A version of this article was recently presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Ciceronian Society.
As with most humanistic fields of inquiry and disciplines in our time, it is much easier to point at the institutional location of Religion and Literature than it is to offer premises that give it intellectual coherence. The copula by which the field declares itself—Religion and Literature—attests to this difficulty, suggesting not a fixed field or disciplinary method, but a cross-street where two intellectual vehicles meet—or even uncomfortably collide. This seems an accurate and candid way of describing the subject, because it would seem that, from the beginning, the subject of Religion and Literature has of necessity wobbled, or even mutated, revealing itself at any given moment to be doing not just one thing, but some thing and also something else. One studies a work of literature, or perhaps the literary, but with an eye to something particular called “religion.” Described so vaguely, Religion and Literature sounds just like all the other various specialties that have emerged under the aegis of Literature departments during the last century—as one more, in other words, elastic category whose purpose is to admit as much as possible, as freely as possible: a category intrinsically interdisciplinary precisely because it refuses the assurance of any particular discipline or method. If such capaciousness bespeaks an attractive freedom, however, we might profit from discerning what the ground of that attraction exactly is. Moreover, if there is some solid subject delimiting this evident capacity, we might equally profit from finding words for what Religion and Literature tends to exclude or even conceal.
Wesley A. Kort, in an essay describing the recent institutional decline of Religion and Literature, observed that the earliest graduate programs in the field were “sponsored by a liberal and, at times, even an antitraditional and antiecclesiastical theological and religious agenda.”1 The Romantic and liberal tendency increasingly to view the religious as a kind of emotional and literary experience, and literature in general as a variety of scripture, made the location of Religion and Literature seem an ideal place to read literature without treating it merely, or in a rigorously secular sense, as fiction, and to think of something called “religion” without assenting to something with so established and definite a starting and end point as systematic Theology. Such an origin would seem to involve Religion and Literature in a paradox. It suggests that the literary in some general and intrinsic way coruscates with the divine, and therefore that literature understood in isolation from the copula and Religion remains a phenomenon partially or mis-understood. On the other hand, it intimates that the conjoining of Religion to Literature forestalls any need to enter into the discipline of Theology. The critical act becomes one where literature is thought about as, in a sense, more than itself, while Religion is rendered less than itself, at least in the sense of becoming less precise or systematic as to what it bears reference. My description, here, gets at a real intellectual place—but it is like that of a threshold between two rooms that, nonetheless, refuses their communication. It clears space for a wide variety of scholarly endeavors, but it risks doing so by foreclosing the one endeavor that would make all the others to cohere under more than a generalized, institutional rubric. I shall argue, then, that Religion and Literature has, as a matter of historical practice, ensconced itself in the threshold of the literary and the religious, but that a richer and more satisfactory vision of the field would be one that envisioned Literature as always standing somewhere between Religion and Theology. To make such a claim, I shall have to indicate what we might mean by the literary, by the religious, and by the theological.
In John Henry Newman’s lecture on “English Catholic Literature” (1854-8), he outlines the terrain covered by Literature as a subject of study on his way to explaining what it would mean for a modern Catholic university to promote the “formation of a Catholic Literature in the English language.”2 He does not propose that the study of literature at such an institution would consist primarily of the reading of theological, devotional, or apologetic texts (222-3). Nor does he intend that the literature used in the teaching of the various natural sciences would somehow be different, or used differently, in a Catholic institution. Rather, having argued for the complete circle of knowledge, in which Theology holds a central and inextricable position, in his lectures entitled, The Idea of a University (1852), Newman felt comfortable to delineate Literature as “Thought, conveyed under the forms of some particular language . . . as an historical and national fact” (229). As that last word—“fact”—suggests, Newman conceives of literary study primarily as historical, but as also bearing upon the present. Literature is divided naturally along national and historical lines, he contends; to conceive it otherwise is to build up a kind of fantasy rather than to study a reality (232). And a given national literature comprises “the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, and clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God’s intellectual creation” (237). We look at literature as a particular kind of record of human experience, and so would aim amiss if we studied only the parts of that record which accorded sweetly with our present standards of moral and divine truth (238). Shakespeare offends, on occasion, against both, but even so we cannot ignore the fact of his achievement. The literary fact, the record of the past, has at least two implications for the present, however. This record primarily exemplifies the powers and development of a given language in expression, style, vocabulary, and flexibility (240), and so it makes possible the use of that language in the present. But, because the past is, if nothing else, already determined, that record has the effect of delimiting the direction and possibility of literary development in the present and future (243). The classical moment in the development of a literature is thus a fixed historical period that can neither be undone nor reopened, and in whose aftermath we live no matter how repugnant we may find it. It was little short of a calamity, to Newman, that Milton, a Protestant and an anti-Catholic, should be a Classic of the English language (234). But so he was, and so the present position of Catholics in England would always lie in his shadow.
