4. Grace and virtues (the Christian moral life and Christian social ethics)
Other than dissenters such as Tertullian, the early church was happy to absorb and adapt much of the non-Christian knowledge of the time (classical philosophy). This included knowledge in the realm of ethics and politics (e.g. Aristotle’s Ethics – see e.g. Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Thus the substance of Aristotelian virtue ethics was absorbed into Christian ethics, culminating in Aquinas’s Summa.
More recently, Protestant as well as Catholic readers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other modern Christian virtue ethicists have also been willing to consider the older Christianized classical virtue ethics tradition as important and helpful for today. However, there is still a tension between that tradition and the Augustinian understanding of the primacy of grace (given the extreme effects of the Fall) in human moral life. Again Christian humanism has worked to sustain a synthesis in this tension of virtue and grace, to various degrees in various phases of the tradition.
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?
When modern Christians lose the wonder of the Incarnation, we lose also the wonder of our own humanity. We intellectualize and spiritualize the faith to the point where we forget a simple fact. That is, that we can know God ONLY through our senses.
Lewis insisted on this fact, and he tied it not only to the Incarnation (in writings such as his powerful sermon “Transposition”) but also to the New Creation. The bodies we will have in that new reality, he insists, will be not less, but more solid and corporeal than those we have now. There would be no Caspar-the-Ghost-like cloud-dwelling angelic afterlife for the Oxford don. In fact, compared to the solidity he believed we will have in the New Earth (and Christ already has at the Father’s right hand), our present bodies begin to look rather wispy!
The subjective side of the sacramental principle: We know Him only through our sense experience
Why is it so important that we affirm our embodiedness in our relationship with God? Because we receive everything we know about him through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. We have no other way to understand Him. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament. To use a word Lewis used to title a key essay (to which we will return), it is “Transposition.” Continue reading →
In this third post from the final chapter of my Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I delve deeper into Lewis’s Incarnational theology and spirituality:
The Incarnation ennobles us, draws us up into God, and thus makes us our “best selves”
As well as pointing up our moral nature and demanding that we choose well, the Incarnation, for Lewis, performs an astounding work of drawing us up into the divine presence. Lewis launches into his key apologetic work Mere Christianity with this observation: “At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. Well, I’ll go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.” This is a version of the classical Christian teaching of theosis, formulated by Athanasius, who said that “God became man so that we can become gods.” That startling language does not mean that we become what God is in his essence, but rather that we are re-attached to the divine life, which overcomes the death at work in us because of the Fall. He came to earth, to flesh, in order to lift us back up with him.
“Lewis has a couple of unique ways of describing the Incarnation. In Letters to Malcolm, he suggests that the Incarnation can be described as Heaven drawing Earth up into it. He asserts that when God the Son took on the human body and soul of Jesus, he took on with it the whole environment of nature—locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, aching feet, frustration, pain, doubt and death. Continue reading →
A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before beginning the research on Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I had often thought that there is something a bit exotic and strange about Lewis’s treatment of desire and salvation. Now I know what that is: he was a Neoplatonic Christian in a Boethian mold. This bit of the “affective devotion chapter” sorts some of that out, with the help of Canadian philosopher and Lewis specialist Adam Barkman.
Lewis’s reading of Boethius, quite a while before his Christian conversion, revealed to him a particularly Christian understanding of the role of our desires in the path to God. His knowledge of this tradition would lead Lewis to craft a form of a traditional apologetic argument for Christianity: the argument from desire.
Since Boethius’s book was one of the most translated, most influential books of the whole middle ages, let’s look for a moment at how this influential argument from desire looks in the Consolation. Boethius the character in the allegory begins the book in a very agitated state. His fortunes have turned for the worse, he has been accused of political skullduggery, his goods have been confiscated, he is under arrest. And with the righteous fervor of a Job and the melancholy of a Psalm of lament, he says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy.” How is it that the wicked can be enjoying themselves, and he, who has lived an upright life as a faithful servant of Theodoric, has had happiness snatched away from him?
Now Lady Philosophy spends much of the first half of the book convincing Boethius that the things he thinks will bring him secure happiness—money, fame, power, pleasure—are actually will-o-the-wisps, or pale shadows of true happiness. But she does not disagree with Boethius’s premise: that happiness is our proper end. Continue reading →
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