Tag Archives: Tradition

The Incarnation as the medieval “theory of everything”


Henry Ford, preparing to say "History is bunk!" Ah, if only he'd taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Henry Ford, preparing to say “History is bunk!” Ah, if only he’d taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Well, tomorrow morning I head, early in the morning, to Baltimore for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting and then to England to attend the dedication of the “C S Lewis stone” in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. So today is the last “live” post from my book Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. 

From here on in, it’ll be one final series of pre-programmed, pre-scheduled mini-posts for a week that run through all the themes of the book and show how they were underwritten by the medievals’ focus on the Incarnation.

Thanks for reading – and in a year(ish) from now, roughly Winter 2015, keep your eyes peeled for the actual published book from Baker Academic.

The Incarnation underwrites every facet of the medievals’ faith we have studied in this book: their high valuation of tradition, their passion for theology, their detailed and intentional morality, their compassionate ministry to bodies as well as souls, their understanding of the sacramental quality of the created world, their investment of emotion into their devotion to the Lord, and their willingness to discipline their bodies in service of that same devotion.

What would happen if we recaptured these medieval values?

Tradition

By putting the “body” back into our understanding of Christ and his church, we would again see how fitting it is for us to study and value our own traditions. We would recapture the wisdom and truth in those traditions, while never separating this truth from the primary revelation of Scripture – as most medievals understood for most of the Middle Ages!

Tradition is nothing less than wisdom and truth passed down from generation to generation through history. How apt is this? Christianity is at its core not a list of timeless principles or abstract teachings. It is a uniquely a historical religion, based on a historical person and the words of two “Testaments” full of historical accounts.

Nineteenth-century liberal theologians liked to talk about the “essence of Christianity”—usually little more than “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”—that needed to be extricated from the centuries of errant doctrines and practices of a church that never seemed to get it right. (The problem with this approach, as a wit once observed, is that those nineteenth-century liberals, when they read Christian history, looked down the well of 19 centuries and saw their own faces at the bottom.) But there is no “essence” that is not clothed in history. Christianity is all about the Incarnation of God’s second person as a first-century Jew from Nazareth.

And naturally, then, the New Testament is, again, no philosophical book of abstract teachings, but rather a narrative of a life, a sacrifice, a resurrection—played out on the stage of history. And the Book of Acts and the Letters, following the model of the Old Testament’s “historic” books, just picks up the story from Easter. Tradition is the extension of the story beyond Acts – the continued faithful, often flawed attempt of the church to wrestle with its identity in Christ. When we in effect shout Henry Ford’s foolish jibe—“History is bunk!”—and throw aside the lessons of that history, we are cutting ourselves off at the knees spiritually, intellectually, practically.

Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery


girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Continue reading

C. S. Lewis on pagan philosophy as a road to Christian faith


Greek philosophers enjoying a good metaphysical throwdown

Greek philosophers enjoying a good dialectical throwdown

In our last post from the “tradition chapter” draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S  Lewis, we saw that Lewis and the medievals shared a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the pagan philosophers. Was this some antiquarian hobby for Lewis, like collecting old stamps? Here we dig deeper: what possible use could the old philosophers still have for us today?

It is hard to overstate how much Lewis valued pagan knowledge. He had been told as a boy that “Christianity was 100% correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100% wrong.” But because he had already encountered the wisdom of the philosophers, he found that this insistence on the opposition of Christianity to paganism drove him away from, rather than toward, the Christian faith. As it turned out, he abandoned his childhood faith “largely under the influence of classical education.”[1]

It was to this experience of valuing philosophy highly and then being told that Christianity must supplant it that Lewis owed his “firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism.” Continue reading

The Pagan element of Christian tradition: All truth is God’s truth


Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wi...

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 us that 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

Tradition V. Scripture? A ludicrous idea to the medievals


Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Why did C S Lewis so strongly rely on the integrity of the Christian tradition? Why was he a “traditional” Christian–a reader of the church fathers, a student of the medieval mystics, an appreciator of scholastic theology? For one thing, he saw what many modern Christians do not: that the boundaries marked out by tradition and the interpretive frameworks provided by it strengthen our ability to understand and live the primary revelation of Scripture.

Tradition in the early church: Irenaeus and the Cappadocians address the heretics

One barrier that still stands in the way of broader acceptance of tradition among free-church Protestants is the misunderstanding of the Reformation that says that medieval Christians treated tradition as a source of authority separate from Scripture.[1] The notion would have been ludicrous to medievals. Scripture and tradition had never been separated in the early church. The church had met together in councils repeatedly to discern the meanings of Scripture. The resulting creeds (elaborated out of long-repeated local church creeds that developed out of the heart of worship) became part of tradition, as protections against wildfire teachings such as Arianism, docetism, and monophysitism.

The very New Testament canon itself, whose now-accepted list of books did not appear until 367 AD in an Easter letter of Athanasius, emerged out of a process of communal discernment led, as they believed, by the Holy Spirit. Which books and letters, when read in the congregations, evidenced spiritual power and truth by supporting and edifying the congregants and building up the church? No serious Christian thinker until the Wycliffes and Huses of the late medieval period—when tradition had become a crutch and a tool of power on the part of some of those at the top of the church—seriously doubted the seamlessness of Scripture and tradition and their necessity to one another. Continue reading

In which C S Lewis meets the “bookish people” of the Middle Ages and shares their love of old books with new readers


A Roman Missal - the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A Roman Missal – the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A few posts ago, we looked at C S Lewis’s youthful disdain of the medieval period. When at Oxford he had been faced with the thoroughgoing (if heretodox) supernaturalism of two friends who had become converts to Rudolf Steiner‘s mystical Anthroposophy, he had thrown his hands up in despair: “why–damn it–it’s medieval!” Such ancient superstitions, he had snorted, had no place in the modern mind, guided as it is by the light of clear-eyed reason.

