Towards the end of the Benedictine office of Lauds there exists a prayer which uses the old King James English which seems like a shock of cold water amidst the pleasant praises of God’s majesty–“and blessed are the paps which gave suck to Christ the Lord.” Such language could put off different people for different reasons, but mostly I think it boils down to a “disturbing” physicality and particularity. High-flown theological language suits us better. A Christian must confess that the second Person of the Trinity became a male human being in all fulness. The Benedicitine office, as other prayers of the Church, puts the focus on “higher” things of majesty and praise, but rightly will not conclude without bringing us back to earth and ourselves, reminding us of this stark truth. Clearly, Christ did nurse at the breasts of the Virgin Mary, and we must decide whether we celebrate this or feel embarrassed and horrified by it.
Many react with such embarrassment to time. Temporality flows inexorably, which makes those moments of glory, grandeur, and insight we experience at once so powerful and frustrating. We long for their return, but they will not come even for the asking. Our society in general seems embarrassed and frustrated by Time (manifested in some respects with bands like Kiss, Judas Priest, and even the Rolling Stones apparently still touring). Some may accept Time in the sense of merely resigning oneself to its power, but while this may be a superior attitude over ignoring or “rebelling” against Time, it too seems to see the physicality of time not as a blessing but as part of what we must endure in our going hence.
William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination examines the question of physicality and particularity in theology and literature. I lack the depth and breadth of reading needed to truly benefit from this book, but the applications of his insights go beyond the literary and into life and redemption itself. Lynch keeps focus on his crucial question: Does God accomplish His purposes through the finite, or in spite of it? Authors, “regular people,” and civilizations face the temptation to either ignore or despise creation, thereby failing to see through it and discern the patterns of grace. Lynch diagrams this basic idea like so,
with the diagram on the left as the proper path. Heraclitus may have had the same intuition, stating that, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.” Tension has always existed in Christian thought between 1) Moving down “the mountain” as moving away from God (a pattern present from the Garden of Eden, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, etc.), and seeing that movement as a kind of death, and 2) Recognition that we have no other option other than to take this passage down into death to return to God whole, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it,” and “unless a seed falleth into the earth and die, it bears no fruit.”* Escape from this tension provides only an illusion of freedom, and in fact produces a kind of slavery to a fear of things, and even of ourselves. Our glimpse into the infinite comes only through the finite.** Dante’s grand cosmological vision would not have been complete without tethering it to 14th century Florence. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky knows that Aloysha’s great mystical visions can only come through his engagement with his wretchedly dysfunctional family.
But many modern authors cannot embrace this paradoxical pattern. Lynch examines a few different metaphysical categories to demonstrate the paradox. For Proust, time is man’s greatest enemy. The cubist painter can not accept the finite image–instead they must represent all of the possible angles of vision of the minding a futile attempt to see only the abstract. Lynch writes,
Perhaps the most ambitious, most brilliant, and most sophisticated vendetta launched against time was that of Descartes, who first put forward the notion of a pure intelligence within us not subject to time. . . . when that ambition takes the form of a desire to wipe out the succession and the partial quantities of time, and to live in an isolated area of the personality where the temporal has no meaning or power, then a grave folly has been committed. . . . The “man in the street” knows what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body. The peasant knows he will be healed not only by doctors but also by time. [He knows that time] is as much a part of him as his own skin, out of which he cannot leap.Christ and Apollo, p. 50, 53
Christ exemplifies this true approach to time as a positive good: He refuses to cling to childhood (Lk 2:41-52), He refuses the easy path to glory (Mt. 4), and allows His death to come to Him “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).
Different literary genres can make the same mistake of rejecting creation. In tragedy, Lynch cites the modern tendency that “exaltation must come from exaltation, and that infinites must come out of infinites.” This path leads to two consequences:
- The idea that the achievement of great tragedy has its roots in the mystical conquest of the “human spirit” against pain–the tragic figure as exalted conqueror, which
- In fact makes the writing of tragedy more difficult, not easier, because it seems that tragedy, like death, doesn’t really exist.
Comedies too can make the same error. Comedy (in the modern sense of “what makes us laugh”) often deals with the breakdown of order and expectations–all well and good. But if we ask ourselves why A Midsummer Night’s Dream still gets staged four centuries after its debut, we need look no further than that “the play, [even] in its wildest fantasy [in Act 5], is only dealing with Snug the joiner and Bottom the weaver.” T.S. Eliot commented that, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” “I am not so sure of that,” Lynch writes, “The bigger truth is that they cannot stand very much unreality.”
