literature and religion (or theology)

by Anna Blanch on May 3, 2012

Theology is of Ultimate and Irreducible Importance – David Jasper

If words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of
most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized – S.T. Coleridge

The (inter)disciplines of literature and religion and literature and theology operate in the margins of the single disciplines. Like a third culture child they sometimes struggle to feel at home in the primary disciplines as much as the interdisciplinary field struggles to achieve legitimacy and acceptance. Some Theologians claim that Literature and Theology is watered down theology, and within the discrete academy of Literature Scholars, Literature and Religion and Literature and Theology occupies almost such a niche as to be archaic, dismissed as passe. The problem in the latter situation lies in the examples of badly done Theology in the discussion of literature which is at its simplest, badly done literary criticism by anyone’s definition.

David Jasper is persuasive in his distinction between the the fields of Literature and Religion and that of Literature and Theology. He argues that it is not just about religion as a phenomenon within culture, or as a subject examinable by sociological, anthropological, even psychological, methodology. The Study of Literature and Religion, then, should be apologetic as well as hermeneutic, theological primarily and anthropological secondarily, narrowly doctrinal as well as broadly humanistic.* As Jasper argues:
“The tendency is to banish the entire theological enterprise (and here I limit myself to the Judeo-Christian tradition), its philosophy, spirituality, and sense of the finite and infinite, to vague terms like ‘otherness’ and ‘alterity.’ Religion (and literature) without commitment.” (David Jasper, 1989: 1-2)

It is not enough to label oneself as a Literature and Religion or a Literature and Theology scholar. Though given the general perceptions within the Academy why one would do this for kicks is beyond me. Proficiency in both discrete fields must be achieved. Therein lies the rub, when it is a matter of apologetics and not just hermeneutics the stakes are the highest possible.

Jasper also reminds us of Coleridge’s (Aids to Reflection, 1825) warning, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than TRUTH, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.”

In another place David Jenkins suggests that “the dreadful thing about so much theology is that, in relation to the reality of the human situation, it is so superficial. Theological categories (really mere theological formulae) are ‘armed without sufficient depth of undertstanding insensitively misunderstood. Theologians need therefore to stand under the judgments of the insights of literature before they can speak with true theological force of, and to, the world this literature reflects and illuminates.” (“Literature and the Theologian” in Coulson, John.  Theology and the University (Baltimore and London), 1964. p 219).

The same can possibly be said also of art and drama. When one approaches theology through literature, one realises, Jasper argues, the ‘sometimes’ unwelcome qualities of “lack of definition, of mystery, of fluidity” (1989, 5). The mystery of gospel defies simple categorisation and the systematisation familiar to systematic theology and literary formalism alike. Jasper contends that there is a danger of succumbing to arrogance on the part of the literature scholar when considering “what is confessedly and ultimately a theological and religious concern” especially where the literature and the creation of it becomes the religion and the altar as in the religion of literature and poetry – like Yeats in which “true faith” seems to be a contrivance of the artist and poets (1989, 5).

So is it a matter of the right ordering of loves? is literature usupring the role rightfully belonging to theology – is it yet another academic jockeying contest? Is it a matter of semantics?

Jasper plainly states that Literature must be subservient to Theology. But how are we to reconcile this?

I grate slightly at this “us and them” battle; the subservience of disciplines is a more troubling proposition to me than it possibly ought to be. How about putting this in a slightly different way – What if i said instead that Literature and its study must be considered secondary to exploring God and how we relate to him and understand him. It may be that I have a naive understanding of what constitutes theology but I am also not convinced that the study of Literature and theology is watered down theology, especially when it is done well.

This post was first published on Transpositions in 2009.
* The latter is a paraphrase but completely opposite in meaning to Giles Gunn The Interpretation of Otherness, Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination. NY: 1979, p 5)


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