When I was young, I was the sort of kid who very much wanted to hear the voice of God. Growing up Evangelical, one hears all kinds of stories about this – how God speaks to us personally, and how we need to obey even when we would rather not – and I took this very seriously. I recall one moment as a child, when I was out in the backyard and thought I heard someone calling me. Knowing well the story of Samuel hearing God in the temple, I wondered if it was God calling me in the same way. Nothing ever came of that, but it is a story that illustrates the kind of child I was – for me, the borders between physics and metaphysics felt much thinner than they must for most people in late modernity.
This I suppose is what many people seem to long for and think of wistfully when they want to go back to a more “enchanted” world that has not had its soul ripped out of it. This is fair, but such people often fail to consider some of the downsides of such a fused vision of reality; the problem for me became manifest, and harshly, through my OCD. Normal children, it seems to me, might be naturally protected by an immediate concern for material things that does not place the weight of thick theological and spiritual concerns on their shoulders. I was not. I was constantly looking to hear the voice of God, and my OCD played to that; my faith told me that, figuratively speaking, God and His will might be hiding behind any and every bush, no matter how unlikely – so I checked, again and again, and constantly worried that I would miss something.
Eventually, I learned to distinguish, at least pragmatically if not emotionally, between the voice of God and the voice of OCD. This came about largely through the recognition that, at least for someone like me with a set of broken internal impulses, the way to know God’s will was not by “feel” or “personal experience” – telling me to do this would be like telling a blind person to see. But those who are blind use other senses and depend on other people, and this is what I did. I turned to the Bible, and when the Bible itself became an object of my OCD – the constant anxiety of worrying about how to interpret a passage – I turned to the communion of saints around me, those living and dead whom I knew to have seen God. I may have been personally blind and directionless, but I could watch their lead and follow them.
The downside of this, though, was abstraction – leaning on others and other senses such as reason was necessary, but it left a hollowness in my heart. The blind still sometimes wish they could see. My method of managing OCD meant that I became reluctant to explore areas of experience and emotion in my faith. I was happy to surround myself with others who could know God in this way, so long as they didn’t compel me to know God after that fashion. And I still insist that this was and often remains necessary for me as I keep working through issues surrounding faith and OCD. But it was not without cost; it meant the death of the child who once thought he heard the voice of God in his backyard.
Fast forward to a scenario two years ago. Fast forward to me, embittered, and angry, and just barely clinging to God. Fast forward to me tormented on the horns of the Anglican dilemma, caught between a church that was so militantly low that it would not even provide ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a church with all the trappings and smells and bells but no fences – one was given perfect freedom to be holy, but also perfect freedom to be whatever else one wanted. And then there was the court case, in which pastoral care was sacrificed on the alter of “proclaiming the gospel” by undertaking huge legal fights over buildings. And then there were the politics in the Christian campus groups that struck a death blow to my endeavors in Christian leadership. And then worst of all there was the death of a close friend, who had been part of our family for the past year, and also part of the close knit liturgical Bible-study refuge that was in many ways one of the few things between me and the abyss.
In the midst of this, I found myself on a plane on the way back from visiting my friend’s parents. I was set to fly into Seattle, drive to Vancouver, and then get on a plane to go to an on-campus interview where I would tell them how many wonderful things I had done in my dissertation exploring suffering and faith. But really all I could think of was that A was dead, and what are any of my accomplishments next to that? I could go and pretend. But a dissertation does not raise the dead.
And then there was the odd moment in the plane when the person I was next to turned to me and wanted to talk about God, and the only thing I could think of was, “How very like God.” I had waited for such random conversations as a child, fervently and in the hope that they would end in the salvation of another, and they never happened. All that had died in me. But here I was embittered and having difficulty justifying my own life let alone my worth as a professor – here I was, huddled up in my seat trying as hard as possible to get others to ignore me – and my seatmate wanted to talk. I still don’t know how he knew I was a Christian. He said he just knew, which is odd because a surly and standoffish person huddled up in the corner of a plane seat and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his computer does not scream “Christian” to me. But there it was. He had found me out. And all I could think of was “in season and out of season” – but this felt like stretching the “out of season” thing a little bit too far. Conversations like this are not supposed to feel like an intrusion, a curse. But there I was. And so we talked about God.
