In this post from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we look at the important lesson from Christ’s Incarnation that Lewis draws for us in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.
Another facet of the Incarnation that captivates Lewis is the way that it ennobles our humanity – even our very materiality. To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings. That Hideous Strength shows us in imaginative form how modern technocrats (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E.) might try to eliminate that crucial materiality in a Gnostic quest for pure spirit. N.I.C.E.’s agents, in the attempt to eliminate the bodily—in fact, all biological life on earth—and retain only mind, lose their morality and their very selves. A sample of the dialogue gives a sense of the chilling vision at work here:
“And what is the first practical step?” [asks Mark Studdock to Feverstone, whom he is trying to impress in his effort to be counted one of the “inner circle”].
“Yes, that’s the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don’t mean only insects and bacteria. There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet. First we couldn’t; and then we had aesthetic and humanitarian scruples; and we still haven’t short-circuited the question of the balance of nature. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is Man himself.”
“Go on. This interests me very much.” Continue reading
This is the last bit on Lewis and desire in the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
Lewis was not idiosyncratic among 20th-century Christian imaginative writers on this matter of desire’s role in bringing us to the gospel. Lewis’s close friend Charles Williams was captivated by Dante Alighieri’s belief that he had been led to salvation by a young woman with whom he had become infatuated with when he was a boy. From Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Williams elaborated a “romantic theology.” A key Christian influence on Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, discovered a similar romantic dynamic in the life of “God’s troubadour,” Francis of Assisi. Each of these writers, and Lewis himself, was thus drawing in fact not only from classical eudaemonism, but also from a distinctively medieval tradition of affective theology, exemplified in Boethius, Francis, Dante, and with special intensity in such late-medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich (one of Lewis’s favorite spiritual writers).
Lewis taught that our natural desires—our yearning that is triggered by our experiences of what is good and beautiful in the world—in fact can lead us toward God. Indeed he insisted that he himself had come to God in this way, so that he called himself an “empirical theist.” He refused to believe that “the ‘vague something’ which has been suggested to one’s mind as desirable, all one’s life, in experience of nature and music and poetry” was “any product of our own minds.” Our sensing self, interacting with the world through not only perception but also desire, leads us toward something real and objective beyond our subjectivity: it leads us toward God. Now, he confessed, with the Pseudo-Dionysians, that sometimes this happened by negative example and by suffering—by the sinfulness in ourselves that we stumble across as soon as we engage fully in that natural mode and world—as Gregory the Great had also taught. But this, too, was a mechanism of desire: we desire not to suffer and be sad, so we reach out to the God who forgives sins, heals hearts, dries eyes. Continue reading
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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Aristotle, CS Lewis, Dante Alighieri, ethics, Great Divorce, literature, moral philosophy, morality, Narnia Chronicles, story, That Hideous Strength, Thomas Aquinas, virtue ethics
One of the chapters of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis pulls the threads of that 20th-century moral philosopher (for that was what he was, at his core) for his medieval and classical ethical sources.
Befitting a book that proposes to unpack for evangelical readers a “care package” from what most would consider a very unlikely source – the Middle Ages – I am doing my best song and dance to draw them in. Part of that is putting “Saint Lewis” on the cover. But another part is starting each chapter with a clear and compelling portrayal of “the modern situation” (if you like, postmodern situation) that we find ourselves in: the problem that needs fixing.
This is only classic marketing protocol: state the problem, then give the solution. I’ll let you judge whether I manage to do this well in this draft of the introduction to the chapter tentatively titled “The moral fabric of medieval faith”:
I had finished the first year of my seminary Masters program. Back home, my evangelical pastor pulled me into his office: “How can I address the character issues in my congregation without seeming legalistic? Anything I say on morality seems to pull against the Gospel message of grace!” The question was heartfelt. But after a full year in a church history program, I was at a loss for a helpful answer. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged C S Lewis, Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Smith, Chronicles of Narnia, Dante Alighieri, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ethics, evangelicalism, moral philosophy, Moralistic therapeutic deism, Ron Sider, Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Willow Creek Community Church
"Beata Beatrix," by the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This is the third part of a four-part post; see links the end for the first two parts.
Dante and the flame of love
One more pre-Reformation example of the religion of the heart. In recent years, I have fallen in love—I don’t know what else to call it—with perhaps the greatest western poem, the three-part Comedy of Dante Alighieri. As Wilken reminds us, at one point in Dante’s poem the pilgrim character, who is Dante himself, asks his beloved Beatrice why God would choose to redeem us by coming to us in the Incarnation. Beatrice, who has already died and gone to heaven and is talking to Dante with the certainty of one who has seen the face of God, responds “that what she is about to explain to him ‘is buried from the eyes of everyone whose intellect has not matured within the flame of love.’” In other words, says Wilken, “Unless we invest ourselves in the object of our love, [the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ] we remain voyeurs and spectators, curiosity seekers, incapable of receiving because we are unwilling to give. . . . Only when we turn our deepest self to God can we enter the mystery of God’s life and penetrate the truth of things. If love is absent, our minds remain childish and immature, trying out one thing then another, unable to hold fast to the truth.” Continue reading
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
Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell (ca 1225 - 1274, Mosaic, Baptistry, Florence)
Folks, here’s a sneak preview of some work I did for the forthcoming Christian History magazine Handbook to Christian Thought on Hell. It’s not edited yet, but the guide, which will survey Christian thought on hell from the earliest church to the 21st century, will include something like what follows. If you are interested in getting the entire guide, which will be in a half-size (roughly 5 x 8.5) magazine format complete with timeline and illustrations, go to www.christianhistorymagazine.org and get on the mailing list.
