David Lyle Jeffrey on the poetic character of the voice of God
Some time back, I had a conversation with a pastor about a theologian whose work had excited some controversy. “I just wish he didn’t use so many metaphors,” he exclaimed decisively, this last word uttered (as I recall) with a vehement sense that some sacred standard had been violated. I immediately thought of replying, “Because God does,” but quickly realized that there was no room here for argument.
After telling his provocative story about a sower who went out to sow, Jesus received a sour complaint from his disciples. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” One wonders what they thought of all of the poetic speech ascribed to God in the Scriptures. The word of the Lord as spoken by his prophets is so energized with poetic power that John Donne once described God as a poet, “a very figurative and metaphorical God.”
Chapter one in David Lyle Jeffrey’s book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal) is called “Poetry and the Voice of God.” In it, after citing many passages from both Testaments — including the remarkable and sobering imagery from the book of Revelation — he asks what we are to make of this manner of expression in what is obviously a matter of deep consequence.
“At the least, we are obligated to see that one of the many ways in which God’s thoughts are above our own, his ways ‘higher’ than our ways, is his preference for a mode of discourse that is the very opposite of simple indicative prose or reductive proposition: it is exalted, not casual. Though some much prefer plain speech in a series of commandments that could be mastered in a system, the God whose voice booms through the prophets, in Job, and in the vision of John, as in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, does not so limit himself. Figural speech, irony, riddling aphorisms, paradoxes, melismatic Hebrew parallelism, metaphor, and story upon story are what we get instead. Caveat lector — it turns out that in neither Testament, when he is describing disclosing his nature and purpose, does the Lord of heaven and earth always talk like we do. In our own culture’s terms, God does not talk like a lawyer, a philosopher, or even a theologian, let alone a TV talk-show host. Very often, however, he speaks like a poet. We might wish it otherwise, or be lulled into imagining that the Word of God should be coming to us in the lingo of the coffee shop or the faux-authoritative patter of the newscast, but we would be hard-pressed to find much warrant for that in Scripture. The fact that God speaks poetry when the issues are most weighty suggests that appreciating his poetry might be an essential element in our knowledge of God; that is, we should understand him as a poet — the originary poet — the One who writes the world.”
“Beginning in the twentieth century, biblical translations have tended toward a more prosaic rendering, and the fashionable imposition of culturally chic paraphrases has deadened many an ear to the actual rhetorical manner of divine self-disclosure, which is seldom colloquial. The tendency to make it so is not exclusively a modern presumption; in our time, however, it has been the poets more often than the preachers who have heard the divine Voice in something more akin to its original register, and have responded in the spirit of admiration and respect. One of the goals of this study is to consider how poets have frequently been in this sense better translators, not least in that so many have understood intuitively that the manner of divine speech in Holy Scripture is not incidental to the matter of it. Certain Christian poets in particular have discovered that understanding something of the poetry of divine speech in the Bible gives us knowledge of the Holy that we can ill afford to be without if we truly wish to understand, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘him with whom we have to do’ (Heb. 4:13). In short, if the witness of Scripture as it comes down to us is to be heeded, one of the most appropriate routes to a competent biblical theology may require us to get out of our prosy habits of mind and, at least occasionally, rise up and into the poetry of God.
“To some readers it may seem an infelicity that I have just used the figurations ‘down’ and ‘up’ to suggest a distinction between our usual way of speaking and the dominant way Scripture represents God speaking — awkward because today we resist hierarchies, even in genre, and typically see ‘leveling down’ as a virtuous activity and elevated speech of any kind as something of an affront to our democratic sensibilities. This is among the reasons that poetry in our culture has fallen into neglect in comparison to a century or so ago. Sometimes poetry is now seen as a kind of elitism; in yet other contexts, it is sometimes seen as childish. Ironically, both forms of denigration capture something true about poetry, but in a way that misses the point as we need to address it here — namely, that God seems disposed to use poetry in communicating with us concerning who he is.”