Nothing terribly dramatic happened. He did not fall on his knees and pray the sinner’s prayer. He did not break down crying as I shared inspirational stories with him. But we did talk. He had just come back from a rehab centre, and part of the treatment involved the twelve step program; one of the steps, I learned later, involves surrendering oneself to a higher power, and it was this he wanted to talk about. I do not remember many of the details. I was tired, and I had to talk about the God who might as well have sent Job on a missions trip halfway through the book, for all the good I expected to do. What I do remember thinking is that he was part of the way there with the “higher power” thing, but that it was not quite enough. He needed Christology, and more importantly, Christ. And so I recommended C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He in turn suggested (as we had also been talking about music) that I should listen to Yelawolf and Macklemore who were (apparently) up-and-coming musicians. I have not listened to them. But now and then I still pray for him.
Here the story comes to an end. I don’t know if his rehab worked and if he was able to quit his addiction to drugs. I don’t know if he got anything out of our conversation. I also reflected later that, even if he did take my advice and pick up Mere Christianity, he might not have liked it, for what can Lewis have to do with Yelawolf? I don’t know, and I am fine with that because even when we know the “end” of a story it may not even in fact be the end – ours is to be faithful regardless, as a friend of mine has put it well on her blog.
But I can say it affected me. The experience had all the strange marks betraying the work of the God who is as much a riddle to me as He is a friend and lover and Lord – He gave me what I had stopped longing for long ago, and fortunately when I was too weary to do anything stupid with it – all I could be was a broken self doing the best I could to talk about the God I knew. But it was still somehow encouraging. All I could think afterward was, “In season and out of season…how very like God.” Deep relationships are all about anomalies – the appreciation of a quirk here, or a personality trait there – and it is in these things we feel the qualities of the people we love most dearly. This had all the marks of such quirkiness – an inside joke of the knock-knock variety that my heart has not readily forgotten.
Chinglican is probably right in his response to my prior post; more or less, he took the conversation in the direction I alluded to and then left open when I said that these matters require a broader discussion of ends and means. And much of what he laid out is probably a good reason for doing academics. As he said of my research, it is most certainly notapolitical. And probably being prophetic and caring about the common good is a good idea. Indeed, had I been pressed, this probably would have been something of the direction I might have taken the conversation myself, and probably the way that many Christians would take the conversation. So why didn’t I do that in the first place?
To tell the truth, it is because I have to a certain degree become allergic to words and phrases like “the common good” and “prophetic critique.” What is meant at the root of them is surely important. But nowadays it seems like everyone and their dog is making “prophetic critiques” right, left, and centre; and I often feel that some who talk about the “common good” really mean something else, perhaps something more common than good. Put another way, Chinglican situates the university as a body independent of various institutions that can potentially abuse power, and therefore as a legitimate critic. The problem I have though is conceiving of a university context that is in fact independent; it is not after all as if the university structure hovers above the socioeconomic and religious reality like some worldly version of the church triumphant (as understood by Protestants), nor are those who run the university beyond the temptation of twisting power manipulatively. Universities may be watchmen, but who watches the watchmen?
So how would I put the matter differently? First off, I would say that, if we are using terms like “prophetic” and “common good,” the task for Christians (and any other well meaning people for that matter) is not simply to put them out there as justifications for the academy, but rather to live in such a way that they emerge from their quotation marks – that is, such that they actually become plausible options for believing in. Yes, it is true that my generation is cynical – indeed, very cynical – but I think it is a mistake to simply blame this on a fully deliberate choice or a pervasive nihilism. These things may indeed be there, but at the very bottom of cynicism is generally an experience of deep betrayal – indeed, I would suggest that, far from being the least hopeful of people, those who are cynical about things embody a very deep hope that has been crushed. Conversely, pragmatists are not those who are particularly optimistic about the world, but rather those not optimistic enough – they cannot be bothered to take a moment and mourn for what might have been. To talk plausibly about the “common good” and “prophetic critique” we will, I think, need to live in such a way that even the most cynical – to the degree that this cynicism is symptomatic and not chosen – can begin to believe that these words might have meaning.
