What hath poetry to do with the Church?

Here are some favorite passages that answer this question.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
—Psalm 96:9

In the domain of perceptible images, the artist keeps an eye constantly on the original and never allows himself to be sidetracked or to have his attention divided by any other visible object. If he does this, then one may presume to say that whatever the object he wishes to depict will, so to speak, produce a second one, so that one entity can be taken for the other, though in essence they are actually different. It is thus with those artists who love beauty in the mind. They make an image of it within their minds. The concentration and the persistence of their contemplation of this fragrant, secret beauty enables them to produce an exact likeness of God. And so these divine artists never cease to shape the power of their minds along the lines of a loveliness which is conceptual, transcendent, and fragrant, and if they practice the virtues called for by imitation of God it is not “to be seen by men,” as scripture puts it. Rather, they sacredly behold those infinitely sacred things of the Church disguised in the [rite of the] ointment, as in an image. That is why they too sacredly disguise whatever is sacred and virtuously godlike in their mind, imitating and depicting God. They gaze solely on conceptual originals. Not only do they not look at dissimilar things, but they refuse to be dragged down toward the sight of them. And as one would expect of such people, they yearn only for what is truly beautiful and right and not for empty appearances. They do not gaze after that glory so stupidly praised by the mob. Imitating God, as they do, they can tell the difference between real beauty and real evil. They are truly divine images of that infinitely divine fragrance. Because this is the truly fragrant, they have no time to return to the counterfeits which beguile the mob, and it truly impresses only those souls which are true images of itself.

—Dionysius the Areopagite

The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than of saints, during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the chief glories of poetry, if the chief glories of holiness she has preserved for her own. The palm and the laurel, Dominic and Dante, sanctity and song, grew together in her soil: she has retained the palm, but forgone the laurel. And for this if song is itself responsible, we Catholics are not irresponsible. Poetry in its widest sense and when not professedly irreligious, has been too much and too long among many Catholics either misprized or distrusted; too much and too generally the feeling has been that it is at best superfluous, at worst pernicious, most often dangerous. Once poetry was, as she should be, the lesser sister and helpmate of the Church; the minister to the mind, as the Church was to the soul. But poetry sinned, poetry fell; and in place of lovingly reclaiming her, Catholicism cast her from the door to follow the feet of her pagan seducer. The separation has been ill for poetry; it has not been well for religion.

—Francis Thompson

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


What hath poetry to do with theory?

From George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe:

There is a kind of sensualism or aestheticism that has decreed in our day that theory is not poetical; as if all the images and emotions that enter a cultivated mind were not saturated with theory. The prevalence of such a sensualism or aestheticism would alone suffice to explain the impotence of the arts. The life of theory is not less human or less emotional than the life of sense; it is more typically human and more keenly emotional. Philosophy is a more intense sort of experience than common life is, just as pure and subtle music, heard in retirement, is something keener and more intense than the howling of storms or the rumble of cities. For this reason philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length. 

God’s agapeic and erotic love for the Church

To my surprise, Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga departs from traditional belief in divine impassibility, arguing instead for the passions of God in his magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief:

[Sexual eros] is a sign or type of a deeper reality, a kind of love for God of which we now just have hints and intimations. It is also a sign, symbol, or type of God’s love – not just of the love God’s children will have someday for him but of the love he also has for them. . . . Scripture regularly compares God’s love for his people and Christ’s love for his church to the love of a groom for his new bride. Now a widely shared view of God has been that he is impassable, without desire or feeling or passion, unable to feel sorrow at the sad condition of his world and the suffering of his children, and equally unable to feel joy, delight, longing, or yearning. The reason for so thinking, roughly, is that in the tradition originating in Greek philosophy, passions were thought of (naturally enough) as passive, something that happens to you, something you undergo, rather than something you actively do. You are subject to anger, love, joy, and all the rest. God, however, is pure act; he doesn’t ‘undergo’ anything at all; he acts, and is never merely passive; and he isn’t subject to anything. As far as eros is concerned, furthermore, there is an additional reason for thinking it isn’t part of God’s life: longing and yearning signify need and incompleteness. One who yearns for something doesn’t yet have it, and needs it, or at any rate thinks he needs it; God is of course paradigmatically complete and needs nothing beyond himself. How, then, could he be subject to eros? God’s love, according to this tradition, is exclusively agape, benevolence, a completely other-regarding, magnanimous love in which there is mercy but no element of desire. God loves us, but there is nothing we can do for him; he wishes nothing from us. 

