academia, Academics, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon Christianity, Beowulf, Christian, Christian Humanism, Christianity, Creation, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Liberal Arts, Old English literature, U of R, University of Regina, Viking
As someone who often wishes that the Exeter book compilers had left a note explaining the connections between the works they compiled, I feel that it is only fair not to leave anyone reading this blog in the dark about the puzzlement of my last post: “What does the University of Regina Arts department have to do with the stated purpose of this blog? How is that in any way a “Christian thing”? I would like to respond by talking about three instances of literature that, for me, embody the way Christians should interact with the liberal arts. In all three instances I see the attempt to protect the Liberal Arts, and by extension what is good, true and beautiful (or all three together) in creation.
It is I think first worth noting that all three of these approaches are grounded in a strong sense of the goodness of creation. Imaginary art is, it seems to me, a subsidiary creation dependent on the primary creation, and if this creation is not good (as declared by God in Genesis) and not redeemable (as declared in Christ’s resurrection), then what is secondary to it is also not good. Though I think Plato himself was more sophisticated about it than he often gets credit for, his expulsion of the poets from the Republic is the natural outworking of a philosophy or theology that is trying to escape creation, and after Plato it appears in much less sensible forms in gnostic theology. All this to say that the poets I am about to discuss, working within a long tradition of Christian theology, presupposed the goodness of creation, and so understood matters like the liberal arts as the task of working with the things of creation. One did not of course even need to know about Christianity to discover this goodness – it is of course as accessible as creation itself, so that even pagan and secular observations of this goodness were readily adopted by Christians where they in fact reflect goodness, truth, or beauty – though with the caveat that such natural philosophy only goes so far.
What I see in the three examples I am about to discuss is the strong belief that protecting creation and its aesthetic subsidiaries is one of the most important tasks of the Christian. It is so because both creation and the arts are easily lost, whether in fact physically marred or rhetorically appropriated for unjust or selfish purposes. The Christian call to Charity encompasses a deep love of creation and the things humans have found in it and formed from it, insofar as these things are in fact the product of the deep God-given capacity for imagination woven into our hearts and not the shallow parody instigated by sin (the “vain imaginations” so often lamented in the Bible). The love of the Arts is thus in fact an extension of our love for our neighbour.
I do not know the names of those involved in my first example, which is Old English poetry. The names of those who originally thought of these poems, passed them down orally, and then finally wrote them down remain anonymous. But what has been passed down – and what we know about the context in which it was passed down – makes for a riddle that testifies to a Christian love of variegated literatures. It is almost undoubtedly certain that, in their final forms, the Old English poetry we have was preserved by clerics in monastic scriptoria. This of course leaves us with the puzzle of what monks were doing with Beowulf or the double entendre riddles, though the latter is hardly a new puzzle as the Biblical canon itself contains the Song of Solomon. Of course, it is impossible to know beyond a doubt what these monks were doing with these texts, and some criticism inflected through a particularly modern kind of lens sees this as evidence that Anglo-Saxon Christianity was not in fact as Christian as all that – the monks of course had to be monks because of the institutional oppression etc., but below all this their libidinous id longed for these more bawdy earthy things, so they are testimonies to a heroic proto-secularism practiced under the very thumb of the church. The alternative, however, and the explanation I would suggest, is that what we are encountering here is not poor oppressed monks just trying to have some fun, but a sophisticated theology that loves things, even the things of one’s enemies, and so considers them worth preserving – perhaps one can find something in them (and if this sounds far-fetched, consider that Beowulf itself is a story telling the heroic past of the Vikings responsible for attacking the Anglo-Saxons). I don’t of course want to pretend that these monks were sophisticated 21st Century liberals, but, considering the alternative – the Viking raids that, at least in Anglo-Saxon accounts, were no respecters of persons, things, ideas, or books – they did pretty well. Between the constant threat of Viking raids and the great expense of books, the preservation of things – not only Biblical Commentaries and theological works, but poems – was a great and risky sacrifice worth making because the things preserved were made from the stuff of creation, and the stuff of creation is good.
