Tag Archives: ethics

C S Lewis, incarnation and morality: Living what we are, and avoiding the super-spirituality trap


cslewis-pipe (1)Apologies for neglecting the blog – have been traveling in the UK. Hoping to visit the Kilns tomorrow! Here is one of the last bits of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C  S Lewis:

When we appreciate the humanity of humanity, and the ways in which Christ is incarnated not only in his own flesh, as a first-century Jew from Nazareth but also (though in a different sense) in his church and in all humanity – as Benedict saw – this will heighten our sense of the sacredness and dignity of others. It will change the ways we treat others in our ordinary lives – in our workplaces, our families, our societies.

There is an important corollary of this Incarnational principle in ethics: Incarnational morality is ordinary morality, of the sort Lewis portrayed so winsomely in the Household of St. Anne in That Hideous Strength. By seeing our own ethical lives in the light of our bodily limitations, illuminated further by God’s own assumption of, and elevation of, human nature, we are released from the pressure of perfection. Continue reading

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C S Lewis on the Incarnation and human choice


choice-roads2

In this brief series of posts, we are looking at C S Lewis on the centrality of the Incarnation. Among other things, Lewis understands the Incarnation as a lens through which to see the importance of our own human choices:

Importance of human choice and human culture

Part of understanding and affirming the wonder of who we are as human beings, affirmed by the fact of the Incarnation, is being clear about ourselves as creatures capable of choice, who are responsible for the choices we make. Free will is a crucial part of Lewis’s anthropology and his case for hewing to the morality of the Old Western (Christian) tradition. Our wills are as essential, ordinary, and marvelous as our bodies. The choices we make on earth have transcendent, cosmic, divine (or infernal) consequences. Lewis loved Dante’s Comedia and appreciated Sayers’s take on that great poem. Sayers called it “the drama of the soul’s choice.” Drama. Acted out by humans in all their earthy but exalted embodiedness. Full of color, life, substance.

It may be fair to say that Lewis was a “Christian humanist” in this respect: our arts, sciences, cultural activities, and personal choices all contribute to heaven or hell on earth, and to our own salvation; many are “preparatio evangelii”–they lead us to God’s doorstep. In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis reflected: “[C]ulture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.” Continue reading

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part III: The moral argument concluded


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.

In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice[1] – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.

Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. Continue reading

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part II: Moral flabbiness


monks (1)

Following on from part 1:

We need something like monasticism because we have a problem with ethics

One genius of monasticism is the way it actualizes virtue ethics—Aristotle’s description of ethics, which recognizes that without long practice so that something becomes a habitus, virtue cannot become effective in our lives. Medieval monks read Scripture all the time, and they focused on its moral sense. But a man who reads Scripture and goes away and does not do it is like a man who looks in a mirror and goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—it’s not an effective use of the moral understanding of Christianity.

And so monastic discipline went beyond just reading and became a training ground for the virtues. And whether we adapt monastic ways of doing this or find some other modes, some sort of spiritual-ethical discipline is crucial, not optional. This is because our interactions with our desires and with the material world are so fraught and so difficult, because we fall to temptation in so many ways. To give just one modern example: Continue reading

Vanity, all is vanity – the precision of a medieval concept


Italy

Continuing work on the “morality chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I come now to an illustration of the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. This is post 1 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory.” Post 2 is here.

In setting up this medieval section of the chapter, I’ve talked about the absence of objective value/truth in our modern reality, and Lewis’s recovery of that objective value from classical and medieval sources. I’ve also talked about how virtue gets taught in stories in the Middle Ages. But these are not the only things—maybe not even the most valuable things—we can learn from the characteristic “moral fabric” of the medieval world. For as I came to discover a few years ago in a wonderful summer seminar at Calvin College, that tradition contains riches of precision, practicality, and passion that can equip us for tremendous progress in our moral lives.

This came to me as a thunderclap out of the clear blue sky. I was born in 1963 and came of age in the 1970s. I didn’t even like the word “responsibility,” let alone anything that cramped my freedom to self-express, to enjoy the good things of the world. It has been easy for me to write the “getting earthy” chapter about enjoying God’s beauty and the “getting passionate” chapter about the emotional riches of medieval faith. Those are natural values not only of my coming-of-age but also of my entering the charismatic movement in the 1980s. But this stuff about moral correction and transformation is a whole different deal. It confronts me quite uncomfortably with the ways in which my character has been deformed by my roots in the “me generation.”

The scene was the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar of summer 2010, a gathering of scholars in philosophy, theology, and literature to discover and discuss this particular part of the medieval moral tradition. As we gathered around this material through the sultry summer days, reading late into the evenings and rejoining the group each morning, most of us reported the same thing: at every turn we found both illumination and conviction. Continue reading

C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis


C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD - OXFORD

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

Ethically stunted? The moral morass of Evangelical America


Circles of hellOne 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