On this particular point I think we must take leave of the tradition; this is one of those places where it has paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible. I believe God can and does suffer; his capacity for suffering exceeds ours in the same measure this knowledge exceeds ours. Christ’s suffering was no charade; he was prepared to endure the agonies of the cross and of hell itself (“My God, my God, why you have forsaken me?”). God the Father was prepared to endure the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. And isn’t the same true for other passions? “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7); is God himself to be excluded from this rejoicing?

Similarly for eros: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). The bridegroom rejoicing over his bride doesn’t love her with a merely agapeic love. He isn’t like her benevolent elder brother (although Christ is also said to be our elder brother). He desires and longs for something outside himself, namely union with his beloved. The church is the bride of Christ, not his little sister. He is not her benevolent elder brother, but her husband, lover. These scriptural images imply that God isn’t impassive, and that his love for us is not exclusively agapeic. They suggest that God’s love for his people involves an erotic element of desire: he desires the right kind of response from us, and union with us, just as we desire union with him.   

Fancy that feeds on the study of real things

George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, which his student, T. S. Eliot, described as “a brilliant and admirable little book.” In the chapter on Dante, he writes:

To think straight, to see things as they are, or as they might naturally be, interested him more than to fancy things impossible; and in this he shows, not want of imagination, but true imaginative power and imaginative maturity. It is those of us who are too feeble to conceive and master the real world, or too cowardly to face it, that run away from it to those cheap fictions that alone seem to us fine enough for poetry or for religion. In Dante the fancy is not empty or arbitrary; it is serious, fed on the study of real things. It adopts their tendency and divines their true destiny. His art is, in the original Greek sense, an imitation or rehearsal of nature, an anticipation of fate. 

This reminds me of another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, and her claim about the vocation of a novelist:

A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. . . . This kind of fiction wrier is always hotly in pursuit of the real.

Precisely because “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” as Eliot says in his poem “Four Quartets,” we need those poets and novelists who are “hostly in pursuit of the real,” otherwise we will be prone to “tidy up reality” and retreat into “cheap fictions.”

An attitude check for teachers


Teachers are idealists. Over time, however, they can become cynics as they work with youth. Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia State University, wrote a very wise article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that should be read by any teacher because it will induce a needful plea of “Guilty!” and a resolve to improve we comport ourselves around young people. Here is an excerpt:

If I’m right — if students haven’t really changed over the last several generations — then what has changed? Why, we have. As middle-aged faculty members, we’ve become more cynical, less idealistic, grouchier. We’ve come to have such low expectations of students — because, you know, they’re really bad and getting worse every year — that they sometimes oblige us by living down to those expectations.

Once we recognize that we’re a big part of the problem, how can we turn things around? How can we adjust our own attitudes while at the same time doing a better job for our students? Here are some suggestions.

Look for the good. I maintain that, far from being worse than previous generations, today’s college students are actually among the best and brightest young people I’ve ever taught. They’re remarkably versatile, caring, adventurous, open minded, and funny. Those qualities can make them a joy to be around, if we’ll simply stop obsessing about their perceived failings and focus on the positive.

One of my favorite things about the teaching profession is that being around young people all these years has helped to keep me young — or at least young at heart.

Ignore the negative hype. Maybe we tend to focus on the negative because we are inundated with information about what slackers today’s kids are, how poor their interpersonal skills are (because of social media, you know), and how little they know about important matters.

Some of those complaints are true, of course — but they’ve been true of every generation of young people, to one degree or another. There were plenty of times my parents worried about me being a slacker, and plenty of times my teachers shook their heads in dismay over my disgraceful ignorance. Are today’s young people really any worse than previous generations? Worse than we were, at their age? I think if we’re honest, we’d have to say no.

Consider the pressure they’re under. One difference I can see between today’s college students and my generation is that, if anything, kids today are under much more pressure than we were.

They’re expected to know, at an earlier age, what they intend to do with their life — to choose a major, land an internship, find the perfect job. At the same time, grade inflation has made it far more difficult to get into a good college, or a good degree program, than it used to be. I felt pretty good about getting into a decent graduate program with a 3.85 GPA. My son, with a 3.97, was concerned that he might not get into his university’s business school (thankfully, he did).

