Studying a life of faith

You should not keep any animal except a cat… Anyone who wishes may sleep in leggings… They should not snack between meals.

Medieval illustration of an Anchoress

Anchoress (courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Notice the cat(?)

These are a few of the more specific instructions given in the medieval treatise for religious recluses now known as Ancrene Wisse, ‘A Guide for Anchorites’, which was the focus of my master’s dissertation.

These rules offer a fascinating and often charming insight into a very alien way of life, but my particular focus is on the Guide’s highly detailed instructions on prayer. Anchorites, who enclosed themselves in cells to lead lives of prayer and contemplation, followed the Hours (the prayers offered by monastic orders at seven fixed times daily) and a sprawling structure of other prayers to God and the saints. The Guide instructs them on the proper posture, words, and alignment of heart for this daily work, and their intercession before God is seen as uniquely powerful, a heroic act of devotion and an ‘anchor’ to the Church.

This is the spirituality and way of life which I plan to spend the next three years studying – but if I’m honest, this is also where I get impostor syndrome. More often than not, my academic work on the value of prayer for these medieval people throws my own prayer life into uncomfortable relief. I often struggle to pray at all, let alone commit my whole life to it. I am used to thinking and writing theoretically about the power of prayer, but in practice, I find this difficult to believe, at least to the extent that it becomes a discipline in my life.

This isn’t a practical problem, exactly: plenty of academics study religion without any faith of their own. My writing about medieval anchorites and their connection to the Divine doesn’t need to be matched by a living connection of my own in order to fit into the literary academy’s way of doing things.

And it’s not as if I would want to emulate the exact kind of prayer life which the Guide recommends – I’m a modern, Protestant evangelical living in a world which is almost unimaginably different from the high Middle Ages, so praying to the saints and mortifying the flesh as a means to more effective prayer are not concepts which really register.

But my literary interests aren’t arbitrary. I find anchorites, medieval liturgy, and models of prayer interesting precisely because of my faith, and the mismatch between the spiritual and academic spheres of my life feels more acute because of this basic connection. Maybe you’ve felt the same thing: your faith is supposedly a part of your work, and you know that faith and scholarship can and should be integrated, but this ideal is the exact point at which your own inadequacy is most pressing.

For me, the crucial question is how I can write with integrity about the transcendent, unifying power of prayer in these medieval texts, while being honest about the limitations on all human efforts to pray – especially my own. I often think of the anchorite’s lifestyle as obedience to the Biblical command to ‘pray continually’, and this is perhaps a place to start: even the recluse’s extreme devotion does not involve literally continual prayer, but their life as a whole is seen as an act of intercession and worship.

It’s impossible to know for sure how medieval anchorites themselves felt about their lives, but I imagine they must have felt the gap between the high calling of their life and their own human capabilities, and I hope that they were able to balance this with the mercy of God. This is something that academics need to be able to do too: to resist the combination of perfectionism and fear (which can come from both church culture and academia), knowing that we don’t need to add up our good works to a sufficient whole, but instead receive overflowing grace from the only true Person of integrity. Only this grace allows us to live a life of true worship.

Alicia SmithAlicia Smith recently completed her MPhil and is about to begin doctoral studies in English literature at Oxford University, at Queen’s College. She is originally from Leeds.

Two kingdoms?

Last week, I summarised the first part of the first talk Andrew Fellows gave at the Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference in June. We saw that our calling as Christian scholars is rooted in the creation mandate and the mission mandate. But how are the two mandates related?

Richard Niebuhr, in his influential book Christ and culture, lists a number of ways in which the two mandates can be related to each other:

  1. Christ against culture: Christians can separate themselves from the surrounding culture and create a ghetto, a new Christian culture that has nothing in common with the dominant culture. The drawback of this is that it impoverishes the Christian mind.
  2. Christ of culture: trying to be relevant, to fit in. This results in the loss of distinctiveness of the Christian mind.
  3. Christ above culture: culture is seen as valuable only as far as it engages with the ‘supernatural’. This entails a devaluation of other cultural expressions.
  4. Christ and culture: this idea is currently experiencing something of a revival in the ‘two kingdoms’ idea: that God has an earthly kingdom of law as well as a heavenly kingdom of grace. This leads to dualism.
  5. Christ transforms culture: all of life can be spiritual, because grace touches all of creation. Christ’s work as Redeemer is related to His work as Creator, and this is seen in the transformation that occurs when redemption touches our life: we see a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that academic work also can be spiritual. As Christian scholars, therefore, we are committed to be transformers of culture, and especially transformers of thought patterns (Rom. 12:1-2).
Diagram showing how "the true contrast" between the city of man and the city of God cuts through every sphere of life: church, family, politics, business, art, science, sport, law, etc.