On the surface, there is something peculiar to Newman’s argument; he confesses the desirability of a modern Catholic literature in English even as his account of the subject of literature qua literature refuses to explain that desirability. Is it really scandalous that a modern Catholic might unconsciously echo a line from Paradise Lost? Was the great ambitious of his University to produce an author with a Catholic sensibility who should inform an already highly developed language? Given his emergence as a theologian in the highly-literary Oxford Movement, where the poetry of Wordsworth and the prose of Coleridge rivaled the writings of the Church Fathers in influence, Newman seems to be concealing the function of the literary rather than exhausting it.3 Much of this can be explained by Newman’s location of literature as one subject within a complete education whose highest subject remains theology. And so, three ideas emerge here that I should like to pursue in different permutations than those Newman offers: first, literature consists to some degree in a kind of historical study; second, it stands in some kind of relation to theology that allows it to be, among other things, something other than theology; and, third, that seated at the heart of this subject is some kind of longing that seeks expression and an answer.
These three ideas recur in what I take to be a typical moment in the institutional life of Religion and Literature. An undergraduate student approaches a literature professor for direction on a senior thesis. When asked about his interests, the student confesses being primarily drawn to modern literature, and to be particularly interested in writing on the work of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He does not know what he would say about them, only that he likes them better than the authors he has generally read in his literature courses. The professor detects that the student is more comfortable with the novel form, but that the underlying unity at which the student hints is the authors’ Christianity or Catholicism. He therefore assigns the student a topic that invites inquiry about some historical aspect of the writers’ works—perhaps, for instance, the significance of place names in Eliot, or the representation of Southern evangelical women in O’Connor. In doing so, the professor seems to have found a prudent answer to the request. The student’s evident desire to study these authors pertains to their identity as writers who wrote sometimes about Christianity, but always from some kind of Christian perspective. Stimulated though that desire is by Christianity, it does not seem resolved into some definite theological interest. And, finally, the professor’s recommended subject for research is scripted on a historical and political line, so that whatever the student writes, if done well, will prove intelligible and methodologically “relevant” to a broad audience of literary scholars, including those serving on admissions committees for graduate school.
The resultant thesis would prove, most likely, to be a novice but model essay for much of what constitutes the field of Religion and Literature in our day. It would certainly be historically grounded. That is, if it speaks of Christianity, it does so because the lives and the works of the authors immediately occasion such discussion. Any references to the Incarnation or to the supernatural in it would derive from either the plot of a Greene novel or a quotation from the English mystics in a line of Eliot. In this respect, the thesis falls under the category of Religion and Literature insofar as it refers to a specific corpus of subject matter, just as a thesis in Medicine and Literature might rake over references to maternity and birth in the Nineteenth-Century novel. Certain features plucked from the vast literary record of the past are brushed together and taxonymized as a field of scholarship.
But the impetus for this study began not in a disinterested recognition of the determined lineaments of the past. It began in the desire of the student to encounter something vaguely felt as “religious,” which was in turn answered by this novel or that poem rather than another. Regardless of what one thinks of the theorizing of literature as a kind of secular scripture—or even as a truly religious scripture—, in the Nineteenth Century, it is clear that one may, and indeed many people do, approach literature out of some kind of religious longing that few other parts of modern life requite. It is no less clear that this is the case because so much literature offers itself as the site of a religious longing as well. Religion and Literature may justify its institutional existence as a sub-field in Literature departments (or of the Modern Language Association) through its ability to demonstrate the objective and historical character of its researches—by its attending, again, to a certain kind of content. But Kort’s comments on the theologically liberal—or, what I shall call, theologically modernist,—origins of Religion and Literature testify to its formal or disciplinary character as one intended to address a vague but profound longing in persons, which may be called “religious,” by contemplating and accounting for the evident expression of longing in some, or perhaps even all, literary works.
