Volume 9, Issue 5: Thema
The Hope of Medival Protestantism
Modernity or medievalism--at our place in history, these are the only open paths lying before us, paths for those seeking visions of the good life.
Yet the soul of the modern world is that of the meat cleaver's counter, stainless steel--cold and functional and sterile, with efficient smears of blood. Modernity--the view that man is the measure--is a busy place, spinning with silicon speed that goes ever faster but never forward, people pressed into cities full of loneliness. "There's got to be an opening somewhere here in front of me / Through this maze of ugliness and greed / I'm so alone, I feel just like somebody else."
Modernity and its natural child postmodernity are pleased with their rejection of truth, beauty, and goodness--the three faces of culture. In their place, they unfold the tired, wrinkled banners of a tedious rationalism and socially just sentimentalism. But the void remains a vacuum. Real beauty has no place to sit; Darwin has locked the door. Yet moderns don't give up their game. Their prophetic hypocrites stand stage-tall, throw out law, yet condemn injustice, all while fornicating behind the podium, trashing simple oaths for new, unridden flesh.
Each sharp-eyed generation tires of everything except their joy of rebellion, playing it over and over again, in an endless roll. Everything is boring except their own eternal rebellion. This is their totally new and different program for the future! This is modernity's barbarismhollow hearts led about by sterile matter, perversely mocking those with full lives.
Why Only Two Options?
This modern, Enlightenment story will be with us for at least another century, crushing and infiltrating and absorbing its opponents. All will fall--Islamic swords, New Age whining, and Roman Catholic hierarchies. Modernity's vision subverts its opponents best by just turning on a television in the midst of an unsuspecting culture; leave it on and soon Muslims and Hindus will come to love Star Trek and Seinfeld more than Allah and Brahmin. And despite postmodernism's annoying little requiem over modernity, it is postmodernism that will be a tiny epicycle within the history of modernism. The relativists and sophists have always shown up for short apocalyptic spasms within the history of philosophy, only to fade out before they could be included in the history books. Sophists ancient or postmodern have no staying power because they tell an ugly story, all while using the rationalists' tools. They rarely need refuting; in the end they usually just fade from the stage when their once sexy story produces yawns. That is happening now.
So the future is either with modernity or Christian medievalism. But why medievalism and not just vanilla evangelicalism? Modern evangelicalism is just that--modern--in love with modernity, in love with individualism, egalitarianism, and perfect boxes. Like other moderns, evangelicals have no love of beauty; it is at most optional and indifferent, not the rhythmical organ of life.
Christian medievalism, however, presents us with a view of a whole life, full of truth, beauty, goodness and all their nasty contraries. The medieval period is the closest thing we have to a maturing Christian culture. It was a culture unashamed of Christ and one sharply at odds with the values of modernity. Where else can Christians look for a vision of normal life, of Christianity enfleshed? Do we look to the 1950's? Life on the American prairie? To Jefferson's reign? Modernism had already gutted Christian culture long before any of these.
To the Reformation? That period was a crucial outgrowth of medievalism, but it was a period of crass and heroic trauma, of emergency living. It was a time to focus on truth amidst a slaughterhouse--abnormal--but it would be a great mistake to try to make emergencies the model of a culture, as too many in the Reformed community do--like Cold Warriors twitching over the buttons after the enemy has closed shop. The Reformation was real war, and we dare not give up the victories there, but how do we live after the nightly air raids have stopped? That is the vision of Medieval Protestantism--a view that picks up the discussion where medievalism was silenced by a tyrannical Rome and a blinding Enlightenment.
Medieval Protestantism is certainly not a longing to live in medieval times and wear their funny hats. It's an attempt to continue that Christian discussion of truth, beauty, and goodness that was cut so short. The medieval period isn't the culmination of Christian culture, but it was headed in the right direction. It was telling a wonderful story and headed for great things, triumphing with beauty over its enemies. But it never got to complete the story. And now it's time for Christians to start thinking about plotting more of that story, time to prepare for the death of modernity over the next century. It's time to renew our devotion to Christian truth, beauty, and goodness--the good life. But in order to continue that discussion, we need to search out how our medieval forefathers were progressing before they were silenced. We need to scoff at modernity as a tired idol and examine the many levels of the medieval Christian vision--"ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16).
When we look into the "old paths" of our medieval fathers to find rest for our souls, it is like finding long lost family, family we've been severed from for centuries. We find them to be brothers refreshingly Christian and unaddicted to modern idols. We want to kiss them and ask where they have been for such a long time (rather, where have we been?). They have their foibles and idols, just as we have ours, but we can learn.
