An interview with Chris Armstrong, author of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis
“While many evangelicals are attracted to C. S. Lewis, seeing tremendous wisdom in him,” historian Chris Armstrong explains to me, “what they don’t see is that his wisdom is almost always a channeling of Christian tradition from earlier years.”
It’s one of those moments when something that has sat muddled in my thought processes rearranges itself into clarity. Oh. That’s why I grew up a fundamentalist Baptist, yet my family was enamored with the writings of an Anglican who enjoyed not only a beer, but a pipe. Armstrong continues: “These evangelicals have no other access to this ancient—and, as it turns out, medieval—Christian wisdom because it’s nowhere else in their culture. But Lewis, he would have been appalled to have that wisdom attributed to him, as if he were some sort of solitary genius, because what he thought he was doing was passing on tradition.”
Armstrong is the director of Opus: The Art of Work at Wheaton College and senior editor of Christian History magazine. His most recent book is Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Brazos, 2016). He gave a lecture on Medieval Wisdom at the Christian nonprofit, MacLaurinCSF (now called Anselm House), on the campus of the University of Minnesota last month. Anselm House was gracious enough to allow me time for an interview with Armstrong and also published my review of the book. With Armstrong’s feedback, I edited our interview for brevity.
Talk to me about C. S. Lewis being a medievalist.
I think what we need to remember about Lewis is that before anything else, he was a philosopher. He was a moral philosopher, and you can read that in Narnia. You can read that in the space trilogy. It’s everywhere, even when he was writing fiction.
He was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature. But he was a literature prof who really had wanted to be a philosopher. In fact, his first job at Oxford—his first class he taught—was on moral philosophy. So, when he read medieval sources, it was to find practical wisdom for living.
And one of the places he first got touched by things medieval beyond his professional literary interests, was in reading people like Boethius, who is just on the hinge of the Middle Ages. Boethius has a book called the Consolation of Philosophy. He’s been a good guy—a civil servant, a roman senator—and he’s been working for this Germanic king, Theodoric, and he is accused and jailed unjustly, and as it turned out, eventually executed. So, as he’s sitting there in jail, he’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on! He’s got these Job-like questions.
Lewis, when asked by the Christian Century not long before his death “What are the books that most influenced your sense of vocation and your philosophy of life?” responded with a list of ten, and the only medieval book among them (oddly enough) was Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.
Tell me about the need for your book.
I owe my faith and much of what’s good in my life to the evangelical movement, but when I try to go to the evangelical movement to find out how to live well in God, in the world—the economic, artistic, social, cultural world—I don’t find a lot there. Existentially, I guess I’m resonating with Mark Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, that in this evangelical movement there’s a lack of engagement with a lot of facets of being human in the world—a lack of embrace of this world is sometimes how I think of it. When I ask myself, “When has the church done this well—this world engagement, this embrace?” it’s so obvious that if we didn’t have these pre-existing biases related to what’s going on in the medieval period, I probably would have figured it out sooner.
In the Middle Ages there’s a tight relationship between church and state, and that means that the church becomes a public institution in a new way and needs to address all the public concerns—all that has to do with the public good. So, automatically it’s involved in the arts and sciences, politics, and sort of everything—it has to think through those things and it has to think through those things through theological engagement.
I’ve found, in medieval faith, a lot of down-to-earth resources for how to live in this world. I keep putting an asterisk by that and saying I wouldn’t follow a lot of medieval sources about sex (for example). I’m not looking through rose-colored glasses. I’m not about to bring back the Crusades or Inquisition or anything like that, but there’s certainly so much richness there.
Tells me about C. S. Lewis seeing tradition as a source of truth.
It’s so deep for him. I’ll go back to Boethius. He makes a little remark about Boethius—I think it’s in the Allegory of Love—he refers to him as “the divine popularizer.” And what he’s talking about is Boethius’s function at least in part as a translator of Plato. One of my conclusions about why Lewis included Boethius in his top ten is that he saw himself in that vocation that Boethius had: they are both traditioners. The word tradition refers to the process of handing down what’s valuable from generation to generation. Lewis I think fell in love with tradition probably when he started picking up books around his dad’s house as a little kid and just having all these older works and worldviews open up to him.
Clearly with his Christian conversion, he came back to himself as this sort of person who has enjoyed and valued the past as a source of wisdom; and that includes, by the way, the Pagan past. He did include Pagan wisdom. He said he’d rather be a Pagan than a post-Christian, because at least a Pagan believes something. What he was talking about was not Bacchanalian license: he was talking about the Pagan philosophers he had fallen in love with as a teen under his Irish tutor, William Kirkpatrick.
You say a sacramental approach to the world was important to Lewis. Would you explain that?
One of the best sources on this is his essay called “Transposition.” What he’s addressing is the question, ‘What it is it with all these Christians and their Father God and the long flowing beard? All these material things that get mixed up in Christianity. Why can’t we just do a pure kind of spiritual religion?’ His answer is all we have with which we can learn about anything in the world—including God—is our senses. This is a kind of empiricist argument, a Lockean argument.
If we’re going to learn something spiritual, it has to be encoded in sensory information, and there has to be an analogy of being—something we can relate the new learning to. Otherwise, it’s meaningless. In other words, Lewis is saying that our trying to understand spiritual dimension is like people in a two-dimensional world trying to understand the third dimension—all they’ve got to reference is two-dimensional things.
If the sacramental principle is basically that we see God’s glory and his grace through the material world, Lewis is going to say that of course that’s true! As a philosopher, there’s no other way to see it. Now, that’s not pantheism. That doesn’t mean the tree is God, but can you see God in the tree? Sure.
It was Tolkien who allowed Lewis to capture this sacramental insight, and thus to move beyond the merely intellectual consideration of Christianity’s claims to the imaginative aspects—the story, the narrative—which is, of course, such a thoroughly present genre and way of communicating in the Scriptures. Why do you need narrative? You need narrative because truth is coming to you in the flow of time and space—through your senses.
By those lights you could say the Bible is sacramental because it’s not an abstract list of dos and don’ts. It’s not a list of philosophical principles. It’s a historical book full of historical accounts with a God who comes down and enters history in the Incarnation. And that’s why finally, in my book, following Lewis’s understanding and the Middle Ages’ understanding, the Incarnation is such a central thing.
Go ahead and tell me about the importance of the Incarnation to Lewis.
For Lewis, he uses these wonderful images like God is the deep sea diver going down to the earth to bring the wreckage back to the surface and rehabilitate it, the wreckage being us after the fall, and really the whole world.
In this, Lewis draws on Athanasius. He draws on what we think of as the Eastern Orthodox principle of theosis—that God comes down to us that he may draw us back to him. He becomes man that we can become god. Little-g gods, not God as he is in his essence, but god as we speak of the aroma of Christ or the mind that is transformed in Christ. That’s theosis, that’s the transformation, and it takes God coming to where we are in order to draw us back up.
Above image courtesy of University of Saint Mary of the Lake