One classic example of this union of institutional content and formal character working in harmony we may find in the work of Nathan A. Scott, Jr. In his series of lectures, The Wild Prayer of Longing, he begins by providing an historical account of the decline of the figural imagination in western thought, drawing closely upon the accounts of figura given in Erich Auerbach’s writings.4 Scott argues that the West had once possessed a cultural imagination that viewed or imbued all reality with intelligible, signifying value. The real was polysemantic, with layer upon layer of meaning beyond the literal “thingness” of material objects, because it had been created by God’s intellect and expressed that intellect (5). All things, high and low, past, present, and future (9), were muddled with meaning and provided the world with an ontological richness dependent in turn upon a supernatural reality. But this significance-through-dependence, Scott and Auerbach contend, was destined to be its own undoing. As Dante’s Commedia demonstrates, persons became interesting or meaningful in their own right, independent of their signifying dependence on the divine or a unifying metaphysical and moral order (12). Further, Scott insists, Christianity’s “de-divinization” of the world, by which he intends the relocation of the divine in the One God from its previous appearance “everywhere” in pagan and animistic traditions, made possible a reduction in the meaningfulness of things in reality, until all that was left of them was, again, their literal “thingness,” their immanent, perhaps very interesting, material presence.
This loss in imagination does not entail the loss of longing for a world that gives itself meaningfully to the human mind, however. Acknowledging the death of “supernatural illusions,” Scott celebrates the rebirth in modern artworks, especially the theater, of “savage thought” (27). Borrowing this term from the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Scott intends those artistic efforts to rekindle a sense of the human person as being a participant in the pageant of existence.5 Reality should not be understood as the conscious subject, the human person, moving through an inert and lonely universe of things. Rather, it is participatory, or, as his second chapter argues, “sacramental.” Scott’s project becomes to show that the human person can find and relish in the real the “speech of God” (48), something “numinous,” indeed a sacrament, which he defines, following the Anglican Church, as the outward expression of an inward grace (49). This “sacramental principle” proposes that “certain objects or actions or words or places belonging to the ordinary spheres of life may convey to us a unique illumination of the whole mystery of our existence” (49). We can live this ontological richness once more by giving over the supernatural illusions of belief in an actual God—a belief, Scott contends, that we are no longer capable of holding. This is no mere fiction, or imaginative projection. Rather, it is a relocation of questions that used to be asked in terms of God into a “new system of ideas whereby this profoundest concern of the human spirit can be articulated in ways that do not violate the established grammar of the modern intelligence” (56). The prophet of relocation is Martin Heidegger (60), whose achievement is to speak in terms of Being and the gift of existence into which the human person is thrown (Dasein). In his last chapter, Scott examines the poetry of Theodore Roethke, to show how it expresses this sacramental encounter with the concrete gift of being without falling prey to supernatural illusion.
Scott’s account of the modern condition and the sacramental is familiar enough not to require further comment. I would note rather the three elements in his book that correspond to those I mentioned in regard to Newman and the hypothetical undergraduate. The fundament of his argument is history. His book’s contents, like its title (quoting from Auden), testify to a wild prayer of longing, an inextinguishable desire, on the part of the human person that is in some sense “religious” and which finds expression in art and literature. And this religious desire as expressed in literature resolves itself in terms outside of theology proper. In Scott’s case, the longing in the person is for Being, as Heidegger circumnavigates it. As an account of art and literature, Scott’s seems largely convincing. Even a materialist such as Theodor W. Adorno accounted for art in terms of suffering, which is but the dark undertone of longing’s howl.
Scott’s invocation of Heidegger saves him from fully confronting the nature of longing in the person and in literature, however. As Scott would no doubt confess, his argument falls neatly into the kind of thinking that Karl Barth diagnosed in Ludwig Feuerbach as the reduction of theology to anthropology.6 If God is only mankind’s longing to realize his own perfection, then every statement that is grammatically about God will be in reality an anthropological premise. By speaking of Dasein, Scott can address only the experience of the person who confronts, rather than what is confronted. He can speak of longing cut partly free of its object. I would argue that Religion and Literature as a field tends to linger in this anthropological zone, and that this is an approach that Newman’s account of literature suggests is normally appropriate to its subject.
But something also is being reduced and therefore concealed. And so here, in addition to referring to Feuerbach, I would draw on Pius X’s encyclical condemning theological modernism, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). There, Pius speaks of modernists as reducing all human knowledge to the phenomenal; the only kinds of knowledge available to the person are scientific and historical, by which Pius intends “the visible world” and interior “consciousness” (7). The world outside the human person can tell us nothing of the divine, and therefore the only material for study pertaining to God must be “looked for in man; and since religion is a form of life, the explanation must certainly be found in the life of man . . . Therefore, as God is the object of religion, we must conclude that faith, which is the basis and foundation of all religion, must consist in a certain interior sense, originating in a need of the divine” (7). All this Pius condemns as immanentism; it advocates a kind of theology that is no longer theology, for it does not look to the end, as in the final cause, of religion, or such knowledge as we can have of it formulated in doctrine. It rather restricts inquiry, not necessarily to the side of the subject, but certainly to the side of immanence.
