Archive for January, 2010

Asking the Right Question

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

As I was plodding my way through a lesson on Medieval Scholasticism recently I was reminded of the need to keep the big picture in mind when dealing with any period of history.  When examining the past there are many times when we may find a person’s answer to an issue or problem to be, well, dumb.  At least it may appear dumb or misguided or unintelligible to us, but I was reminded that even though we might not like their answers or solutions, in the bigger picture, it may be more important to us that they understood the right questions to ask.

For example, scholastic thinkers in the thirteenth century all had their panties in a wad about what to do about the growing corpus of Aristotle’s works that were being translated into Latin and finding their way into the medieval university’s curriculum.  Why you ask should Aristotle pose such a problem for these Christian intellectuals?  Well, let’s just say that Aristotelian naturalism’s understanding and explanation of the world and the way that one truly knows the world did not exactly square with the Bible’s teachings and with Church doctrine.  So, some of these thinkers began to address the apparent inconsistencies and incongruencies that existed between Aristotle and the Bible.  Of course we have no comparable issues in our day, but this was a real problem for them.

One of these thinkers was Thomas Aquinas, the “dumb ox”, a name given to him by some mean spirited classmates.  A good biography to read is G.K Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, but I digress.  The point is that Aquinas was not afraid that his faith in God or the Bible would be threatened or undermined by addressing this issue, and he was unwilling to dismiss Aristotle’s teachings out of hand just because Aristotle offered a different way of knowing the world and did not seem to be all that interested in God.  Instead, he attempted something truly amazing.  He attempted to reconcile the Bible and Aristotle because he truly believed that faith and reason were compatible, that people were meant to be full knowers and not just thinkers, that we were created to know the world and to know the world’s Creator, that we were incarnate spirits and not just a brain inside of a body driven by a will.

More importantly, he knew the right question to ask.  Do we know God the same way we know the world?  If the answer is no, is the knowledge of God or the world immediately invalidated?  Aquinas’ Summa Theologia was his attempt to answer that fundamental question in his generation.  I might add that later thinkers gave up on his attempt with significant consequences, but I for one am glad that he tried.  I am glad that he refused to accept that humans are just a brain inside a body driven by a will.  I am glad that he knew the right question to ask.  It is still one of the right questions to ask.  If you are interested in more of this discussion listen to the podcast on Scholasticism found in the Medieval/Reformation Christianity course.

Clarifying Things

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Studying history offers us a number of opportunities.   Whether or not we choose to take advantage of those opportunities is another matter.  History offers us more than learning interesting, or not so interesting, facts.  It also offers us the chance to better understand other cultures, what they believed and how they practiced their beliefs.  For many of us, studying history can be an exercise that reveals large gaps between what we think we know about another culture’s beliefs and practices and what in fact another culture actually believes and practices.  History offers us the opportunity to clarify some things that may be fuzzy for us. 

The study of religious history is a good example.  There is nothing more invigorating or challenging than finding out that what we thought we knew about another culture’s faith, all the sound bites, anecdotes, and Cliff Clavenisms “it’s a little known fact that…”, were in fact not accurate at all. 

For example, I recently taught a session on the history of Islam and the Crusades.  In the process I tried to point out that many Christians make an inaccurate comparison when they equate Mohammad with Jesus Christ: what Mohammad is for Muslims, Jesus is for Christians.  Actually, it would be more accurate to equate the Koran with Jesus Christ.  For Muslims the Koran is the perfect, complete and divine revelation of Allah, not Mohammad.  Mohammad is the blessed prophet of Allah.  Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the perfect divine/human revelation of God.  It is not Jesus’ prophetic office that Christians emphasize, it is his divinity as the Son of God.  The Bible for Christians is the divinely inspired, authoritative revelation of God, but there is a difference between saying that the Bible is divinely inspired and saying that it is divine.   The Bible for Christians is not like the Koran and Mohammad is not like Jesus Christ. 

That’s what I mean by history offering us an opportunity to clarify things.  Oh, and the part about these discoveries being invigorating and challenging, it might be better to say that they are more often irritating, frustrating and aggravating because clarifying things is the first step toward changing our minds.  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but first it might make you mad.

For those who are  interested in a book that gets at this business of clarification I would suggest Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy:  What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t.

The Ascetic’s Dilemma

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Ascetic- “a person who renounces the comforts of society and  leads a life of austere self-discipline, especially as an act of religious  devotion.”  There are not too many people in our society in danger of being classified as an ascetic.  Being an ascetic is just not cool.  Some of us may occasionally think about it for a bit but the best remedy is to lie down until the feeling passes, and then go to In and Out Burger for a #2 and shake.  And no, starving yourself in order to fit in a pair of jeans does not count.