“Succinctly, a poem is a certain form of words, sometimes rhythmic or musical in character, in which meaning arises indirectly, not only from the lexical denotation of its constituent words but also from a synthesis of rearrangement such that new insight or fresh appreciation results. For ancient writers it is essentially alieniloquium, saying things in an unexpected or strange way. Almost everyone recognizes, even if deprived by poor education of familiarity with poetry, that poetic speech is not merely different from normal speech, but that socially it is often intended as a ‘higher’ way of communicating. There are analogues in other spheres of life. At festival seasons, our table may be furnished with tableware (such as fine china) that we don’t use every day. Guests at such times, even if they have no personal liking for a beautifully set table or are intimidated by the challenge of which fork to pick up for the salad, will understand at once that this tableware has been ‘set apart’ for special occasions, the best that the family’s hospitality can offer. Things ‘set apart’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew qodesh, ‘holy,’ is just that, ‘set apart’) have the potential to elevate us all when we learn to understand and enjoy them as special gifts.”
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Read “Becoming a serious and receptive reader” for an excerpt from David Lyle Jeffrey’s essay “Read Wisely, Read Well.”
David Lyle Jeffrey offers a thoughtful reading of C. S. Lewis’s account of thoughtful reading
One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal was David Lyle Jeffrey, talking about his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (BakerAcademic, 2019). An earlier collection of essays by Jeffrey, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture (Baylor, 2003), includes a chapter titled “Reading Wisely, Reading Well.” In it, Jeffrey writes that the task of reading well requires “two apparently contradictory virtues — intellectual toughness and imaginative sympathy. To put this paradox another way, the mature or faithful reader (they are the same person) is one who simultaneously employs both disciplines of the analytical mind and generosities of an open heart. That the disciplines should be as rigorous as the generosities amiable is the sine qua non of a fine reader. In lesser readers there is usually a notable imbalance to one side or another.”
The rest of the essay contains Jeffrey’s reflections on what made C. S. Lewis such a good reader, with some insights from Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961) about the act(s) of reading. Jeffrey offers a summary of “Lewis’s account of the two balanced elements in mature reading. He regards both elements as essential. The first is that self-forgetful and submissive abandonment to the authority of the text which one sees in an intelligent child. The second comes later: that disciplined, informed, and discerning questioning of the text which is the work of an educated mind.
“Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to distinguish ‘true’ or ‘literary’ readers from ‘unliterary’ ones in this sense: his ‘true’ or ‘literary’ reader reads ‘every work seriously in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can,’ since, as Lewis says, ‘the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.’
“‘Bad,’ or ‘unliterary’ readers, by contrast, never get self out of the way. In practice they do not even much like reading — often for pretty much the same reason they do not like listening. They almost never read a book more than once, even a book they have thought better than most. What they prefer to the text is its information (a digest of the ‘main points’) whether in a class or in church. ‘They are,’ says Lewis, ‘like those pupils who want to have everything explained to them and do not much attend to the explanation.’ If such a person turns to the task of reading’s tough intellectual disciplines it is likely to be also at second hand; criticism or exegesis done by others which gives one the illusion of having ‘mastered’ the text, or of having been safely placed beyond its reach. ‘Especially poisonous,’ says Lewis, ‘is that kind of teaching which encourages [us] to approach every literary work with suspicion’ — that is, teaching which encourages a predisposition to aloofness so categorical as to render reading itself next to pointless.
“Among other things, what we learn from Lewis about reading, then, is that it is almost inescapably an ethical as well as an analytical activity. It obliges us to choose between acceptance and denial, trust and suspicion, self-effacement and mere selfishness. In ‘good reading,’ Lewis writes, as in mature love, ‘we escape from our self into one another,’ thus ‘transcending our own competitive particularity.’ The educational parallel is exact: ‘In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.’ Part of the ethic is to acknowledge that there is an abundant reality which transcends our own ego and that reality is not, after all, merely self-referential.”