Much of the time, the side of immanence is where the study of literature belongs. For it is the manifestation of a certain kind of human experience that can be accounted for in terms of historical realities and human intellect and action. Following Scott, I would argue that Religion and Literature may often be merely that branch of literary scholarship where the seat of human longing is engaged and explored most profoundly. One may define religion, as modern westerners usually do, as a system of the order and meaning of things, a “philosophy of life,” or a peculiar species of culture. Or one may follow Thomas Aquinas, and define it as a moral virtue, pertaining to the cardinal virtue of justice, of giving just that worship (which is endless) that is due to God.7 Either way, religion itself stands on the side of immanence.
But worship in religion, and longing in literature, finds its object or, if you prefer, its answering fullness in a reality that, in one respect, stands in no relation whatever to the immanent. And here is where the study of literature can find a particular excellence that I would describe—in converse to Religion and Literature—as Theology and Literature. In such inquiry, we would explore the form literature gives to longing not in terms of its internal subject, but in terms of its real finality. Newman’s historical vision of the study of literature pertained to how the language of the past informed the speaking selves of the present. But surely it is not over-reaching to conceive of a kind of literary study whose object would not be to inform us exclusively about human experience, but about the end of that longing on the far—indeed transcendental—side toward which it raises up its hands. Scott’s Heideggerian account of Being hints at this already, of course. It demands that Being answer the human existence it has given with the further gift of “presence,” even as it seeks to preclude our giving a proper name to the giver. But a thoroughgoing exploration in Theology and Literature would trace the contours of the literary to see what it reveals not about us but about the reality that puts things into being in the first place, “to which everyone gives the name of God.”8
The realized instances of such scholarship are many, but I would offer as exemplary in the best sense those monographs on various lay and ecclesiastical writers Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote to compose the second and third volumes of his Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics.9 In such studies, we see literature fulfilling the traditional claims made for it as sublime in the classical sense, or, in modern terminology, as a concrete universal.10 It shuttles back and forth between the immanence of concrete realities and the transcendental properties of being—the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—which serve at once as the dimensions in which we know anything and the foremost of those names, as Denys the Aeropagite claims, by which we address God.11 Literary scholarship thus poised between Religion and Theology loses none of its scholarly rigor or its historical location, but opens up the possibility at least of speaking of realities more enduring than, as Newman put it, “the plungings and the snortings” that are the wild prayers of longing found in our literature, and yet which are the completion and final meaning of those things. Moreover, far from delineating a narrow field of scholarship, such an account of Theology and Literature suggests not a mere cross-street but the site proper for our most profound sort of inquiry.
1. Kort, Wesley A. “What and Where Is ‘Religion and Literature’ Now?” Theology Today 62 (2005): 400-6.
2. Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 221.
3. See Bernadette Waterman Ward’s World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 76-99.
4. Scott, Jr., Nathan A. The Wild Prayer of Longing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971). Cf., Auerbach, Erich, Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Meridian Books, 1959); Dante: Poet of the Secular World (Trans. Ralph Manheim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961); (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).
5. Scott writes, “Almost everywhere, one feels, the new avant-garde—in literature, in theatre, in painting, in music, in politics—is searching for ways of reconceiving the human universe as a world which offers the promise and possibility of life under the law of participation” (31).
6. Barth, Karl. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Wm. b. Eerdmans, 2002), 522.
7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 80.
8. Summa Theologica I, 2, 3.
9. Balathasar, Hans Urs von, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984-1986) Vols. 2 and 3.
10. For a recent consideration of the classical sublime, see William Edinger, “Yvor Winters and Generality: A Classical/Neoclassical Perspective,” Literary Imagination 10.1: 102-22. For the most thorough account of literature as a concrete universal, see W.K. Wimsatt, “The Concrete Universal” in The Verbal Icon. New York: The Noonday Press, 1958.
11. The inevitable reference point for this claim is to be found in Plato, where the transcendentals are the highest realities, but where concrete or sensible realities are real signs signifying those realities—and thus are not in any determinate way cut off from the transcendentals, but rather participate in them.