as art and architecture?

Openness to affective/imaginative modes of devotion?

Once and for all getting over the fear of so-called “works-righteousness” to live our ethics in compassionate, public (and of course theologically informed) ways?

Reclaiming ascetic spiritual disciplines as practices that, though subject to abuse in the past, hold crucial benefits especially for those of us accustomed to First World comforts and temptations?

All this is worth considering as an “ancient-future” path from weakness to strength.

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part I


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Well, I have my computer back, fixed and ready to go again. So, as we cruise down the home stretch of the monasticism chapter from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: Explorations with C S Lewis, we come to a few reasons modern Christians would do well to learn from the medieval monastics:

We need something like monasticism because we are physical beings who need a holistic spiritual discipline

Against the stereotypes, Christian asceticism still holds the body to be a good thing – and Benedict’s Rule demonstrates this, for example, in its close attention to the needs of a sick monk, who should be given more food and more sleep, and of course its strong insistence on hospitality to the stranger and the guest.

We’re talking about spiritual dieting here. And diets that work still allow you to eat things you like, but in a more controlled manner. Christian asceticism is spiritual dieting, not spiritual anorexia. Anorexia is a complete construction of food as evil and disgusting, and an aversion to food. Monks did not believe that marriage and procreation (for example) were evil. They believed that by doing without them, they could train themselves toward a higher good. Continue reading

But what did monks DO all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism


monks_singing_medieval hymn

What did monks do all day? Columba Stewart tells us in his marvelous little book Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Orbis, 1998):

The Work of God

At the center of the Benedictine life was the daily round of liturgy called by Benedict the “Work of God” (opus dei). The Rule specified eight such ‘offices’ per day. The first, very early in the morning, was “a comparatively long service of psalms and readings called Vigils.” Then came Lauds [“lawds”] followed almost immediately by four other brief offices during the day—Prime, Terce [“terse”], Sext, None [rhymes with “bone”], an evening office (Vespers) and a brief bedtime office (Compline [“COMP’-lin”]). All told, this amounted to nearly four hours per day spent in communal prayer, during which the monks would work their way through all of the psalms once each week.[1]

Important to the monastic life was the slow, meditative reading of scripture, called the lectio divina. Continue reading

Graced and communal: More lessons from monasticism


monks

If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.

A potential objection and the role of grace

Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.

In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.

Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading

C S Lewis’s dawning asceticism: “Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration”


monastic arches

In the last post, as I began to unpack monasticism and asceticism with C S Lewis’s help, I took a passage from his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength as a window into the way that war, by shaking all our self-interests and focusing us on a higher goal, can give us a new vision and focus for life. I concluded, drawing from a phrase of Lewis’ in that book: “‘The immense weight of obedience’ involved in asceticism, too, can attune us more finely to our relationships, relativize our petty anxieties and cares, and help us live our earthly, human lives with more zest and appreciation.” Now, to continue:

Why monasticism?

This focusing function may be a helpful general principle about asceticism. But we may fairly ask: “What makes us think the particular ascetic modes of monasticism have any answers on our modern problems? They’re so . . . medieval! Stone cloisters, hard beds, celibacy, rising at ungodly hours to chant Psalms in Latin? Really? This is the balm for our ills?”

Lewis plumbs the depths of self

Lewis, in the year leading up to his conversion, struggled mightily with his “flesh” – and even more with spiritual pride, a sin the monastic fathers unanimously agreed was among the worst, and especially tending to beset those making efforts in their lives to achieve spiritual progress.

From early on, as he struggled toward conversion, Lewis also appreciated the asceticism of the Middle Ages. Continue reading

C. S. Lewis on pagan philosophy as a road to Christian faith


Greek philosophers enjoying a good metaphysical throwdown

Greek philosophers enjoying a good dialectical throwdown

In our last post from the “tradition chapter” draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S  Lewis, we saw that Lewis and the medievals shared a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the pagan philosophers. Was this some antiquarian hobby for Lewis, like collecting old stamps? Here we dig deeper: what possible use could the old philosophers still have for us today?

It is hard to overstate how much Lewis valued pagan knowledge. He had been told as a boy that “Christianity was 100% correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100% wrong.” But because he had already encountered the wisdom of the philosophers, he found that this insistence on the opposition of Christianity to paganism drove him away from, rather than toward, the Christian faith. As it turned out, he abandoned his childhood faith “largely under the influence of classical education.”[1]

It was to this experience of valuing philosophy highly and then being told that Christianity must supplant it that Lewis owed his “firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism.” Continue reading

Tradition V. Scripture? A ludicrous idea to the medievals


Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Why did C S Lewis so strongly rely on the integrity of the Christian tradition? Why was he a “traditional” Christian–a reader of the church fathers, a student of the medieval mystics, an appreciator of scholastic theology? For one thing, he saw what many modern Christians do not: that the boundaries marked out by tradition and the interpretive frameworks provided by it strengthen our ability to understand and live the primary revelation of Scripture.

Tradition in the early church: Irenaeus and the Cappadocians address the heretics

One barrier that still stands in the way of broader acceptance of tradition among free-church Protestants is the misunderstanding of the Reformation that says that medieval Christians treated tradition as a source of authority separate from Scripture.[1] The notion would have been ludicrous to medievals. Scripture and tradition had never been separated in the early church. The church had met together in councils repeatedly to discern the meanings of Scripture. The resulting creeds (elaborated out of long-repeated local church creeds that developed out of the heart of worship) became part of tradition, as protections against wildfire teachings such as Arianism, docetism, and monophysitism.

The very New Testament canon itself, whose now-accepted list of books did not appear until 367 AD in an Easter letter of Athanasius, emerged out of a process of communal discernment led, as they believed, by the Holy Spirit. Which books and letters, when read in the congregations, evidenced spiritual power and truth by supporting and edifying the congregants and building up the church? No serious Christian thinker until the Wycliffes and Huses of the late medieval period—when tradition had become a crutch and a tool of power on the part of some of those at the top of the church—seriously doubted the seamlessness of Scripture and tradition and their necessity to one another. Continue reading