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If you’re interested in further reflections on the existential and ethical aspects of reading, you should know about On Books and Reading, a MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology. Seven thoughtful individuals with various vocations talk with host Ken Myers about why and how engagement with books changes our lives. The guests are poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, literary critic Sven Birkerts, painter Makoto Fujimura, columnist Maggie Jackson, pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson, preacher and media ecologist Gregory Edward Reynolds, and portrait painter Catherine Prescott.
David Lyle Jeffrey’s writing is featured in God’s Patient Stet, an article about the poetry of Richard Wilbur, read aloud by Ken Myers as one of our Audio Reprint series.
John Webster on rapture and receptivity in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
On Volume 149 of the Journal, Matthew Levering talks about his book The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Theology. In his book’s opening chapter, Levering notes that given the depth and breadth of von Balthasar’s learning and wisdom, attempting to write an introductory book to his work comes perilously close the height of foolishness. (Then again, people write introductory books to the Bible or to the history of the Church.)
As Levering introduces his own introduction, he reflects the three-fold structure of von Balthasar’s trilogy and his own book with this summary: “[T]o a modern world forgetful of God and Christ, von Balthasar wishes to proclaim the beauty of beings, the goodness of history, and the truth of love. He wishes to help us remember that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8), that God has ‘destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ in history (Eph 1:5), and that we must now live ‘according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4:7).”
In an 1983 article titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Paschal Mystery,” John Webster (then Lecturer in Theology at St. John’s College, Durham) offered a helpful glimpse at some of the key themes in von Balthasar’s work. The three-page article includes four subheadings: Beauty; Jesus, the Form of God; Incarnation and Trinity; and The Mystery of Holy Saturday. Since the entire text is both brief and available on-line, I’ll offer here only two very short extracts.
“Von Balthasar’s whole theological enterprise could be not improperly described as an attempt to restate the centrality of the category of beauty for Christian faith and Christian theology. His work is pervaded by a conviction that the self-revelation of God is not only truth to be apprehended by the mind nor only commands to exercise the will, but also a manifestation of the sheer beauty and splendour of the being of God. And so his theology seeks ‘to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful’ (The Glory of the Lord, 9). For at the heart of the Christian faith lies the experience of being overwhelmed and mastered by the radiance of God’s glory as he shows himself to the world.
“It would be easy, but ultimately mistaken, to dismiss this unfamiliar theological starting-point as a kind of religious aestheticism. In fact, von Balthasar’s theology of beauty occupies the place which in more familiar accounts of Christian truth is occupied by the doctrine of revelation. That is to say, it is an attempt to identify the self-manifestation of God through which he communicates himself to the world. This self-manifestation is not, however, propositional: God reveals, not a message about himself but rather the splendour of his own being. This splendour is both authoritative and compelling: its claim is absolute, its sheer occurence as the irruption of God’s glory into human history commands by attracting us and taking us beyond ourselves in rapture. And out of such a confrontation with the majesty of God’s being, theology is born. . . .”
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian's task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar on the maturing of aesthetic taste
“At first, the science of art may appear to be a material collection of those things that generally pass for beautiful, while the subjective judgment of taste on what is beautiful seems subject to the most extreme variations. The young especially experience this subjective aspect with particular intensity and tend to generalise it. Since they have not yet acquired objective criteria for the evaluation of works of art, and because they have not yet learned to distinguish by seeing and listening, they compensate with the ‘enthusiasm’ proper to their age. They find themselves in or transport themselves to a state of mind, an interior ‘vibration’, which transfigures nature, art, friendship and love in their sight, and which communicates the experience of the beautiful like a drug whose effect, as experience shows, quickly disappears. People who cling to this view of the subjective nature of taste’s judgment have remained immature adolescents. By developing his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful, the maturing person gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful in itself. In the process of their development, the subjective elements of perception (which, doubtless, include state of mind and fantasy) more and more pass into the service of objective perception. Even in the case of a masterpiece, the mature observer of art can without difficulty give an objective and largely conceptual basis for his judgment.”
— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I. Seeing the Form
Reinhard Hütter on the necessity of the virtue of religion
I am heartened each time I read a remark from some pundit or other that our society suffers from a failure to take seriously “what it means to be human.” But not infrequently, my sense of encouragement is severely dampened when I see in the prose that follows an all-too slight account of the meaning of our humanity. For, when social or political life is discussed, the characteristics of the human that are typically named are those readily discernible by the social sciences without guidance from theology or philosophy.
Perhaps I’m alert to such constricted accounts of “what it means to be human” because my own thinking about culture, society, and politics suffered for a long time from the same imposing of boundaries. I used to assume that public life could be well ordered without reference to distinctively theological claims, without deliberate engagement with the One in whom all things hold together. The term that summarized my thinking about a place account of what it means to be human was “our mere humanity,” by which I meant human existence and experience without reference to (among other things) the Trinity, the Resurrection, Pentecost, or the Second Coming. “Human flourishing” (the currently popular term) was, I believed, fully imaginable and achievable within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame.” Rejecting that claim was to put oneself at odds with the ordering principles of virtually every modern institution and practice. Those distinctive, theologically described claims were fine for private life, but not in public life. I was not an advocate for a naked public square, just a scantily clad one.
In case MARS HILL AUDIO listeners haven’t noticed, I’ve changed my mind about this and, for a number of years, the guests I’ve interviewed have often been explicitly critical of what I once believed. Take, for example, Reinhard Hütter, the author of Bound for Beatitude, a guest on volume 149 of the Journal. For those who haven’t yet heard this interview, I summarized in an earlier post Hütter’s argument that “what it means to be human” is to be a creature made for fulfillment in union with the Triune Creator. As he writes, “Humanity is ordained to the gratuitous supernatural final end of union with God.”
That summary claim is from a chapter in his book called “The Preparation for Beatitude—Justice toward God: The Virtue of Religion.” Consider that final phrase “virtue of religion.” Listeners may remember my conversation with historian Peter Harrison (discussing The Territories of Science and Religion on Volume 131) who explained how the concept of “religion” has radically changed its assumed meaning. Where once it described an interior disposition, in the early modern West — concurrent with the rise of modern notions of science — it came to mean a body of propositions and the community united in affirming those beliefs. William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence (discussed on Volume 101) and elsewhere similarly argues that the conventional understanding of “religion” is a modern development, and not a neutral one: as he writes, “the [conventional] concept of religion . . . is a development of the modern liberal state; the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies.” All of which, it should be noted, expands the power of the state over every aspect of life.
Back to Hütter’s discussion of the virtue of religion, which in Aquinas’s view is (in Hütter’s summary) “absolutely central for genuine human flourishing.” The moral virtue of religion is analogous to the cardinal virtue of justice. Where justice predisposes us to render to everyone what he or she is due, the virtue of religion inclines us toward acts of honor and reverence to God.
Early in his chapter discussing the virtue of religion, Hütter describes the modern assumption that human life can be lived quite happily without religion, in any sense of the word. Hütter insists that, in Aquinas’s view (and his own) this is a dangerous assumption: “Doing without religion constitutes a grave impediment in regard to attaining the ultimate end and places one, therefore, on a margin of human existence.”
He continues: “For the educated elites of the Western Hemisphere, doing without religion is the welcome effect of an ineluctable progress from ignorance and bigotry to enlightenment and tolerance. For them, doing without religion does not constitute at all one of the margins of human existence but, quite on the contrary, the precondition for the ultimate flourishing of the sovereign self.”
