2. Reason is a gift too, and an important part of God’s image in us
A second important fact for the historical Christian engagement in scientific and technological pursuits is that from the earliest years, Christians have understood human reason as a second gift, along with creation. This positive understanding of reason flourished, again, from the earliest years of the church. As historian Jaroslav Pelikan puts it, “When the Christian gospel came into the world, it succeeded in converting the most rational of men, the Greek philosophers, to its message; this was proof that the gospel was not to be dismissed as irrationality and ‘insanity.’”
Among those converted philosophers were such key early Christian leaders as Athenagoras of Athens, Justin Martyr, and Clement and Origen of Alexandria. Such thinkers continued to function as philosophical teachers, and in that role, they forged systematic Christian understandings of God, humanity, and the world – a tradition of Christian thought that has continued to today.
Now you may suspect that when I say this tradition of careful Christian thought about things “continued to today,” I’m passing too lightly over the medieval Church critiqued by Condorcet. Wasn’t that Enlightenment skeptic right? Weren’t medieval people ignorant haters of knowledge who were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason? That is what we so often hear.
Friend Andrew Hansen at Anselm House Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota passed along to me the name of a scholar I can’t wait to read. For a peek into French historian of philosophy Remi Brague’s work, see this review of Brague’s 2019 book Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (so widely read and well-received that it was reissued in 2022). [Love the subtitle – it has a familiar ring!] A quick excerpt:
“G. K. Chesterton was right: the modern thinkers were thieves and counterfeiters. They lifted truths embedded in medieval culture and articulated by pre-modern thinkers, reworked them, and passed them off as new, emancipatory, and empowering. The stolen ideas were pressed into the service of a vast new enterprise, “the modern project.” Proponents of the project promised that henceforth man could make his own way in the world, without any higher assistance or guidance whatsoever. Brague calls this “exclusive humanism,” because it excludes any higher Instance—cosmos or Creator or binding tradition—in the understanding and fulfillment of the human.”
“. . . It certainly does not mean repudiating the modern world in all its aspects and works. That world has “precious gains” that should be “safeguarded.” However, we must understand the core tenets of the medieval worldview (starting with creation and providence) that gave rise to these positive truths. It means noting what is missing or garbled in the extracted modern versions. It means bringing the two together in a new synthesis, one that neither party could effect in their day. Rather than a reactionary appeal, therefore, “medieval wisdom for the modern age” is a contemporary call for an unprecedented synthesis.”
Having received Andrew’s tip and read the above review, I immediately asked friend and prolific scholar of Christian humanism Jens Zimmermann at Regent College what he thought of Brague. Had he read him? Most certainly! And in fact he compared Brague favorably to one of the most influential philosophers in my own intellectual pedigree, Charles Taylor. Well, that got my attention! I’m eagerly awaiting copies of several of his books and look forward to delving into them.
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.”
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 →
Boethius teaching his students (1385). Boethius, a 6th-c. Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in the post-Roman West. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Here’s another in the brief series I’ve started of posts from the Tradition chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. First came a couple of posts that looked at Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). Then a look at his prescription for this illness: old books. This post looks at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius.
What Lewis did himself
Lewis was not content just to stand on the sidelines of modern discussion about Christian theology and lob in the occasional reminder of tradition. Again and again, in his essays, stories, and letters, Lewis insists that apart from tradition, we are adrift in the errors of our own age. Indeed, soon after his 1931 conversion, this compulsion became a full-blown vocation for the Oxford don and lay theologian. He was to become a public intellectual—a conduit to past wisdom for an amnesiac generation. It was a vocation he shared with one of his favorite writers, who was also one of the most influential thought leaders in the medieval period – a man who wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling, and attempted to preserve Christian as well as Greek philosophical truth for a time in danger of losing its inherited wisdom. Continue reading →
Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.
Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:
So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.
For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology. Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.
If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who translates their medieval ideas for us.
 The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”
 By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.
As promised, here’s the first of a series of clips from my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. This and all subsequent clips are absolutely DRAFTS of material that will undergo many changes before the book comes out. If you would like to point out errors or push back on arguments, please feel free! Also, if you would like to tell me I’m brilliant and everybody in the world should read my book, feel free to tell me that too!
The following is from the introductory section of the chapter on the medieval passion for applying their reason to understanding the things of God – that is, their passion for doing theology.
