‘It only seems easy to speak about our experience and knowledge of God and his way in the measure that we insulate our religious speech and theological imagination from the endlessly complex and disturbing world in which that speech finds reference. Religious and theological speech have become so disconnected from the conversations of our culture that we lack the language in which to say what needs to be said simply’ (Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, 217).
For a long time the categories constructed by the Fathers and the Councils seemed adequate to expound the Christian vision. Now we are beginning to see that these were fragile abstractions from the texture of the Christian experience, and that they correspond to a Greek metaphysical dispensation of meaning which is no longer the structuring economy of the world in which we live. Even the basic terms of the standard theological language – God, Logos, Father, Son, grace – are of a metaphorical and poetic order, withering when cut off from the context that provides their sense and offering a shaky foundation for the conceptual refinements of the theology spun out of them. So we find the challenge thrust on us of constructing a new Christian language, which avoids manifest infidelity to the concerns of the old, but avoids the equal infidelity of slavish repetition that cannot recapture the life the old language had in its day.
Renewal of language has come through the return to Scripture, but this too can become an anachronistic enterprise unless the contemporary equivalents of the scriptural words are found. It is modern literature which provides the indispensable horizon within which Scripture can become luminously intelligible for us, for the Bible resists definition as anything narrower than literature; it cannot be reduced to philosophical or theological summary and its political and spiritual aspects (overemphasized in contemporary theology) are embedded in a dense literary texture from which they cannot be cleanly extracted. Thus a literary awareness is needed to prevent us from making our religion something narrower than it is.
Newspapers or the human sciences can attune us to a `complex and disturbing world' and to `the conversations of our culture.' Literature reveals that world as recollected and re-imagined. A major literary work is a restructuring of the world according to a new set of laws, and it will produce hundreds of imitations which attempt to exploit these new laws to the full. There is a resemblance between the creation of a new literary universe and the founding of a new religion. To apply religious categories directly to the world of the newspaper can be invasive, and implies a coarsening of these categories. The world as refracted in literature offers a more hospitable climate for religious thought and challenges us to refine our religious conceptions. Thus it can serve to mediate between religion and the `real world.'
In recent years theologians have been sensing that the dialogue with literature must be pursued more intensively, as a privileged form of engagement with the spiritual currents of the age. The task is fraught with methodological difficulties. Jean-Pierre Jossua has taken up the tradition of Henri Bremond, Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar in Pour une histoire religieuse de l'expérience littéraire (Paris: Beauchesne, 1985; 1990) which deals mostly with religious experiences and images in French literature. Karl-Josef Kuschel is one of the German theologians who have sought a witness of Jesus-Christ in contemporary literature and art; again his focus is usually on explicitly religious themes (Jesus in der deutschsprachigen Gegenswartsliteratur, Munich: Piper). In the US, the debate between theology and literature, pioneered by Amos N. Wilder and Nathan A. Scott, was inhibited by the New Critical insistence on the organic and autonomous character of literary works, which tabooed discussion of their wider existential ramifications and resonances (see David H. Hesla, ‘Religion and Literature: The Second Stage’, JAAR 46, 1978). Now, although the status of `religion and literature' studies is securely established, it is probably still regarded as a relatively soft branch of literary studies, not at the theoretical cutting edge. T.S. Eliot's prescription that `literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint' (Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1932, 388) has not yet given birth to a firmly structured discipline of theological criticism comparable to the sociological, psychoanalytical, Marxist, gender-political, deconstructionist, new-historicist approaches, and indeed the religious approach to literature is being swallowed up in a more widely based anthropological approach in which religion is but one strand. The various reviews dealing with the topic, such as “Literature and Theology”, are marked by a lack of firm orientation. The field in which the greatest inroads have been made, in departments of literature and of theology alike, is the study of the Bible as literature, an enterprise well surveyed in Stephen D. Moore's Literary Criticism and the Gospels (Yale UP, 1989).
Literary and theological studies are drawn to one another by a common sense of lack and a promise of mutual enrichment. On the side of literature, there are symptoms of crisis not less acute than any found among theologians. Great texts call for interpretation, and without an active readership their presence in our civilization goes to waste. They become at best cultural ornaments, just as Mozart and Beethoven are reduced to background music. But does this provide sufficient justification for the vast university industry of literary criticism? The study of literature is gloriously empirical, endlessly unpredictable; yet the current hypertrophy of theory has robbed it of much of this resilience, and even apart from this the classic texts have been so relentlessly exegeted that it is hard to believe they reserve fresh surprises for the reader (rather than the patterns ingenious critics will continue to claim to have found in them). Every so often a new wave of theory renews the discipline; the best recent one is new historicism, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt, which puts the labors of cultural creation in relation to ideological and religious struggles and broader social negotiations. The tendency of such theory may be to dissolve literary studies into a broader anthropological discipline, as theology is menaced with dissolution into religious studies or philosophy of religion.
Now literature can be given a new lease of life by the encounter with theology: for the theological outlook focuses on something at the very heart of the literary process - its spiritual inspiration and upshot - and restores to literature a sense of its autonomous weight and dignity. Critical purists have too often studied literature as an end in itself. Yet just as a great work of literature opens up on its historical context, which it both illuminates and is illuminated by, so it also opens on a religious context, on a dimension of life which it is the business of theologians to assess and explore.
On the side of theology, the hope with which it turns to literature is that of a firmer rooting in the texture of human culture and human life. Study of religion is incomplete if it cannot deal with the enigmatic religious import of great literature. A regrounding of both literature and theology in the wider cultural history they share can allow Christian students and teachers to rebuild the bridges between the Gospel and the modern world by allowing the Gospel can be allowed to unfold quietly in minds shaped by literary culture.
Literature is a vast ocean, far surpassing in breadth the regions of experience covered by traditional religious discourses and their attendant theologies. We need to plunge those discourses in that ocean, if their credibility and vitality is to be restored. Part of the work to be done is to reread the Bible and the great theological writers as literature. The provisional adequacy of the discourses of Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Bernard, Bonaventure, Luther, Calvin, John of the Cross, Newman and Barth depended almost as much on the texture of their voices, enhanced by mastery of rhetoric, as on the categories they deployed. Theology has aimed too exclusively at conceptual clarity, often in the spirit of lawyers drafting some piece of legislation and aiming at precise and foolproof definitions. Intelligent theology since Origen has largely consisted in a shuttling back and forth between biblical and philosophical sources; this has become a sterile, incestuous proceeding. Theology has to be in dialogue with all the discourses of humanity, not with those of the professional philosopher only. If human experience reaches the theologian's attention only as filtered through the categories of the professional philosopher, then theological commentary on that experience will be doubly abstract and caricatural. It is more and more apparent that if we talk of theological questions without that refined linguistic sensitivity which a literary training gives we shall be constantly falling into the crude or the vacuous.
