Over Christmas break, the family and I found ourselves with a detailed 3-D jigsaw puzzle of Paris’s famous Notre Dame. While it did not take as long to complete the puzzle as it took to build the medieval cathedral (182 years, according to Wikipedia), it did present challenges. Our son-in-law, now completing a doctorate in engineering, relished the task, along with our 14-year-old daughter.
The jigsaw puzzle and the great cathedral itself offer much to think about. We wonder about the mysteries of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, and often forget what a challenge building the vastly superior medieval cathedral was—especially since it was done during the supposed “Dark Ages” before the Renaissance.
Just as one can easily marvel at how the craftsmen could build such large and intricate structures without computer-assisted drafting or heavy machinery, one could and should wonder why communities so rarely build such beautiful churches anymore. And how could any right-minded person of good will not see this sort of building and rejoice in the faith, wisdom, and intelligence of those who created it? Even the flying buttresses, added to Notre Dame as an afterthought to hold the building together, provide a good share of graceful beauty and harmony.
Coincidentally this past Christmas, the aforementioned daughter gave me a book that has spurred similar reflection. Chris R. Armstrong’s book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age breaks open the medieval mindset of C.S. Lewis in a clear fashion, and deftly argues why Evangelicals should take a deeper look at Church history—specifically, the Middle Ages.
“God did not, after all, leave his church in the emperor Constantine’s day only to reappear with Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Billy Graham,” he writes. Armstrong runs Opus, a vocational discernment program at Wheaton College, where he is a member of the biblical and theological studies faculty.
Back in 1845, John Henry Newman offered a very similar observation in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: “Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John.” Newman, who had become Catholic the year the book was published, concludes the passage with this often-quoted reflection: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
While one can read this conclusion and be curious about the ecclesiastical future of those who steep themselves in studying medieval Christianity, it should be remembered that even the great Lewis didn’t make the move. Despite the traditional catholicity of much of his religious writing, he remained at home in the Church of England. Two eminent Catholic writers have more than adequately addressed the deeply personal biases and reasons behind Lewis’s non-conversion, Christopher Derrick (C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, 1981) and Joseph Pearce (C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, 2003). The latter mentions that Walter Hooper, Lewis’s private secretary and biographer, who himself converted to Rome in 1988, believed that Lewis would have converted had he lived long enough to see how far his church would soon veer off the path of “Mere Christianity.”
But it’s the lessons of Armstrong’s book I find striking today, as a rebuke to all who fail to recognize the importance of medieval thought—even some of my fellow Catholics. The medieval age gave us a litany of great Christians who helped shape all that is good with the modern world, from education (universities!) to healthcare (hospitals!) to the legal system. Armstrong is not shy about calling out the Catholics who played an important role, although he avoids the use of “saint” as a title for them.
Here’s one example, on the importance of the Angelic Doctor, in a chapter on the reasonableness of theology: “Aquinas erects … a dazzling scientific and philosophical edifice of theology, and he does so (again) as a Dominican friar, from within a deeply devotional and monastic culture, not as a dried-out academic. In his very person he puts the lie to the stereotypical ‘faith versus reason’ narrative.”
Next, he talks about how this applies to morality, and the fact that the medieval mindset focused on moral improvement, an area where some sectors of Evangelical Protestantism are lacking: “Let’s be honest: those of us in the evangelical camp today largely lack the inclination or ability to submit our moral lives to any precise, practical spiritual tradition,” he writes. “We do not ask how humans—created, fallen, and redeemed—actually grow and develop as human beings or what our faith has to say that is detailed and helpful about what can make us better human beings.”
The medieval world taught these moral lessons with precision and practicality, he writes, citing (Pope St.) Gregory the Great. Likewise, it also focused on an education that centered on arts and crafts as well as the traditional liberal arts. Medievals would, one is led to believe, consider today’s fixation on STEM curricula an exercise in vanity without also a focus on the humanities.
Armstrong’s book provides an Evangelical endorsement of many traditions that have always been common to the Catholic Church, and he speaks highly of the monastic life. To him also, what is paramount is a recognition of (and respect for) the reality of the Incarnation, God made man. He sees this in the medieval and Catholic devotions to Mary, and to Our Lord’s Passion.
Ever since the writer Rod Dreher began blogging and speaking about “The Benedict Option,” people have been looking at the “option” paradigm for a way out of (or a solution to) the social and moral quagmire we find ourselves in. Since Dreher, others have posited alternate options, often named after various saints, like the Augustine Option or the Dominican Option or the David Option or the Francis Option. I’m waiting for a presidential hagiographer to come forward with a “Trump Option” based on The Art of the Deal.
Seriously, however, there is much to like about Dreher’s idea. Long before the option, numerous books and articles had been written about the application of the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict to daily life. This is because, to a certain extent, the medieval Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion, along with other aspects of the Rule, represent general values that can improve the lives of anyone, even non-Christians. As we are social beings, living lives tied to a group that encourages these values (and holds its members somewhat accountable) is commendable. In his blog and his book, Dreher has offered a number of examples of how they are lived in today’s world not just by people of many faiths and cultural backgrounds.
Reflecting on the intricate puzzle of a medieval cathedral can lead to another realization—the time for “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis puts it so well, the belief that the present age is the ever-higher point of human achievement, is over. Perhaps it’s time for the Medieval Option, where reason and faith converge in charity, focused once again on the True, the Good and the Beautiful.