Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

“Vanity, all is vanity” – the vice of vainglory, part II


English: Triumph of Vainglory (Gloria Mundi); ...

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

C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis


C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD - OXFORD

C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD – OXFORD (Photo credit: summonedbyfells)

Still working away today on the “moral fabric of medieval faith” chapter of my book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Having opened the chapter with a statement of the “modern problem,” I intend to turn next to Lewis.

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

“Saint” Chesterton?


Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (b. 29 May 1874 – d....

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (b. 29 May 1874 – d. 14 June 1936), English writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Worth noting: Pope Francis appears to be pro- the canonization of G. K. Chesterton, says Stratford Caldecott in this interesting article.

 

Caldecott relates the current pope’s interest in canonizing the great apologist and influencer of C S Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and so many others,

 

According to EWTN News and the Catholic News Agency, a letter to Mr Thompson from the Argentine ambassador who heads a Chesterton group in Argentina noted that the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, “encourages us in our aspiration to see the initiation of the Cause of Chesterton to the altars.” Not only that, but Cardinal Bergoglio, since elected pope, approved the text of a private prayer for the canonization of Chesterton.

 

We’ll just have to wait and see, but there is an English bishop who is doing more than that:

 

Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton is “sympathetic” to those who desire to see Chesterton canonized and is “seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for Chesterton.”

 

This development is a long way from actual canonization, but  its announcement by Dale Ahlquist at a meeting of the American Chesterton Society was greeted with “huge cheering and applause and great emotion.” Continue reading

C S Lewis’s use of story to “train the heart,” per Paul Ford, in the latter’s delightful Companion to Narnia


The Pevensy children and the lamppost

This is me reflecting in my “Tradition chapter” draft (for the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis) on Paul Ford’s understanding of how C S Lewis used story, in the Narnia Chronicles, to initiate readers into a traditional moral reality by drawing their desires into play. It supports and resonates with this post.

Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia, “Introduction” and “Story”

“Story, Stories” (pp. 412-13)

“The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia are testament to the fact that Lewis valued stories and story-telling as the best way to transmit values down through the generations. The difference in quality between the New Narnians and the Old Narnians (as personified by Miraz and Prince Caspian) is faith. Miraz thinks fairy tales are for children and to be outgrown, while for Caspian the old stories are his salvation.” (412)

“Introduction,” sub-section “What Is a Story?

There is much wisdom here about story as moral education because it is a key way our emotions are trained. So too tradition: it is handed down as of immense value, it forms our culture’s “ways of seeing,” of “Enjoying” truths by indwelling them and using them to “see other things by”—like “looking along the beam” rather than “looking at the beam”—the latter being the analytical mode that Lewis calls Contemplating, rather than Enjoying.

The nature of the education that story gives us is described by Gilbert Meilaender, quoted at length in this section: “‘Moral education . . . does not look much like teaching. One cannot have classes in it. It involves the inculcation of proper emotional responses and is as much a ‘knowing how’ as a ‘knowing that.’ . . . The picture we get when we think of ‘knowing how’ is the apprentice working with the master. And the inculcation of right emotional responses [see “men without chests” image in Abolition of Man] will take place only if the youth has around him examples of men and women for whom such responses have become natural. . . . Lewis, like Aristotle, believes that moral principles are learned indirectly from others around us, who serve as exemplars Continue reading

We must not abdicate the theological task – a word from C S Lewis and the medievals


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

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.[1] 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.[2]


[1] 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.”

[2] 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.

Max Weber was wrong: greed does not make capitalism thrive, it ruins it


My friend Greg Forster has written a thought-provoking article on the humane roots and recent corruption of capitalism. I recommend this as well worth reading. Here’s the first bit, to whet your appetite:

Last week John Starke wrote for TGC about “The Myth of the Protestant Work Ethic.” I’m grateful to Starke for exposing the egregious theological errors in Max Weber‘s theory of capitalism’s origins. But Weber’s theory of what happened next, the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” thesis, has done just as much damage. Christians ought to understand how Weber’s view of capitalism undermines the moral foundations of a humane and genuinely productive economy, promoting materialism, greed, faith/work dualism, debt, and crony capitalism. Continue reading

Getting medieval on the doctrine of hell


I’ve posted several times on the new resource from the publishers Christian History, a compact little survey and resource guide on the history of Christian thought about hell. The project was ably managed by Jennifer Trafton and written by Jennifer, myself, and that redoubtable pair Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait. Jennifer Trafton wrote a splendid annotated bibliography containing brief summaries of over 50 books contributing to the modern debates on hell. For the main, “timeline” section of the publication, the four of us divvied things up chronologically.

Hortus Deliciarum - Hell (Hölle) Herrad von Landsberg (about 1180)

My section was the medieval one, the substance of this post (previously posted in draft form, here). If you would like to read the whole guide in all its fully designed glory, simply go here and you can flip through it, starting with the harrowing Gustav Dore illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost that appears on the cover (folks with old eyes, like mine, can click to zoom in):

The medieval period saw a shift in em­phasis from the early church’s focus on the biblical “Last Things”—the Second Coming of Christ, general resurrection, and final judgment—to a new concentra­tion on the afterlives of individuals. Until the 400s and even beyond, Jesus’ return was still expected imminently; thus those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There was not much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.

As the Second Coming came to seem more remote, however, Chris­tians increasingly focused on the doc­trine of the immediate judgment of each soul at death. The Book of Rev­elation in particular began to guide Christian imagination on people’s fate after death. This emphasis on the af­terlife resulted in a lavishly visual and grotesque new genre of literature: the vision of the otherworldly journey, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy repre­sented the pinnacle. Continue reading