Moreover, our literature is bursting with questions and appeals to theology, questions which have gone unheard and unanswered. Western civilization has lived through a long period of great religious confusion, to which literature has given the subtlest and most painful testimony. For theology to enter into dialogue with literature demands first of all a recognition of the immense gulf of alienation that stretches between such writers as Joyce and Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens, and the Christian discourse that they found oppressive, mystifying and spiritually vacuous. One may say that there is an established gap between the discourse of preachers and that of litterateurs. If they refer to one another at all it is in terms of the most distant and muddled acquaintance. Those thinkers and writers who have registered most convincingly the crisis of traditional belief must be accepted as co-creators of the new religious consciousness. Their voices must enter as intimately into a contemporary enunciation of the Gospel as they have entered into the minds to which the Gospel is addressed. Otherwise there will remain an intolerable split between one's identity as believer and one's identity as a human being. Modern doubt and traditional faith must entwine to yield a practicable religiosity for today.
An alternative spirituality has been maturing in our culture, and its chief representatives have emerged in the world of literature rather than in that of theology. It is the poets who are the `unacknowledged legislators' of what may be believed by the contemporary adult, since their work bears more immediately and comprehensively on people's experience than philosophy or theology can. Some major artists, such as Eliot, Claudel, and Stravinsky, have attempted to bring religious tradition and modernism into conjunction. But their achievement is limited by the air of restoration attaching to their use of traditional religious themes. The voices that have prevailed most successfully are those of skeptics: Mallarmé, Valéry, Rilke, Stevens, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. For all of these writers, `God,' in any traditional sense, is an inoperative, a superfluous notion. Yet all of them are spiritual seekers, haunted by the shadow of the absolute. They substituted for faith an aesthetic interrogation and interpretation of life. They gave themselves entirely to a great experiment: to make literature an intelligent organ for the penetration of the riddle of existence. Can a subtler language of faith meet these figures on their own ground? Can the Gospel acquire a modernist face? This is the form in which the question of inculturation – of continuing the incarnation of the divine Word – poses itself for Christianity today. This exposure may be part of what Newman foresaw as ‘a great purifying and perfecting of religious belief and ethics, which it may take centuries to complete’ (Letters and Diaries XXVI, 222).
Ernst Troeltsch wrote in 1894: `The literatures of the major modern peoples are by nature nothing else than labor on the religious and ethical question, which is the basic human question. Theology has to express its position in relation to these literatures, and in comparison with this confrontation the belaboring of the questions of the standard academic theology is a harmless satisfaction of convention, a children's squabble in a burning house’ (Ges. Schriften II, 238). Troeltsch's dialogal openness and historical sensitivity have made him a model for theologians in recent years. The success of Karl Barth's reaction against Troeltsch's liberalism is one of the factors that impeded theologians from carrying through this project of a dialogue with literature. Barth insisted on the autonomous authority of the word of revelation. Over against this word, literature could represent only the misguided human strivings which the word judges and corrects, the human `Yes' to which the word says `No!’, the human `No' to which the word says `Yes!' Far from being a children's squabble, the themes of classical theology, to Barth, remained of great intrinsic importance for preserving the clarity and freedom of the divine word and belonged to a far more serious register than the all-too-human belaboring of the ethical and religious question found in literature, philosophy, natural theology and non-Christian religions. To speak of theology as a burning house, he would say, betokens a weak-minded relativism forgetful of the power of the biblical word.
It is difficult for a theologian who takes this stand not to speak of modern literature in a high-handed, judgmental way, from the position of one who, as a servant of the biblical word, always knows better. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the Catholic theologian who has done most to build a bridge between theology and culture, sees the glory of God reflected in literary beauty; but he also claims a Catholic vision of integral beauty in light of which all literature is judged. Figures such as Dante and Claudel become the centre of the literary cosmos while more pagan figures such as Goethe are sifted in a rather moralistic way (while others, such as Joyce, Lawrence or Proust, are ignored). Neither Barth nor Balthasar allow the security of their ecclesiastical discourse to be challenged by the freedom and complexity of the literary world. Literature enriches and adorns their biblically guided contemplation of divine glory - certainly a splendid affair - but it never becomes a disturbing question, never causes the veil of the temple to tremble. Because of this inhibition of full receptivity the discourse of these master-theologians does not escape repetitive ecclesiastical and biblicist jargon, with a touch of willful archaism.
It seems to me that the doctrine of the Incarnation encourages us to unbend far more that Barth or Balthasar can allow themselves to. There is a theological illusion of pure origins which is slow to die, the illusion that somewhere the Word of God has expressed itself in a pure and uniquely powerful form and that dialogue with other forms of expression brings with it a risk of contamination or dilution. But the biblical text itself is as impure as possible, contaminating and diluting the eternal word in every imaginable way. It could not be otherwise, if the Word is to pitch its tent in history, in language, in human flesh. It is impossible to distil out of the variegated library known as the Bible a pure language of revelation which can be opposed to the impure languages of humankind. Barth himself attributes such an absolute authority to Scripture only insofar as it is seen as a human witness to the Word. Scriptural language no less than any other falls under the Word's judgement. This is an opening for a relativization that he could have carried much further.
Nor did the articulations of dogma so painfully worked out in the patristic period succeed in distilling timeless metaphysical structures from the data of Scripture. The web of dogmatic language is also impure and instable, culture-bound, and the product of a certain historical conjuncture. If it weren't, it would provide a secure refuge against the instability and open-endedness of both scriptural and modern literary language, which would be nothing less than a refuge against the incarnation of the divine Word.
INCARNATION AND INTEXTUALIZATION
The doctrine of the Incarnation implies an integral historicization and inculturation of the eternal Word. The quarrel between those who talk of `the myth of God Incarnate' and those who talk of `the truth of God Incarnate' is vitiated by a lack of subtler models of incarnation than that offered by the substance-ontology of Nicea. The divinity of Christ is not a substance to be imagined as entering into some manner of conjunction or mixture with another substance, his humanity. Humanity is a very open-ended business, an ongoing history, from which it is impossible to detach cleanly the life of a single individual. Divinity we may conceive as the omnipresent absolute, spirit, light, love, to use St. John's terms. Less and less can we pin it down definitionally - the metaphysical terms of substance, supreme being, first cause have shown themselves inadequate to the task and the hyper-personalized talk of God as loving father etc. becomes anemic if we fail to handle it delicately and creatively and with a sense of its conventionality and provisionality.
The divine is witnessed to in a canonical way in Holy Scripture but it is also manifest in all history. If Scripture enlightens history, history contextualizes Scripture; their relationship is that of a powerful mutual critique. If Barth's theology, for all its capacious majesty, is threatened by a certain airlessness, it is because he refuses let history have its due impact on the world of Scripture, which thus becomes an unreal ecclesiastical hothouse. Scripture plunges into the flow of life – the enmities and alliances, litigations and businesses, loves and lusts, of a thousand years of life in the Middle East. A God who is manifest only in the flow of life resists straightforward definition, and this is what many theologians and philosophers cannot allow. As we move to a new theological economy in which God is always contextual, and in which non-contextual talk of his transcendence, providence, omnipotence is recognized to be merely preparatory abstraction, we appreciate anew the plurality and complexity and indirectness of the scriptural revelation, which aligns it far more with the world of literature than with that of Western metaphysics.
