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.
Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wisdom Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard and Sigier of Brabant in the Sphere of the Sun (fresco by Philipp Veit), Canto 10. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It’s all very well to say that C S Lewis and the medievals valued tradition–indeed, that they hung their hopes for understanding the Truth of things on their ability to understand and act on the wisdom passed down to them. But what was the nature of that tradition? Yes, Christian, of course. But also, as we will see, Pagan.
Tradition included Pagan as well as Christian wisdom
In Discarded Image, Lewis shows usthat medievals implicitly trusted historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He also shows that they saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture. This was true from Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr through Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante. Though the pagan philosophers had not known Christ in his incarnate form, they too, along with all people, had been given access to the logos – the wisdom of the second person of the Trinity.
In other words, medieval poets, jurists, moral teachers, romance writers, and theologians—all creating compendia of knowledge for their readers—were often gleefully syncretistic. Not that they didn’t care whether the deepest truth of things was to be understood in Christian, Platonic, Stoic, or Pagan terms. Christianity always provided the framework, the “norming norm,” for truth. But within that framework one might fit all the best thought of the pagans, as Christian thinkers had been doing ever since Paul spoke to the Greeks at Mars Hill about their “Unknown God,” using the words of their own poets (“In him we live and move and have our being.”)
What else would we expect from the early spread of “the Way” to the Gentiles? Continue reading →
Moving to the Creation chapter, I find the themes of the nascent theology chapter “leaking over” into this topic. I am thus moving the “science and religion” and “Word and world” material from the latter to the former. Here is the bucket where I have currently put evidence from Lewis, Dante, Aquinas, Abelard, and others for the ways medieval thinkers brought together Word and World, Faith and Science. It still needs reorganizing and revising, but I like how this is shaping up:
Word and world
Scholasticism also offered a broadening of horizons and a deepening of relationship between man and God, because it not only engaged the inner faculty of reason in the study of God, but also sought to comprehend the whole sweep of human experience in a single system. This was, I believe, what Lewis meant when he observed, “Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the [Middle Ages].”[1a]
Before Lewis (and influencing him), G. K. Chesterton picked up the scholastic torch as he spent his career insisting that Christianity was, far from an obscurantist opiate of the masses, actually the Most Reasonable Thing (a constant theme in his “Father Brown” stories, for instance). Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers carried this onward, explaining the medieval (Thomist) synthesis of knowledge through essays and her brilliant notes on Dante’s Comedy describing the ruling “images” operative in every book and canto of that poem.
As we have seen, scholasticism was clearly a response to a new, naturalistic worldview that was becoming dominant in their culture. “Recognizing as we must the imperfections and the unfinished business of the medieval achievement, we should also acknowledge that it [Scholasticism] was the most daring constructive attempt in the Church’s history to think of grace and nature, faith and reason, Christianity and culture, God and his creation, in terms that would neither separate nor confuse them [note the direct parallel to the language of the Chalcedonian Definition!], neither strip God of his sovereignty nor do violence to the integrity of his creatures. In other words, scholastic theology and philosophy are, at the very least, a noble effort to face the abiding problems raised by the correlation of Christian faith in God, Creator and Redeemer, with man’s knowledge of himself and his world.”[1b] Continue reading →
I close out the “potted history” of scholasticism in the theology chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis with a bit of a dirge.
All good things must come to an end. It was the profound skepticism of a group called the “nominalists” that finally killed the grand synthesizing experiment of scholastic theology. But far from being an elitist blip on the medieval church’s radar (OK, I’ll admit that metaphor is a bit too modern!), the labors of the scholastics continued to affect the laity profoundly through the friars’ vibrant preaching and education efforts–right through the period of the Reformation. (Today’s worldwide network of Jesuit colleges are just one part of that legacy.)
THE DECLINE OF SCHOLASTICISM
The story of scholasticism’s decline in a nutshell is that after Aquinas, a trend of thought came to dominate theology which tended to re-separate faith and reason. Continue reading →
Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went
You may know that there was some sort of general shift in the high medieval period (1000 – 1300) from a Platonic to an Aristotelian worldview. What you may not know is how deeply that affected the way Western Christians came to see God and the world. Here’s the skinny, in another clip from the “theology chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.
