Volume 148 (CD Edition)
Guests on Volume 148
• STEVEN D. SMITH on how a modern “religion without God” characterizes what alleges to be secular neutrality
• WILLEM VANDERBURG on the costs of forgetting the unity and interdependence of Creation
• JEFFREY BILBRO on lessons from Wendell Berry’s poetry, fiction, and essays about the virtues that characterize people who foster sustainable cultures
• EMMA MASON on the theological concerns evident in the poetry of Christina Rossetti
• ALISON MILBANK on how the Gothic literary genre in England expressed ambivalence about the effects of the Reformation
• TIMOTHY LARSEN on George MacDonald and Victorian earnestness about faith and anxieties about doubt
Steven D. Smith
“Paganism is a label you can use to refer to a kind of immanent religiosity or a view that there is something that’s sacred and holy, but it’s not transcendent — it’s not part of a different sphere of being or another world. It is immanent in this world. And I suggest that that in a sense is the natural condition of humanity. Unless there’s something that comes along to lift us out of that, that is sort of our natural assumption.”
Law professor Steven D. Smith discusses the relationship between the sacred and the civic in his newest book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. Setting out to track the profound changes apparent in the modern world, Smith compares the paganism of the Roman Empire to the rise of a contemporary paganism which takes the form of a “religion without God.” For Smith, this differs radically from a transcendent religion which acknowledges an ultimate good beyond this universe. Right now, we are not witnessing so much a destruction of “the sacred” as such, but instead the rise of new orthodoxies, often centered on individual or national identity. Without the recognition that humans are inescapably religious creatures, the struggle to confront or solve our current public disputes will continue.
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“About 100 years ago . . . we began to rearrange all human knowing and doing by means of disciplines. From the perspective of human history, that’s an extraordinarily strange way of arranging our knowing and doing. What we do with the discipline-based organization is, we say to the physicist, ‘Here, you study physical phenomena,’ . . . and to the sociologist, ‘Here, you study social phenomena,’ . . . In other words, we study human life and the world one category of phenomena at a time. And that has enormous limitation.”
Willem H. Vanderburg, a former student of philosopher Jacques Ellul, argues for a vision of the world that better accounts for the complexity of life — both its individuality and its wholeness — than our current mechanistic, anti-human approach. Unlike machines, which can be quantified and mathematically represented, human life operates with an interconnectedness that cannot be so easily measured. Vanderburg emphasizes that we have rearranged human knowledge and action into narrow disciplines which purport to study life, but do so using single categories, an ordering which can work only in those fields where the focus on one category is useful, such as physics, biology, or chemistry. By reorganizing complex human methods of operation and communication into discipline-based silos which depend on the mechanical or technical domains, we have created a world of confusion where we understand life in the same terms as non-life. Vanderburg concludes that this subversion of a traditional Christian vision by modern technology poses a grave threat to our humanity.
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“So much of the cult of the artist today is about originality and making things new and coming up with the latest and greatest, but that’s really a symptom of a technological society — that we always have to have a new iteration of the gadget . . . Berry’s emphasis [is] on fidelity and sticking with things that might seem old and obsolete and worn out, and trying to be creative about how they might be renewed and made useful and new again. A renewal presupposes that something good has come earlier and that our task is not to create ‘ex nihilo’ — that’s God’s task — but to renew that which has been broken.”
Jeffrey Bilbro explores the importance of sustainability through the essays, poetry and fiction of Wendell Berry. He argues that Berry fosters a sense of propriety or fittingness, a manner in which we act in connection with the world around us. This theme is demonstrated by the example of a farmer who works with the land and within its limits, allowing the nature of the place to help form and correct the farmer’s initial vision. In opposition to this reciprocal way of farming, Berry describes much of contemporary agriculture, where the only value is how much can be produced, with no concern for the complexity of the relation of farmer to farm, leading inevitably to violent control of the relationship. Our current society has shifted into an economy that values an industrial mindset, focusing heavily on productivity. Bilbro defines this as the industrial grammar versus the agrarian grammar. He points out that the grammar of technology cannot heal, but only amplify the misdirected vision already in place. Bilbro hopes that we can, seeing through the eyes of Berry, come to recognize this reciprocity and, using a healthy imagination, make whole again those aspects of our lives that have been damaged.
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“What poetry does is almost push us into a position where we have to pay really close attention to words. It’s very difficult to read a poem quickly, and I think when we try to that’s often when people just get frustrated with it and say, ‘Oh, I don’t understand this,’ or ‘It feels inaccessible.’ Obviously, Rossetti works very hard to make her poetry quite accessible by using a very strong form, by using rhythm and by using rhyme. And it’s quite enjoyable to read. But I think underneath those rhymes and really in the poem are these very deep and profound meanings and reflections that are both philosophical and theological. Poetry enables this layering of ideas and layering of our feelings about those ideas.”
Professor Emma Mason explains how the Anglo-Catholic theological movement was integral to the faith of Christina Rossetti and helped shape her theological and philosophical convictions. The Oxford Movement within the Church of England, Mason explains, sought to return to a form that embraced the “supernatural” element then held in suspicion by many. Mason argues that important figures in this movement such as John Keble and John Henry Newman, drawing on a contemporary reclamation of the early Church fathers, turned to Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth and William Blake to find a way to rediscover the mystical in Anglicanism. Rossetti’s poetry reflects this attitude, exploring a deep connection to God through forms of rituals and practices that break free from a more rational, dualistic vision, drawing all things together through grace.
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“I really do think that the ‘explained supernatural’ plays the 18th-century game of saying, ‘Yes, we have gotten beyond the past. We now live in an enlightened world.’ But then it begins to question that enlightenment. And I think that’s the point of the way that it works in Ann Radcliffe. And it’s also a Protestant mode which is partly about idolatry. I do think that there is a very Protestant form of Gothic whereby you show the deadness of the idol in order to point to the livingness of the true God.”
Theologian Alison Milbank argues that nineteenth-century English Gothic literature grew out of the intuition of an uneasy relationship between the natural and supernatural following the English Reformation. The extreme rationalism of the nineteenth century led to a cultural ambivalence; belief in the narrative of historical progress conflicted with nostalgia for a past when structures and practices dealt with matters ghostly and divine. “The Catholic past is a site of desire as well as revulsion,” Milbank explains. “The Gothic seeks both to escape and harness its signifying power.” Haunted by that history, authors such as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Bram Stoker explored the limits of materialism and grappled with the loss of a religious imaginary which could mediate the supernatural.
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“Questioning is natural and inevitable. It’s how you get to a more mature Christian view. To not doubt something is to not think about it. So, MacDonald can see that this is just a maturation process. You were told about the Virgin Birth when you were 11, and now you’re 18 and you’re thinking about it again in a new way, and to think about it is to doubt it. That questioning, not in the kind of scoffing, accusatory way but just in the processing way, is part of life. It’s part of the Christian life.”
Historian Timothy Larsen situates George MacDonald within a Victorian understanding of faith and doubt. Faith, defined as “what you believe in your heart,” rose to an unprecedented value in the Victorian era, corresponding with a tendency toward unhealthy introspection and preoccupation with the problem of doubt. MacDonald held that these problems hinged upon understanding faith only in cerebral terms. He rejected a narrow Enlightenment view of faith, focusing instead upon trust in the person of Christ — specifically, the self-authenticating revelation of Christ in the Gospels. Larsen discusses how, like many Romantics, MacDonald worked toward the reenchantment of the world through the imagination, writing fairy tales as a medium to explore the meaning of reality.