Tag Archives: universities

In which, identity politics poisons yet another community once ruled by love (of their subject): the guild of medievalists.


A New York Times article can’t resist the obvious and amusing verb as it describes an ugly scuffle within the guild of those who study the Middle Ages: “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.”

The article chronicles an unedifying tale of buffoonish clashes between the grievance-identity guerillas and the tone-deaf Old Scholars Club. My first reaction was to dismiss the whole donnybrook as yet another illustration of Sayre’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre%27s_law).

But then I realized that the humor here is only surface-deep: I have attended the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo for the past seven years as a fascinated scholarly outsider (my field is the history of Christianity in the nineteenth century). In that time, I have found medievalists to be, more than the scholars in any other field I know, “amateurs” in the best sense of that term. That is, even the best credentialed and most published among them tend to study what they study out of pure fascination – love (the root amare, from which “amateur” is derived) is not too strong a word. This political posturing is a distraction and a blight in the midst of a Guild of Extraordinary Geeks who study what they study out of no other agenda than coming to a deeper acquaintance with fellow humans long dead–whose lives, cultures, and ideas compel them to long, late nights of study, and all the accompanying sacrifices of the academic life.

This vitriolic battle among the lovers of medieval knowledge is also sad because while courtesy, circumspection, humility, wisdom, and so many other (intellectual) virtues all fall among the first casualties, at the same time careers are being made–and everyone knows it.

And this just shows how deep the infection of political posturing runs in academe as a whole, and how unlikely it is that it will heal itself anytime soon.

(Tangent-that’s-not-really-a-tangent: while I was at Duke University in the late ’90s, I heard a distinguished and celebrated Americanist call some figures from American history “fascists.” The parallel (though I don’t remember what group he was attacking) was simply ludicrous. This historian was clearly subsuming responsible scholarship and teaching to partisan attack. In that moment I lost all respect for him–and I started developing my “crap detector” for such unhelpful polemic. I hasten to add that, in the classes (at least) that took, that detector almost never went off around professors. Unfortunately, however, when it came time to start teaching undergraduates at that same university, I could barely hear myself think for the jangling of that detector’s alarm. The sport of elite undergraduate students appeared to be that most ugly and unpleasant game of heated, moralistic attack-dogging.)

A final word: this present climate constrains me to add: I find the poison on the left and the poison on the right here equally, well, poisonous. A pox – or (why not) a full-on medieval plague – on both their houses!

Let us learn from such “jousts” what we should certainly learn: to discern where our work may illegitimately and harmfully minimize past sins or silence present voices. But also, to discern where the agendas of a variety of “culture wars” have rendered us useless as scholars. Let us not allow an honest desire to redress scholarly wrongs to become yet another one of those currently ubiquitous self-righteous and self-aggrandizing crusades (yes, I used the word), waged from the saddle of that most ugly of animals: the Moral High Horse.

And then, having dismounted and recovered what may be the dim and fragmented light of truth from the smoking furnace of polemical heat, let us return to the field of the Passionate Intellect with a redoubled will. For honest scholarship that follows wherever the evidence leads is a balm in a time of turmoil.

Faith VS. reason: A too-convenient modern story about medieval monks vs. scholars


council at sens at which Bernard accused Abelard

Council of Sens, 1140, at which Bernard of Clairvaux had Peter Abelard’s doctrine condemned

One more snippet on theology from  my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Here’s a cardinal truth about reading history: just because you hear a story again and again doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, it may indicate that a legend has taken on the aura of truth and is no longer being examined. That’s something like what I think has happened in the common “monasticism vs scholasticism” narrative you will often see in textbooks and hear in classrooms:

The “warfare thesis” projected backward

Now there is a modern scholarly narrative about scholasticism that you may have run across – it still seems quite popular. That narrative takes the politicized struggle between two strong personalities—Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard—and derives from it a thesis about the relationship between monastic and scholastic thinking: that the world of medieval theology was divided into obscurantist, fideist monastics who were afraid of using reason and dialectic and wanted to protect mystery, and intelligent, rational scholastics who didn’t care which sacred cows they slaughtered en route to a more “systematic” theology. In this story, Bernard of Clairvaux leads the charge against logic as the arch-monastic, and Abelard stands as the champion of logic and systematization. Continue reading

Thinking God’s thoughts after him: the rise of the medieval scholastics


Scholasticism

Scholasticism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Definition

“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.”[1] 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.