Thanks to Brian Watts at the King’s Community Church

The evangelical church is still often committed to model 4, also known as the ‘secular vs. sacred’ model. However, this is not the crucial antithesis, indeed it is not an antithesis at all!  So how does the kingdom of God relate to cultural institutions?  There is an absolute antithesis between the kingdom of light and heaven and the kingdom of darkness and this world: you can only belong to one of these kingdoms. These kingdoms are not geographical, not reducible to a social entity or institution. They are invisible realities that seize the core of an individual’s personality: our heart. The diagram here is based on one in Al Wolters’ classic book Creation Regained.

The Kingdom in Church and Academy

God makes the invisible reality of the kingdom of God visible through incarnation. He did this first and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ, but He continues to do this in the local church. The church is an institution with its own authority, and has the function of promoting the values and truths of the invisible kingdom. Furthermore, incarnation happens where ’two or three are gathered in His name’ (Matt. 18:20). The kingdom can work itself out in many other social entities, movements, structures and networks whose specific aims are kingdom purposes, with an ultimate commitment to the kingdom of Christ. These have real integrity to exist alongside the local church. Their commitment can be worked out in multiple and multifaceted ways. As Christian academics, we manifest Christ’s rule in the academy. In an increasingly secular society, we need to be creative in gathering in communities where two or three gather in His name. Why not seek out other Christian postgrads in your university to meet up with, to further the purposes of His kingdom in your university, in your subject area?

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).

Two mandates

From 17-19 June, this year’s Transforming the Mind Christian Postgraduate Conference took place in the usual, beautiful location of Ilam, Derbyshire. One of the main speakers was Andrew Fellows, the Director of Christian Heritage in Cambridge, who also spent many years working for L’Abri UK in Hampshire. During the conference, he gave two talks, which I will summarise here over the next few weeks (any misunderstandings of Andrew’s message are obviously my fault). We hope you will be blessed as you read them!

During the lifetime of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Roman Empire was in decline, and Rome fell to the ‘barbarian’ Visigoths in 410 (Augustine wrote a thick volume, The city of God against the Pagans, to help his fellow Christians to come to terms with this). During our own time, we can see a similar trend at work. Europe is at an ‘Augustinian moment’, so to speak. Our culture has abandoned the Judaeo-Christian worldview and its values, and it is a legitimate question whether Europe can survive this loss. The question posed in Psalm 11:3, ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ is very relevant for today.

One of the things we as Christian scholars can do, is to be ‘doorkeepers of civilisation’, by thinking great thoughts: high-level thoughts that are firmly rooted in our Christian worldview and values. The church should recognise the importance of this, and encourage and support her intellectuals and scholars. This calling, to provide a solid foundation for Christian living, is rooted in the two mandates that God’s people are given in the Bible.

The two mandates are the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15) and the mission mandate (Matt. 28:19-20, Mk 16:15). They are really two sides of the same coin: both are commands that show us the purpose of our life with an imperative behind them. At the same time, all humans function on two stages: the stage of nature, carried along by natural laws, and the stage of culture, the realm of the inner life, the mind, the will and intentionality.

In the cultural mandate, we are commanded to have dominion, to add dimensions to creation, to ‘open up’ creation using our culture-making abilities under Christ’s lordship. This is part of the glory of human beings, and one of the ways in which we image God and His creativity. In the mission mandate, we are commanded to go to the ends of the earth to bring people under Christ’s lordship.

To reach the fulfilment of the mission mandate, it must be linked to the cultural mandate: we are not saved out of creation, but we are restored to live out the cultural mandate. One of the main weaknesses of the contemporary church is that it often fails to link the two mandates in a fruitful way. As a result, the Biblical view of vocation is compromised. Every believer shares the same calling: we are called by God, to God and for God with all of our life (Rom. 11:36). Every secondary calling (to be say, a pastor, a scholar, a plumber or a stay-at-home-mum) under this is sanctified by the first calling, with no hierarchy of callings. Creation and redemption are not in opposition to each other. Instead, redemption restores us to be the servants and developers of creation that we were made to be. In the academic calling, the cultural mandate is highly concentrated, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that Christian scholars use their God-given gifts to bring restoration to this part of creation and culture, but we must also keep the mission mandate in view.

Next week, we will continue with the second part of the talk, which asks the question of how the two mandates are related to each other.

Audio files of Andrew’s talks will be posted soon on the website of Transforming the Mind, and you can find more of his talks on the website of Christian Heritage and the L’Abri ideas library (other resources on these pages also warmly recommended!).