Tag Archives: moral philosophy

Interview on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog


medieval wisdom coverMany thanks to Scot McKnight for hosting Dave Moore’s interview with me on my new book, posted here today: at his Patheos.com blog. Patheos friend Kathleen Mulhern even featured the interview on the front page of www.patheos.com, which is “not chopped liver,” as they say–given that site’s millions of viewers monthly. It is tremendously gratifying to see folks picking this book up and engaging with it.

I also look forward to my visits to MacLaurinCSF at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St Paul) and Tyndale House College & University (Toronto) this fall, and to Upper House at the University of Wisconsin, Madison next spring, to explore these themes with students. I guess I’m a real author now, what with “book tours” and all . . .

“Vanity, all is vanity” – the vice of vainglory, part II


English: Triumph of Vainglory (Gloria Mundi); ...

English: Triumph of Vainglory (Gloria Mundi); frontispiece to Petrarch’s De Viris Illustribus. The image is thought to be based on a fresco by Giotto in the palace of Azzone Visconti, in Milan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is post 2 of 2 on the vice of “vainglory,” which I am using in the “morality chapter” of my forthcoming book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis to illustrate the great precision and practicality of the medieval tradition of moral teaching. Part 1 is here.

Lewis recognized this temptation in its peculiarly potent academic form in a 1930 letter (a mere year pre-conversion, and we can hear his conviction of his own sin here) to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves:

“The old doctrine is quite true you know – that one must attribute everything to the grace of God, and nothing to oneself. Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. . . . I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me. I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit – and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked.”

And all the academics said, “Ouch!”

But we may object (especially the academics – we never stop objecting to all sorts of things): “What’s wrong with a little vainglory here and there?” This objection contains a truth, which De Young, following Aquinas, admits: Humans have a natural desire to be known—and especially for their goodness to be known. And Aquinas believed goodness by its nature tends to communicate itself to others. We can see this in God too. It is a natural effect of goodness to be known. So glory can be a good—can even, perhaps, be pursued in licit ways—of course recognizing, as Johann Sebastian Bach famously did, that even as we enjoy with a justifiable pride the fruit of our gifts and disciplines, the ultimate source of all good – and this the ultimate and most appropriate recipient of all glory – is God. Soli Deo Gloria!

But the problem lies in that “vain” dimension of vainglory—the falseness, the unworthiness of what is receiving glory. 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

Education for the heart: A “Lewisian” reflection from former Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff


education heartOne of my favorite pedagogues these days is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his series-in-progress entitled Cultural Liturgies, he argues that human beings are not primarily thinking animals but must be regarded instead as “desiring animals.” Head knowledge, especially head knowledge gained from an instructor who is “teaching to the test,” is aimed at the wrong part of the moral anatomy to make good citizens. We need a pedagogy that “aims below the head,” says Smith, in order to help students rightly order their loves and desires.

. . .

The kind of close reading advocated by Lewis meets what I believe is an innate desire for self-transcendence. “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own,” Lewis writes. He compares close reading with love, with moral action, and even with the fundamental act of learning. “In love we escape from our self into one another …. [E]very act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place .”

Thanks, David Neff, for your reflection on education today. You (and C. S. Lewis and James K. A. Smith) hit the nail on the head.

Continue reading

C S Lewis as “medieval” moral philosopher


Cover of "The Abolition of Man"

C S Lewis was, I believe, “medieval” in the very warp and woof of his thought. To borrow from Wikipedia, b/c this morning I am lazy, and in this case Wikipedia is accurate:

Lewis then taught as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for nearly thirty years, from 1925 to 1954, and later was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Using this position, he argued that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance. Much of his scholarly work concentrated on the later Middle Ages, especially its use of allegory. His The Allegory of Love (1936) helped reinvigorate the serious study of late medieval narratives like the Roman de la Rose. Lewis wrote several prefaces to old works of literature and poetry, like Layamon’s Brut. His book “A Preface to Paradise Lost” is still one of the most valuable criticisms of that work. His last academic work, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964), is a summary of the medieval world view, the “discarded image” of the cosmos in his title.

As I have explored in another post, Lewis was in tune with medieval thought as much in his philosophical and ethical thought as in his literary scholarship, his imaginative writings, or his Christian apologetics. Continue reading