Significance

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.”[2] Continue reading

A few illuminating glimpses into medieval theology and theologians–thank you, David Bell


All of the following come from David N. Bell, Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996). This is a splendid book–a sort of sequel to Bell’s Cloud of Witnesses, on early Christian thought.

Many thanks to my t.a., Shane Moe, for transcribing these. In each case, the page number of the quotation appears at the beginning of the line. The quirk of lowercasing adjectival forms of proper nouns is Bell’s or his editors–not mine:

[For more “glimpses,” from Jaroslav Pelikan, see here.]

(20): [re: Major developments in European intellectual history from 6th century onwards] There are five mile-stones to mark our way: (i) the pontificate of Gregory the Great from 590 to 604; (ii) the Carolingian Renaissance of the late eighth and ninth centuries; (iii) the papal reform movements of the eleventh century; (iv) the renaissance of the twelfth century; and (v) the rise of scholasticism and the universities in the thirteenth century. Continue reading

Podcast on evangelical theology, globalization, postmodernism, and seminary education, with John Franke & friends


This conversation was really fun to have. And maybe even has some light to cast on, as my colleague Kyle Roberts says, “the present and future of evangelical theology, the challenge of globalization and postmodernity, the prospects for the evangelical church in the days ahead, and the role of seminary education in all of this.”

Kyle (a rising theologian, like Christian Collins Winn, who also speaks out on this podcast) explains: “The dialogue participants were John Franke, of Biblical Seminary (on campus to lecture at Bethel University and Seminary), Chris Armstrong, church history professor at Bethel Seminary, Christian Collins Winn, historical theology professor at Bethel College of Arts and Sciences, and myself. Enjoy this discussion and please add any comments or questions of your own for further discussion.  We view this as the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”

Enjoy the podcast, and (we hope) many fascinating posts to come on Kyle’s blog.

“A religious genius.” “One of the most massive figures of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe.” Ernst Stoeffler on August Francke


As far as I can tell, evangelicalism right now, here in America, could really use a re-infusion of the spirit of the 17th- and 18th-century German Pietists. And it is up to a school like Bethel University (truth in advertising: my employer), whose founding denomination is a Pietist one, to position itself under the fountain of historical Pietism and get a good, thorough soaking in that movement’s spirit. For though Pietism is our heritage, we don’t know what it was any more. That’s a sad loss.

Specifically, we stand to learn from such Pietist leaders as August Hermann Francke, the subject of this post, how to overhaul education, social action, and the Christian life along Pietist lines. If this sounds intriguing, then read on . . . Continue reading

Berea College and UVa: Two vastly different centers of theological excellence


Radical egalitarian hotbed Berea College. Brilliant theological think-tank UVa (University of Virginia).

Berea was founded in slave Kentucky in 1855 as an integrated school committed to the equality of all in God’s sight. It has survived to today with its vision intact, while the institution it modeled itself on, Oberlin College, now has no idea who Charles Finney was or how Christianity suffused its own founding (I know; I attended Oberlin for two years in the mid-1980s).

UVa was founded by the Deist Thomas Jefferson as a secular institution, with a desire to become a place of open dialogue, rather than a school under the thumb of a Christian denomination. For that very reason, perhaps, the doors of its religious studies department opened to some of the best and brightest Christian thinkers in the country, alongside scholars of other religions, and this secular school is now a regular Christian theological think-tank.

OK, I’ll admit it: I did not come up with the bright idea of digging into the history of these two schools and writing a stellar article about them. But Jason Byassee did. Here’s what Jason discovered about the history and present power of these two very different but equally kingdom-serving institutions.

Thanks, Jason, for another superlative article.