My second examples are the Christian humanists of the Renaissance. My own primary engagement with Christian humanism has been through Donne and Milton, so I will speak what I know from these poets and see whether it accords with More and Erasmus etc. once I have read them. Sidney would fit well here, too, though his work is not fresh enough in my mind to comment. Where the monastics were more involved in the physical preservation of things to do with the arts, the Christian humanists, I would argue, were interested in saving them from the power plays of church and state. We are in our own age very well aware, thanks to Foucault, of the ways the arts can become instruments of power. What we are not very well aware of is that in order to usurp the mantle of beauty, goodness, and truth, a tyrant must as far as possible eliminate the real things – the first casualty of hypocrisy is reality, and I think most of the people of my generation have swallowed whole the idea that all there is is hypocrisy and power plays. What the Christian humanists saw was that, among other things, one of the primary ways of protesting such tyranny and hypocrisy was to preserve goodness, beauty, and truth; it was in any case much better than simply deposing the tyrant, for without such goods another would rise in his place. Loving and protecting the weak and vulnerable reality preserved in the best instances of the arts was the first line of defense against the Leviathan of the nation state. And again, in the best instances of the arts, one could hear the stones – that is, the stuff of earth and nature – cry out at moments when the church herself remained silent.
Perhaps you are wondering where exactly in the Christian humanists I see this protection of goodness, beauty, and truth from abusive power. I think probably the best example, of the people I have read, is Donne. We can see this in all his work – his refusal in sermons to cater to a populist mentality; his scansion of the universe in the Devotions informed by personal digestion of large amounts of philosophy, theology, and poetry; and of course his poetry. Indeed, I would suggest that metaphysical conceits are one of his most prominent means of doing this – through these he forces us to consider, and consider carefully, things that we are used to instrumentalizing and objectifying. By forcing us to step back and look at the reality he helps us observe, he causes us to realize that the things we take for granted are in fact so many sites of choice – things could in fact be imagined other than the way we see them, and things could in fact be done differently.
The other place I see this protest against power is in Milton. One of the more contemporary reads on a Leibnizean theodicy is that, in the form it appears during the Enlightenment, it is not so much a philosophical answer to a philosophical problem, as it is a way of justifying the cruel negligence of early capitalisms – if free will is a justification for God to wind up the world and let it go, evil and all, it is surely a justification for those with power and money in capitalism to do the same. Make an economy that works, and the invisible hand will take care of the rest – no need for the kind of intervention demanded by ethics or the Christian idea of incarnation.
Milton is of course pre-Leibniz, but I feel as if he anticipates this sophistic use of theodicy and fights hard against it. Part of the way he does this is by writing poetry rather than philosophy; by writing poetry, he acknowledges the felt needs and desires other than bare reason that must be acknowledged when discussing theology. And though some think the many stammering caveats, safeguards, and loopholes that he works into Paradise Lost make for a confusing system that can be dismissed as a Puritan neo-Scholasticism, his reason for doing this is because (if you will pardon a pun) he wants to make sure nothing gets lost. He does not want an easy theodicy, or an easy defense, or an easy dramatic flair that will win his audience over should reason fail. The task he undertakes is gargantuan and in those places where he fails his failure is because it is impossible to fit the better and more complex answer to theodicy – hundreds of years of Scriptural/Christian tradition – into a single poem written by a single person. But behind all the stories of the crabby, misogynistic Milton strutting about like a know-it-all is someone who sees the complexities of a world God made, and sees these complexities in danger of being pared down into the simplistic instruments that would write the history of modernity in blood. And for all his crabbiness, Paradise Lost is his response.
Perhaps the best way of imagining this Christian humanist impulse is the figure of Thomas More. Undoubtedly, someone so vastly intelligent and well-educated could have easily have achieved promotion rather than execution if he had been willing to bend his knowledge and rhetorical skills to answer the will of Henry the VIII. He refused, however, and it cost him his life. He refused to deploy the arts as a handmaid to deception, trickery, and untruth, and so preserved his own and their integrity.