Once again, this is a draft, and I’ve scattered through it, here and there, little clues for myself on how I might use and restructure this material as I moved toward a finished book – pardon our dust!
Why was Aristotle so important to the development of scholasticism?
Basically, until the rediscovery of the body of his works in the 13th c., the prime philosophical influence on Christian thinkers in the West was Plato, via the neo-platonic thought of Augustine.
Rel/Sci: Plato had essentially been a mystic, and his philosophy had been based on the principle that ideas such as the True, the Beautiful and the Good had real existence, apart from the visible world. In fact, he believed that the passing forms of this visible world, which we know through our senses, are not a real source of knowledge. Only our reason, which leads us to know these changeless, universal patterns called ‘ideas,’ would give true knowledge. This position is also known as ‘realism,’ and is held by such early scholastics as Anselm—again, as he and others of his time had inherited it through Augustine.
SCI/REL: Aristotle, on the other hand, was far less mystical than Plato. To him, the visible world is real. Ideas are not presupposed structures which exist somewhere “out there.” They exist as an integral part of the phenomena of the visible world. Therefore, the world is the prime object of knowledge for Aristotle. He is, in other words, a scientist. Continue reading →
I’ve been posting bits of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis as they get written. Today I launch into a three-part section of the chapter on the medieval passion for theology. This whole section deals with the peak movement in medieval theology: scholasticism.
Scholasticism is a much-misunderstood movement still covered with the mud of Enlightenment disdain (“All they did was sit around debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin”). But its actual goals, development, and achievements lead us to some surprisingly modern applications. These take-aways for today have to do with the ways scholastic thinkers managed to hold together (not without tension and controversy) faith & reason, love & logic, religion & science, and Word and world, which will be the subject of the section following these three. As usual, all of this is still in draft stage, so you’ll see the sawdust and rough edges of the workshop.
So, on to part I of what my friend Bruce Hindmarsh likes to call the “potted history” of this fascinating movement in medieval Christian thought:
Definition, significance, and brief potted history of scholasticism
Although many areas and movements in medieval thought are worthy of study, this chapter will focus on scholasticism.
“Scholasticism” just means “theology done in the schools.” The schools in question were “the monastic and cathedral schools of the eleventh and twelfth centuries—Bec, Laon, Chartres, Saint Victor, Notre Dame de Paris—and the universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—Paris and Oxford and the long line of their younger sisters.” Essentially, medieval scholasticism was the birthplace of systematic theology: the attempt to apply logical categories and modes of argumentation – especially Aristotelian dialectics – to the materials of Scripture and Christian tradition.
One of the remarkable things about scholasticism was the way it wove reason and tradition together. Though the 12th-century renaissance did amount to an awakening on “the positive value of human logic and the autonomy of the human mind,” it was based as well on the value of authority. We would do well to imitate the scholastics in this, for among those later Western thinkers who Fairweather says used the forms of thought, asked the questions, and raised the solutions of the scholastics are Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant. He concludes, “The great teachers of medieval scholasticism are among the most significant intellectual ancestors of the modern West, and their theological and philosophical ideas have played a large part in the doctrinal formation of every Christian communion which stems from Western Europe.” Continue reading →
Work continues on my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. The chapter with the working title “Passion for theology” has been kicking my butt up and down the street for a few days, but I got up at 4 this morning and the introduction finally came together. Here it is:
In the charismatic church where I came to Christ as a young man, we couldn’t wait for Sunday. Week after week we experienced such rich, life-changing ministry in worship and prayer. Night after night, the altar was jammed with eager worshippers seeking a “touch from the Lord.” And it seemed like He was always there to meet us and put his loving arms around us. After the service, we would leave the building with our hearts bursting with gratitude and joy. We even joked that it might not be safe to drive in that condition! And it didn’t take much prodding for us to evangelize, either: who wouldn’t want to share such riches?
I will always be grateful for those days, and for the divine condescension that worked among us with such power. Some folks accuse charismatics of not giving God or Christ his due. “There’s so much ‘me’ language in their songs,” they grump. And sure, our worship could become self-indulgent. But the critics just don’t “get” why charismatics use the first person so much in church. It’s because they live in constant awe that the God of Creation condescends to save and to love even them. What a God, who meets us in our brokenness and wraps his arms around us like the father with the prodigal son! The charismatic experience of God is like every love song on the radio. Try writing one of those without using the first person!