Secondly, I suppose I would make a distinction between my vocation as an academic and what we might call the bodied effects of this – i. e. the job I have etc. A helpful way of looking at it perhaps is what C. S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength describes as the struggle between Logres and Britain that goes on throughout society. Here, we have not so much an independent body evaluating the behavior of other parts of society as much as we have a loose collective of people working – certainly for the common good – but in a very bodied, disparate, cross vocational, and often frustrating way. Indeed, in this book, the real prophetic critique and interest in the common good comes out of Logres, but the company most likely to use terms like these (and speak of independent knowledge) are their opponents – indeed, they have managed to produce a head independent of a body and other earthly props. This distinction allows me to both agree with Chinglican and what I said prior – I am not wedded to the academy, per se – but it may be the arena where I enact the thing that is in fact undeniably part of who I am, my vocation. The company of Logres exists regardless of where each member works.
So, given my pessimism about these words and phrases, what would I talk about instead of prophetic critique and the common good? I would talk about prophetic awkwardness and the common riddle. With regard to the former, it seems to me that the two greatest instances of what we might call “the prophetic voice” – Christ and Socrates – hardly garnered the kind of favor and “cool points” we think of when we think of radical and prophetic people. When you encounter a prophet, he or she may not make you feel like an oh-so-good-radical doing oh-so-good things for an oh-so-messed up world. Rather, encountering a prophet might make you distinctly uncomfortable. It may even make you feel murderous.
And what I mean by “the common riddle” is something like what Augustine means when he talks about the restlessness in our hearts. There is a tendency for people to approach the so-called common good in the so-called common square with ready-made solutions – we have seen the common problem and we have the common fix. But I would suggest that if we do not have some degree of uncertainty or tentativeness in our minds regarding this fix, it is probably in fact not one – it is rather a way of papering over problems we don’t want to see. What Augustine knew is that our hearts our restless until they find rest in God. And this means that restlessness and problems, rather than something to be covered over, are something to be pursued. I worry that too many people, in pursuit of the so-called common good, sacrifice common mystery, which is in fact this restlessness. And the irony of course is that in fact the only way to get a truly common good – a good for both city of God and city of man – is by following this restlessness to its proper end.
In prior posts, I have raised the issue of what I termed “the scandal of the Evangelical imagination,” and have drawn attention to one of the figures who is helping to redress this, poet/priest/singer/songwriter/scholar etc Malcolm Guite. For Christmas, I received a copy of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, and had all kinds of good intentions of finishing the book and then reviewing it on this blog. My current problem is that I am only a third or so through the book, and already have probably enough inspiration to fill a number of blog posts, so I have decided to post my review of the book in a few parts. Here begins part I:
There is a point where one just can’t take it anymore. By “it” I mean the vague, fuzzy, warm sentimental idealism that one often encounters in my profession, the study of English literature – although to be fair it is more often the rhetors rather than the scholars who play it up. Poetry is inspirational!!!; isn’t creativity wonderful?; imagination is the key to [insert goal here]! And when one encounters this one too many times, one finally snaps. Isn’t imagination wonderful? No, but I’ll say yes if it makes people like you go away. Isn’t freedom to be creative great? No, because what you mean by freedom has I think very little to do with being creative. Doesn’t poetry just open your eyes to the wonder of the world? Yes, yes it does, and also the tragedy, horror and misery of it too. Before one knows it, one feels deep kinship with Swift, seeks solace in Ecclesiastes, and knows what Flannery O’Conner meant when, upon being asked if universities don’t stifle aspiring writers, replied that they rather don’t stifle enough of them.