C. S. Lewis was not a professional philosopher (though that was his first love and career intention, before he got redirected into literature), but he was well prepared by his early and exceptionally thorough tutelage in the Classics and dialectic under Kirkpatrick to pursue philosophical study with passion – not as the mastering of abstractions, but as the key to the good life. From those early studies through his “Greats” philosophy study at Oxford to his first teaching job there, which was also in philosophy, Lewis chose to “follow the guidance of reason and perform numerous spiritual exercises, such as reading, meditating on literary images, prayer, chapel attendance and so on, in a genuine attempt to live according to what he thought was true; as he said, ‘I [was] trying to find out truth.’” Continue reading →
I just read that I’m now a “distinguished guest speaker.” Checked quickly in the mirror: doesn’t look like I have any more grey hairs . . .
Anyhow, the Madison C S Lewis Society has just posted the audio of a tremendous series of nine top scholars, plus me, speaking at their Oct 2012 conference on the ten books that most influenced C S Lewis. I’ve got to say this was the most stimulating conference I’ve attended in a long, long time.
These were the books Lewis listed toward the end of his life in answer to a question from the American magazine The Christian Century about which books had most influenced his “sense of vocation and philosophy of life.” My assignment: to discuss how Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, of which the medievalist Lewis said, “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages,” influenced the Oxford don.
Appropriate to my activities these days in Bethel Seminary’s Work with Purpose initiative, in this talk I pay particular attention to the question of how Lewis saw his own vocation as a public intellectual attempting to preserve and recommend the Old Western Christian tradition.
The link is here. (In my bit, the talk is around 40 minutes; the lively Q&A at the end is perhaps the most interesting part: you may just want to skip ahead!) And here is the full list of books and speakers:
The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto presented by Dr. Adam Barkman from Redeemer University College.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell presented by Dr. Paul Tankard from the University of Otago, NZ.
Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour presented by Dr. Charles Taliferro from St. Olaf College.
Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A while back I gave, at the Madison, Wisconsin C S Lewis Society’s conference, sponsored by the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation, a much fuller version of the take on Lewis’s “Boethianism” than the one I had originally tried out on the Medieval Congress CSL crowd at Kalamazoo. Here’s the Madison paper.
There’s more here on Boethius’s philosophical influence on Lewis, as well as a refinement on the ways in which Boethius seems to have influenced Lewis vocationally. I did, however, truncate the end from what I had prepared to give. I’ll add my original pre-conclusion ending, which reflects on fortune and eudaimonism using Lewis’s last published essay, “We have no ‘right to happiness,'” after the paper proper.
Probably the author who influenced me most in my expansion of the Kzoo paper was Adam Barkman. Serendipitously, I discovered a few days before the conference that he was to give the paper right after me. It was an honor to get to know him and hang out with him at the conference. Everyone interested in Lewis and philosophy, or really, everyone seriously interested in Lewis from any perspective, needs to buy Adam’s book, C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life.
“Lewis the Boethian,” paper for Bradshaw-Knight CSL conference Oct. 2012, Madison, Wisconsin
Copyright 2012 by Chris R. Armstrong. THIS PAPER IS DISTRIBUTED WITH THE UNDERSTANDING THAT THOSE READING IT WILL NOT CITE OR QUOTE IT WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR.
He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity informing both. Continue reading →
On the telephone Mr. Plantinga was milder in tone but no less direct. “It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism,” he said. “I think it’s a complete mistake and ought to be pointed out.” Continue reading →
Ever hear of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy? There’s a delightful exposition of it, with great relevance for the church, on the Slacktivist blog. It is by Fred Clark, and it makes me want to read more of Mr. Clark’s stuff. Here’s how it begins:
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a common way of exempting a group from any culpability for the bad actions of members of that group. More generally, the useful Wikipedia article linked to there describes it as:
An ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.
The key point there is that final phrase: “without reference to any specific objective rule.” I want to clarify that even further, and say that such specific objective rules need to be credibly accepted as excluding the counterexample. But I also want to reinforce this aspect of the definition to ensure that we’re not seeing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy where it does not exist.
It’s helpful here to look at philosopher Antony Flew’s classic example of this fallacy, from which it derives its name. That example is structured, actually, as a joke: Continue reading →
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