Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis.
Reviewed by Jack R. Baker, English, Spring Arbor University
Chris R. Armstrong’s book welcomes us into the wisdom of the ancients by articulating their value to a modern audience that may be suspicious of, misinformed about, or apathetic toward what those who have gone before us have to teach us. As Armstrong notes in his opening chapter, “My Angle of Approach,” “the chasm between us and our medieval forebears in the faith has to do less with any intrinsic oddness of the Christians of that time and more with certain philosophical and cultural presuppositions of our own” (3). And so, Armstrong’s book sets out to bring the life of the modern Christian into conversation with those of the ancients.
Since I have been teaching early British literature, I have felt a sense of frustration at the paucity of texts that articulate an overarching vision for why we should study the Middle Ages. Much of the vision-casting legwork for such a course is done through supplementary lectures, an article here or there, but I have—to this point—had no help from a single, well-ordered work. No longer is such the case, for Armstrong’s book accomplishes the sort of well-ordered, contemporary reflection on a period so diverse and expansive for which I have been longing. As he notes, “Finding moral, intellectual, and spiritual value for our own lives is the whole point of doing history. There is no way to understand the value of the past for our present experience without understanding our own time well” (4). Armstrong thus argues that connecting the medieval period to our own time is necessary if we hope to avoid the “mere antiquarianism” that comes about when we approach the period as a sort of removed, sterile time to be kept at arm’s length.
Armstrong has undertaken a great challenge, for anyone who has studied the medieval period knows that they must learn to be polymaths—historians, linguists, literary scholars, theologians, sociologists—if they hope to approach any text from the period with consideration. But the author does not falter, and he is quite clear in his book that it is this very intellectual, spiritual, and cultural richness that demands our attention—for in the study of the Middle Ages we come to learn about our time by learning about those who have gone before us:
So the only sensible reason to care about the past is that, through knowing it, you believe you can make a better present. The chief purpose of history is moral improvement. This means we must derive lessons for today from our study of history. But to do so, we must discern our own time, too. (4)
And so his opening chapter is a sort of moral compass for the entire work. In it he argues well that we ought to care about our past both for that past itself and for our lives today; and we cannot think of ourselves and those who have gone before us without also contemplating the Incarnation and the material goodness of the world, a theme that is repeated throughout the book because it was so central to the medieval world. To be sure, Armstrong’s is not a work of “super-spiritualizing,” but a “reflection on the spiritual significance of material creation” (28).
But I have only mentioned the medieval period and just touched on wisdom, and Armstrong’s intellectual journey is about the wisdom of that period and its power to shape us for moral action today. And as he notes at the outset of chapter 2, “C. S. Lewis—A Modern Medieval Man,” “Every journey needs its guide” (29). Thus, to direct the journey on which he takes us, Armstrong turns to an author so well known by most Christians that he has little work to do to win over his audience, given that C. S. Lewis is considered among the greatest Christian intellectuals of the twentieth century.
Armstrong does well to note how important the medieval period was to so many well-known Christian intellectuals of Lewis’s day, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and Charles Williams. The casual fan of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis may not know that they were professional medievalists. And this fact is important, because it qualifies them to be our guides to the Middle Ages. It is also important for the casual fan to know that neither of them was considered successful in their academic profession because their academic output was relatively small. We are better off because they both spent much of their time making the world of the past relevant for our time, too, a task Homer himself claims in the opening lines of the Odyssey.
By the end of chapter 2, the reader has been given a concise summary of Lewis’s qualifications for being our guide on this journey through the wisdom of the medieval period:
Few guides could serve us better than the eccentric genius who, in many ways, resonated more with that period than his own. C. S. Lewis’s affection for the medieval era and the ways he absorbed its lessons will also help us to understand and benefit from medieval Christians’ love affair with tradition and theological inquiry, their grounded and detailed moral code and the compassionate ministry it underwrote, their sacramental understanding of creation, their emotion as they approached the divine, their sense of how the incarnation lifted up their own humanity, and the ways they disciplined that humanity to keep their hearts fixed on God. (42)
In this way Armstrong not only summarizes Lewis’s credibility as our guide, but also provides a helpful summary of the rest of his book.
