Chris Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: The Discarded Images of Medieval Christianity

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, assistant professor of English at Gordon College, who specializes in medieval studies. Kerilyn has a dual PhD in religious studies and English from Indiana University. Here’s our lineup of reviewers in the forum:

 

If the questions raised in these reviews intrigue you, join us at the study center on Tuesday, September 13, 7 pm—that’s tomorrow!—when Chris Armstrong himself will join us for a talk entitled “Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Spiritual Wisdom from a Forgotten Age.”


 

Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians
Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, “Discarded Images of Medieval Christianity”

Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age provides a useful jolt of insight for those American evangelicals who take seriously the need to examine our own contemporary forms of religiosity. The book will find a welcome readership among those who are willing to (re)consider their own understandings about the nature of the church, the relationship of the individual to God, and the role of church history (or “the tradition”) in right thinking and right living. The deep value of this book stems from its ability to help Christians, particularly those with little knowledge of Christian history, to “see otherwise”—to find points of comparison that serve not merely as foils, but instead as points of illumination that allow us to more clearly perceive the contours of our own present. The one drawback is that, for those looking for a more detailed treatment of medieval philosophy, theology, or spirituality, Armstrong’s book might have the unfortunate side effect of painting a somewhat flat picture of the Middle Ages.

Armstrong provides an excellent diagnosis of our contemporary evangelical moment. His application of the term “immediatism” to sum up American evangelical climate usefully builds on what other scholars and teachers have been pointing out for some time now, but his own added definition of the term is particularly trenchant: “The immediatism of American evangelicals is also a way to God without mediation” (8). This is to say, in Armstrong’s diagnosis, evangelicals have largely disregarded any forms of piety that rely on mediating forms of practice, whether these be spiritual disciplines, reliance on Christian community (not just as “fellow travelers,” but as necessary for our own contact with God), or any of the accrued wisdom we find in “the tradition.” In his first chapter, Armstrong gestures briefly at the forces (cultural, philosophical, and theological) that got us to this place, but also outlines how our evangelical immediatism has hamstrung us as we attempt to grow as Christian disciples, work toward the kingdom of God, and engage well with our contemporary culture. His turn to “the Middle Ages” can, I think, provide the needed antidote, an illuminating and thus convicting point of comparison. I agree with Armstrong, who himself agrees with Lewis, that we need “the past,” generally construed, in order to see as clearly as we possibly can our own present. We need to humbly (but not blindly) submit ourselves to the teaching of the tradition—the hard-won theology and spirituality of those who have come before us, thinking and praying far more faithfully than most of us can claim to have done.

This pastoral, perhaps even prophetic, call returns strongly in the final chapter, when Armstrong turns his attention to the resources that monasticism, in particular, can offer a harried, overly spiritualized (and thus disembodied), and somewhat conformist American evangelical church. In this last chapter, Armstrong suggestively points to the late medieval focus on the Incarnation, as well as the traditions of monasticism starting with St. Benedict, as answers to our shallow forms of piety. (Here he also offers an intriguing diagnosis of why the earlier project of evangelical ressourcement, headlined by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others, has not taken stronger root in the evangelical world.) Both Armstrong’s diagnosis and his gestures backward to the theology and spirituality of our corporate past are wise indeed, and we would do well to listen.

All of this overview begs the question: what does this book have to do with C.S. Lewis? Everything I’ve outlined above can be stated independently of “the Narnian’s” influence, and Lewis’s own scholarship, as most readers will know, was about medieval literature and languages, not history and theology. In fact, I find the book’s reliance on Lewis somewhat odd. Armstrong seems to have come to the Middle Ages through Lewis (no problem there, as many Christians who are also “professional medievalists,” including this author, have similarly done so). But my one criticism of the book is that, in its reliance on Lewis, Armstrong actually offers a somewhat flattened picture of medieval religion.

Armstrong’s tendency to locate a singular “medieval worldview” is, I suspect, due to his indebtedness to Lewis. Lewis himself often talked of “the medievals” with little attention to chronological or geographic diversity, and with an unreflective confidence that the term could adequately represent the diversity inherent even within a single nation or a single century. Lewis took medieval trends toward synthesis and order as providing the key that could sum up a single medieval worldview and explain a huge range of philosophical, theological, and literary texts. He was enamored with the picture that he himself produced (somewhat selectively and synthetically) from a range of medieval texts, and applied it liberally to whatever he read. Lewis was not alone in this tendency—those familiar with the history of medieval studies will recognize the name D.W. Robertson, a Princeton medievalist and slightly younger contemporary of Lewis, whose insistence on using allegorical modes of interpretation was deeply influential but has been systematically rejected by scholars more recently because of its tendency to reduce texts down to formulaic rehearsals of the same set of meanings.

