In defense of a hymn

In Defense of a Hymn

Or, when was the vice of worldliness dropped from our vocabulary?

There is a hymn that I’ve witnessed a number of times now, and for the same reason each time, get short shrift among theological compatriots of mine. This is something of an unhappy occurrence for me. The hymn is one I grew up with. Moreover, it’s a hymn that I think harbors more Christian wisdom than we might at first glance appreciate — which is why I’ve taken to writing in its defense. I don’t think it’s as easy a target as its detractors let on. The criticism leveled against it strikes me as unfair: mainly because it situates the hymn in the wrong conversation, making the hymn say more than it means, all the while there’s another context of intelligibility in which its point would be perfectly germane and edifying. If only we would contextualize its counsel here and not there, our misgivings would be dispelled. As I see it, to object to this hymn for the reason I keep hearing is to fail in imagination, and so too in sympathy for the hymn’s speaker.

The hymn in question here is Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. You can revisit its lyrics here and sample a country rendition of it here.

The supposedly objectionable portion of this hymn is the latter half of its refrain. The speaker tells the troubled soul that if they would look to Jesus, then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim / in the light of His glory and grace.” What’s worrying to some is the notion that the light of Christ has the effect of dimming the things of earth. It’s feared that the hymn is subtly condoning ecclesial retreat from society. Why, they ask, would Christ’s glory eclipse the glitter of the world and its genuine goods rather than bring them into sharper focus? After all, doesn’t Matthew 25 teach that service to Christ is to be identified with care for the world? Wasn’t it an achievement of Vatican II’s spirit of aggiornamento to exhort, in Gaudium et Spes, that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age…these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”? Is it not patently clear that Christianity values solidarity over solitude, this-worldliness over other-worldliness, activism over quietism? Is it not the gospel message that Christ is saving the world rather than saving us from it?

To all of these questions I’d respond that they raise valid points. There will be conversations where their insights are decisive. Nevertheless, they don’t tell the whole story, nor do they apply in every contingency. It is still the case that “the world” is not a univocal theological category. If we’d survey scripture, we’d discover that its senses and uses are multiple, and it’s connotations ambiguous.

Let’s compare just two of its value-laden senses, one affirmative and another negative. First we might think of the world as God’s creation and possession. Consider the following:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. [Gen. 1:31]

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. [Ps 24:1]

From this vantage, our hymn will certainly seem a mystery. Why would we ever want to lose sight of the things of earth when our world is a gift God means for us to enjoy and to garden? On these terms, the relevant precedent for engagement with the world just might be set by Jeremiah’s instruction to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jer 29:4-7]

In the city’s welfare is your welfare. It’s not to be denied, here’s an image that captures one scriptural impulse on the theme of nature and grace. This theme of course has various permutations to which this world-affirming thread in scripture might speak, e.g., questions over the conventional binaries of church and state, Christ and culture, theology and philosophy, divine and human action, the analogies of being and faith, the value of the environment and the material world, etc. (I hope it’s clearer that more could be broached on the basis of this line of inquiry than the recovery of a single hymn.)

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, I should introduce a second biblical evaluation of the world. In the more pronounced apocalyptic sensibilities of this conception, the world is neither a benevolent nor innocent habitation. It is instead a source of temptation. Consider the following:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. [James 4:4]

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. [1 John 2:15-16]

At this point it’s probably clearer now which sense of “the world” our hymn is taking for granted. It’s “the world” that church tradition has long deemed one of the three, along with the flesh and the devil, perennial tempters of the faithful. Maybe it’s less objectionable that this world be obstructed from view? In any case, we might well ask, is our welfare still to be found in the welfare of this Babylon too? Revelation’s answer, at least, is a resounding no!

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, … He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, … Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, … for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. [Rev. 18:1-5]

Come out of Babylon, my people! Given the directness of this message it would be difficult to deny that scripture also harbors a separatist impulse as clear as any other. (Knowing when to invoke either Revelation’s or Jeremiah’s Babylon takes more than a little tact, cultural literacy, and sensitivity to the Spirit.)

For my purposes here, I’m willing to leave it an open question whether we can or need to resolve the tension between these two incongruous senses of the world — though it will be noted that the sense of world we foreground in our imaginations will have its share of repercussions. Mainly all I’m trying to accomplish with this post is the recovery of a context of intelligibility in which our disparaged hymn might once again be heard as profitable instruction — lest we needlessly self-impoverish the range of our piety. I think there is such a context. And it has scriptural precedent. If we fail to see it, the problem lies, I’d suggest, not in the hymn’s theology, but in the standing limits to our lives. If only we could expand the reach of our imaginations and the breadth of our sympathies, we’d begin to find room enough for our estranged hymn.

