What can sacramentalism do for you? A modern application of medieval attitudes to Creation


EarthIn posts from the evolving “creation chapter” from my forthcoming Getting Medeival with C. S. Lewis, we’ve had a look at how medieval folks’ love for the universe that God made manifested itself in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, and in the “symbol code” they used in their lavish and beautiful works of art. We’ve delved into the sacramental perspective that guided how they interacted with Creation. And we’ve asked why evangelical Protestants separate the material from the spiritual in such harmful ways. Now it’s time for the wrap-up–and hopefully, the payoff for modern readers. First, in this post, we ask what the sacramental principle could mean for us today if we took it seriously. Then we’ll look at the question through C. S. Lewis’s eyes.

What lessons, then, can we carry away from this survey of medieval attitudes to creation? First, that their sacramentalism valued creation neither less nor more highly than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously Gnostic and materialist age. Second, that their theological reading of Creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life: work, play, relationships, arts, culture—a blessing to our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material. Third, that this sacramental attention to a creation that everywhere bespeaks its Creator underwrote a medieval cultural mandate, birthing a lavish growth of universities, sciences, and arts—a desperately needed correction to evangelical otherworldliness.

On this last point, I am reminded that the Reformed evangelical historian who pointed out the vacuity of evangelical culture in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll, subsequently found Catholic Notre Dame a much more congenial place to do his cultural work of history-writing than the evangelical Wheaton College. As Hans Boersma concluded in his study of medieval sacramentalism, “only a heavenly minded Christian faith will do us any earthly good.” The seeming paradox is easily explained: only when we re-associate the natural and social worlds in which we live with the God who both created and sustained those worlds, can we properly celebrate the blessings and address the maladies of those worlds.

We might wish that rather than retreating from culture when faced with a powerful new scientific language about the world—that is, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection—the fundamentalist forebears of modern evangelicalism had taken this lesson from medieval Christianity. In fact, they very nearly did. The retreat was not sudden. At first we find evangelical Christians who were trying to harmonize Darwinism and Christianity.[David Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders; Christian History Darwin issue – which will be done by the time we need this citation] Unfortunately, their efforts were soon forgotten in the fearful, anti-intellectual rush to “defend the faith.” One result was a tremendous cultural black eye on Christianity in America, which remains today. A second result was the accelerated growth of theological liberalism as the only apparent remaining option for intelligent, science-aware Christians.

Scholasticism, I am saying, was born out of a similar meeting between faith and science. But it was formed as a response of engagement rather than of separation. The reaction of the scholastics was to accept much of the power of the new naturalistic paradigms at face value, and to use the new tools of scientific thought to examine and explain the great truths of the Christian faith. In this process, a distinctively Christian worldview was synthesized with a powerful naturalist philosophy. This was what has been called the “medieval synthesis.”

To put this another way: as the theologians of the 12th century monastic schools and cathedral schools and the 13th century universities came face to face with new, powerful, naturalistic ways to describe their world, they began looking for more “down-to-earth” ways to study and understand their faith. They wanted to get answers from their study of the faith that were more satisfying to human reason than the old quasi-mystical answers provided by their teachers, which often amounted to “because God says so,” or “because God did it that way.” But even in using Aristotle, they still protected the faith’s central mysteries – see the example of transubstantiation in the “passion for theology” chapter. A tree was both a natural earthly object with studiable qualities, and a window to heavenly meaning: tree of life, tree of knowledge of good and evil, Psalm 1’s “tree planted by the water.” And so on.

To many evangelicals today, the myth that reason and faith, science and religion are essentially at odds is born of blind fear, and has been a damaging diversion from the true faith. That American evangelicals have in the past consistently been unable to forge such a synthesis as the scholastics did is obvious. As Noll has reminded us (and James Hunter has recently elaborated upon), there is today not one single evangelical-sponsored research university.[1] When we look back and see that the university itself came out of the scholastics’ Christian synthesis, this lack of evangelical commitment to higher learning becomes an embarrassing fact.

I think that we have much to learn from the medieval scholastics in this area of addressing culture with Christ. And I think the scholastics would have agreed wholeheartedly with Noll’s conclusion: “the search for a Christian mind is not, in the end, a search for mind but a search for God.”[2]

“Most evangelicals . . . acknowledge that in the Scriptures God stands revealed plainly as the author of nature, as the sustainer of human institutions . . . Yet . . . [they] have neglected sober analysis of nature, human society and the arts.

