Tag Archives: moral philosophy

C S Lewis and “medieval morality”


The following are some thoughts on how C S Lewis will figure as a “guide” into the look and feel of the “moral fabric of the Middle Ages,” and how that fabric differs from our own. It’s basically me grinding away at the grist for this Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants book.

My argument in this chapter is not that Christianity—either in the medieval period or any other period—has taught some distinctive morality, or even that it taught that morality in a distinctive way (although it did, from the earliest years of the church, as Robert Louis Wilken persuasively argues in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Rather, my argument is that today, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have fallen so in love with Luther’s (Augustine’s) message of grace, and have so spiritualized their faith (I almost said Gnosticized, and sometimes I wonder) that questions of morality have receded from view. So we need to hear again from a time (the Middle Ages) when Christianity structured not only people’s worship, but also their moral lives. Continue reading

Marshall McLuhan: We must separate G. K. Chesterton’s moral insights from his Victorian literary medievalism


Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and literary critic who gave us ‘The medium is the message” and “the global village,” had some penetrating things to say about G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to the little book Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). I think he got Chesterton both very right and very wrong. Right in talking about Chesterton’s moral thought. Wrong in trying to separate that thought from various aspects of his literary imagination and literary style.

Basically, McLuhan thought we should all dump Chesterton the Victorian literary medievalist in favor of Chesterton the “master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.”[1]

This does not mean that McLuhan saw Chesterton as a systematic moral philosopher (which he certainly was not). McLuhan enjoined editors to produce, “not an anthology which preserves the Victorian flavor of his journalism by extensive quotation, but one of short excerpts which would permit the reader to feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.” Why? Because “he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.”[2]

McLuhan is quite hard on Chesterton’s Victorian literary medievalism, as were many contemporary and later critics. He saw that frame of Chesterton’s work as derivative, low-quality, and not inherent to the great writer’s metaphysical-moral thought (his clear-sightedness into the many moral conundrums of his age, rooted in metaphysical insight):

“So very impressive is this metaphysical side of Chesterton that it is always embarrassing to encounter the Chesterton fan who is keen about The Ballad of the White Horse or the hyperbolic descriptive parts of Chesterton’s prose. In fact, it might be the kindest possible service to the essential Chesterton to decry all that part of him which derives so obviously from his time. Thus it is absurd to value Chesterton for that large and unassimilated heritage he got from [medievalist and all-round wacko] William Morris—the big, epic dramaturgic gestures, riotous colour, medieval trappings, ballad themes and banal rhythms. Morris manages these things better than Chesterton ever did: and nobody wants to preserve William Morris.”[3] Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Gregory the Great


Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of Gregory the Great. He mentions all of them in only one place, in the Moralia on Job. But other mentions are scattered throughout. Bob Kruschwitz mentioned between sessions today that Aquinas, in “On Evil,” his own most thorough treatment of the capital vices, cites Gregory 500 times, mostly from all over his Moralia. It is Gregory who reduces Evagrius’s & Cassian’s eight down to seven, and sets a number of the ways that thinkers thereafter (including Aquinas) will talk about the seven. I was getting sleepy (and recording the session with my digital audio recorder for later review) and less was said about Gregory than Evagrius and Cassian, but what I scribbled down is here:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Gregory’s Moralia In Iob

There is one big 19th-century translation, being scanned in sections onto the computer. Google Books has a searchable version.

The Moralia on Job is a medieval commentary. Strange bird. Baptists preaching verse by verse—even the most dedicated don’t preach some verses. But Gregory always has a clue for every verse. He always does a moral interpretation, five pages on each one! Not anagogical. But moral, about how you’re supposed to live. So the capital vice stuff is scattered all over this big honkin’ commentary on Job.But the section Aquinas refers to almost half the time when he quotes Gregory is the one in our pack (Moralia Book XXI, 84-91).

This’ll preach!

Job is whining. God shows up: doesn’t say “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Gets in his face, says “I created the world. Do you have any idea what you’re doing.” And goes several more verses: I made Leviathan for fun. Take the war-horse.” And Job says Gotcha: you made the horse. But we made the war-horse, culturally.