D. Stephen Long on theology and culture

D. Stephen Long’s formulation of a live dispute on the question of theology and culture

[Kathryn] Tanner’s postmodern feminist theology is more of a “style” of theology than a distinct practice or culture. Christianity never has enough of its own substance such that it can be an “alternative society” or a distinct culture. […] But if postmodern feminist theology argues Christianity in no way functions as a culture with a logic intrinsic to its own language, it differs greatly from radical orthodoxy. Thus, Kathryn Tanner, one of the ablest proponents of postmodern feminist theology, finds that radical orthodoxy, like Lindbeck’s postliberal theology, assumes a too easily defined and stable Christian identity. Radical orthodox theologians would tend to find Tanner’s position too allied to certain trends in postmodernity that identify cultures only by what they oppose, that is to say, these postmodern accounts of culture tend to be “reactive.” Because they do not contain any inherent logic internal to their practices, they can only be identified by their adoption and opposition to the borrowed cultural products that can alone allow us to recognize them at all. This means that they are not only “mediating,” which is to say that they express theology by mediating it in and through available cultural forms, but they are also “accommodating,” they accommodate those cultural forms to such an extent that they finally subordinate the logic inherent in Christianity to the logic inherent in the secular rationality by which most accounts of culture are presented to us, especially as they are given to us by the social sciences.

from Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion, (JamesClarke&Co, 2008), 100-101.

Terry Eagleton on Faith and Reason

While I’m posting past lectures, I thought I’d like to share another. Back in 2008 Terry Eagleton delivered Yale University’s Terry Lectures, which Eagleton used to assess the rise of the New Atheist movement. They were entitled Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?

Its four lectures ran as follows.

  1. Christianity: Fair or Foul?
  2. The Limits of Liberalism
  3. Faith and Reason
  4. Culture and Barbarism

This time I thought I’d like to share the third lecture from the series.

The rest of the lectures are available HERE.

They’re also available in book form:

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, (YUP, 2010).

Bruce Marshall on theology and philosophy

Bruce Marshall on theology’s use of philosophy

In his quaestiones on Boethius’s De Trinitate Aquinas asks, as he does on several occasions, whether “philosophical arguments and authorities” can be used in theology – “faith’s science about God.” One of the objectors observes that in scripture the wisdom of the world is often represented by water, and the wisdom of God by wine. But scripture also condemns those who mix water with wine. So we should scorn those teachers who dilute the rich wine of theology with the tepid water of philosophy.

Thomas begins his reply by seeming to refuse the objector’s gambit. A trope, even from scripture, is no basis for an argument. But never mind. Thomas finds just the right scriptural twist for his objector’s metaphor: the wedding at Cana. A mixture alters the nature of both the items mixed. But it does not count as a mixture when one of the items comes under the control of the other. “Hence those who use the works of philosophers in sacred doctrine so as to bring them into the obedience of faith do not mix water with wine, but transform water into wine.”

Thomas is a master, perhaps the master, at changing the water of worldly wisdom into the pure wine of Christian theology – bringing the best philosophy he knew into epistemic line with the Christian confession of the Trinity and the cross of Christ. But the best philosophy available to us in the year 2000 is far different, and in countless ways better, than the best philosophy available in the mid-thirteenth century. We cannot do theology in the spirit of Thomas if we use the philosophy he used. We couldn’t do so even if we though we had the wit, or the need, to make better theological wine of Aristotle and Neoplatonism than he did. We have to make our own wine out of our own water.

Of course most theologians long ago stopped thinking that Aristotle and Neoplatonism were their main philosophical challenges. Whether they have generally managed to do more with a long line of successor philosophies than produce an undrinkable mixture of water and wine is another matter. In any case the analytic tradition now dominates world philosophy. Yet against this water theologians have usually been quite reluctant to test their powers of alchemy. We prefer to perform tricks we know, on water we have brought with us to the wedding feast, whether left over from the thirteenth century or direct from the salons of Paris. The enormous stone jars the host provides we try to ignore.

One motive for the typical theological aversion to analytic philosophy no doubt lies in the suspicion that analytic philosophy is indifferent or hostile to the convictions which matter most to theologians. The philosophy we use in theology ought to have a sense of the transcendent, of ultimate meaning, of beauty, or at least ought to disdain naturalism, scientism, semanticism, or whatever. But the best philosophy is not the one which is most attractive to, or attracted by, a Christian view of the world. It’s the one with the best arguments on the matter at hand. So Thomas thinks, at any rate. He did not undertake the huge labor of turning Aristotle’s water into theological wine because he thought it the philosophy most susceptible of Christian use. On a number of crucial points – creation in time, the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will – it seemed opposed to central Christian convictions (witness the condemnation of 1277) and apparently more attractive to a rival religion (Islam). But it usually had the best arguments. The theologian’s job, he thought, was to come to grips with this philosophy, not to seek refuge in others more yielding to Christian transformation.

from “Theology after Cana,” Modern Theology, vol 16, no 4, (2000): 525-6.

Robert Jenson on philosophy

Robert Jenson on philosophy

“We usually refer to the work of Greece’s theologians with their own name for it, ‘philosophy.’ We have thereupon been led to think this must be a different kind of intellectual activity than theology, to which theology perhaps may appeal for foundational purposes or against which theology must perhaps defend itself. But this is a historical illusion; Greek philosophy was simply the theology of the historically particular Olympian-Parmenidean religion, later shared with the wider Mediterranean cultic world. […]

“The secular mood by which some forms of ‘philosophy’ contrast with Christian theology and that tempts us to take them for a different kind of thinking is simply a character of Olympian religion itself, which pursued a divinity purged of mystery. Insofar as Western philosophy is not now reduced to the pure study of logic, it is still in fact theology, Christian or Olympian-Parmenidean. Theologians must indeed converse with the philosophers, but only because and insofar as both are engaged in the same sort of enterprise.”

from Systematic Theology: The Triune God, Vol. 1, (OUP, 1997), 9-10.