The enfleshment of the Word has a textual dimension. The Word of God in its unimaginable pure state is the absolutely authoritative core of incarnation. But once that Word becomes incarnate in written texts it becomes part of the entire history of literature, and its ongoing interaction with this is part of the revelatory process. The absolute authority of the Word is refracted across the relativistic play of intertextuality. Once the Word becomes flesh it becomes historical and contingent, and none of the historical and contingent elements of revelation can be magically abstracted from the texture of ordinary history. The Word stands in judgment on all human words, including the words of Scripture. But this judgment is mediated by awareness coming from non-scriptural sources. Marx and Freud, but also Flaubert and Joyce, prompt new critical readings of Scripture, which allow the quickening Spirit to overcome the letter that kills (2 Cor. 3.6). The incarnation of the Word is not a subsumption of all history into a timeless pattern; it proceeds historically at every stage, first in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (unabstractable from their matrix in Jewish history), then in the spread of the Jesus community, and in the wider influence of the Spirit of Christ throughout history. Divine truth and love are always already afoot everywhere in history and culture; and in the process of dialogue (which is identical with the process of preaching the Gospel) the risen Christ goes to seek and find himself – the wider Logos of which he is the contingent incarnation – in the cultures and religions of humanity. The full meaning of the incarnation is apparent only in its impact on the whole of history and in the impact of the whole of history on it. The Bible is not a closed book; it is open to all other books, unfolding its meaning anew in constant interplay with them. The Bible cannot be abstracted from the whole of literature, and conversely the whole of literature cannot cut itself off from the Bible, the revelational ferment in its midst. In university courses on `the Bible as Literature' people are learning to read the Bible as part of the literary tradition. The mutual illumination of the Bible and that tradition on a merely literary level, in which issues of belief are shelved, prepares for the deeper illumination that may occur when the Bible and literature are confronted on the theological level. If the Bible is part of the literary tradition, may not modernist literature be treated also as part of the theological tradition?
What is the future of the biblical word? Must it be purified and defined by being processed through the philosophical mill? That has been its fate since Origen. Or must it be recontextualized by a free interaction between the biblical witness and the languages of modern cultures? For this, one must step back behind Origen to his mentor Clement of Alexandria, who, in a loosely-structured associative theology linked Christ with Orpheus and allowed the biblical words to chime and mingle with those fo Greek poetry. Clement's literary theology found no continuator. Classical culture in Augustine's City of God is made entirely subservient to a biblical world-view; and the great theologians of the middle ages moved so strictly within traditional Christian diction that literature could only be seen as a distraction. Erasmus tried to aerate theology with the culture of the Renaissance. But that was scorned as a feeble worldliness by Luther. The great machines of Lutheran, Calvinist and Tridentine theology are bereft of any awareness of an autonomous humanistic culture; each of them defines the world and reality in strictly theological terms. They did inspire great traditions of sacred art - Milton, Herbert, Bach, Handel - but they provided no platform for dialogue with secular literary culture. Hence the estrangement which has left ecclesiastical discourse high and dry.
Jesus Christ reveals the concord between the human historical struggle for justice and freedom, on the one hand, and God's loving will on the other. This is not a paradoxical `intersection' of time and eternity, as T.S. Eliot presents it, but a profound identity of the cause of God and the cause of humanity. Given the complexity of history, however, such an identity is never a totally transparent pattern. The figure of Christ crucified offers no social or ideological blueprint. It poses a question and offers a silent promise, the question of justice, the promise of liberation. Literature, as the most extensive and profound examination and expression of the human condition, is what most helps us to interpret and apply in different epochs and cultures the cipher of Christ crucified, which otherwise risks becoming an abstraction or being hijacked in some simplistic ideological crusade, as has often happened in the Christian past. All literature contributes to an understanding of that humanity which the figure of Jesus Christ sets in direct relation to a loving God. Literature, as the immanent exploration of the human world, though it often seems radically atheistic, is entirely consonant with divine transcendence as revealed in Jesus. The deeper we go into the texture of human life, the closer we come to Christ's humanity, which is the supreme revelation of the divine.
The Word returns to us empty if we preach it in a sectarian vacuum. But if we allow it to resonate afresh in the medium of spiritual awareness explored by our great writers, then it returns to us encrusted with new and rich interpretations. The authority of revelation is not a pure quantity above and beyond history; it is effective only when incarnate and we are never able to discover its content and its power except in allowing it to unfold freely in a new cultural context. The concrete incarnation of the Word in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is only the tip of an iceberg. If the Word is enfleshed in the life of one man it is enfleshed in the life of all, for no man is an island, all are interconnected. The Gospels have an authority for believers that Shakespeare's or Joyce's writings cannot have, but to understand the Gospels I must read Shakespeare and Joyce, just as to know Christ I must know my neighbor.
THE MODERNIST SELF AND THE GOSPEL
The Gospel of the Kingdom is an ever-new happening of revelation, taking a new shape in each encounter between the two thousand years old tradition of interpreting the message and the historical cultures which provide the contexts for interpretation. Irish literary modernism is one such context. It has been neglected as a dialogue partner for the Gospel on the supposition that it concerns only an academic literary elite. But such neglect underestimates the degree to which the great modernist writers have become part of the consciousness of our time, articulating its spiritual dilemmas.
The chief creative shapers of spiritual vision in Ireland in this century have been Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. The first of these was a homo religiosus in the basic sense that the world of spirit was always more real to him than the material world’ (Peter Connolly, No Bland Facility, Colin Smythe, 1991, 141), though far from an anima naturaliter christiana; the other two had a much less spontaneous appreciation of the religious, and present at times a quite starkly anti-religious outlook. Yet all three felt keenly the crisis of Western culture and religion, and all three pushed that sense of crisis into the inner citadel of the self, raising anew the problem of human identity. All three developed strange and challenging identities, which we can neither categorize within our national religious frameworks nor dismiss as un-Irish. Their work explores the frontiers of modernity while reaching back to the most ancient and elemental, showing that it is fearless openness to an unknown future that best equips one to reappropriate a vital past. As German Christianity has been marked by a long struggle to match itself against Goethe, Hegel and Nietzsche, so Irish Christianity cannot evade the destiny these three writers impose insofar as they are a revelation of the potential scope of Irish spiritual life and of the cramping limits conventional religion would impose on it.