I include this as prefatory material because it will help give some measure of what exactly I mean when I say that Malcolm Guite’s book is helping to revive in me some understanding of wonder – of terms such as creativity, imagination – that were long ago shattered by encounters with vapours disguised as these things. The main title of the book covers three topics – faith, hope, and poetry – and while I’m good with faith, and good with poetry, hope, as some of you will know, is for me one of the hardest sayings of the gospel. Of course, the hardness of a thing should never keep us from enacting it in faith, but I will say that Guite’s remarkable book is opening my eyes a little to the thing I am trying to faithfully enact. It takes something special to be hopeful without allowing hope to become the kind of optimism that papers over things, and it also takes daring because being hope means imagining a vision beyond the alleged data – a vision that the reality police often do not like. In any case, Guite models both, and if I am a poor student, I am at least a willing student.
So, what is so special about this book? First off, I must say that not everyone picking it up should expect the same experience I have had. It will, for instance, be particularly annoying to those who do not believe in an ongoing conversation of great ideas from the beginning of writing till now. It will be annoying to those who believe that scholars shouldn’t make overarching claims about literary history, and should stick to their own little fields and let others stick to theirs – scholars such as I am in my worse moments. In fact, in approaching the poems he considers from both an academic and creative writing perspective, Guite takes the risk of being charged by one side of sacrificing scholarly nicety for creativity, and on the other side of dredging up old boring poetry that has nothing to say to the modern creative writer.
What such critics might find most annoying, though, is what I find most attractive. In the hands of Guite, old poetry is revivified such that it can speak into the milieux of contemporary poetry, theology, theory, and politics. However, this is not an only alleged dialogue where old works simply become puppetry to say what modern people want them to say – Guite lets the alterity of the poetry push back. The results of this are messy; the book is neither a neat scholarly work in the traditional sense, nor simply a modern “how-to” book for creative writers. Rather, what I sense most behind the book is ongoing dialogue – Guite wrestling with the poems he encounters in an arena where the strictest rules apply and the judge is Christ – no easy outs or deceptive maneuvers here. In certain ways it reminds me of what might have happened had Boethius encountered not Philosophy but the best of the muses rather than the harlots he dismisses at the beginning of the Consolatio.
I will be saying more, but for the current post I will focus on one particular section that impressed me: Guite’s treatment of Old English poetry. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I will admit that one of the most attractive features of this book even before I bought it was its inclusion of a chapter on “The Dream of the Rood.” Very often even Christians talking about faith and imagination are under the impression that nothing much happened before the Romantic period of literature, which has as much as anything else to do with the fact that such Christians who want to engage imagination are often Evangelicals, and Evangelicalism is birthed from the same historical moment as Romanticism – how can they remember what happened before they were born? In any case, as a scholar of medieval and early modern literature, I am often frustrated by those who ignore these literatures when they look to define what creativity and imagination are, and part of the attraction of Guite’s book was the front and centre inclusion of “The Dream of the Rood” – an inclusion no doubt inspired in part by his friend, Seamus Heaney.
Beyond its inclusion, however, the real test for me was whether he in fact “got” the poem – not that I am of course the ultimate judge of this, but as an Old English scholar I am qualified to gauge this chapter in a way that I am probably not for any of the other chapters, with perhaps the exception of the one on John Donne, which I have not yet read. In any case, I was well aware that it would be very easy for a theologian to get his hands on a translation and use the poem as a superficial prop for a more broad theological claim. But this is not what Guite does. To his credit, he includes passages from the original Old English, and discusses minute nuances and shades of words. Of course, not every Old English scholar will agree with his interpretation (if they did, it would have to be a bland interpretation indeed), but I was personally intrigued by what he does with the poem, particularly with relation to the much vexed issue of Christianity and paganism in Old English literature. Though the best critics are careful to hedge their claims and carefully navigate the polyphony of the Old English texts, critics have in the past often found themselves divided into two camps: the exegetically oriented critics situating the literature with regard to the Christianity that informed the context in which the manuscripts were preserved; and oral-formulaic critics more interested in the poetry’s alleged sedimentary paganism preserved from the pre-Christian times when the poetry was passed down orally.
