David Lyle Jeffrey on Christian Cultural Engagement

In the third installment of our yearlong lecture series on Christian humanism, Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities David Lyle Jeffrey addressed Christian monastic communities as an example of engaging with and preserving the classical pagan world. Although the conventional wisdom of many today often falls in line with the spirit of the church father Tertullian’s question, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” there is good reason to believe that these monastic orders represent a drastic alternative to these attitudes about cultural engagement. Far from retracting into their hermitages–safely tucked away from all pagan influence–they actually preserved and even cherished Ancient Greek poetry and philosophy.

Among other things, Jeffrey’s lecture explored both the “how” and the “why” of this historical phenomenon. As for the “how,” it is clear that from the early church onwards there is an inescapable proximity of clashing accounts of the world. As Augustine’s City of God illuminates brilliantly, the spiral of the Roman Empire represents not only the harrowing reality of our own worldly powers and their weaknesses, but also a chance to proclaim the hope of the Gospel to a rather tempestuous world. Jeffrey cites two specific examples that show how classic texts have been saved as a result of this uncertain context. The first is a fascinating method of preservation that involves the wrapping [and unwrapping] of Egyptian mummies. Instead of using just any sort of paper for this [in]famous ritual, classic manuscripts from the Bible and other texts are used to amplify the historical significance of the life lived. Jeffrey’s second example, though not quite as interesting, is a pagan magical treatise. Despite the fact that the “metaphysics of magic” are quite far removed from anything like sound Christian theology, there is on the reverse side of the page a selection from the book of Hebrews. If this is not evidence of Christian cultural engagement, then nothing is.

Of course, for anyone who is really interested in the human part of the humanities, the “why” remains as an [if not the] important question. Citing a metaphor used by John Behr earlier in our series, “the plundering of the Egyptians,” Jeffrey explains that Christians in these monastic orders have a robust theology of creation. As a result, they also understand that all truths are indeed God’s.  So, because it is imperative “to look from the incarnation out,” Jeffrey’s vision of Christian engagement with the world is one of confidence and even eagerness. In Augustine’s own words: “[I]f those who are called philosophers say things that are well accommodated to our faith, we should not fear them and they should be adopted and conformed for our use.” In fact, by doing so, Christians of the middle ages are able to construct what we know now to be the core vision of the liberal arts. Theology, as the head or “queen” of the sciences, provides a meaningful telos by which all other disciplines (natural science, literature, etc.) are made intelligible. As long as this proper ordering is in place, the various arts established by pagan culture are edifying and even precious for understanding the Scriptures.

In this sense, Jeffrey’s lecture is tied profoundly to one overarching theme of Christian humanism: namely, the Christological hermeneutics of not only the Bible itself, but also the culture that that same Bible creates!

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