Irish Catholics have been very shy in their dealings with these writers, combining a placid appreciation of their art with a refusal to take their thought seriously. A deeply engraved moral censorship has conditioned us to view them condescendingly, as oddballs or pitiable nihilists. Yet any human beings who express themselves fully must reveal many odd and heterodox traits. If only they had stooped to don the mantle of orthodoxy, like Claudel or T.S. Eliot, how much more acceptable they would have been! How intimately would they have pervaded our culture! As it is, their refusal to share our convictions and our piety has obliged us to keep them at a distance. We cannot help thinking that, for all their fame, there is something wrong with them.
But suppose that it is in this very irreducibility to our moral and religious categories that the spiritual value for us of these writers resides? They challenge us to enlarge the boundaries not only of tolerant appreciation but of debate about the life of the spirit. Certainly, we must bring to the study of them a play of moral and religious judgment, but not an inhibiting suspicion that systematically undermines the impact of their words.
What they have to say explicitly about God or Christ offers little food for theological thought, nor is it the most striking aspect of their work. But focusing instead on the theme of the soul or self one discovers that their performance of self-exploration and self-invention, far from being a mere narcissistic pirouette, radically restructures the space in which the word of the Gospel can be received. They imagined the self and its destiny in conscious opposition to the standardized image of the individual soul to which the majority of their compatriots were bound.
The richest and most influential construction of selfhood in Western Christianity was that of Saint Augustine, and our three writers can be seen as rebelling against the constraints of this construction. With Augustine each could say `I became a great question to myself' (Confessions IV), but none of them sought the resolution of this riddle in the light of God, or saw God as the goal of human desire. This would be to appeal from the obscure to the more obscure, for God seemed to have become irredeemably opaque. So instead of seeking a supermundane resolution to the riddle of the self, these writers rejoice in the complexities of this riddle and make it a launching point for an exploration of language and the world. Each of them projected a series of quasi-autobiographical personae, delighting in the metamorphoses of self that could be dramatized in these projections.
From Stephen to Bloom to Shem, from Molloy to Malone to the Unnamable, from Yeats' earlier to his later constructions of his poetic persona, the artist performs exhilarating leaps which release him from all he has ever been and shape a new form of existence. One self-image is shattered and replaced by what seems its complete opposite, in a rhythm of death and resurrection. This permits two things: a thorough exposure to the truth of the human condition and a wide range of spiritual freedom. The truth and freedom thus attained are apparent in the creation of strange new worlds of language, through which the `real world' emerges in startling new perspectives. The world, once it has been reformulated in the languages created by Joyce, Beckett and Yeats, can never be the same again. Their powerful fictions carry off a great victory over the thinner fictions of daily convention. To turn from the world of the newspaper to the world as seen by one of them is to sense that one has crossed an immense gulf, passing from the conventional to the more ultimate. The conversion of viewpoint thus produced has much in common with the leap to a religious perspective on existence.
This shattering of the self, which opens it to truth and freedom, provides a medium in which the Gospel message can resound, giving a new twist to such utterances as: `If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it' (Mk 8.34-35); `I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2.20); `The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit' (Jn 3.8).
It is impossible to do justice to this theme without drawing on two other sources: the Buddhist critique of the illusory constructions of a substantial self, and the exploration of selfhood as a field of opposing forces in the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. Both of these sources will help us to grasp more precisely what is going on in the texts we shall be studying. We shall emphasize especially the contrast between the imaginary ego and the true subject, which is at the center of Lacan's constructions. The human subject first discovers itself in the mirror stage, when the child seeing its own image in the mirror grasps its ideal (imaginary) unity. This unified self-image or Gestalt fascinates the child and imposes discipline and unity on what has been up to this a bundle of heterogenous dispositions and uncoordinated body movements. But it also introduces an alienation between the child as he is and the child as he imagines himself to be. Throughout life we cling narcissistically to this projection of an ideal self. At a second stage of psychological development, in the Oedipal conflict, this imaginary dimension is subordinated to the symbolic order, the order of language and of paternal authority. The self-sufficient narcissistic ego is replaced by the subject who must find his place in a world where the other really exists and where desire can never find complete fulfilment: ‘Lacan repeatedly opposes the task of psychoanalysis to the captures of the imaginary. He conceives the imaginary structuration of identity as a problem to be overcome, as a form of bondage from which the subject must escape. “Psychoanalysis alone,” he offers, “recognizes the knot of imaginary servitude that love must always undo again, ever.” This work of love, the work Freud identified with the dynamics of the transference, is essentially a labor of language. The keynote of Lacan's sensibility is to be heard in his insistence that “imaginary incidences, far from representing the essence of our experience, reveal only what in it remains inconsistent unless they are related to the symbolic chain which binds and orients them”’ (R. Boothby, Death and Desire, Routledge, 1991, p. 107-8).
Is not the task of religion closely allied with this: to free us from the captivity of self in order to release our true subjectivity before the other? Moreover, literature too, as we shall see in studying Joyce, Beckett and Yeats, shares in this task of overcoming the delusions of the imaginary in order to install a symbolic order in which the subject can assume his or her true existence. In all three cases the overcoming of the imaginary by the symbolic happens through language, through a word that awakens us to full awareness. It is this shared terrain of language that makes it possible to correlate the theological, the psychoanalytical and the literary in an unforced and illuminating way.
Joyce, Yeats and Beckett, outgrowing narcissistic fixation on the imaginary ego, grasped self as being-in-the-world, and world not as a set of fixed facts but as a realm of possibilities. They are to be prized as an antidote to the curtailed and rigid representations of self which underlie so much Christian discourse. They have helped us to see that Gospel, also, far from imposing on the project of selfhood one approved way of coming to its fulfilment, liberates that project for a fuller and wider play with its possibilities. The protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a mere adolescent, yet we can discern a Christic pattern in his dying to old identities and his forging forward to a new life; if it is only a partial and defective reflection of the full human experience of death and resurrection, does not Joyce's ironic distancing of his protagonist confess as much? The deviser-figure in Beckett's Company stumbles in his hopeless desolation, almost somnambulistically, on the language of Golgotha, testifying that even in the bleakest reaches of atheism – perhaps especially there – one can sense the nearness of the Crucified. Yeats's tremendous dialectic of soul-making dismisses the Christian heaven as a pallid fiction, and in doing so may come closer than much conventional Christian discourse to the disruptive and iconoclastic impact of Jesus's eschatological kerygma.`
THE DISSOLUTION OF THE SELF
The Gospel is addressed to the self, and it focusses on the self as conditioned by a double tragedy: as trapped in sin and as condemned to death. Traditionally, the self has been isolated and defined as one's `immortal soul.' But literature, along with many other modern cultural forces, obliges us to adopt a more existential and historical understanding of selfhood, as a creative project – what Sartre calls the pour-soi – profoundly conditioned by language, culture and socio-political factors. This sense of the malleability and instability of all attempts to set the boundaries of self-identity rejoins the biblical sense of the individual. For in the Bible, too, the self is never an autonomous and self-contained entity: it is always located in terms of its relation to the community and to the historical situation, and it is addressed by God through and across this community and this situation. The selfhood of Jesus Christ, especially, is inseparable from a community - the Jewish people who produced him, the Christian community produced by him, and the entire human community to whom his saving message extends. It is also inseparable from the historical or eschatological situation which defines his identity and his significance, so much so that we have no access to Jesus except as thus defined.
