At the end of my honours degree in English, I took what was one of my most memorable and enduring classes, a course on John Donne with a mentor who would eventually become my MA supervisor, and who is a leading scholar on Donne’s sermons. The course was efficacious not only in the short term, but in the long term, as bits of it keep coming back to me in my own moments of grappling with matters of faith and life. And I suppose it makes perfect sense that it would be Donne – as one who grew up Evangelical, is now Roman Catholic, and who deeply appreciates Medieval literature on the one hand (PhD) and poets such as Milton on the other (MA), I can certainly empathize with his ecumenical tendencies, and appreciate that his is a matter of real theological grappling rather than the frustrating and contentless “I’m okay, you’re okay” liturgical iteration of kumbaya that ecumenism often devolves into in the present. Long before Barth identified it, Donne was recognizing indeed that, far from being what Marx would later identify as an opiate, religion and faith and God and our relationships in the midst are perhaps the single most vexing problem of being a human. Not, of course, a problem in the sense that they needed elimination, but a problem in the sense of being the agonizing and difficult crux or crisis on which everything hangs. Donne might have concurred with John Lennon in “Imagine” that things would be more peaceful with “no religion too”; where he would I imagine disagree is with regard to the worth of such peace – the kind of peace that has no room for our souls and their frustrations is in fact the kind of peace in which we might gain the whole world and forfeit our souls. Peace is probably not worth having if the price is our real humanity and the real spiritual struggles that come thereby.
Of course, what is interesting, and where I want to take this post, is that there are as many if not more Christians as alarmed by this idea of troublesome faith as Lennon is. Subtly, they have in fact accepted the Marxian interpretation of their own narrative, and when someone challenges the status of their faith as opiate, they become alarmed. And it is further no good to say that such attempts are merely attempts to recapture a so-called precritical medieval golden age. The sheer hardness of medieval life and the constant exposure to pain and death kept, I think, such precritical theology from becoming wishful romanticism – optimism was a matter of survival rather than luxury, and if medieval theology sometimes sounds naive, it is arguably the naïveté and simplicity one might find in a trauma survivors’ group, not simple because medievals did not known suffering and complexity, but seemingly simple perhaps because it is the memory of small, simple, joyful things that keeps one going in the midst of immense pain.
However, at the present historical moment, the socioeconomic situation means that some of us can live in bubbles detached from the pain and suffering and reality around us, and this state combined with participation in a faith we mistake for an opiate makes us problematically opposed to the voices of people like Donne, and it very often takes an immense amount of suffering to break through this bubble – one of the first steps in salvation is realizing that poverty is a precondition for blessing, and further, that the poor are in fact us rather than some abstract ideas of persons to be saved or fixed. We must, to draw on Donne, ask not for whom the bell tolls, but realize it tolls for us.
But many still prefer narratives that are neater than this, and it is indeed such a narrative I want to turn to as a way of prefacing what I hope will be a series of posts on the subject of narratives of conversion and spiritual experience. This narrative is one which we looked at in the aforementioned class: Izaak Walton’s biography of Donne. Now, Izaak Walton was quite the admirer of Donne, and seems to have been well meaning. But the author who could appreciate the serenities of angling in The Compleat Angler might have been better off sticking with the literal descriptions of angling than trying his hand at the biographies of fishers of men, particularly ones like Donne. The attempt is, if I recall, rather like that of a friend trying to praise another friend in an area of expertise the former doesn’t really understand. As a result, Walton gives Donne’s narrative a neatness and tidiness that it almost certainly didn’t have – in particular, he fudges the fact that Donne’s spiritual trajectory was from the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised toward an Anglicanism alive to the complexities, problems, and possibilities of many manifestations of Christian faith. Walton instead prefers a more Augustine-inflected narrative entailing a clean break with a sordid past and a happy conversion to Anglican Christianity. And this narrative has had influence, perhaps not least because of our attraction to such narratives – it is much easier and straightforward than the complex but real alternative, which involves grappling. And it is exactly this kind of treatment of spiritual narrative that I am introducing in this post – we might call it the Izaak Walton Maneuver. In the next few posts, I want to use this maneuver as a backdrop for discussing two sets of conventions related to two spiritual narratives with which I am familiar: the favoured Evangelical conversion narrative – in essentials not that much changed from the narrative favoured by Walton – and the favoured narratives of the reception of Protestants into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, which comes with its own set of conventions and expectations.