More than all of this, we loved church because we knew that we came away from it changed. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of imperfection in our lives. But along with the love-fest came real personal transformation: Sins confessed. Grace experienced. Old wounds healed. Broken relationships restored. Release from addictions. God not only loved us—he made us better people. We experienced not only the Beauty of his presence among us, but also the Goodness that came from the operation of his Spirit in our hearts.
But here’s the thing. As the Greek philosophers knew, humans cannot live on Beauty and Goodness alone. There is a third realm necessary for human flourishing: the realm of Truth. And in that area, I sensed that the charismatic church of my twenties was standing on thin ice. Many of our key teachings came from self-taught celebrity preachers who skewed heavily to the topical—and away from the exegetical—end of the preaching spectrum. Their messages were rousing, to be sure. They got the people standing on their feet and coming up to the altar. But by dint of stringing together out-of-context Bible verses with some homespun wisdom, these teachers took us down some garden paths: The prosperity gospel. Blame-the-victim faith healing. Demon-in-every-doorknob spiritual warfare. We fell over ourselves to get to all that wonderful Beauty and Goodness, and we left Truth in the ditch. Continue reading →
English: Triumph of Vainglory (Gloria Mundi); frontispiece to Petrarch’s De Viris Illustribus. The image is thought to be based on a fresco by Giotto in the palace of Azzone Visconti, in Milan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is post 2 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory,” which I am using in the “morality chapter” of my forthcoming book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis to illustrate the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. Part 1 is here.
Lewis recognized this temptation in its peculiarly potent academic form in a 1930 letter (a mere year pre-conversion, and we can hear his conviction of his own sin here) to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves:
“The old doctrine is quite true you know – that one must attribute everything to the grace of God, and nothing to oneself. Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. . . . I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me. I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit – and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked.”
And all the academics said, “Ouch!”
But we may object (especially the academics – we never stop objecting to all sorts of things): “What’s wrong with a little vainglory here and there?” This objection contains a truth, which De Young, following Aquinas, admits: Humans have a natural desire to be known—and especially for their goodness to be known. And Aquinas believed goodness by its nature tends to communicate itself to others. We can see this in God too. It is a natural effect of goodness to be known. So glory can be a good—can even, perhaps, be pursued in licit ways—of course recognizing, as Johann Sebastian Bach famously did, that even as we enjoy with a justifiable pride the fruit of our gifts and disciplines, the ultimate source of all good – and this the ultimate and most appropriate recipient of all glory – is God. Soli Deo Gloria!
But the problem lies in that “vain” dimension of vainglory—the falseness, the unworthiness of what is receiving glory. Continue reading →
So far the shape this “Lewis section” is taking is that I open with a brief reminder of Lewis’s development in ethical thinking, then move to his defense of objective value, then show how his highest and most lasting form of moral discourse was actually his imaginative fiction – and along the way indicate at every step the debts he owed to medieval understandings.
The draft is still much longer than it should be – unwieldy and circuitous. But posting these things here has always helped me work through them, especially as people have responded with comments. So this is an invitation: What works here for you? What doesn’t? Where can I trim, reorganize, compress? What is confusing or redundant?
Introduction [to lewis section]
Lewis walked cultural ground sown with the seeds of this modern situation: denial of objective value, lack of a coherent social ethic, moral passivity and blame-shifting, and a failure to pass on a moral framework to the next generation through the training of what he called the “moral sentiments.” He would point out to us, as he did to his own day, that it is no good skewering the younger generation’s failures when we, their elders, have failed to teach them well. “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [that is, well-trained moral sentiments] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
These are Lewis’s words in his seminal short essay The Abolition of Man. And the same analysis also echoed through the pages of his imaginative writings – yes, the Narnia Chronicles, but also, and more explicitly, the Screwtape Letters, the Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. In such works, Lewis worked out in the flesh-and-blood form of characters and events not just the moral problems facing modern society, but their solution: the graced renovation of the human heart. Indeed I would argue that in everything Lewis wrote, non-fiction or fiction, he wrote first of all as a (Christian) moral philosopher. Continue reading →
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