John’s devotional principles cultivated in the secular
This chapter demonstrates that John’s emotional reform priorities were not
solely acted upon within the walls of the monastic community at Fécamp, but
also coloured his interactions with the secular world. As the abbot of the
most prominent abbey in Normandy, John regularly interacted with lay lords
and dukes of Normandy and Holy Roman Empresses, among others. Using
charters, letters, and chronicles, this chapter shows how John’s particular
brand of piety was not restricted only to the contemplative moments he had
inside the monastery, but also motivated John’s wider responsibilities as a
politically, socially, and economically involved abbot. This chapter thus
argues against the historiographical narrative that abbots were either
spiritual recluses who resented their worldly activities or political
players who relished their worldly power. Instead, this chapter shows that
an abbot’s worldly activity could be part and parcel with his spiritual
goals, aiming to erode our modern notion that worldly activity could not
also be spiritual behaviour in medieval Europe.
The uses of John’s devotional method within the walls of Fécamp
This chapter examines the pervasiveness of John’s devotional method among his
contemporary brethren at Fécamp. The chapter first demonstrates that the
affective prescriptions contained in John's Confessio theologica were
promoted and enforced by the various devotional media at Fécamp – in the
library, in the liturgy, and in sermons. The chapter then explores the
complex relationship between emotional reform and discipline, as such
affective rhetoric seems to have played a dual role in the monastery, both
emotionally connecting the monastic practitioner to his God and keeping him
in line under his abbot. This chapter, therefore, unlike other studies of
affective piety, shows how affectivity was not just about a devotee’s
emotional empathy with the crucified Christ, but also about a monastic
devotee’s Christ-like obedience. I break scholarly ground by enumerating the
uses of affective piety particular to the Benedictine monastery of the
Defining emotional reform and affectivity in John of Fécamp’s Confessio
This chapter performs a careful reading of the entire text of John’s
Confessio theologica in order to define the nature of John’s affective
piety. This reading clarifies the historical record, which often only
highlights selections from John’s Confessio theologica rather than
systematically analyses the whole thing. The chapter details John’s
affective prescriptions to his reader, and also uses manuscript evidence to
show how these were particularly aimed at monastic readers in Fécamp’s
network. The examination provided here will satisfy historians of emotion,
who will be interested in the contours of devotional emotion in this
eleventh-century context; it also provides a basis for the remaining
analyses in the book.
The Oldham group sought to defend ‘freedom’ by avoiding either what it saw as the ‘atomistic’ forms of individualism encouraged by liberal capitalism or the violent Gleichschaltung of political totalitarianism: their middle way was a ‘true’, ‘Christian’ freedom based upon a holistic, organic and community-oriented ‘personalism’. It shared a broader intellectual scepticism about whether the freedoms of laissez-faire ‘liberalism’ could survive in the conditions of ‘mass’ society; however, despite some claims that Oldham and his companions advocated ‘Christian totalitarianism’, the group clearly rejected this option at an early stage in its discussions and remained committed to maintaining (and even strengthening) ‘liberal’ civil rights and parliamentary government. Despite stressing political decentralisation and active citizenship, however, the group members’ vision of freedom assumed that democracy would take a more constrained form that was not untypical in post-war political reconstruction across Western Europe.
One of the Oldham group’s ‘middle ways’ had a clearly secular source: the sociology of Karl Mannheim. The (personally agnostic) Hungarian sociologist believed that Christianity could strengthen liberal democracy in its confrontation with totalitarianism and also humanise the inevitable shift towards more ‘planned’ societies. All group members broadly criticised what they saw as the waste, inequality, greed and chaos of laissez-faire capitalism, and some saw value in Marxism, even if its atheism and the oppression of Soviet Communism were rejected. Mannheim’s concept of ‘planning for freedom’ offered a middle way that would encourage Christian-inspired norms but still leave room for individual liberty and local initiative. But the concept also provoked internal dissent in the group from both the right and the left. These discussions were also reflected in mixed feelings about post-war reconstruction: while the group welcomed moves towards ‘social justice’, some members’ critiques of the emerging welfare state show the contested margins of its consensus.