The Middle Ages
The medieval period (roughly 500 – 1500 AD) 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 AD and even beyond (as in the thought of Gregory the Great (540 – 604)), the “Parousia” (second coming and all its associated events) was still expected imminently, and so those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There simply wasn’t much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.
However as the Second Coming came to seem, potentially, more remote, the question of the reward of the saved and the punishment of the damned heated up, and the doctrine of the immediate judgment of each soul at death came into more prominence. The Book of Revelation in particular, which tremendously influenced medieval culture, began to be pressed into service to imagine the shape of people’s fate after death. As we will see, this emphasis on the afterlife and its support from the Book of Revelation resulted in a lavishly visual and grotesque new genre of imaginative literature: the vision of the otherworldly journey, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy was the pinnacle. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Patron Saints for Postmoderns
Tagged Bede, Book of Revelation, Christian History magazine, Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, hell, Middle Ages, Rob Bell, Second Coming of Christ, Thomas Aquinas
"The Souls of Paolo and Francesco," by Gustav Dore, illustrating Canto V of Dante's Inferno
The following are some reflections on Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams,” published in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: Collier Books, 1987):
Dorothy Sayers rarely wrote an uninteresting word–much less when talking about her chief late-life passion: the great Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.
Like C. S. Lewis, Sayers saw in the quirky novelist, Dantist, and romantic mystic Charles Williams something of enduring value. Especially, she saw Williams as having grasped a crucial point about why Dante–and countless other historical figures–are still important to us today. [I posted here on how Sayers, Lewis, and Williams all drew different sorts of sustenance from that great poet.]
The point is this: Dante, despite the fact that he lived “long ago and far, far away,” was a human like us, with experiences in many respects like ours, and he is still of great value to us because he had acute insights into the truths behind those experiences, along with a poet’s ability to express those insights deeply and brilliantly. Continue reading
The following are some thoughts on how C S Lewis will figure as a “guide” into the look and feel of the “moral fabric of the Middle Ages,” and how that fabric differs from our own. It’s basically me grinding away at the grist for this Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants book.
My argument in this chapter is not that Christianity—either in the medieval period or any other period—has taught some distinctive morality, or even that it taught that morality in a distinctive way (although it did, from the earliest years of the church, as Robert Louis Wilken persuasively argues in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Rather, my argument is that today, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have fallen so in love with Luther’s (Augustine’s) message of grace, and have so spiritualized their faith (I almost said Gnosticized, and sometimes I wonder) that questions of morality have receded from view. So we need to hear again from a time (the Middle Ages) when Christianity structured not only people’s worship, but also their moral lives. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged C S Lewis, Charles Taylor, Chaucer, Chronicles of Narnia, Dante Alighieri, emotion, ethics, medieval cosmos, Michael Ward, moral philosophy, morality, natural law, planets, subjectivity, truth, virtue, virtue ethics
It’s always fun to find a reviewer or biographer who “gets” one of your favorite figures. Here is Adrian Leak, commemorating Dorothy L. Sayers on the 50th anniversary of her death.
Unlike the portrait of Sayers we derive from her Oxford magazine article I just posted on, here Sayers (an accomplished scholar of medieval French) separated herself from academia to position herself as a woman of the people, “no academic but a common popular soapbox lecturer.” The truth was at both ends of this paradox.
I recommend you click through to the full article, both for the pleasure of reading it and for the wonderful photo (which I had not seen before) of Sayers standing on stage with with actors performing in St Thomas’s, Regent Street, Westminster, and other photos:
Adrian Leak, “From Lord Peter to the Lord Jesus,” Church Times, Dec. 14, 2007.
THE FIRST THING that struck you about Dorothy L. Sayers was her magnificent size. It was not something that worried her, however. “The elephant is crated,” she gasped as, after a struggle, she subsided into the back of a friend’s car. At Marshall & Snelgrove, in Oxford Street, it took nine months to construct a corset robust enough to contain her.
Not that any conventional constraints ever restricted her for long. During a successful run of one of her plays in the West End she could be seen — and heard — entertaining the cast to large, bibulous suppers at the Soho restaurant Le Moulin d’Or. Wholehearted enjoyment characterised her approach not only to food and wine: when she lectured on Dante to the Society of Italian Studies at Cambridge, some of the academics were shocked by the vigour and élan of her delivery. Continue reading