Little did this self-described “chronological snob” know that he would soon become not only a scholar of medieval literature, but in fact one of the foremost modern exponents of that thoroughly supernatural ancient and medieval faith: Christianity. Before long he was urging his readers to read two old books for every new book they read, for the latter are still untested (and often simply wrong).

Near the end of his long, Boethian career as a “traditionerfor a dark and amnesiac age, Lewis compiled and refined the notes from twenty years of Cambridge lectures on medieval culture, and published them under the title The Discarded Image.

Here, with great and obvious affection, Lewis described medieval people’s passionate allegiance to the “traditioned” (passed-down) written word. The subtext throughout was clear: If only we moderns could catch this same lovesickness for the past: How much wiser we would be! Not, he clearly warned, that we should swallow whole the errors of past thinkers. But that we should let their ancient wisdom correct our own:

the Middle Ages as time of “traditioning”

In Discarded Image (a compendium of lectures he gave at Cambridge), Lewis shows us that medievals trusted implicitly historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He notes “the overwhelmingly bookish . . . character of medieval culture,” elaborating: “When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities. . . . Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer . . . preferably a Latin one.” He distinguishes this impulse both from the “savage” (primitive) community, in which “you absorb your culture . . . from the immemorial pattern of behavior” and from the modern West, in which “most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation” (that is, the empiricism of the scientific method). “But,” he concludes, “the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books,” despite lower literacy rates than much of the modern world enjoys. (DI, 5)

Lewis also shows that medievals 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—indeed far more the Roman than the Germanic authorities [note: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Caesar.” (DI, 8)].

For the medieval person, tradition was not past but present. And it was not merely intellectual—some card-file of truths that one dragged out in an argument. It was a matter of the heart. Continue reading

Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction


The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C S Lewis wrote his stories to help readers imaginatively indwell a moral tradition. This is an excerpt of the “tradition chapter” draft from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Teaching through stories

Lewis saw literature’s purpose as “delighting and informing,” with a heavy (didactic) emphasis on the latter, I’d add!—this was famously the source of Tolkien’s low estimation of the Narnia Chronicles.

What Lewis did in his stories was to re-narrate the stories of our traditions, allowing his readers to indwell truths of the past, “Enjoying” them (that is, seeing the world by their light) and not just “Contemplating” them (that is, knowing the analytically and propositionally). This was his practical application of a principle he enunciated like this: “Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis, like the allegorist Boethius, knew that if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, an excellent way to do so is through story. Continue reading

C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – part II


From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolat...

From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolation: Miniatures of Boethius teaching and in prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is the second looking at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius. It is from the draft “Tradition chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. The first may be found here.

Lewis valued Boethius highly as a historian and traditioner, bringing the light of one age’s wisdom out into the darkness of another’s depravity and forgetfulness. He referred to Boethius as “that divine popularizer,”[1] which indicates the “translative” function served by public intellectuals. To speak intelligibly to a diverse company, “patrician and plebian, bourgeoisie and proletariat, rich and poor, educated and semi-educated, specialist and nonspecialist,” the public intellectual must use a language they all understand—the vernacular. Aside from the Consolation, the work of Boethius that most shaped the Middle Ages was his labor translating the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which he read in their original language, into the vernacular of his day, Latin. And Lewis of course both was master of many languages and could “translate” the most complex philosophical ideas not just into clear radio addresses for the masses, but into the imaginative, concrete world of children’s books.

It is hard to think of an apter description, in fact, of C. S. Lewis. As much as did Boethius, Lewis wanted to stand in the gap of cataclysmic cultural loss, to bring “the tradition” back to the people. He told his Cambridge audience, “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours. . . . Continue reading

C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – two “public intellectual” peas in a pod


A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

Boethius teaching his students (1385). Boethius, a 6th-c. Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in the post-Roman West. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Here’s another in the brief series I’ve started of posts from the Tradition chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. First came a couple of posts that looked at Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). Then a look at his prescription for this illness: old books. This post looks at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius.

What Lewis did himself

Lewis was not content just to stand on the sidelines of modern discussion about Christian theology and lob in the occasional reminder of tradition. Again and again, in his essays, stories, and letters, Lewis insists that apart from tradition, we are adrift in the errors of our own age. Indeed, soon after his 1931 conversion, this compulsion became a full-blown vocation for the Oxford don and lay theologian. He was to become a public intellectual—a conduit to past wisdom for an amnesiac generation. It was a vocation he shared with one of his favorite writers, who was also one of the most influential thought leaders in the medieval period – a man who wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling, and attempted to preserve Christian as well as Greek philosophical truth for a time in danger of losing its inherited wisdom. Continue reading

C S Lewis: You can, and must, teach a new church old books


C S Lewis and an Old Book

C S Lewis and an Old Book

These days I’m posting from the Tradition chapter of “Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.” The past couple of days have been dedicated to Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). This post begins to look at what he proposed to do about this syndrome of amnesia.

Lewis’s solution to the detachment from tradition in modern society

In his Cambridge lecture (“De Descriptione Temporum”), Lewis insisted that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom. He reminded his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts. Similarly, he argued, “I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.”

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.. . . .”[1] Continue reading