When we commune with medieval thinking we learn to see how big a lie the modern project is, and we can start to understand why modernity hates medievalism. It cannot speak about it without going red in the face and spluttering through stiff lips. Modernity's hatred of all things medieval should be reason enough for Christians to want it. After all, if modernity hates medievalism so much, there must be something wonderful there! During C.S. Lewis's slow trek out of modernism, he noticed how one Christian professor "was beginning to overthrow [Lewis's] chronological snobbery. Had something really dropped out of our lives? Was the archaic simply the civilized, and the modern simply the barbaric?" Christendom has lost something beautiful. Barbarism has always been with us, yet Christendom once held forth a life full of truth, beauty, and goodness amidst barbarism.
Judging by Beauty
Given the choice between Modernism and Medieval Protestantism, how shall we decide? Why not judge the respective visions by their beauty? Which vision tells the better story? Which has poetic grace and rich color? The authors in these pages have long argued by means of syllogism and rational grounds and know the importance of them. But the rational rarely satisfies even modernists. Pascal honestly explained that "every man is almost always led to believe not through proof, but through that which is attractive. This way is low, unworthy and alien, and so everyone refuses to acknowledge it." All of us are led on by beauty. Pascal thinks that is base, but it seems to be the way God designed us. We can never know enough arguments to be omniscient, but we can judge fruit. And beauty is fruit.
Why are we so confident that beauty isn't a path to truth? More modern lies, I suspect. Scripture tells us that God beautifies a people by salvation (Ps. 149:4) and that holiness itself is beautiful (Ps. 29:2). If beauty points us to salvation and holiness, then beauty points us to truth. Idolatry can never be truly beautiful. Non-Christians will dismiss the challenge, but they have to because modernism is so ugly. The more important judgment needs to be made by modern Christians. Compare medievalism to our baptized modernity. Which is more beautiful? This is a key to truth. Or even to lower the standard: wouldn't it be wonderful if the medieval vision were true? That is the concern in a discussion of Medieval Protestantism. Of course, we advocates don't pretend to do any justice in describing the beauty of the medieval vision, warped as we are by our own modern upbringing; but we can enjoy the beauty of the vision itself. Modernity and Medieval Protestantism--compare the beauty. Just imagine for a moment that the medieval vision is true. How beautiful life would be! "O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him" (Ps. 34:8).
In addition, Pascal's observation should give us hope. If beauty is the deepest persuasive, and a full-fleshed Christianity--Medieval Protestantism--is the most beautiful vision of reality, of the good life, then modernity has to fail and medievalism has to triumph--"Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us" (Ps. 90:17).
Facets of Medieval Protestantism
What are the features, then, which make up Medieval Protestantism? The best way to grasp them is to start immersing oneself in medieval literature. Read of King Alfred and Charlemagne and also the magnificent struggles in the high and late middle ages. Read Boccaccio's Decameron discerningly for its enjoyment of life and honor, Dante's Divine Comedy for the best poetry, and especially Langland's Piers Plowman for a feel of the late medieval loves and worries. Through these and so much more we find all the elements of a Medieval Protestantism, including a love of beauty, an Augustinian appreciation for the sovereignty of God, the chasm between pagan and Christian, the centrality of laughter, the importance of celebration, a covenantal wholeness of family and society, a submissive hierarchicalism, respect for good traditions, sphere sovereignty, anti-papalism, a harmonization of technology and humanity, an agrarian calm, disciplined silence, the glory of a unified Holy Church, a skepticism of novelty, and a triumphant, peaceful hope for the future of Christendom.
The Reformation was in many ways a continuation of a theological discussion of authority, worship, and redemption which had been started in the middle ages, and the early Protestants were far more medieval than modern. Consequently, the Protestant concerns were medieval concerns, and the two fit together organically, naturally. The supreme authority of Scripture and the unspeakable joy of imputed righteousness rest comfortably with the medieval celebration of life, a life full of beauty, tradition, community, laughter, and celebration. But this still is only a flat list. The discussion sits largely in dusty books in countless libraries.
Medieval Protestantism is not a call to a movement, another tiresome modern construct of strategies and polemics. It is a call for meditation and living out the good life one family at a time. We so often talk of "worldview thinking" and "applying the Bible to every area of life," but that is all too often just a skeleton of a theory. The medievals actually lived it; imperfectly, yes, but still much better than anything in modernity. We have no sense of a life carefully crafted by beauty. A devotion to beauty will sculpt everything we do, and the medievals knew that very well. Beauty trains one's mind to think differently about family, leisure, labor, theology, and the future. Yet we thin-souled moderns are so proud of our rejection of poems and stories and paintings. We lead half-lives and die with less. God has given us so much more, and we slight Him in our meagre living. Christendom has lost so much. Christendom has lost Christendom, and we have traded it away for cold and sterile idols.