Chris Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Traveling the Affirmative Way

Editor’s note: The following review, the first in the book review forum we’re hosting on Dr. Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, is by Heather Walker Peterson, a mother and writer who also teaches in and chairs the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern Saint Paul. Here’s our full lineup of posts in the forum:

 

If the questions raised in these reviews intrigue you, join us at the study center on Tuesday, September 13, 7 pm, 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
Heather Walker Peterson, “Traveling the Affirmative Way with C. S. Lewis”

Evangelical Christians have a problem, according to Chris Armstrong. They’ve jettisoned a millennium of Christian history (from Constantine to the Reformation). Without that millennium, they believe it’s their right to live as if their individual relationship with God is the the sole informing/forming aspect of their faith. They forget to acknowledge the influence of and need for other Christians.

Thus, excesses of devotional emotion or reason appear admirably Christian even if to the neglect of those fellow believers around them. You wouldn’t want to interfere with what God was telling somebody else, right? Similarly, nobody better interfere with your relationship with God. In such a situation, Christians can compartmentalize between what’s spiritual and what’s secular, and ignore what they deem secular.

Medieval Christians, writes Armstrong in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, would have been shocked. They didn’t need talk of “embodiment” to be told they were over focused on their mind or emotions and not enough on the world around them. If Jesus was incarnate, then of course their bodies, their environments, and other supposedly “secular” things—not just their hearts and minds—were important to their faith.

If the missing millennium is the antidote to the excesses of our contemporary Christian life—including our consumerism—there is one person, the darling of evangelicals, who can convince us of our need for medieval Christian wisdom: C. S. Lewis.

Lewis, Armstrong claims, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers, embraced medievalism after World War II through the writing of Dante. For Lewis, Dante challenged modernism—that what was real was only what was material—by recognizing “a vividly sacramental sense of the aliveness of all things.” There was a “deeper reality” to the world and our experiences of it that was Augustinian and neo-platonic at its best. One major implication is that we can live in a way—what Armstrong calls the “Affirmative Way”—that affirms truth and God. The Affirmative Way is shown even in the works of pagans, since they are also made in God’s image.

For Armstrong, a historian, to make a case for medieval Christian wisdom, he has to convince his evangelical readers of their misconceptions about the medievals. If you remember your high school history teacher telling you about a group of late medievals wasting their breath in arguments about angels dancing on the head of pin, you once studied Scholastics as I did. But our image of them is reductive, according to Armstrong, who asserts that their rediscovery of Aristotle’s work led to modern-day science. Not only did medievals not think the earth was flat, but Aquinas and the Scholastics were also a primarily positive influence in the history of the church, rather than a negative one, as many Protestants have assumed.

Much of what Armstrong does to show what medieval Christianity offers is that he takes us through what C. S. Lewis read and regarded as influential to his own thought. In this regard, Armstrong’s book differs from those of the Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, who also values religious tradition, particularly liturgy, and emphasizes the body. Armstrong’s book complements Smith’s works in that he reflects more on the ancient sources that led to the bodily actions and liturgies Smith discusses.

We can have Lewis’s balanced approach to faith by dipping into the Scholastics, Aristotle, pagan mythology, and Augustine. We can learn to use reason to hold onto mystery for such theological issues as the atonement, as Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard did. We can meditate on the traditional vices and virtues, which Lewis presented in story form in his novels. We can love and care for others’ bodies, as medieval monks did. We can allow ourselves to be desiring beings, as Lewis did, following Augustine of Hippo, and to enjoy the earth and great art as indicators of the more real (God), living with a sacramental approach to life—the Affirmative Way.

We can cry and laugh like Julian of Norwich and give ourselves the freedom to meditate on not just Christ’s resurrection but also his crucifixion. And this is the most memorable case Armstrong makes for his readers—that in Protestants’ focus on the resurrection and on the divinity of Christ, they have overlooked the incarnation. They have nearly abandoned the earthiness of Christ and our identification with him in our humanity—leading to a Gnosticism in which what’s important appears to be the “spiritual” only and not the physical too.

Armstrong’s final chapter gives concrete implications for the previous pages. His most pointed ones are a challenge to Protestant Christians who have recognized the weaknesses of evangelical Christianity and sought after spiritual disciplines, such as Richard Foster has proffered, or intentional community focused on social justice. Armstrong observes that the monastic communities of the middle ages also cared deeply about the personal and communal morality of their members and paired their prayers with asceticism—even C. S. Lewis, who delighted in feasts, also fasted.

I wish that Armstrong had saved his discussion of mediation of the church and sacrament for the end rather than at the beginning in response to his explanation of the immediatism of evangelicals (a play on the root of both those words). Some evangelicals, wary of the language of mediation, might dismiss his argument too quickly before being drawn into the rest of his book. Given the range of thought and history Armstrong covers, his book is not a quick read, although the clear headings, occasional personal stories, and quotations from Lewis’s letters and works compel the reader on.

I’ve become an evangelist for this book, near collaring friends at church telling them to read it, emailing a ministry in another state recommending Armstrong be invited out to speak, musing about using it to discuss Lewis’s neo-platonism in one of my courses. I’m grateful for the words I have to explain the magnetic appeal of C. S. Lewis, who “recognized that the Christian warrant for traveling the Affirmative Way, encountering the material world as a place rich with sacramental meaning, was the incarnation of our Lord.” I hope my own children and my students take Lewis’s hand and join him in the Affirmative Way.

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