Hütter then goes on to discuss five different definitions of religion used in contemporary parlance. The first of these is political liberalism’s use of religion. “This use is so utterly influential because it is part of the conceptual matrix of a normative secularism that frames — primarily by way of the media — the public discussion in virtually all Western societies. The positive contrast of terms to this negative use of religion are ‘secular reason’ and its present instantiation, ‘secular discourse.’ ‘Religion’ stands for sets of beliefs that are presumably more or less arbitrary in nature, beliefs impossible to warrant and adjudicate rationally. Because of its inherently irrational nature — so secularist reasoning goes — ‘religion’ must establish its claims by way of more or less subtle forms of violence, ranging from psychological manipulation to open terror, torture, and religious war. In order to secure peace in the public square, a pure ‘secular’ reason and discourse must dominate the public sphere, while ‘religion’ in all shapes and forms is to be relegated to the private, or at best, social sphere.”
This paragraph continues with some important observations about how this understanding of “religion” guides the interpretation of “religious freedom” in liberal democracies. Hütter’s description deserves serious reflection, especially by those who believe that their “right to religious liberty” offers significant protection from tyrannical overreach by the State:
“While in virtually all Western societies there exists, of course, a constitutional right to religious freedom, the political and judicial powers of current Western liberal democracies interpret this religious freedom not as a constitutional human right antecedent to normative political categories of ‘public’ versus ‘private,’ but merely as a political right within them. Normatively framed in such a way, the right to religious freedom turns into a right of free exercise that pertains first and foremost to the private sphere and, under increasingly restrictive conditions, also to the social sphere. According to this by now quasi hegemonic secularist interpretation of the freedom of religion, the public sphere belongs exclusively to ‘secular’ reason and discourse. Religious belief and practice are constitutionally protected as long as they remain within the parameters of the private and social spheres.”
Later in the chapter, Hütter raises significant objections to the limits of this protection. Just as “it is according to the very nature of the virtue of justice to transcend and to encompass both the public and the private spheres,” so “the virtue of religion, rightly understood and practiced . . . resists submission to the superimposition of a political disciplinary distinction that compromises the essence of the virtue itself. . . . Being directed to the highest good, the summum bonum, reverence of and honor to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the first truth and sovereign good — in short, the triune Lord — this virtue is only practiced authentically according to its nature when it is practiced in the political public such that the political public itself is rightly ordered to the first principles of the creation and government of things.
“Now, to say the least, this is obviously not how contemporary democracies constitute themselves in the spirit of sovereign secularism. Banishing the practice of the virtue of religion from the political public is a constitutive element of their self-understanding. Of course, to force the virtue of religion into the purely private sphere is to force it to turn into its own counterfeit. . . .
“Not only does the virtue of religion suffer from the profoundly alienating imposition of its privatization, but also does the body politic suffer eventually. One of the foremost German legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenforde, argued famously — and persistently — that a truly just, and therefore free, democratic society lives from moral sources that transcend its scope, sources that secular liberalism per se cannot provide and replenish on its own terms, but on which a truly free and just society at the same time vitally depends. These sources are fundamentally connected with and accessed by way of the public practice of the virtue of religion. And this practice of religio, according to Böckenforde, will be ideally and preferably Christian because it is nothing but the Christian understanding of the human being that is presupposed in the tenets and the program of genuine liberalism: the human being as created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with an indelible dignity and an intrinsic orientation toward transcendence, an orientation expressed first and foremost in humanity’s universal desire for knowledge and happiness and consequently in the public practice of the virtue of religion that gives honor and reference to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the triune creator and Lord who is the fount of every good. By privatizing the virtue of religion, late modern secularist democracies cut themselves off from the transpolitical moral and spiritual roots that fund the public ethos of their own citizens. This development leads to the transformation of the citizen into the essentially private consumer of goods, the sovereign self in the order of consumption, for whom the public ‘secular discourse’ is nothing else but the interminable negotiation of the competing interests of consumers, customers, and clients.”