Individual selfhood blends into a wider texture. This is true even of the experiences that most keenly individuate us: the responsibility for our acts and the certainty that we shall die. Guilt is never merely individual - it blends into the general errance and corruption of our society and culture; death is never merely individual, any more than is its obverse, birth. Birth and death are participations in a collective fate, defining landmarks in the topography of the entire network of human relationships. Death is a snapping of the social bonds which have been elaborated since one was inserted into a certain set of relationships at birth, and it completes the definition of one's place in society and history. When the Word of God engages with our guilt and our death it does so in a way that further extends the boundaries of selfhood, promising an eternal life which may be conceived as dissolving them still further.
The modernists explored the new space and time opened up by technology and the different spatializations and temporalizations of the self that thus emerged (see Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, Harvard UP, 1983); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford, 1989, 201-323). Contemporary systems of communication bring out the extent to which the self is a decentered and fragmented plurality of roles and places (see Mark Poster, The Mode of Information, Polity Press, 1990). Images of the self have more and more becone simply images: the self no longer finds itself in the jungle of mediatic images in which it is asked to recognize itself, a hall of distorting mirrors which throws into confusion every effort at constructing a stable and convincing self-identity. The substantial self queried by Hume and Kant has long since dissolved into a play of rhetorical tropes. Just this situation allows the Protean dismantlings and reshapings of selfhood that we observe in Stephen Dedalus, in Beckett's deviser and in Yeats. The danger looms that selfhood becomes a hollow theatrical performance, and that an earnest encounter with one's self in the recognition of sin or of mortality is rendered impossible. If the statements `I am mortal,' `I am a sinner' thus lose their meaning, then the Gospel falls flat, for the situation to which it is addressed no longer exists.
Postmodernism may seem to turn its back on the infinity of desire to which modernist writers such as Proust, Rilke, Kafka, Woolf, Eliot testify, frittering it away in a play of surfaces and reflections instead of letting it gather itself into a passionate essential quest. But the upshot of the ironic play of post-modernist art may belie this initial appearance. What seems rather to have happened is that the modernist question of meaning has rebounded on the text itself, which begins to problematize its own procedures, producing a literature that queries its own possibility as it goes along, or teeters perpetually on the brink of suicidal silence. Postmodernism cancels the religious vision of modernism as Qohelet or the Book of Job cancelled prior religious visions in ancient Israel. The occasional modernist pointers to transcendence are now whittled away by the post-modernist epigones who denounce the residual modernist religiosity as monumental and pretentious, captivated by dead ideals of form, purpose, design, totalization, presence, centering, paradigms and master codes, and by an authoritarian ethos of control. But insofar as this brings us back to a sense of the spiritual abandonment of the consumer society it may clear the ground for new positive breakthroughs.
The novel is a genre which flourishes in a climate of agnosticism; it derives much of its critical punch from the points it makes against the theological picture of the world. Novels reveal that experience is disillusioning, and theology supplies an endless supply of illusions for them to dismantle. Candide is the prototype of the virulently anti-theological novel, and Voltaire's rapier often flashes when clerical or religious figures appear in the modern novel. The modernist vision was born out of a loss of faith – or at least a sense that the conventional forms of Christianity have become empty. Modernist fiction wars against the oppressive hollowness of all convention, but especially of religious convention; yet this war has a religious inspiration, a longing to recover the sacredness of the everyday or of human instincts. It is a war against not only religious convention but also the materialistic conventions of nineteenth century positivism which prevented novelists from registering the strangeness of human experience and its openness to the unknown.
Now the existential agnosticism of the modernists has yielded to the postmodern dissolution of all fixed forms and identities. Today every novel worth its salt is worrying away at its own status as it goes along. Far from marking the death of the novel such a procedure is eminently novelistic, since the novel we think of as the first, Don Quixote, was composed as a novel to end all novels, and many other major novelists – Sterne, Austen, Flaubert, James – have found their chief delight in subverting the conventions of the genre. When the novel reflects on its own devices, the result may be a formalist immanentism that seems to banish God more utterly than the nineteenth century realistic conventions did. Joyce, the principal pioneer in such self-consuming fiction, could be seen as moving more and more away from engagement with life and into a literary cocoon. The latter half of Ulysses replays the language of the first half in a self-consuming way. Finnegans Wake multiplies formal patterns to such a degree that any single page of it seems to have endless layers of meaning, creating the effect of a bottomless palimpsest. Joyce seems to be telling us, as his text pursues its vast cycles in a mood of gentle, elegiac humor, that this is what life and the world are like, a labyrinth of dreams within dreams.
Is this a nihilistic vision, the reduction of the universe to a vast crossword puzzle, signifying nothing? But it seems that there is no escape from this danger by a regression to discredited classical notions of mimesis. The immanentism which emerges as a law of self-reflexive fiction has to be pursued to the bitter end, even when it seems to be immuring itself in its own grave in such works as Finnegans Wake, Worstward Ho or Last Year at Marienbad. Could a word of divine revelation terminate this unending struggle with nihilism? Should it? Perhaps effective preaching of hope can proceed only by espousing that struggle with nihilism from within.
In any case, the self-questioning novel of today is not merely a hothouse product. It corresponds to the problematic character of self-identity in our culture and it carries to its logical conclusion the querying of the riddle of selfhood begun in Joyce's Portrait, Woolf's To the Lighthouse or Proust. Often the self-referring novel carries existential overtones that are all the more pungent for being so indirect. This is most obvious in the absurdist scenarios of Beckett, which allow a constant, tantalizing allusion to the metaphysical frustrations of existence and provoke the uneasy laughter of troubling recognition. The babbling of Beckett's Unnamable is constantly probing that sense of a lack at the center of things, the lack of a clear meaning in human activities and of a justification for existing. The possibility of formulating in any direct and literal way the question of the meaning of life recedes as the writer revels in various post-modernist quandaries. This is a continuation of the modernist quest, a revelation of the gulf that separates the images and cultural codes that form our prison-house of language and the truth about self, world and God which it is now felt can never be grasped in as substantial a form as the modernists still envisaged. Still nibbling at the question with which all religion begins, literature has now reached the reflexive stage of questioning the very possibility of the question. That obliges us to be still more self-critical in our avoidance of facile formulations of the question and its answer.
