How to Gain an Ear for Accents in Theology (1)

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

Nicholas Lash on tragedy and hope

Nicholas Lash on tragedy and Christian hope

Bethlehem, the city of Ruth, and Micah, and Jesus, is not far from Gethsemane. In that child’s birth at Bethlehem are ‘represented’ the wastelands of human tragedy, of human history as ‘stillborn.’ And, in that birth, these wastelands are depicted as pregnant with promise. Christian hope is an eminently practical matter: it is, we might say, a matter of transforming tragedy into pregnancy. Surrounded as we are, and as he was, by darkness, we cannot predict the outcome or depict its features. But we can, perhaps, learn to think, and act, and suffer, in trust conformable with the grace of him who alone can make the barren woman fruitful; of him who alone can make our Calvary the birthplace of his peace.

from “Bethlehem and Gethsemane,” in Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005), 98.

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.