Here’s a new way I’m thinking of for developing the faculty seminar on Christian humanism I’m doing for my friend the Think Tank Director. I like this one better than the more chronological one shared earlier. I’ll share this in a couple of chunks because I went a little crazy with editorializing on it.
This reworking suggests that we use the seminar to explore the hypothesis that Christian humanism has found ways to keep together key dyads: divine-human, faith-reason, virtue-grace, heavenly-earthly, reason-imagination (or truth-beauty). And that the REASON the tradition has been able to do that is its strong grounding in the Incarnation.* We could look at each of those dyads through readings across the different periods, in a way that could attend to historic development without bogging down in the chronology/history.
* Arguably it’s not just the Incarnation but the almost shocking organic unity of the God-human relationship in early soteriology that grounds this whole thing: that is, the theosis understanding of salvation. But interestingly, both Luther and Calvin were similarly quite mystical and organic about the human-God relationship – there are great readings from both that show this.
NOTE: Stupid WordPress has no idea how to deal with the automatic numbering in MS Word, and I don’t have time to go in and change it. So please ignore the plethora of “1s” in the following!
Some friends and I are beginning to plan a multi-day seminar on Christian humanism to be given to a group of scholar-teachers from across the country next spring. As we consider themes that might prove both interesting and helpful to such a group, I’ve framed some elements (still well short of an outline) as follows:
Nascent learning outcomes
Definitions: What, simply defined, is Christian humanism (hereafter, “CH”)?
Scriptural warrants: What are some key scriptural foundations of CH?
Doctrinal warrants: In what key Christian doctrines has CH been grounded?
Chronological scope, depth in the tradition: How has CH been present and active in all periods of Christian history?
Patristic roots and forms: How were the Church Fathers Christian humanists?
Medieval roots and forms: How were the scholastics and renaissance thinkers Christian humanists?
Reformation roots and forms: How were the Reformers Christian humanists?
20th century: CH as a tradition reclaimed during times of crisis: What social circumstances and intellectual contexts led WW II – era thinkers to attempt to reclaim facets of CH for their time? Are there parallels between the crisis of that era (to which some thinkers responded by looking to re-excavate CH) and our own moment of multifaceted crisis?
21st century: Application today: If CH is appropriately considered as a “crisis philosophy” that has something to say to our moment, then do we need to recapture CH today – particularly in contemporary North American culture?
I’ve had occasion before to recommend on this blog the excellent magazine Common Good. Despite my occasional appearance in its pages, it’s just chock full of good stuff, and it’s well worth subscribing. Here’s a review of a fascinating new book (I don’t say this just because its author cites my Medieval Wisdom book a bunch) that they asked me to write – it’ll appear in an upcoming issue, no doubt improved from this draft by editor extraordinaire Aaron Cline Hanbury:
Jason M. Baxter’s new book The Medieval Mind of C S Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind is a suggestive introduction to the literary and theological substance of what we may call, following Baxter’s own clues, CS Lewis’s “long-medieval Christian humanism.”
It is suggestive in helping us understand Lewis’s mind better—Baxter starts the book by puzzling over the fact that despite lavish attention to Lewis the apologist and Lewis the fiction-writer, most modern readers know little to nothing about a “third Lewis”: Lewis the medievalist.
But more than this, it is suggestive in understanding Lewis’s distinctive approach to the cultural crisis of his lifetime – shadowed as it was by two World Wars – and in assessing what we can learn from that approach for our own troubled times.
Wesley and Sheldon help us answer important questions about working in the modern world, addressing today’s tangle of injustices, our oppressive systems and structures, and the broken people all around us who need healing. But one more question remains:
4. Where is God in the work itself—the everlasting grind of creating goods and services for others? Can our work—even in workplaces whose missions may seem so far from Godly—actually connect us with God and his mission on earth?
Again, Martin Luther gets us partway to an answer—teaching us that in our work, we become the hands of God for his provision to our neighbor, so that every kind of work we do in the marketplace, the home, and the civic sphere is truly a vocation from God.