In any case, Guite reads the poem against the backdrop of C. S. Lewis’s idea that pagan myths, rather than mere falsehoods to be utterly destroyed, could gesture, powerfully yet also imperfectly, toward the truth of Christianity. Guite’s articulation of this set something off in my head, and I realized that this is the way I (likewise influenced by this idea in Lewis) tend implicitly to read Old English poetry – though an exegetically inclined critic, I knew, thanks to Lewis, that the inclusion of a pagan idea in a poem must not always be damnable syncretism or subversive revolt, but could in fact be the baptism of that idea, wherein that idea found its perfection in Christianity. Of course, in reality, this is neither Lewis’s nor Guite’s idea but a very longstanding one in Christian tradition. Guite’s relation of Lewis’s conversion, though, via the circuitous but probably also necessary avenue of Norse myth, is helpful in communicating the “The Dream of the Rood” to modern Christians, who can see that the “tree” of the cross is not only a simultaneous appeal to and displacement of Yggdrasil in Old Norse myth, but is also an appeal to and displacement of the enduring value conveyed in the myth and appreciated by (comparatively) modern people such as Lewis.
Of course, what Guite is saying here – that there is something in Old English alliterative verse that modern poets can learn from and use – is not an altogether new idea, given poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and Earle Birney, as well as the poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien’s deeply Anglo-Saxon imagination. Moreover, there are, I imagine and hope, more than a few lovers or scholars of Old English verse who have tried their hand at it and found the results not entirely unpleasing and anachronistic. Where Guite’s genius lies, though, is in explicitly articulating beyond modern aesthetics why not only poets, but in fact theologians, Christians, and other moderns lamenting the modern/postmodern crisis in fact need to be revivified by engagement with poems like “The Dream of the Rood.”
In my second last post, I talked about the problem of imagination in Evangelical circles; in this post I want to talk about someone who is doing something to redress it, a modern English poet, priest, and scholar by the name of Malcolm Guite. Guite was brought to my attention about a month ago at a concert by Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell. At some point after the concert, I looked him up, and was duly impressed with what I found. He dares to write sonnets in the 21st Century. He has written a book on theology and imagination (which I need to order), and includes a discussion of Old English poetry. His work that I have thus far become most familiar with is his CD, “The Green Man.”
This CD has a lot of good things going for it, both from a literary and theological point of view. The title track is – at least I would argue – an oblique reference to Gawain’s green night interpreted as a synthesis of Christ and the personified fertility of nature (a little like Chesterton’s Thursday). Like Gawain’s Green Knight, this “green man” cannot be beaten no matter how careless his human foes are; the chorus states “If you cut me down, I’ll spring back green again.”
Guite’s reference to the green knight is typical of the rest of the album. He inhabits Biblical and literary phrases but puts his own slight enough twist on them to ensure they don’t become preachy or cliched. Though he lacks the cultural and politico-religious fabric from which poets such as Donne and Herbert wove their work, he nonetheless attempts to follow in their footsteps. “New TV” is a brilliant satire of modern society (no matter where you plug it in, you won’t get any love from your new TV), while “Our Lady of the Highway” takes Marian devotion to Highway 61 – and includes a good chunk of quotation from the Magnificat. “Open Door” is reminiscent of something Rich Mullins might have written, an infinite riff on the Biblical image of Christ as the door to heaven. “Angels Unawares” discovers grace in the midst of humble earthy romance, and “Texas Farewell” includes some treats for C. S. Lewis fans (I’ll let you discover those for yourself).
