Next Thursday, I’ll be presenting at the International Medieval Congress on “Creation and Conversion in Northern Europe.” The general idea is that creation featured heavily in both medieval missionary preaching and in the conception of what those missionaries were accomplishing. The subject was first suggested to me by a reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Creation, God as Creator, nature miracles, they cropped up all over the place, particularly in connection with missionary work, and I began to wonder why.
It wasn’t the easiest subject to study, far harder than I assumed when I first proposed the paper. Turns out, medieval authors weren’t particularly interested in laying out an explicit theology of conversion, nor were they forthcoming about what missionaries actually said to their audiences. Nevertheless, I believe I’ve found some interesting stuff, with a lot of potential for further investigation, though I’m not sure how interested I am in pursuing that potential going forward. The general idea of the various permutations of conceptions of creation in the Middle Ages (and earlier? later?), absolutely, but perhaps not in the realm of the missionary project.
My contention is that there is a coherent theological outlook that lay behind Carolingian/Anglo-Saxon (perhaps also the Irish) missionary work, one deeply linked to an understanding of creation and described well by Romano Guardini here:
These churches in their turn carried forward the blessed work, sanctifying space itself by spreading cemeteries, chapels and wayside crosses over the land. The very land became hallowed by the presence of the Church at large. Each church building itself through the supernatural rite of consecration symbolized and enfolded the whole of Creation. Every part of a church building from the direction of its main axis to its most minute appointments was invested with a divine meaning which fused the cosmic picture of the world with the course of sacred history into a symbolic whole.
Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 20
I argue that what Guardini describes in the landscape was consciously occurring everywhere, from within the minds of monks in their cells to amidst the pagans of the Saxon wilderness.
That’s the basic idea, come get some specifics next Thursday at 10am in Kalamazoo.