However, in reaction to strains of works-righteousness in late medieval thought, Luther felt he had to insist that no kind of earthly work has any direct relation to our spiritual lives—our preparation for eternity, our progress in sanctification and salvation.
Intensified by Luther’s contemporary Ulrich Zwingli, this nervousness about the “outer,” physical life as spiritually irrelevant (at best) or dangerous (at worst) has continued to weave its way through Protestant piety ever since. Protestants have not much expected our “active lives” to connect us to God. We seem to have lost Gregory’s teaching that in our most mundane work, if we have but ears to hear and eyes to see, God does meet us and minister not only through but also to us.
If only we had a modern teacher who had adopted and absorbed the sacramentalism of Gregory and his era! I’ll suggest that in fact, we do have at least one such teacher:
Sacramentalism provided the seedbed for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, especially in the high-medieval period of the birth of the universities (from the 11th to the 14th centuries). In part, it did this by birthing – and this is our fifth fact – a truly devotional, awe-filled approach to that pursuit.
Think about it: when we may look at the natural world not only as the arena of God’s work but as a physical reality that reflects his divine glory, then how else would we approach it but with awe and wonder? And since medieval and early modern followers of Christ indeed believed this, they approached their study of the world not only out of a duty to apply the gift of reason, but also out of a sense of awe that the world is a conduit to God’s presence and glory. Should it surprise us, then, that the natural philosophers of that age spent hours and days and years of their lives in meticulous proto-scientific experimentation and hypothesizing?
But there is more: A third foundational fact in the Christian development of science and technologies was that the early and medieval Christians understood that God intended they apply the gift of reason to understanding and ordering the gift of Creation—for our flourishing. They saw this important role of reason in the cultural mandate already in Genesis—for example, in the task assigned to Adam and Eve of naming the animals, or God’s charge to them to cultivate and keep the garden.
That the medieval church was not afraid to exercise this mandate of applying reason to the world is illustrated in the story of the man who became pope just before the turn of the millennium – in 999 AD. Of humble origins, Gerbert of Aurillac – who was perhaps relieved to be able take the papal name Sylvester – had developed through talent and education into Christendom’s foremost mathematician. A teacher of arithmetic, astronomy, and harmonics, Gerbert’s knowledge in these fields was admittedly hampered by his inability to read Greek—and therefore to read the best of the ancient pioneers of those fields. But his career showed that even in those so-called “dark ages,” the study of natural philosophy (what we have called “science” only since 1834) was no impediment to a highly successful career in the church. And why should it be? For early and medieval Christians adapted that field of study, “natural philosophy,” from the Greek philosophers, only now understanding it as the study of God’s wisdom as reflected in his creation.
In fact, a couple of hundred years after Gerbert, another Christian scholar, Hugh of St. Victor, described the natural world as a book written by God’s finger – and therefore just as appropriate for Christians to study as the Bible.
For medieval natural philosophy to develop into science as we know it today, however, it needed two more understandings.
I find in C S Lewis a modern person who, throughout his life, lived and worked according to this medieval-inflected, sacramental, incarnational way of seeing and being. So it may be worth looking at a few ways he did that. We can start, again, with his imaginative writings. One is reminded, for example, of the wonderful image of a loving and materially comfortable domesticity in the beaver family portrayed in Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe — which in turn was so like the similarly convivial, rustic life of his friend Tolkien’s hobbits in the Shire with their love of pipes and parties and meals together. Or his novel That Hideous Strength, which is from one end to the other a defense of the real holiness of ordinary virtues of embodied life — work, married sexuality, household life, and all — against the gnostic technocrats who would strip away all material mediations of sacred meanings and virtues in our ordinary lives.
In his letters, too, you can often find Lewis celebrating the sacred in the materiality of our ordinary life and work, even as he recommended to his correspondents that they read medieval writers for the good of their souls. He liked to sign his letters with that very embodied moniker Saint Francis of Assisi had used for himself: “Brother Ass.” And in one of those letters to a sick friend, he said of his own aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”
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.
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.
I commend to you Common Goodmagazine. 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.
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