Having Faith in History: Critical Empathy in Understanding Medieval Devotion to Christ

Having Faith in History: Critical Empathy in Understanding Medieval Devotion to Christ

By Dennis M. Martin

Paper given at the Lebel Lectures in Christian Ethics, University of Calgary (2003)

Introduction: In a review of Jill Mann’s book, Geoffrey Chaucer, published a decade ago in the journal of record for medievalists in North America, Mary Carruthers remarked that

I know of no feminist theory current in the literary academy that can make sense of such a profoundly Christian view of suffering [as that described by Mann]. Perhaps there are some feminist theologians who have begun to construct a Christian feminism that will release what seems an impenetrable knot, . . .

The theologians who could most helpfully respond to Professor Carruthers’ concern are neither exclusively contemporary personages nor feminists, although several of them are women. They are figures like John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar, inspired by two remarkable women, Edith Stein in the case of John Paul II, and the Swiss physician and mystic, Adrienne von Speyr in the case of von Balthasar. Their response to the problem of suffering draws on the Christian belief that limitless giving and receiving takes place in the Godhead, and that all life and culture receives existence from this dynamic of giving and receiving. The suffering of Christ is then the supreme example of the innertrinitarian giving and receiving: the Son actively receives as the Father’s gift the mission of redemptive dying, which takes place in the power of the Holy Spirit. This dynamic, unique to Christianity, might help us understand especially those on the receiving end, on the suffering end, in medieval society.

Yet just the opposite is happening. Medievalists increasingly ignore the centrality of kenotic, that is, self-emptying, powerlessness in the Christian Middle Ages and unabashedly reinterpret medieval Christian religion in terms of power rather than powerlessnesss, explaining the sacraments, for example, as magic or as mere human constructs, or largely reducing the suffering lauded in the medieval lives of the saints to gendered constructs of lecherous voyeurs.

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