And so, while we as faculty members have an obligation to hold students’ feet to the fire academically speaking, perhaps we shouldn’t add to that the extra pressure of unrealistic expectations based on flawed memories of how wonderful things used to be.

Expect excellence. There’s nothing wrong with holding students to reasonable academic and professional standards or having high expectations in terms of their behavior and performance. In fact, that’s one of the very best things we can do for our students. To paraphrase Thoreau, “Let every professor make known what kind of students would command his or her respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining them.”

We just have to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons and not merely because we’re annoyed at them or feeling “salty” (as the kids say) because our life isn’t quite going the way we imagined when we were their age. High expectations should be a natural result of our high regard for students and our deeply held belief in their potential — not a means of browbeating them or extracting penance.

Forgive them for being young. I’m convinced that the main reason for generational bias is that, as older people, we’re naturally envious of the young. Whoever said “youth is wasted on the young” was probably not very young at the time.

It’s true, though: We do tend to look at 20-year-olds — with their energy, their enthusiasm (for, we sometimes think, the wrong things), their natural optimism about the future — and wish we still possessed those qualities, combined with the benefit of our life experience: “Ah, if I’d only known then what I know now.” It can be difficult not to feel a tiny bit resentful that their lives are mostly still ahead of them, while much of ours are behind us.

And so we sometimes retaliate by creating frankly ridiculous rules and expectations. Because “that’s the way the world works,” and it’s our job (or so we think) to teach students those hard life lessons. Or else we mistake our own curmudgeonly outlook for reality, failing to recognize that cynicism as a perception is just as skewed as callowness.

Embrace the differences — and the similarities. Ultimately, the key to relating effectively to young people is to acknowledge your common humanity. Yes, there are significant differences between you and them — from tastes in music to fashion choices to (perhaps) political leanings. No, they’ve never seen some of the TV shows you grew up on or watched some of your favorite movies or read nearly as many books.

But those are just surface differences. Far more important is the fact that you and your students share many things in common. Like you, they just want to be happy. They want to be successful. They want to share their lives with family and friends. In addition to teaching them about your subject matter, you can also set a great example of how a well-adjusted adult behaves, both professionally and personally. They can learn a lot from you, and not just about academics.

And you, in turn, can learn a lot from them. I admit: It does make me feel young(er), as I read their papers and listen to students, to learn about their slang, their music, their fashion — even if I don’t embrace much of it. This has become especially poignant for me since my youngest went off to college last year. I no longer have teenagers at home to keep me “hip” — or as hip as I’m likely to be, anyway. I now have to rely on my students for that.

More important, though, as a teacher, I learn from them every day — about what works and doesn’t work in a college classroom, about what has and hasn’t changed in society, about things that had never occurred to me, and wouldn’t, left to my own middle-aged devices. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t find myself saying to a student, during a class discussion, “That’s a really good point. I’d never quite thought of it that way.”

Best of all, I find myself being reminded by young people every day that life is good and beautiful and exciting and worth living. That is a debt I can never fully repay. But I think I know where to start: by not trashing them in the hallway for my own or my colleagues’ amusement.

Source: “The Kids Are Still Alright” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a graduate of Oxford University, was a British author, playwright, and scholar. She was a member of the famous “Inklings,” an informal group of writers that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams. If you are interested in literary treatments of Satan, then her essay, “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil,” is essential reading because she evaluates the Satan of Dante, Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe. She begins her essay acknowledging “one of the great difficulties about writing a book or play about the Devil is to prevent that character from stealing the show.” She continues:

It is not, of course, surprising that the devil should appear attractive, or that he should be made to appear so in a work of the imagination. It is precisely the Devil’s business to appear attractive; that is the whole meaning of temptation to sin. And unless the artist conveys something of this attraction, his Devil will be a mere turnip-ghost, exciting either boredom or derisive laughter, and in no way conveying or communicating the power of evil. But it is important artistically as well as theologically to ascertain whether the artist is able to view his own creation critically, or whether he has fallen, consciously or unconsciously, under the power of his own spellbinding. 

