Sex, food, emotion
Our modern way of spiritualizing of faith out of all earthly recognition is not just an evasion of the unchurched. It has rooted itself deep in Christian culture. To many, faith deals with the realms of the spiritual and does not involve the realm of the physical. The single important thing about Christ is that he was divine—his humanity doesn’t matter much.
We have perhaps not become, as some argue, Gnostics (although there is a family resemblance). We are far too fond of our creature comforts to condemn our bodies as evil, as that heresy did, even if we pretend not to be. Rather, we just now assume that those comforts are spiritually insignificant. This leaves us heedless of our bodies’ significance as the one and only “place” in which we meet God.
We do not live outside our experience of embodiedness and relatedness with other bodies. Continue reading
Why can’t we hear the medievals on Creation and Incarnation?
In the modern West, a crucial reason we cannot hear what medieval people actually said about the world and God’s relationship to it is that we assume, from our privileged modern “scientific” vantage point, that they were impenetrably ignorant about the world. To take just one example: everyone knows that medieval people believed the world is flat, right?
In fact, this is nonsense. The myth that “before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church,” came from the eighteenth century. Its originator was popular novelist Washington Irving, who “flagrantly fabricated” evidence for medieval flat-earth belief in his four-volume history of Columbus.
“The truth is,” says historian of science David Lindberg, “that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.” Continue reading
The Crux: Creation and Incarnation
Is there a way to summarize the negative effects of our modern “immediatism gone to seed,” and the medieval balm that could be applied to heal our self-inflicted wounds? Many ways, no doubt, but I keep coming back to the doctrines of the Creation and the Incarnation – their eclipse in the modern scientific age and their potential recovery through clear-eyed and open-hearted engagement with medieval wisdom.
I believe (and Lewis observed) that the scientific revolution and its sequels—the Enlightenment—began to sap the material world of its spiritual and moral significance, and that this diminishment has only continued and intensified up to today. Lewis put the decisive “break point” just after the heyday of Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), a turning point whose catastrophic effects he had already limned in his argument “The Abolition of Man” (1943) and its novelistic outworking That Hideous Strength (1945). But whenever it happened, a crucial effect of the universe’s modern disenchantment has been that we no longer recognize the spiritual importance of either Creation (God making all flesh) or Incarnation (God becoming flesh). Continue reading
A few particulars
As we launch into this study, let me offer some aspects of medieval faith that I take to be both potentially powerful for us today in our moment of need, and all too absent from our own habits of life and devotion—hidden from us by our hyperactive immediatism. I’ll put these in the form of a series of questions that absorbed the focus of medieval person but are less likely to absorb ours today:
(1) “Why should we commit ourselves to the wants and needs of mortal life when eternity looms?”
(2) “What meaning can the material world have to us as spiritual, not carnal, beings?”
(3) “What does suffering mean and how is God present to us in it?”
(4) “If we have faith, then how much more should we do works of mercy?”
(5) “How does human reason reflect the Logos through which the Father created the world?”
These were not the incidental, but rather the organizing, questions of medieval Western Christianity.
Medieval answers to the question of our temporal lives’ significance in light of eternity were fraught. Continue reading
So we are in a dilemma: how do we at the same time both foster the immediatism that is part of our heritage and push back against its most arrogant claims? How may we, this side of the Enlightenment, acknowledge the necessity to our human condition of mediating forms at the same time that we recognize the tremendous gift of God which is his direct communication to our individual hearts and minds? How do we admit that we dwell neither in the glow of the seventh heaven nor in the rare flashes of direct illumination, and that we need human, communal mediation, with its firm but fallible checks and balances of liturgy, of church discipline, of doctrine?
Though we cannot ourselves (of course) become medieval in any direct sense, if we read the period honestly we will find something like the ordered minuet of immediate and mediated modes of faith: here a sober celebration of church and sacrament, there a joyful riot of direct communication and personal commerce with God. Continue reading
None of this proves that evangelical immediatism is wrong. But there is another problem with our immediatism: it implicates us in real difficulties about some of the traditions evangelicals ourselves hold dear.
First, immediatism finds indigestible the real story—Lewis would have called it the mere Christian understanding—of how the Bible became a canon of texts that communicates to us the self-revelation of God. The problem immediatism has with the historical Christian understanding of canonical revelation is one, we might say, of process. As is quite easy to verify from the historical sources, that canon comes down the ages to us today not by being dropped, wholesale and intact, from heaven to earth, but through an extended, circuitous communal process. That is, through human mediation. Continue reading
Paul’s Ascent to the Third Heaven by Nicolas Poussin
Where the immediatists are right
At the risk of seeming contrary, I should admit that I have some sympathy for the anti-Catholic Reformers, Puritans and frontier American evangelicals who turned their backs on old forms in search of the face of God. Their fear of elite religious control was born out of European and Protestant history. People in search of power, as some in the church hierarchy had been during the late medieval period, can easily exert its desired control through the forms of church life. Who can say that those democratizing evangelicals didn’t see real abuses in the intellectual elites of their day, as their Augustinian strain of piety melded with a free-range populism and a yearning to be free from the yoke of an “educated ministry”?
Who can say that the gatekeepers of tradition today are themselves immune to abusing their power? And what may be lost when the elites take over and control the very means of grace is just this: immediate access to God in Christ by his Holy Spirit. Under the abuse of power, form becomes formalism, and tradition, “the living faith of the dead,” is replaced (again, as Jaroslav Pelikan lamented) by traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living.” Whatever healthy ressourcement means, it cannot mean a return to the Babylonian captivity of the church.
On the positive side of the ledger, evangelicalism’s single-minded immediatism has protected and promoted a powerful relational, emotional piety; a deep commitment to the practical injunctions of the gospel; a lively expectation of the return of Christ; a passion for evangelism and missions; a legacy of thoroughgoing social reform; and long practice in concerted, ecumenical effort. Any evangelical ressourcement must proceed without damaging these. Continue reading