These experiments also transform our understanding of the art of the past. Its closures, too, come to appear provisional, and it turns out that literary writing has always been unsettled and unsettling. Literature has now consciously assumed its restless destiny. There is no return to the secure logocentric entente which presided over literary form as over theological dogma. Christian discourse too is acquiring a probing, exploratory, self-questioning style, and we reread the tradition with an eye to similar stirrings between the lines of Augustine or Aquinas and with new appreciation of those such as Eckhart and Luther where the unquiet questing motion is most in evidence. It is now impossible to bring biblical and Christian tradition into a coherent perspective, rediscovering the luminaries of the past as a cloud of witnesses who can guide our feet today, unless we learn to read the great texts of the Christian past with the awareness gained from reading those of the post-Christian present.
SIN AND REDEMPTION
If the activity of self-creation can take a great variety of forms, the same is true of inauthentic selfhood. The modernist writer opposes a standardized Christian preaching which uses the notion of `sin' with great facility, projecting a crude unitary understanding of sin at the expense of the complexity and variety of the human experiences that can attract that label. If Christ `became sin for our sakes,' this does not mean that he assumes a homogenous lump of evil, but that his life is entangled with the complex and slippery paths of human moral failure. Moral theology has tried to map these paths logically, but this is of merely summary value. Literature follows the paths of evil into the most obscure recesses, at the risk of muddying the moral vision which the theologian always tries to keep as transparent as possible.
Indeed, ambiguity is the distinguishing characteristic of such moral fictions as Lord Jim, The Trial, The Fall (Camus) and The Victim (Bellow). In Lord Jim, for example, both the guilt and the intimated redemption are shrouded in ambiguity, for it may be that Jim wrestles with his failure more out of a desire to prove his worth in the eyes of his peers than from any authentic sense of culpability, and that his final atonement is a suicidal and irresponsible sacrifice to the pride that drives him. In The Trial the question of justification has become an even more nightmarish cobweb than in the controversies sparked off by the Reformation, offering no fixed bearings for objective judgment. From the horror of a world without bearings the clarity of an old-fashioned `conviction of sin' could be greeted as a blessed escape.
Such a conviction is consummately presented by James in The Wings of the Dove, in which Densher's agonies of shame cut through the secular relativism towards which the novel as a genre gravitates. The seeping in of a subtle but undeniable sense of guilt at his shabby behavior is portrayed with a moral authority that invites comparison with the classics of the literature of guilt, such as Macbeth or Crime and Punishment. Equally subtle is the experience of forgiveness which follows - this is conveyed by a human agent, the angelic Milly, and intimations of a transcendent background are muted. In the earlier The Portrait of a Lady there is a thrilling scene in which Madame Merle asks her accomplice Gilbert Osmond how they have both become so vile; but this still belongs to the register of melodrama; whereas the guilt of Kate Croy and Densher has the texture of real experience.
Sometimes, then, literature itself, at the heart of the labyrinth it explores, allows the emergence of a moral clarity which the theologian could never have imposed from outside. Breaking down such crude unifying labels as `sin' or `righteousness' by exhibiting in all their subtlety and diversity the various phenomena in experience that these labels so inadequately indicate, James, Shakespeare and Dostoievski go on to bring home the reality of sin with as painful an accuracy as in any biblical narrative. Fiction which has acquired such a theological grip helps us, conversely, to read the works of Paul, Augustine and Luther as great fictions, imaginative constructions of a reality that eludes straightforward articulation. These theologies differ in style and mood much as great novels differ, and bespeak in a similar way, despite their authors' intentions, the irreducible pluralism of human experience.
One of the most instructive ploys of the modern novel is to locate sin where conventional ethics least expects to find it: the great sin is to be untrue to oneself, through marrying the wrong person (Daniel Deronda, Jude the Obscure) or through surrendering a creative vocation through social conformity (Joyce, Lawrence). In the sophisticated moral dramas of James, as in a good detective story, the culprit is the person one least suspects - the narrator or the character whose point of view we are sharing. If modern writers often have a deficient grasp of the horror of sin, they compensate for this, for the theologian, by their insight into the complexities of sin, the subtleties of egoism, self-deception, and manipulation of others.
Can the novel explicitly present the reality of sin before God? `Against Thee, Thee alone have I sinned; what is evil in Thy sight I have done' (Ps. 50). To bring God into a novel it to make God a fictional character; all the risks of this proceeding are exhibited in Paradise Lost. But even the subtler reference to God as invisible judge in fictional representations of guilt before God is rarely convincing. This is something that it seems impossible to bring into perspective in the medium of fiction. Guilt arising in human relationships (the protagonist's remorse over her unkindness in Emma) is more suited to novelistic treatment. Even in the biblical narratives of sin when God is invoked the mode of narrative is suspended and we shift to that of prophecy or prayer, as when David, after Nathan's `Thou art the man' breaks into the psalm quoted above.
Even in novelists gifted with fine powers of moral discrimination, such as James, Woolf, Proust and Joyce, the very fact that they are consciously creating works of art leads to a subordination of the moral to the aesthetic. In Proust, original sin takes various forms: the weakness of will induced in the narrator by his indulgent mother, the dilettantism of Swann, the hollowness of the social life, and the luxuriant sexual perversities of most of the characters. But the only ethical good that is taken totally seriously is artistic creativity. All the deviations of existence are justified if they can be recuperated in art. In Ulysses Bloom is presented as morally exemplary in some ways - in his sympathy, tolerance and pacifism, which show up what may be called the sinful lack of these qualities in the world around him. But that is not where the main emphasis of the book falls. The consciousness and perceptions of the characters are exhibited through ever more ingenious exercises in style, and these triumphs of language are what give the lives described their significance and justification. Central to the dreamworld of Finnegans Wake is the memory of an obscure sin - but this is treated from the start as a `happy fall,' death sprouting into resurrection with merry promptness. The gravity of Milton's exordium (`Say first what cause/Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state/Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off/From their Creator') is not matched in the befuddled dreamer's efforts to deal with the issue: `What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business?' (p. 5). A novel set in the world of dream need not, and indeed cannot, address questions of good and evil.
Is it not significant that the modernist novel, in its most extreme development, thus stepped beyond good and evil by stepping back to dimensions of experience in which questions of good and evil could not arise? The aesthetic handling of sin has nothing in common with the providential etiam peccata of Luther (1518 lectures on the Decalogue; attributed to St Augustine by Claudel, epigraph to Le soulier de satin) or the felix culpa of the Easter vigil. Even when Marcel sobs at his insensitivity to his dying grandmother or Stephen shakes off similar guilt towards his dead mother there is no conviction of sin, or if there is, it is not carried over into the texture of the novel (as it would be in Austen or George Eliot). The concern of the novel is no longer with the ethical (a secondary realm, treated with a touch of skeptical indifference) but with the construction of an aesthetic order.