Lewis’s own adoption of the medieval synthesizing tendency is also selective. The animating spirit of The Discarded Image is, as Armstrong points out, that of Dante’s cosmology in The Divine Comedy, which provides a picture of highly ordered and harmonized creation, a celestial hierarchy where everything is in its place (even if that place is hell), and the “music of spheres” rings out harmoniously. But Dante is himself the product of a particular medieval moment, his theology and cosmology indebted to scholastic thinking, his literary tastes to thirteenth-century trends in Italian poetry, while he is in other ways highly idiosyncratic, departing from traditional views that, had he been more thoroughly “medieval” in giving way to textual authorities, he might not have espoused. (Consider, for instance, his nearly sui generis reimagining of Purgatory, which had, until The Divine Comedy, been considered more or less as equivalent to hell, but with the promise that souls would be able to leave once they had been properly prepared for heaven; or his placement of Ripheus, a pagan, in heaven.) Lewis’ indebtedness to Dante was certainly inspirational to both his creative and his scholarly work. But we need to be aware of the ways in which Lewis’s version of the Middle Ages is itself idiosyncratic and not totally representative.

By way of Armstrong’s reliance on Lewis, then, this book’s treatment of the Middle Ages paints an overly simplified picture. It is true that, within the somewhat loose (and at times contentious) vocabulary of historical periodization, the term “medieval” or its English translation “Middle Ages,” does refer to roughly 1,000 years of history, starting around the time the Roman Empire fell in the late fifth century and continuing up to the start of the early modern period, which is variously marked by the “discovery” of the New World, the invention of the printing press, or the Reformation—in other words, the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Most surveys of medieval history would cover this great expanse of Western civilization. The problem lies, for Armstrong’s purposes, in suggesting that all Christian wisdom from this thousand-year period can be distilled down into a few key lessons, or that one figure from the mid-twentieth century can represent it all.

Over the course of this time period, Christian thought and practice changed quite a bit—Christians critiqued themselves as they started new religious movements (and reformed old ones) and developed new intellectual paradigms. The church and individual believers responded (sometimes wisely and well, sometimes foolishly and ineffectively) to cultural changes, including changes in political leadership, trade and industry, and growth in contact with other peoples and cultures. Modern Christians can and should learn from “medieval wisdom” (in fact, that’s what I hope to accomplish as a teacher of predominantly medieval and early modern literature at a Christian college), but I want to be careful not to suggest that the wisdom the medieval period bequeaths to us is singular, when it is in fact highly diverse and at times discordant with itself. Dante’s Divine Comedy does not espouse the same cultural values as the Beowulf (though Lewis loved and learned from both), nor does monastic exegesis operate along the same assumptions or reach the same conclusions as scholastic inquiry (though we could learn a good bit from the intellectual habits and spiritual practices of both). As a sort of “sampler” of medieval authors, religious movements, and philosophical developments, I think Armstrong’s book serves a useful (and hopefully curiosity-inducing) purpose. But I would quickly move to counter someone who thought that a single “medieval worldview” could be taken as representative after having read Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (or, for that matter, The Discarded Image).

The criticisms I have offered of Armstrong’s book are, I admit, scholarly ones; as a professional medievalist (like Lewis), I value precise thinking about all things medieval, and this precision of thought includes careful consideration of the changes and particularities of the Middle Ages. But Armstrong’s goal is to edify and build up the church (particularly the portion of it that can be grouped under the heading “American evangelical”), and I think the direction he points us in, to rediscover all the resources of our shared Christian past in order to help us live more faithfully as disciples in the present, is indeed a hopeful one. I think that many readers of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians who are unfamiliar with this great swath of Christian history will find themselves challenged and inspired. Then I hope those same readers will read some more—perhaps make use of the many medieval texts included in the magnificentClassics of Western Spirituality series, or turn to luminaries like Jaroslav Pelikan who help us understand the theology and spirituality of the past better. In other words, I hope, as I imagine Chris Armstrong also does, that his book will be only the first of many encounters today’s evangelicals will have with the Middle Ages.

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