Perhaps part of the problem lies in that great literary minds can see their idea so clearly that the idea burns away all around it if they fail to take care. Here then, lies Lynch’s “Univocal Man:”
He is, emotionally, full of extraordinary energies–in fact, a kind of energy seems to mark the whole of his character. He has a genius for a unilateral passion, and is, and therefore always has been–a passionate center of good and bad in civilization. . . . Superficially, then, he resembles the religious genius. . . . It is only by exercising great caution that we will avoid this profound mistake and will refrain from giving this character the veneration that is not his due. . . . The univocal man has no respect for reality; he is contemptuous of it, or distorts it, or flattens it–or he refuses to take responsibility in the face of it. . . . The univocal man is not free. He is rigid, unbending, fixed. One can understand the fixity of the idea of logic and essences, but his fixed ideas are born of a fixity of all the forces of his personality and a refusal to remain open to existence. . . . To put the matter simply, these would reject all the unities and relations projected by any sentence, for example, “The horse is white,” for a horse is a horse, and white is white, and that is the end of the discussion.pp. 141, 144, 147
We might say that the Univocal man has too much “purity” in him. He cannot or will not mix his idea with the stuff of reality. That this should happen to a literary type is no surprise. In general they write because they are gripped by an idea or image.^ The one who mixes things up too much would likely never have the clarity or organization to get anything down on paper to begin with. Lynch shows us Eugene O’Neil, who wants us to be sad, and so gives us Sadness in Mourning Becomes Electra, with her mansion as her prison. Or, even more absurdly, he gives us Laughter in Lazarus Laughed, with this ridiculous passage where Lazarus speaks to Caligula,
You are proud of being evil! What if there is no evil? Believe in the Healthy God called Man within you! . . . Believe! What if you are a man and man is despicable? Men are also unimportant! Men pass! Like rain into the sea! The sea remains! Man remains! . . . For Man death is not! Man, Son of God’s laughter, is! . . . Believe in the laughing God within you!
Alas, too many exclamation points. O’Neill wants rapture but he attempts to achieve it by rebounding off of creation and denying it altogether. Only a fool would say that “death is not.”
With a denial of creation will come an absence of transcendence, purchased at the price of avoiding all mess. George Bernard Shaw claimed a sort of spiritualism but could not stand religion actually practiced, writing,
In Italy, for instance, churches are used in such a way that priceless pictures become smeared with filthy tallow-soot, and have to be rescued by the temporal power and placed in national galleries. But worse than this are the innumerable daily services which disturb the truly religious visitor. If these were decently and intelligently conducted by genuine mystics to whom the mass were no mere rite or miracle, but genuine communion, the celebrants might reasonably claim a place in the church as their share of the common right to its use. But the average Italian priest, personally unclean and with a chronic catarrh in his nose from living in frowsy, ill-ventilated rooms, punctuating his gabbled Latin only by expectorate hawking . . . this unseemly wretch should be seized and put out . . . until he learns to behave himself.
Whatever communion Shaw desires, it would have to include rite, miracle, and perhaps even the dirty priest, for it to happen at all. But for Shaw, such things are too messy and not “spiritual” enough. We should not suppose that he would enter in absent the dirty priest, either–something physical would always bar his way. It is much easier to comment online, or even to read books.
We in our day have the bigger and smaller problem of not even being able to enter into politics. The problem is smaller in that religion is more important than politics, but bigger in that we cannot hope to solve big questions if we cannot solve smaller ones. Too many on the right and left want nothing to do with mixing their ideas in the mess of politics. Some want a Caesar from above to wave a magic wand, some want the “innocent” people to rise up from below to abolish the Bill of Rights. Neither will achieve anything like an ordered communion, for neither wants to find the path to grace through creation. They do have their dreams. These dreams will have to content them, for they can know nothing of sorrow or joy.
*Perhaps this might explain in part Christ’s sometime reluctance to work miracles. Miracles, could, hypothetically, interrupt the U-shaped pattern and hinder us on our journey back to God.
**If we learn to see this pattern and interpret the Scriptures more analogically and less in a directly moral fashion, many things make themselves more clear. For example, we should honor the elderly not simply because of their wisdom–for some have none of it–but because they are closer to death, and thus also closer to glory. So too, this explains why the Church has always warned less against the “earthly,” “physical” sins of gluttony, too many women, etc., than the “spiritual” sins of pride. Many have gone down the path of fleshly indulgence and found the place where it turns upwards to God. But no path to God exists through pride. Of course, it is best still not to dabble in either.
**The literary, educated types–one always has to watch out for them . . .