In the greatest biblical narratives (in Genesis and 1-2 Samuel) sin is a very subtle, insidious business. Theologians tend to see the later non-narrative discourses as going beyond and clarifying the elementary intuitions that can be embedded in mere narrative. But may it not be the case that the narratives are the primary bearers of the biblical consciousness of sin, and that without regrounding in narrative even the most sublime discourse about sin becomes abstract? In our own century, narrative has not sufficed to create conviction of sin; we have learned it from the facts themselves, the massacres and tyrannies of the age. These make novelistic evil look like a silly game. Can there some day be a literature adequate to deal with them, to transform our bitter historical discoveries into edifying myths, as Aeschylus and Sophocles were able to do? Moreover, the fetishization to which the notion of sin is prone when responsible moral reflection is usurped by the resurgence of primitive taboo can best be dissolved by the novel which lays bare the complexity of motivations and values. To trace the dramatization of the sense of good and evil in Japanese fiction, in Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata or Mishima, is to become keenly aware of the relativity of moral conceptions and the multiplicity of styles in which human beings can discover a moral pattern in the texture of things.
The forgiveness of sin, the justification of the sinner, is enacted in the novel chiefly as a this-worldly, inter-human exchange. Densher, in The Wings of the Dove paces the street in anguish at his treatment of Milly; he does think of having recourse to the Church; but his justification and forgiveness finally come from her. This is perhaps more an aesthetic than as ethical resolution: James avoids the final agony of sin by dissolving it in a Milly's beautiful gesture and Densher's aesthetic admiration of it. As Kierkegaard remarks, the `existing poet who suffers in his existence does not really comprehend his suffering, he does not penetrate more and more deeply into it, but in his suffering he seeks away from the suffering and finds ease in poetic production' (Concluding Unscientific Postscript). In addition to allowing itself to be challenged by modernist fiction, Christian preaching has to issue a challenge of its own, contesting the aesthetic anesthetization of guilt, and this not in any crude or extrinsic way but from entire empathy with the modernist quest, becoming a Greek to the Greeks in the Pauline way.
DEATH AND HOPE
The modern novel wrestles with the riddle of death in much the same style as it deals with sin. Characteristic of modernist aestheticism is an obsession with time, the very form of experience (Kant) and the agent of mortality. Modernist novelists try to swallow up time in the space of the completed fictional work, an ambition evident in À la recherche, To the Lighthouse and Finnegans Wake, though deconstructionist readers might detect counter-thrusts to this ambition inscribed in the texture of these works. Proust wanted to counter the destructive work of time, evoked so terrifyingly in L'Éducation sentimentale (which he greatly admired), by writing in a mode which conquered time and recuperated the past sentence by sentence. This is the strategy of elegy: to retrieve the lost one, the lost paradise, in the medium of transfigured memory and beautiful speech. Woolf's novels are dedicated to a similar elegiac endeavor, and there is an element of it even in Joyce, who spent all his life recreating a vanished Dublin.
The goal of temporal existence is no longer the life to come; instead, `everything, in the world, exists to result in a book' (Mallarmé) and `art is the truth of life' (Proust). A Christian preacher can point out that such a religion of art can scarcely be more than a stopgap, leaving the artist something to work towards in the absence of any more concrete eschatological hope. Bloom or Mrs Dalloway may savor every moment of their day, savor it over the deep well of time remembered, and the author's style may immortalize each moment as an unforgettable epiphany; Proust may compile an encyclopedia of exquisite sensations, bound together in the unending melody of memory; Gide and Sartre may capture the exhilaration of freedom exercising itself in the immediacy of the present - but can the subtlest explorations of time compensate for the loss of eternity? Still, the omnipresence of the consciousness of death in modern fiction is what more than anything else lends it a religious depth. It is chiefly because of death that the world blazes up in its piercing splendor; `death unveils the mountain-range of being' (Heidegger).
Moreover, the more these writers sound the quite enigmatic quality of life in the present, the more pervasive becomes their whispered protest against the supposition that death is a mere blank end. The Proustian narrator finds Platonic intimations of immortality in the perfection of the dead writer Bergotte's works. Mrs Dalloway consoles herself with the thought that her spirit is part of the general beautiful texture of life and will live on after her disappearance as a strand in that texture; as indeed Mrs Ramsay lives on in the memories of her family and the painting of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. The rhythms of resurrection in Finnegans Wake reach out beyond the limits of the rational cosmos to God knows what. Henry James, late in life, argues in his only philosophical essay that since the play of imaginative consciousness is endless in its ramifications, and since the universe so graciously consents to sustain and satiate it, it were a tasteless contradiction in its dealings with us if physical demise simply annulled this enthralling interchange (`Is there a Life after Death?' in F.O. Matthiessen, The James Family, New York, 1960). Haunted though they may be by the sense that ‘una est nox perpetua dormienda’, none of these writers can accept it as the last word on the subject. How then does the Christian address to this awareness the promise of life eternal? Perhaps their ruminations can help us to allow the promise to acquire new credibility for ourselves. Philosophical arguments for the immortality of the soul are currently in poor supply; the witness of modernist fiction seems an essential contribution to the construction of any such arguments in the future. The dependence of faith on a word of revelation that promises `eternal life' may seem at first totally alien to the skeptical and empirical mindset of the modernist novelist. But consider that their art pierces a hole in the solid matter of the empirical world, making it trembling on its bases. May one not find here a space in which such a word may resound, in all its strangeness?
The texts of Joyce, Yeats and Beckett are rich and strange, and their elaborate methods of staging and enframing the riddles of human selfhood bring home to us the immense wonder of what we are. Undoubtedly, a Christian reader will feel, in the end, that something is missing. One cannot quibble about morality with writers who throw so powerful a floodlight on the human heart. Neither can one complain about the incompleteness of their religious vision. Augustine's Confessions wrestle with the abyss of the self in a manner that is foundational for all later autobiographical enterprises, but it presents the self not only as a blind bundle of cravings, questions, struggles, but as known, loved, and enlightened by the God who created the universe.
However, perhaps it is a merit of Joyce's, Beckett's and Yeats's accounts of human selfhood that they cannot be made to fit neatly into our religious categories. Those categories, if we define ourselves exclusively in terms of them, can be narrowing and blinding, especially when we use these categories to define and limit the selfhood of other people. Reading pastoral and spiritual publications, one often has the impression that the authors have fallen into a compulsive religious jargon – whether its hues be traditional or innovative – that is preventing them from taking cognizance of the strange and wonderful texture of their own existence. The main reason for this is that their reading lacks a humanistic base. This spoils their reading of Scripture as well. There is a subtlety and poetry in the Gospels which is lost sight of when they are used as instruments of urgent activism. As for the world of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is to be savoured at one's leisure. The long readings at Anglican matins do more justice to these texts than the clipped extracts used in Roman Catholic liturgies. When theologians ignore literature, they forget that God chose literature as the exemplary form of his communication with humankind. Scripture demands to be read as literature, not as a set of straightforward formulas. It seems that God is not interested in saving some simplified ideological simulacrum of humanity – be it in the guise of `sinners' or `the oppressed' – but wants rather to engage human life in all its unpredictable variety and complexity.