This chapter serves as a general conclusion. It summarises the main arguments and the key ‘middle ways’ structuring each chapter. It then pulls back to locate the Oldham group in the context of 1930s and 1940s British Christianity and public intellectual debate. The book’s contribution to the topics of the relation of Christianity to social life; British reactions to totalitarianism, war, and social reconstruction; intellectual responses to ‘modernity’; and secularisation are drawn out. A few ‘blind spots’ in the group’s thinking – especially with regard to gender and imperialism – are considered. A final section considers the continuing relevance of the Oldham group’s efforts to solve inherent contradictions in modern society and to define a legitimate place for faith in ‘secular’ societies.
Chapter 2 introduces one of the group’s key concepts – what Oldham called the ‘frontier’ between faith and social life – and examines how the group defined a socially relevant religious worldview despite there being dramatically divergent viewpoints among Christians about the relationship between faith and society. The group saw an emerging ‘convergence’ in Christian demands for a radical reshaping of dominant ideas, cultural norms and social practice in accordance with Christian understandings of human nature and the purposes of social life. They sought ‘middle axioms’ to express how eternal, universal Christian principles applied to modern, complex societies. Five theological influences on the group stand out: (1) a self-critical theological ‘liberalism’, (2) the ‘Christian realism’ of Reinhold Niebuhr, (3) the neo-Thomist philosophy of Jacques Maritain, (4) ‘continental’ Protestant theology (which was largely rejected) and (5) varieties of ‘personalism’
The group aimed to bring Christian principles and secular knowledge into creative relationship. Urging Christians to be more open to scientific knowledge, its members, however, also condemned what they saw as extreme forms of secular ‘materialism’: they sought a modus vivendi to enable Christianity to influence the ‘common life’. Secularisation, it was argued, had led to totalitarianism, which was seen – whether in its Communist, Fascist or National Socialist forms – as an ersatz religion. But secular knowledge was also believed to offer something to Christians, and since the group perceived Britain as a deeply ‘secular’ society (and likely to remain so), a constructive relationship between Christians and non-Christians was a key goal: it should be possible, Oldham argued, to go ‘part of the way together’, even if finding a middle way along the ‘frontier’ also meant emphasising faith’s distinctive strengths and insights into the human condition.
The Oldham group were British Christian intellectuals, with each term locating it in a key sphere: a national (British) context with specific identities and assumptions; a religious (Christian) context defined against ‘secularism’; and a public (intellectual) context marked by certain forms of cultural authority. After a long period of neglect, there is increasing interest in Christian responses to the Second World War, the crises that preceded it and the social rebuilding that followed. The concept of ‘middle ways’ is introduced to describe the group’s recurring intellectual approach, referring either to taking a moderate position between perceived extremes or constructing a synthesis of different – even contradictory – elements. Middle ways reflected the intellectual content of the group’s ideas or also strategies for implementing them. Various kinds of ‘betweenness’ were involved and define the chapters that follow: paths were sought between Protestantism and Catholicism, faith and secularity, laissez-faire capitalism and collectivist socialism, rootless internationalism and nationalism, freedom and order, and egalitarianism and elitism.
The Oldham group emerged out of J. H. Oldham’s efforts to carry forward the ideas of the 1937 Oxford ecumenical conference on ‘Church, Community and State’, one of the most important international gatherings of Christian clergy and lay thinkers in the twentieth century. Though wracked by disputes, the conference issued a clear call for Christians to respond to the political, cultural and social threats of the age, particularly totalitarianism. The organisations and projects that composed the Oldham group – the ‘Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life’, the ‘Christian Frontier Council’, the Christian News-Letter and the discussion group known as ‘the Moot’ – are introduced along with the eight-member ‘inner circle’ on whom the book focuses: J. H. Oldham, Karl Mannheim, T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, John Baillie, Alec Vidler, H. A. Hodges and Kathleen Bliss. The Oldham group foresaw the need for a ‘revolution from above’ among the British political and cultural establishment, as well as a broader effort to use media and established Christian organisations to create a Christian cultural ‘leaven’ that would enable new forms of ‘community’.