It is encouraging to me that people such as Malcolm Guite manage to exist somehow in the modern world; it is encouraging to see someone daring to imagine things outside of both secular narrowness and its cloned Evangelical narrowness so often found in Christian singer/songwriters. It is encouraging to find someone who measures time by liturgical seasons and sings about nature, whiskey, and God like some kind of Johnny Cash turned celtic. And it is in the hope of encouraging others that I share his website.
Thanksgiving is not part of the liturgical calendar, but giving thanks is certainly part of Christianity, and so I think it is not unfitting to put up some thoughts concerning it here (Note for my American friends: it is Thanksgiving in Canada). There are any number of texts I could have chosen for this, whether Biblical or extra-Biblical; I have chosen two, one that helps me convey my discomfort with Thanksgiving as a holiday, and one that I find challenging lest I should let myself off too easily.
The first is a familiar enough passage from Luke 18, which I quote from Douay-Rheims because I am a quirky medievalist and because I like underdog translations:
9 And to some who trusted in themselves as just, and despised others, he spoke also this parable: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. 12 I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O god, be merciful to me a sinner.14 I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather that the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
Only one of these men give thanks to God, and the reason I am often skeptical about the amount of thanks actually given at Thanksgiving is because much of what I hear sounds a lot like the thanks of the Pharisee here. We express our thanks, yes, but it is a mediocre comfortable middle-class kind of thanks, designed more to remind ourselves that we are not like those (insert pejorative word) over there. We are not radically thankful in the most literal sense, by which I mean thankful not only for the very root of our physical being but also for the root of Jesse that is the root of our salvation.
But giving hypocritical thanks is one thing, and grumbling is another, though it is equally serious. Over and over again, Christians conceive of themselves as the people of Israel, wandering through the desert and being faced with the temptation of hardening their hearts. We sing of this when we sing Psalm 95, the Venite, as part of our liturgical worship. The book of Hebrews cautions us not to let our hearts grow hard as did those of God’s people in the desert. The tie-in to thankfulness here is that by and large what hardens the hearts of the Israelites in the desert is grumbling, against God, against God’s ordering of the world, and against the leaders he has chosen. From firsthand experience, I can say that those like me who are very uncomfortable with the “Pharisee’s prayer” kind of thanks often fall heedlessly into a state of grumbling which, as the aforementioned passages show, is a serious spiritual malady indeed.
But what can we do? How can we open our eyes to God’s miracles when we are the sort of people who, like C. S. Lewis’s Orual, insist on grumbling against a world we refuse to really see? The full answer is of course far more complex than I am going to deal with here, but I would like to share something that I think helps me as I practice it.
When praying liturgy, everyone has a particular phrase that catches in their throat – something that convicts them, something that seems unfair to them, or something that seems untrue – it is exactly what we might expect when sinners encounter the offense of the Gospel, and it is I imagine only Saints in their perfection who can pray thus without choking on a word or two; they no longer need such purgatorial effects in their liturgy. I suppose for many modern people the problem comes when sin is mentioned, or Christian exclusivity, or historical claims of the Gospels etc. These I am fine with, but what always catches for me is the phrase in the Book of Common Prayer’s “General Thanksgiving”: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.” It is hard to say this when one suffers from ongoing depression and OCD. It is even harder to say this when one has watched all kinds of tragedies – from depression, to fatal car accidents, to suicide – ravage the people you love. And when I think that mine is the experienced pain of only one person out of many who now live and have lived, it becomes impossible to say this – or nearly impossible, but for one thing.
This one thing begins with another word of Thanksgiving. The scripture is read, and the reader concludes: “This is the word of the Lord” – we respond with, “Thanks be to God.” The thanks here is thanks for the word of God in which the Word of God, Christ, is hidden. And in this word, we are taught to have faith in God and enact thanks even when we discover that our creation, preservation, and blessing might lead us and those we love to a cross. We can give thanks, not because the crosses we see are beautiful, but because the resurrection we expect afterward is good, even if we don’t always see it now. For some, faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient to move mountains; thank God it is also sufficient to move the hardness of grumbling hearts.