But in the medieval world of Christianity people thought about religious devotion in terms of self-denial.  They thought about it a lot  because they were continually concerned about their spiritual condition.  Life in medieval Europe was uncertain at best and making plans for your eternal security was an ever present worry for the average person.  Joining a monastic community was one way a person could obtain hope that at death they were more likely to  go up rather than down.  In effect, becoming a member of a monastic community also meant becoming an ascetic.  In fact, becoming an ascetic for Jesus was at the heart of Medieval Monasticism’s mission.  All monks focused on achieving what was called the vita apostolica or the life of an apostle.  They were trying to emulate the life and faith of those early followers of Jesus.  There were three main characteristics that defined an apostolic life:  obedience, poverty, and preaching.  Over time, the monks found obedience and poverty to be the toughest of the three and, of those two, poverty was really tough.  Why you ask?  Well that is the dilemma and the irony of it all.  It was tough because the very act of fulfilling the apostolic life resulted in many things, poverty was not one of them, but  no self-respecting ascetic could be successful without maintaining the state of poverty.

You see, living a truly apostolic life meant doing everything, and I mean everything, to the glory of God.  You did everything with excellence for the Lord:  prayer, worship, scholarship, confession, and work.  Everyone worked and work was spiritual.  Monastic communities were self-contained, self-sufficient entities.  Everyone had a job that helped contribute to the life of the community.    In many monastic communities monks worked to build and maintain the monastery, prepare the fields, plant the crops and vineyards, harvest the crops and vineyards,  make cheese and wine, bake bread, etc. etc.  So what happens when a bunch of ascetics practice self-discipline and self-denial together while doing everything with excellence to the glory of God?   Are you able to maintain your poverty, not likely.  Instead you are steadily improving your condition.  You are in fact achieving material prosperity even as you continue to promote ascetic self-denial/poverty as one of the hallmarks of following Christ.  Most attempts to reform monasticism were begun by those who sought to regain the lost ascetic practices that maintained a firm commitment to poverty. 

So what’s the point?  Is an ascetic life-style essential in order to truly follow Jesus?  Can one demonstrate the characteristics of an apostolic life in the absence of literal poverty?  Are asceticism and poverty prerequisites for doing everything for the glory of God?  Did monasticism end up confusing its methods with its mission?


So what was the answer to the ascetic’s dilemma?  Would it have required them to stop interpreting poverty as a personal spiritual state to achieve and started treating it as a human issue to address by doing everything for the glory of God out of their wealth and prosperity? 

So what is our dilemma?

Sentiments and Symbols

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I am currently teaching a course entitled Medieval and Reformation Christianity, but before you hit the snooze button to catch just ten more minutes of sleep, hear me out.  I start the course by reminding  myself and the students that a good question to ask about any period of history is, what was it possible for the people of a particular time to believe?  Not what I wish they had believed, or what they should have believed, or if I had lived then I would have believed such and such; the only legitimate question is, what was it possible for them to believe?  I then make a valiant attempt to recreate the medieval world before filling it with people like popes, monks, nuns, priests, bishops, scholastics, reformers, kings, emperors, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers along with other assorted historical figures.

What I try to impress on the students is that what you are looking for in recreating any period of history are the sentiments and the symbols that formed the foundation upon which people built the institutions that represented their culture.  Rather than starting with famous people, events, ideas and institutions; start with sentiments and symbols.  By sentiments I mean the core values people held, the values they used to interpret and shape the world around them.  What were they driven by?  What were they passionate about?  By symbols I mean just that, what were the prevailing symbols that appeared over and over in their art, architecture and literature?  Why is this exercise valuable?  It’s valuable because the political, educational, religious, social, artistic, legal and literary institutions that uniquely define every culture in history emerge out of and are shaped by the sentiments/values of the people who created them, and the symbols that represented those sentiments can be found everywhere if you look for them. 

For example, the medieval world was shaped by people who believed in continuity, the ultimate unity and oneness of all reality.  They believed that spiritual things and temporal things were meant to be connected somehow; therefore, they believed that politics and religion could not be and should not be separated.  In various ways they understood that heaven and earth, the immanent and the transcendent, were different realities, but they would not and could not accept the idea that they were mutually exclusive or unrelated realities.  At the center of the medieval world was a strong, prevailing belief in the existence of God and the belief that all of life was somehow connected with this God and for the glory of this God.  So, the great medieval project was to actually create a world in which the sentiments and symbols regarding heaven were functionally realized in all of its earthly institutions and vice versa.  The crowing political achievement of this medieval project was the creation of the Holy Roman Empire where Popes and Emperors represented the uniting of heaven and earth, the immanent and the transcendent.


Bottom line, this  great medieval project failed in many respects.  So what’s my point?  If my premise regarding sentiments and symbols has any weight, when our world is carefully examined 75 or 100 years from now, what will these future researchers deduce were the prevailing sentiments that motivated and drove us?  What were our core values as a culture?  What were we passionate about?  When they look at all of our institutions, what sentiments and symbols will be evident?  If our institutions reveal our values, what do we value?  What are the most powerful symbols in our culture?


Just something to think about.