For the Reformers, as for the early church, the primary meaning of the term “calling” remained the call to Christian discipleship and community. But as Stackhouse says, for Luther and the rest, “to think that vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were signs of spiritual superiority seemed to them to be moral and spiritual pretense. In fact, living and working one’s ordinary station in life with a heart renewed by the love of Christ, and showing forth there a pattern of life that glorified God and served humankind, enacted a more faithful life of prayerful discipleship.”
The Reformers made this insight into a social reality by closing the monasteries, confiscating their property for the public good, and finding marriage partners for the monks and nuns (famously, Luther’s own wife, Katherine Von Bora, was an ex-nun). And as for the privileged spiritual status of the priesthood, Luther emphasized that every husband, wife, peasant, and magistrate was just as much a priest (in status and ability, if not in function) as the clergy. Continue reading
Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328)
Continuing the current series on work in the history of Christianity, a snapshot from the Middle Ages . . .
The contemplative vs. the active life
A key moment in Christian thought about economic work came in the 6th-century papacy of Gregory the Great. Gregory was a monk, and remained one during his papacy—the first pope to do so. He had been taught to value the contemplative life more highly than the active life. He was devastated when called out of his monastery and into the flood of administrative duties he had to perform as pope. His ensuing spiritual crisis led him to a view that the active life of service to others was not indeed an unwelcome and spiritually damaging distraction from the contemplative. Rather, he saw that in order to become truly spiritual, one must move not only away from the distractions of the flesh to reach the spirit, but also back from the heights of the spiritual life to the concerns of bodily life.
For Gregory the active life is the life of service to others (which is what all work is still ultimately about). So it is inherently important and godly. But second, he understood that our work lives are a mess – as is the entire economic realm. It is heir to all the pain and frustration that came to us by the Fall, which cursed all our work with thistles. So in the midst of the service to others that we do in our work, every one of us encounters the intractable sinfulness of humanity. At work not only the sins of others, but our own sins are revealed, and we realize every day that we need the power of God in order to get anywhere in dealing with other human beings.
So Gregory concluded that one needed, yes, times of contemplation, but also times of action, both in order to love the neighbor and fulfill the Matthew 25 mandate and also to drive us back to prayer, where we bring those frustrations and the awa2reness of our own sinfulness back to the Lord. So economic work, properly understood, becomes for us a sanctifying thing, as iron sharpens iron. It drives us to our knees, making our times of prayer all the more transforming. Continue reading
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