Book Notice: Taylor & Waller

There is taking place within a niche of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy something of a turn to literature. Now I don’t mean by this to draw attention to the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of literature per se, into philosophical accounts of literature’s powers, devices, aims, etc., though this is also taking place. I mean instead to bring to view philosophical projects that attend to literature as an aid for treating properly philosophical vexations. Of course philosophy and literature are old sparring partners, making attempts at their cross-fertilization nothing new, but it seems that Stanley Cavell and more than a few of his interlocutors (it’s not a coincidence) have been producing a steady stream of work marked by its bi-disciplinary imagination and agenda. Consider, for a small sampling, works like

  • Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 1992)
  • Walter Jost, Ed., Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein (Northwestern, 2003)
  • Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, (Princeton, 2008)
  • —, The Self and its Shadows: Essays on Individuality as Negation in Philosophy and the Arts, (OUP, 2013)
  • Richard Eldridge, Ed., Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies (Bloomsbury, 2011)
  • —, Ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 2013)

These philosophers at least are finding in literature a rich and ready resource that the currently reigning conventions of philosophy would otherwise train its students to overlook.

Because this is a set of philosophers whose work I regard highly, I can’t help but ask whether theology has contributions to make to this pocket of inquiry (or lessons to learn from it). This is why I was pleased to learn of this 2011 Ashgate title: Christian Theology and Tragedy: Theologians, Tragic Literature and Tragic Theory edited by Kevin Taylor (Pfeiffer University) and Giles Waller (Cambridge). The collection is divided into three sections: the first on tragic narratives in biblical and theological literature; the second on theologians who deployed tragedy as a theological category (namely, Balthasar, MacKinnon, Simone Weil, and C.S. Lewis); and a final section on theological assessments of tragic theory. Contributors include, among others, Ben Quash, Michael Ward, David S. Cunningham, and David F. Ford.

Now you might be asking, why tragedy? Is tragedy really a category in pressing need of theological attention? Should we put much stock in its promise to increase theology’s imaginative reach, explanatory power, and patience with the harder-to-assimilate stories of the human lot? These are fair questions. But, so as not to lose your interest too soon, perhaps this bread crumb will entice you to stay tuned — theologians of no less stature than Hans Urs von Balthasar and Donald MacKinnon, the volume points out, both reflected on how theology’s original preference for Greek philosophy, to the neglect of the Greek corpus of tragedies, had a mis-shaping influence on theology’s ability to articulate its own gospel. Maybe a storyline like that piques your interest as much as it does mine? Or maybe the editors’ own articulation of their aims will do the trick:

“The chapters in this volume show that, far from there being an inherent antagonism between Christian theology and tragedy, they share at the very least areas of profound mutual concern: the experience of suffering, death and loss, questions over fate, freedom and agency, sacrifice, guilt, innocence, the limits of human understanding, redemption, catharsis. We might even press this further, and maintain with MacKinnon that an attentiveness to tragedy is vital to a properly disciplined Christian theology and that, by the same token, Christian theology can be a way of vouchsafing the true significance of tragedy.”

I for one would care to see what inquiry along these lines will turn up.