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!
Continued from part III, and repeating the last couple of sections of that article:
Clearly, Augustine is not dismissing the active life (though he has also not yet fully defined it). He is pointing, in fact, to a sanctifying function in that life.
In a similar text, with a less absolute division between the two lives, Augustine says the following (I give it in two translations – the first from the Cuthbert Butler book cited above, and the second, again, from an online NPNF version):
“Two virtues are set before the soul of man, the one active, the other contemplative; the one whereby we journey, the other whereby we reach our journey’s end; the one whereby we toil that our heart may be cleansed for the vision of God, the other whereby we repose and see God; the one lies in the precepts for carrying on this temporal life, the other in the doctrine of that life which is eternal. Hence it is that the one toils, and the other reposes; for the former is in the purgation of sins, the latter in the light [or illumination] of the purgation effected. Hence it is that, in this mortal life, the former consists in the work of leading a good life, the latter more in faith, and with some few, through a mirror in enigma and in part, in some vision of unchangeable Truth. These two virtues are seen figured in the two wives of Jacob. . . . the three first evangelists, who principally record the words and deeds of our Lord for the right conduct of the present life, are chiefly concerned  with active virtue; but John is chiefly concerned in commending contemplative virtue.”[i]
Then we find in Augustine a view we might almost describe as “pragmatic” – that the active life is simply necessary to us, as beings of the sort we are, and though we might desire to fly directly to the contemplative life, we cannot do so – and that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’ll take it piece by piece, reflecting on each as we go:
Dr. Mary Hirschfeld of Villanova University, author of Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, is one of the few true economist-theologians I know of. Harvard-trained economist, Notre Dame-trained theologian, adult Roman Catholic convert, Dr Hirschfeld was recommended to me by a number of friends as a speaker for a symposium I organized in partnership with the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America (and hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in DC) this past March. Four papers by theologically minded economists and economically minded theologians – Dr Hirschfeld among them – anchored two solid days of tremendously broad, deep, and gracefully collegial conversation. (The four papers, by the way, will be published in an end-of-2022 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.) And it was a delight to meet and work with all of them, but particularly Dr Hirschfeld, whose paper impressed and engaged everyone in the room.
On returning from that symposium, since everyone was telling me I must read Aquinas and the Market (which I commend to everyone interested in the intersection of theology and economics) I’ve been meeting with two friends on a monthly basis to work through the book. To launch our reading group together, we watched a half-hour video interview with Hirschfeldposted last November by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. In preparation for our discussion of that video, I drafted the summary notes below. The interview is worth watching, but this will give you a quick study:
I haveargued that the faith & work conversation needs a stronger theological foundation, and that the long tradition of Christian humanism can and should provide that foundation. I recognize in making that argument that many questions now arise. So I am beginning to line up those questions. The following is a preliminary list, not yet carefully ordered nor comprehensive; I also recognize that any number of these overlap significantly with each other:
In light of theologically, biblically, and historically weak popular presentations of faith & work arguments, we must speak primarily in theological terms
We must not speak in narrowly theological terms
In other words, we must draw on a theological discourse that embraces and can be embraced by all current Christian traditions (e.g. not a discourse that is exclusively neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian, or Wesleyan/Pentecostal, or grounded in Catholic social thought, etc., but informs and converses with all of those traditions and more)
We must draw on a theological discourse that stretches back to the earliest church
We must draw on a theological discourse that is clear about what human beings are, how we (are to) flourish, and how we are (to be) redeemed
We must draw on a theological discourse that is not narrowly “spiritual,” but instead addresses the broadest possible range of human activities (including all major sectors of work) and that affirms material and social as well as spiritual flourishing
We must draw on a theological discourse that therefore includes a well-articulated approach to human cultural (including economic) activity
We must draw on a theological discourse grounded in undeniable major orthodox doctrines such as creation, the incarnation, and the atonement, and with clear scriptural foundations such as Genesis and the Gospels
Christian humanism is the only theological tradition I know of that fulfils all of the above criteria
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.
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.
A reasonable place to start this “story in ten facts” might be with the scientific revolution—traditionally dated from the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres to the 1687 publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia. As soon as we look at this revolution – the seedbed of all modern scientific disciplines—we see some potential problems with the warfare thesis.
First, we notice that the scientific revolution happened before the secularizing Enlightenment—traditionally dated from the death of the French king Louis XIV in 1715 to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. In other words, modern science was born in a Europe still thoroughly Christian in its thinking and institutions. That being true, it’s not surprising that almost all of the scientists who founded modern scientific disciplines during that period were themselves Christians [see illustration at the top of part I]. You’ll see a few named here – and we could include so many others, from Nicolaus Copernicus to Johannes Kepler to Blaise Pascal. Every one of these innovators was a person of faith who pursued scientific and technological innovation out of Christian motives and understandings.
I know what you’re thinking. “Ah, but what about Galileo? Wasn’t his work on the solar system suppressed by the church? Didn’t he become a prisoner to religious bigotry?” Well, no. It turns out Galileo ended up on trial before the Inquisition more because of his political naivete and lack of tact than anything else, and that the trial was more a legal dispute than a clash of beliefs. Says historian Thomas Mayer, “The notion that Galileo’s trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead. Anyone who works seriously on Galileo doesn’t accept that interpretation any more.”
Many thanks to Scot McKnight for hosting Dave Moore’s interview with me on my new book, posted here today: at his Patheos.com blog. Patheos friend Kathleen Mulhern even featured the interview on the front page of www.patheos.com, which is “not chopped liver,” as they say–given that site’s millions of viewers monthly. It is tremendously gratifying to see folks picking this book up and engaging with it.
I also look forward to my visits to MacLaurinCSF at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St Paul) and Tyndale House College & University (Toronto) this fall, and to Upper House at the University of Wisconsin, Madison next spring, to explore these themes with students. I guess I’m a real author now, what with “book tours” and all . . .
C S Lewis described himself as a “dinosaur” – a relic of the ancient and medieval past, stomping around in the modern world. In this last clip of an interview about my new book (which takes C S Lewis as its “docent” into the medieval world), I look at how this “medieval perspective” led Lewis to think differently – sacramentally, incarnationally – about the world around him.
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