Dante, according to Sayers, is the most successful artist at viewing his Satan critically, whereas Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe fall under the power of their own spellbinding; they are guilty of what she calls “the Promethean setup – the sympathetic picture of the sad, proud sufferer defying omnipotence.”

Here is my favorite passage from the essay on evil:

Evil is “the price that all things (i.e., all created things – God is not a ‘thing’) pay for being” – that is, for existing in created and material form. There is, for them, along with the reality of God, the possibility of not-God. For things inorganic, this is only known as change and not as evil; for creatures organic but not self-conscious, there are both change and pain – and here there is a very great mystery, which we are scarcely in a position to solve because we know nothing of what pain may be like to the unself-conscious organism. But to the self-conscious creature, the not-God is known as change, as pain, and also as intellectual error and moral evil; and it is at this point that it actually becomes evil in the profoundest sense of the word because it can be embraced and made active by the will. The possibility of evil exists from the moment that a creature is made that can love and do good because it chooses and not because it is unable to do anything else. The actuality of evil exists from the moment that the choice is exercised in the wrong direction. Sin (moral evil) is the deliberate choice of the not-God. And pride, as the Church has consistently pointed out, is the root of it; i.e., the refusal to accept the creature status; the making of the difference between self and God into an antagonism against God. Satan, as Milton rightly shows, “thinks himself impaired,” and in that moment he chooses that evil shall be his good.

That is what the orthodox Catholic doctrine is. . . Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God. The corollary is that damnation, or hell, is the permanent choice of the not-God. God does not (in the monstrous old-fashioned phrase) “send” anybody to hell; hell is that state of the soul in which its choice becomes obdurate and fixed; the punishment (so to call it) of that soul is to remain eternally in the state that it has chosen. 

The romantic hero


Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1819)

How shall we envision the romantic hero? I am arrested by two related descriptions in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part I. First, consider what Faust says when he summons the Sign of the Earth Spirit in Nostradamus’ “great book of magic lore”:

How differently this sign affects me! You
Spirit of Earth, are closer to me,
Fresh strength already pulses through me, 
I glow already from wine so new!
Now, to go out into the world and bear
The earth’s whole pain and joy, all this I dare; 
To fight with tempts anywhere, 
And in the grinding shipwreck stand and not despair!

Second, consider what Faust says after signing the wager with Mephistopheles:

I tell you, the mere pleasure’s not the point!
To dizzying, painful joy I dedicate
Myself, to refreshing frustration, loving hate!
I’ve purged the lust for knowledge from my soul;
Now the full range of suffering it shall face,
And in my inner self I will embrace
The experience allotted to the whole
Race of mankind; my soul shall grasp the heights
And depths, my heart know all their sorrows and delights. 
Thus I’ll expand myself, and their self I shall be,
And perish in the end, like all humanity. 

The above descriptions corroborate the argument that George Santayana makes in Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, described by T. S. Eliot as “a brilliant and admirable little book”: 

Goethe is a romantic poet; he is a novelist in verse. He is a philosopher of experience as it comes to the individual; the philosopher of life, as action, memory, or soliloquy may put life before each of us in turn. Now the zest of romanticism consists in taking what you know is an independent and ancient world as if it were material for your private emotions. The savage or the animal, who should not be aware of nature or history at all, could not be romantic about them, nor about himself. He would be blandly idiotic, and take everything quite unsuspectingly for what it was in him. The romanticist, then, should be a civilized man, so that his primitiveness and egotism may have something paradoxical and conscious about them; and so that his life may contain a rich experience, and his reflection may play with all varieties of sentiment and thought. At the same time, in his inmost genius, he should be a barbarian, a child, a transcendentalist, so that his life may seem to him absolutely fresh, self-determined, unforeseen, and unforeseeable. It is part of his inspiration to believe that he creates a new heaven and a new earth with each revolution in his moods or in his purposes. He ignores, or seeks to ignore, all the conditions of life, until perhaps by living he personally discovers them. Like Faust, he flouts science, and is minded to make trial of magic, which renders a man’s will master of the universe in which he seems to live. He disowns all authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that the springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, that the future of his soul is infinite. In the romantic hero the civilized man and the barbarian must be combined; he should be the heir of all civilization, and, nevertheless, he should take life arrogantly and egotistically, as if it were an absolute personal experiment.