Two strategies for speaking about the hiddenness of God: irony and mystery

In a 2007 address to the Temenos Academy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams observed that English poets George Herbert and Henry Vaughan are both interested in speaking about the hiddenness of God, although they adopt different strategies: the former as an ironist and the the latter as a mystagogue. Here is a key excerpt:

But what I want to suggest in this paper is that we can read them as offering complementary statements of the same persistent Anglican theme or trope. They are both interested in hiddenness – that is, in the disparities between what appears and what is true. It is not an exclusively Anglican idea, of course; but the history of Reformed thinking in the Church of England in the half-century or so before Herbert’s birth had wrestled particularly hard with this issue. How was one to understand a Church that for centuries had appeared to be no Church? That is to say, how does the hidden reality of God’s action and the hidden witness of God’s Word somehow remain alive under the muffling and distorting wrappings of the papal Church of the Middle Ages? Richard Hooker made a good deal of trouble for himself by stressing the possibility of grace being at work within the ‘old’ Church, in despite of appearances. And for him and some of those who thought like him, there was another argument to be made in the opposite direction: despite the appearance of being a straightforwardly Reformed, not to say Calvinist body, the Church of England was in fact the rightful heir of patristic and even mediaeval faith, simply purifying away certain accretions. Hidden beneath the Calvinist surface was a Catholic substance.

But this was not only an issue about the church; it had to do also with the nature of faith and discipleship. Faced with a crude appeal by some extreme Calvinists to the clear visibility of God’s approval and predestining grace in external prosperity or internal emotional assurance, more serious theologians felt obliged to work out how God’s favour could be at work even in those whose personal experience was marked by feelings of doubt or self-despair. One of the central tenets of Reformed faith was that the action of God could not be tied or mortgaged to states of affairs in the human world – to the accumulation of a record of good works or (as Luther himself had insisted) to feelings of spiritual security and intensity. And this necessarily opened up the theme of hiddenness in a concentrated way.

I have argued elsewhere that Herbert’s poetry of ‘affliction’ can be read as a sustained exploration of what it is let go of any assumption that assurance of God’s grace can be tied to positive feelings or a sense of spiritual at-homeness. In a sense, though we cannot simply call him a Calvinist and leave it at that, he pushes one aspect of Calvinism to its extreme: faith is the glorifying of God as God, not the glorifying of God as provider of attractive spiritual experience; salvation rests not on how we feel or what we understand but only on the radical willingness to go on standing in the presence of his judgement and mercy. The unforgettable poem, unpublished until the nineteenth century, on ‘Perseverance’ leaves us with the image of the soul, almost consumed with fear and uncertainty about its future, hanging obstinately on God’s promises, almost as on Hopkins’ ‘cliffs of fall’, ‘With face and hands clinging unto thy brest,/Clinging and crying, crying without cease,/Thou art my rock, thou art my rest.’

And with that in mind, I suggest that we read Herbert and Vaughan as articulating two strategies for speaking about the hiddenness of God, strategies which I shall call irony and mystery. By irony, I mean the careful subversion of language itself by trailing through your discourse the signs of questioning and incompletion. The ironist says, ‘Listen to what I say so carefully that you will hear what I mean and see that the words I speak are not simply the passive containers of meaning.’ There are things you can only understand when you see them as the shadow cast by words; try to express them in direct and clear ways and you lose them. By mystery, I mean the creation of language that always suggests a pregnant depth, occasionally discernible but always under the surface of what is said. The difference between this and irony is that the language is not necessarily at odds with the underlying vision; it draws attention to its inadequacy, but does not subvert or contradict itself as ironical discourse does.

We might go even further (thinking back to an ancient division of intellectual labour) and say that irony is essentially the tool of the rhetorician –someone whose primary skill is to use language in such a way that a listener or reader is changed by it – and mystery is the preferred mode of the philosopher – someone who uses language to excavate the topsoil of understanding and take us to a tangibly different intellectual or imaginative place. The ironist leaves us where we are but seeing everything with a new and suspicious or detached eye; the mystagogue takes us to another place, from which we can see the once familiar world differently.

It should be clear that the distinction is not watertight or absolute; the goals of both are to embed in the reader or hearer a habit of questioning towards the appearances of the world, and to renew or refresh perception. For Herbert and Vaughan alike, the purpose of their poetic articulation of faith is to hold others in faith by enabling them to look on their circumstances, inner and outer, as only ambiguous signs, not clear messages from God. To cleave to God in a world of material things, variable states of mind, suffering and so on, requires a skill in ‘reading’ all these; and both poets seek to educate such a reading. But to illustrate the difference I am suggesting, let me look at some specific poems and some specific themes in each.

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