The other evening, I watched for perhaps the third or fourth time Shadowlands, the film about how C. S. Lewis fell in love with his wife, Joy, and then watched her die of cancer. Sometimes, I feel like the film caricatures Lewis’s pre-love intellectualism too much, but then perhaps I am sensitive because I am prone to similar intellectualism. In the main, though, the film is a fairly good comparison of the differing approaches to grief and loss represented in Lewis’s Problem of Pain and his later A Grief Observed. In any case, it got me thinking about death and why philosophical and spiritual responses seem so flat in the moment when we most need them, when we are confronted with the deaths of those close to us. There are some particularly forceful moments in the film where well meaning Christians attempt to comfort Lewis with hollow sounding “answers,” and he rightly rebuffs them; I say rightly because having lost two friends to death, one a number of years ago in my undergrad, and another a year and a half ago, I know that such answers are offensive and irresponsible; personally, I prefer to mourn for my dead friends rather than burying them in obscenely simplistic platitudes.
In any case, I started to wonder why exactly such facile answers are so problematic, and realized that it is really because there is not a thing out there called “death”; rather, what we mean when we talk about death is the loss of someone – and no two people who die are the same. A general answer can’t address the particulars of the friends I have lost; when I mourn the death of my friends, I am not mourning an event, but the loss of someone, with particular traits, habits, quirks and virtues. There is no one in the world who can or should replace that person. And that loss is something we will carry around always inside ourselves this side of heaven.
I think this is maybe why God is wise in not answering the so-called problem of evil in the Bible, or at least not answering it in the way Leibniz would have liked. The book of Job of course would have been an ideal place to do this, but this is not what God does when he shows up at the end of the book. Neither Job nor God denigrate with a philosophical proposition the depth of things that are lost in the suffering of persons in the world; people like Job’s children are not replicable, and cannot be doubled or replaced like so many sheep or cattle, as God sensitively recognizes at the end of the book in his restoration of Job. Only resurrection can answer this, which is part of why Job has traditionally been taken as one of the first OT figures to prophesy NT resurrection.
And this too is, I think, why the New Testament likewise sidesteps the problem of evil. Of course it gives the same general answer as the Old Testament in terms of causality, that death and evil came about through sin. But particular instances go unanswered. Jesus was asked why people perished when a tower fell on them, and he simply implied that they were no worse sinners than anyone else, and noted elliptically that everyone else would perish as well.
Of course, this is all to the good because it seems to me that, when we look for a God who will answer the problem of evil in philosophically or spiritually trite ways, we are really looking for a figure like the military Messiah the Jewish people had come to expect. We want someone to deal with evil, death and suffering so we can go on living the way we want without being bothered. The problem, of course, is that the way we want to live when we turn to such trite answers is one which steamrolls any hiccups in our well arranged life, including those persons who remind us of such hiccups. God will not philosophically justify his ways to us when he knows that we will take such a justification and use it to justify our own negligence; if God permits evil and suffering to simply happen and sits back letting things run their course, we will be inclined to imitate him, perhaps even eagerly – it sounds like a good capitalist proposition. Such a God was of course required to legitimate the brutality of a post-Enlightenment world, but He is not the Christian God. The Christian God gives us Himself, again, and again, and again.
To return to the beginning of the post, this is why I think Christianity offers one of the best responses to the individualities of the people we lose. God cares too much about his world to give a general response to death; he sees the sparrow fall, and is a God of particulars, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of my friends A and M who are now with Him. No account of death and suffering can be sufficient that does not include all the tiniest details of the things that have been lost. God respects us and loves us enough to withhold from us every answer that would let us get away with anything less than loving his creation in its entirety. His silence is not one of embarrassment or stupidity, but rather that deep, pregnant silence reserved for things too awesome and complex to grasp with human language. For us, His own living Word beyond all words – Christ in us, the hope of glory – will have to be enough.
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.