And God replies: here’s what’s important about the warhorse–it’s things you humans can’t do, Job! Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Cassian


Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of John Cassian:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Cassian, Conferences 5

Is this stuff weird, or what? (Bob’s words)

Hard to know about Cassian: Apparently Greek his first language. Yet he also has Latin, with such mastery that people think it might have been a first language as well. So locating where he’s from is often for scholars taking bits and pieces of his story and triangulating where in the ancient world you could have learned both of these language as a child. Romania? Greek speaking, but Latin military presence, schools.

His writings have been described as the first modern writings. They are quite amazing. No parallel in the ancient world. Sometimes you get that story about Augustine, who connects thoughts in chapters, but then he launches into four chapters on genesis. But Cassian: it’s a book, with a plan. He tells us at the front: someone knew he’d been in Egypt. After he’d left with a controversy, went to Rome, sent from there to Constantinople, then back to Rome. Now at mature age, living in Southern France. Pope Castor he’s called in Institutes: bishop, says “You know how to get Christian intentional communities going, do it for me. Write it down before you die.” Then he says “some more guys came to me, wanted some more stories. And you get more conferences. There are three books of Conferences. Very thick volume. The fifth conference, with Serapion, is in the middle of the first set: a featured spot. So you have the Institutes, then the three sets of Conferences, then he quits. Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Evagrius


Here I am at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? Here’s a sample, on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices,” that is, dispositions from which a bunch of other nasty dispositions and sins flow) in the thought of Evagrius Pontus, whose list included eight of the suckers:

Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar Day 2

A survey of the seven deadly sins (capital vices) in Evagrius’s Praktikus, Gregory the Great’s Moralia, and John Cassian’s  Conferences, conference 5

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Evagrius (345 – 399; died as Origenist controversy breaking out) inherited and joined well-established desert tradition. Showed up in late 300s. Not an innovator re inventing the desert experience.

What he did do was try to gather, systematize, innovate a bit, but right down what was going on already. Compiler in a creative way.

Cassian (365 – 435?) joined him out in the desert for around 2 decades. When Evagrius died, he set out for Southern France, set up a monastic version of the desert tradition out in France. Continue reading

The theology of Jack Bauer and 24


Here, according to Huffington Post writer John Shore, is the theology (or more accurately, anthropology) of 24‘s Jack Bauer.

I’ll admit, I read this with only very partial knowledge of the series. Lo, these many years ago, during the show’s first season, I became addicted within a couple of episodes. Then I realized it keyed me up way too much and took me way too often to my “dark place,” and I quit watching.

But I think Shore may be on to something in this piece. What do you guys think?

Can the study of history have value for the church? Reflections after the Kalamazoo congress


A few reflections on my experience at Medieval Congress 2010, dictated as I drove from Kalamazoo to Midway Airport (through Michigan Wine Country–and stopping at a few tastings!) to return to the Twin Cities:

Sitting in that last session [where I heard the paper “The Beauty of the Person in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” by Margaret I. Hughes of Fordham Univ] reminds me again of the apparent integrity and usefulness of Thomistic moral categories and moral analysis (this first came across me at the conference in Rebecca DeYoung’s session on vainglory).

I’m aware always of David Steinmetz’s off-handed dismissal, in a class one day, of virtue ethics as something, as I understood him, inherently Pelagian. But I think again that there’s a high value in an anatomizing of the heart as an ultimately spiritual as well as intellectual discipline, and I think Aquinas works in that mode do many other ethical thinkers in the medieval period . . . and as do the penitential manuals and so on and so forth.

Do they always do it well or in ways we can appropriate today? I’m sure they don’t. But to examine closely our personalities, who we are as moral beings, how we are tempted, how we sin, and how we recover from sins and become purified through a life-long process of sanctification—there is great value in this; it’s a value that was captured in the Methodist movement, has been captured by the Pietists, the Puritans . . . It seems it’s inherently and faithfully biblical and worthy of further study. Continue reading