In the eight chapters that follow, Armstrong builds upon his claim that study of the Middle Ages is moral: it moves us to action. I appreciate that Armstrong approaches these chapters as spaces of spiritual formation where readers encounter the ongoing process of becoming our better selves. But at the end of the day, this is a book written by a historian and theologian, and we can be thankful for this fact because Armstrong is particularly suited to navigate the complicated waters of medieval theology. He begins fleshing out the central argument of the book in chapter 3 by establishing the primary place of tradition in the medieval Christian world, turning to Lewis’s Cambridge lecture “De Descriptione Temporum” as a guide. In the lecture, “Lewis insists that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom” (51). Instead, he “reminds his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts” (51).
And one of these forgotten elements of the medieval Christian past is the fundamental place of the Incarnation in daily life. Chapter 7, “Getting Earthy,” addresses how contemporary Christian Gnosticism is contrary to the medieval way of understanding being in the world:
Signs of gnostic thinking include (1) thinking Christianity is about “spiritual” things (only), (2) thinking of one’s destiny only in terms of souls going off to heaven, (3) thinking of creation as “left behind” in the end, rather than redeemed in the new creation, and (4) believing that God neither gives material things as a means of grace nor cares about the earth at all—so neither should we. (139-140)
As Armstrong notes, our cultural knowledge of the Middle Ages often reinforces misconceptions about the period (117). Most of what the average person knows about the Middle Ages (right or wrong) is that it was “dark”—there was supposedly little progress in medicine, there was much suffering, war, and disease. And though there is plenty of scholarship that dispels most of these myths, common perception of the era is generally negative. Thus, it is no surprise that the body, and material creation in general, comes off badly when we consider the Middle Ages.
Thus, it is a breath of fresh air to find throughout the book Armstrong’s clarifying emphasis on the place of creatureliness in God’s creation: “Christians since the very earliest centuries of the church” have “taken seriously not just the salvation of the soul but the healing of the body” (117). So begins his argument in chapter 6 for why the medievals invented the hospital. And though his chapter specifically on the Incarnation is second to last, Armstrong has woven this theology throughout the book as he explores the embodiment of it in other essential medieval ways of knowing—theology, ethics, social services, earth care, and spiritual formation.
Because of his and Lewis’s emphasis on the Incarnation, I was particularly drawn to chapters 7, 9, and 10 (“Getting Earthy,” “Getting Human,” and “Getting It Together”) for the attention they give to living wisely as creatures in this created world. In chapter 7, Armstrong adeptly tackles Gnosticism and materialism, arguing that what we find in the wisdom of the medievals and Lewis is an “understanding of the sacramental quality of the whole world, which holds that spiritual meaning is delivered through physical means in all of creation” (156). We are grateful first for their lesson that “sacramentalism helped them value creation neither less nor more than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously gnostic and materialist age” and second that “their theological reading of creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life, including work, play, relationships, arts, and culture—an important practice in our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material” (157). It is one of the great strengths of Armstrong’s book that it calls us to acknowledge and practice such wisdom.
Armstrong concludes his work with a clarion call to refocus our vision: “we have forgotten the flabbergasting wonder of an incarnate God—a God who has taken on humanity in Jesus” (233). But his book will not allow us to forget the “flabbergasting wonder of an incarnate God,” because it calls us to turn our minds backward to the wisdom of the medieval, a wisdom C. S. Lewis himself experienced and sought to embody in his life’s work.
What Armstrong accomplishes in this book is important for medieval studies and for Christian living and spiritual formation. If the Incarnation is a tenet of our faith, if we understand the earth to be sacramental, if we ought to love our neighbors, we cannot ignore his and Lewis’s call on us, a call to practice the virtue of remembering the goodness of those who have gone before us and the tradition of wisdom we share. May we be flabbergasted at the wonder of an incarnate God at work in the lives of those before us and those with us.