“If God devoted so much of Himself to the created realm in order to purchase the redemption of sinners, is it imaginable that sinners who enjoy the salvation won in that realm might seek more diligently to fathom the realities of that realm in order to worship their Redeemer?

“The real point is valuing what God has made, believing that the creation is as ‘good’ as He said [CREATION] and exploring the fullest dimensions of what it meant for the Son of God to become flesh and dwell among us. [INCARNATION].” (Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind)

One more lesson emerges from the medieval system of natural and artistic symbolism we have examined through Emil Male’s eyes. I have argued that owing to our cultural syndrome of separating everyday natural and social experience from its divine meaning, we have lost an ultimate framework for our work, our play, our arts, our sciences, and so on. Both our Gnostic and our hedonist/materialist approaches to the world sap the meaning from our created environments as well as from the social, economic, and cultural environments we are building around us every day.

Philosopher Charles Taylor has identified in modern Westerners an unrootedness, dislocation, malaise that amounts to an inability to find the “maps” to guide us in constructing stable selves. We don’t know who we are, morally, metaphysically. The medieval system of artistic conventions we have studied in this chapter was a giant engine of meaning. It was a way of sharing truth socially – if because of the traditional, conventional nature of medieval art’s visual language everyone recognizes the meanings of animals or objects—both in art and real life—then every time they see a lion in a painting or a tree in real life, they are reminded once again of the larger scriptural narrative to which these symbols always point.

In other words, today we not only don’t find scripturally and traditionally grounded meaning in creation and our social-cultural environments, but we also don’t communicate even such rags of meaning as we do find in ways instantly recognizable to those around us. In a medieval era still soaked in oral tradition, where the details of a story delighted their listeners in part because the story is told the same way each time (Tokien’s hobbits), cultural communication fostered a communal sharing of meaning. The most vivid modern picture of this was created not by Lewis but by his Catholic friend Tolkien, who wove throughout his tales of middle-Earth a fabric of songs and stories that clearly functioned to remind the people who heard them of their shared experiences, values, and meanings. This famously creates a sense of cultural solidity and completeness in the reader: we feel we have stepped into a coherent world with a coherent worldview. Said Lewis of his friend, “medieval people, like Professor Tolkien’s Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew.”

In that sense, we find in the premodern era of the Middle Ages functioning maps for selfhood – just the thing Taylor says we’re missing. They come from an artistic use of creation and sociocultural reality to build a shared recognized conventional narrative anchored in a shared Christian understanding. That’s what Lewis discovered in medieval literature, and spent the rest of his life sharing with modern readers whose individualism and rationalism make it so hard to access such socially shared meanings – especially meanings that reach beyond the stuff we see immediately with our eyes, using that stuff as a conduit for a higher understanding. In that sense, the argument of this chapter is deeply and integrally tied with that of the tradition chapter.

In other words it’s a good thing, in and of itself, to observe that medievals found in tradition something valuable. But it’s also important to observe that the ways they discovered and shared that value were reinforced every time they looked at something in nature, looked at a painting, or thought about a scientific phenomenon: the universe is alive with meaning. The universe becomes a Book of Nature, which reinforces the book of scripture, and your cultural narrative of Christianity, in ways that the Enlightenment and scientific revolution have largely destroyed for us now.

So tradition isn’t some free-floating or merely theological insistence—it isn’t something that we merely tell stories about—it isn’t something that merely teaches us an ethic, which I deal with in the ethics chapter—but indeed it gives us structures of shared meaning that remind us at every turn of who we are as humans, of our telos and the telos of everything around is. As we take a walk in the park, everything around us takes part in God’s purposes and communication – it participates in that. We participate, as the top of the hierarchy, but so do the trees, rocks, ants, sunshine, rain. So we are walking not in an interesting congeries of scientific facts. We are walking instead in a book—the book of nature. And it provides such satisfying reinforcement of the meanings that we already experience when we are experiencing the liturgy, in a space surrounded by visual reminders of how nature itself participates in that narrative.


[1] (Though Baylor University, in Waco, TX, is trying to get there.) “Evangelicals . . . have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel, but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts and other realms of “high” culture. . . . Evangelicals [do not] sponsor . . . a single research university or a single periodical devoted to in-depth interaction with modern culture.” Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 51.

[2] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 253.

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