The third person I want to talk about is Gerard Manley Hopkins. The power that Hopkins resists is that of a weary imminence, the sort of thing that came about imaginatively after the shock of the this-worldly Romanticism had worn off and been institutionalized by Victorian society. This had the effect of making it very difficult to talk about the wild otherness of God in polite society; matters of faith were confined to certain forms of discursive piety in which they could readily be contained, and they were not to mix with the more important matters of business, finance, and politics. The world predicted in Pope’s Essays on man – where “the proper study of mankind is man” – had come to be, and its absorption of faith in the broader societal milieux was a far better means of controlling it than active suppression or persecution.
Of course, Hopkins is by no means the only one to protest this; others attempting to re-sacralize this Victorian world include members of the Oxford movement, George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, and presumably a good number more that only a Victorian specialist would recognize. But I will speak of Hopkins because I have studied him. Accompanying the this worldly turn of most poetry in Hopkins time was that curious idolatry of art known as doing “art for art’s sake.” Hopkins had no idea what that might mean and to be quite honest neither to I, but it conjures the image of a narcissistic asceticism lusting after its own image in a mirror. The opening lines of one of the only poems actually published during Hopkins’ lifetime – The Wreck of the Deutscheland -is a direct challenge to this autoerotic poetry: “Thou mastering me, God…” In a world far more interested in a faith kept neatly separate from (or contained within) the matters of the nation-state, Hopkins cry was from the exilic Ecclesial ship being martyred on the reefs and rocks of a smug modernity. What sets Hopkins apart for me as a particularly inspiring example is how this cry and challenge came not in spite of religion with its institutions and liturgies, but in fact through it. Hopkins is not a Blake for whom religion becomes a language wherewith to express his emotions. He is tied to the strictness and rigor of the Jesuit order, and his matter is mined with effort from the depths of Catholic tradition. He needed Scotus – more of a rebel and less of a systematician than Aquinas – to challenge his society, and it is perhaps fitting that his challenge came out of a Catholicism once banned in England. He refused the shallow categories and languages of his time that permitted theology only to speak when spoken to – God was not for Hopkins the distant psychological vaguery of Tennyson, but was rather, like His mother, as close and palpable as the air we breath. Hopkins refused to stop speaking well of God when doing so in anything other than benevolent platitudes was growing less and less fashionable. In a sense, he covertly discovered what both the Christian humanists and the Anglo-Saxon monks took for granted, that when one seeks first the kingdom and God’s righteousness one finds the arts added to one’s bounty as well. Conversely, poetry that neglects God eats itself from the inside.
I realize that, in the above examples, I have said a number of things that very few English scholars would agree with wholeheartedly, and in part I understand very well why. I have seen concepts like truth, beauty, God, and the common good twisted and manipulated for use by selfish and cruel people, and one becomes reluctant to speak of them after a few experiences with such people. But I would like to hope that what I encountered in these experiences were not the real things, but parodies, and it is not these parodies I mean when I speak of these qualities. I also realize that, in a summary as general as this, I am at some points not careful enough in my assertions; I fear particularly regarding my statements on the Victorian period. I am not a Victorianist, though I know a number of them, and it would would be a dreadful thing to wake up one day and find myself being pursued by a gang of Victorianists. To be more serious, though, I am happy to take correction from any quarter provided it can be substantiated, but I do think that more than ever in a world that leaves such general overviews to the image-factories of shallow politicking, it is probably right to provide an alternative, even if an overview such as this is only a starting point rather than an end point.
This, finally, is the reason that I do in fact consider it a “Christian thing” to defend the University of Regina English department. The department itself is not of course Christian or any other religion for that matter, nor should it be. It is comprised of varying people from varying perspectives, some of faith, and some not. But having taken classes in this department, I do see happening many of the same things that people like the Anglo-Saxon monks, the Christian-humanists, and Gerard Manley Hopkins were trying to protect. And it would be a shame if these were lost to powers more interested in image than truth.