A religion gives us a path to follow, a ladder to climb. Yet the path is not mapped out as precisely as we may at first think. When the wisdom of a religion is summarized – `love one another,' `the just person lives by faith' – we are given luminous statements of extreme generality, statements that demand to be put into practice in the particularity of our individual lives. Today, in many quarters, traditional forms of religious identity are in a state of flux, and we are looking for contemporary ways of putting the basic wisdom of religious traditions into practice. This may leave in the lurch people in the clergy or religious life whose religious identity has been too tightly defined. A kenosis of pre-defined identities may be required before a viable new Christian identity can be constructed. That kenosis has already taken place in Joyce, Yeats and Beckett, who spent their lives shedding the identities given them at birth, in order to forge new forms of human living. That makes them indispensable references in our search for new forms of religious or Christian living.
The map of human experience provided by literature does not take the form of a path or ladder leading to salvation. It traces all the byways of sin and confusion, not to point out the way of release from them, but only to sound their tragic depth or enhance their comic breadth. Neither tragedy nor comedy come to a salvific conclusion: both are open-ended visions of the texture of existence, leaving us much to ponder on. A message of salvation, whether Christ's or the Buddha's, lies beyond tragedy, and integrates all the tragic possibilities of life into a higher perspective. The joy and peace that attend it also lie beyond comedy, and the reconciliations and happy endings of comedy seem but its remote reflections. But the message of salvation does not translate easily and immediately into the terms of everyday life, partly because the historical languages in which it comes to us have become abstract and archaic, partly because life constantly throws up anomalies and divagations which dim the clarity of the message. A gulf yawns between the supreme simplicity of Christ and the Buddha and the endless chaos of human activities. Tragedy and comedy bring an order into this chaos, and form a bridge between it and the saving message. A world that had never come to consciousness of itself in tragedy and comedy would be ill-equipped to hear the message of salvation.
The current disaffection with traditional Christian images of the human condition stems from a sense that they curtail the full exploration of our tragic and comic condition. If Joyce arouses more enthusiasm than St Augustine, it is because when we read the latter we are drawn back into familiar ruts of self-identification, whereas Joyce generates in us a capacity for breaking with all received identities. What opens up beyond these identities is a dimension for which we have no name. It is that dimension which Christian thinkers should question today. Too much energy is being expended on shoring up traditional identities and on living out some simplified Gospel blueprint. Of course this is a reaction against the frivolity with which the contemporary world shrugs off the moral and religious values of the past. But the future of Christianity does not lie in reaction, no matter how noble its motives. Instead, we must immerse ourselves in the element explored in modern literature, there to discern the living values that have emerged at a time in which so many ancient values have been problematized. Only on this basis will we be able to sketch anew the face of Christ in a manner commensurate with the sense of mystery and transcendence proper to our age.
These existential questions are also questions about the language we speak. Language is never something we can take for granted. Functional abbreviations, slang, trademarks, and technical terms have made our everyday speech ugly and alienating. Writers confront this tragic debasement of our lives, and even when, like Joyce, they scoop up slang from the streets, their aim is to transform everyday speech into something more adequate to the wonder of everyday life: ‘Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu’. In the three writers can be heard the uncanny murmur of language itself, which Heidegger evokes: ‘Die Sprache spricht’, and which is perhaps what Blanchot means when he says it is the responsibility of the writer to espouse ‘la rumeur initiale’. A totalitarianism of functional, transparent everyday language no longer needs a Stalin to impose it; the needs of global communication may bring it about automatically. Joyce's or Beckett's distrust of all instituted conventions of language makes their work a bulwark against this levelling of spiritual awareness. As long as we remain able to read it, a great book brings our speech back into relation with its origins; it is an incarnation of the word. A writing that works against established idioms, reaching back to `the peal of stillness' which Heidegger sees as the heart of language, is close to the travail of prayer.
But to remain in contact with that depth we must keep on being able to read the great books. It is characteristic of great books that they are not easy to read, they are in too close a rapport with the elusive heart of language. A scholastic commentary may grow up about their enigmas, but that is not a guarantee of their readability: in the golden ages of allegorical commentary the Bible remained a sealed book; the vast edifice of medieval exegesis is a monument to a text become unreadable. Today, even Joyce and Beckett belong to a rapidly receding past, and can be understood by us only if we make the literary problematic of our own time the point of departure of a hermeneutic effort to retrieve their horizon. Yet their distinctively modernist preoccupations lit up something that belongs to the essence of literature at all times. What seemed so urgent to them in the field of literature exists in other forms in the field of religion, and of life in general.
In both religion and literature, the modernist path begins from a renunciation of traditional aspirations to universal domination, to being the acknowledged legislator of mankind. Instead it turns in on the specific religious or literary concern. As Blanchot writes:
Neither Mallarmé nor Cézanne entertain dreams of the artist as an individual more important or more visible than others. They do not seek fame, that burning radiant void which artists since the Renaissance have desired as a halo round their heads. They are both modest, not turned to themselves, but to an essential concern of which the importance has no connection with an assertion of their personality or the rise of modern man, a concern which is incomprehensible to nearly everyone, and yet they cling to it with an obstinacy and a methodic force of which their modesty is but the dissimulated expression. (Blanchot, Le livre à venir, pp. 267-68.)
If modern society sees pure literature as an irrelevance, this, Blanchot adds, corresponds `to the very experiment that literature and art are carrying out in their own name and which exposes them to a radical contestation.' Religion and literature are intrinsically contestable. They exist only in concrete practice and accomplishments, a fragile and vulnerable effort of creative self-renewal. There are few convincing writers as there are few convincing religious figures. Their quality risks being submerged in the general routine of literary or religious business. Though history seems an endless chronicle of literary attacks on religion and religious attacks on literature, they are in reality the most intimate of allies, and their most dangerous enemies are the simulacra of themselves.
Just as the crisis of literature matches its own interior self-questioning, so the crisis that has befallen religion in a secularized culture may correspond to the most living question of religion now, the question as to its own origins. Religion as commonly practiced has lost its self-evidence, it has become a riddle even for the diligent. That is a summons to pursue the truth of religion in another mode, with the same experimental daring with which Mallarmé pursued the truth of literature or Cézanne the truth of painting. What, after all, does the world ask of religious people now, except this: give us the truth of religion; or even if that is not what is asked that is what religious people owe the world, as Cézanne wrote in 1905: `I owe you the truth in painting, la vérité en peinture, and I shall tell it to you.' Champions of religion must say: `I owe you the truth in religion, and I shall tell it to you.' Cézanne was no conservative, yet he represents a powerful continuation of the great tradition of painting. A similar freedom in regard to religious tradition might be the best way of ensuring its worthy continuation.
Both religion and literature are today consigned to the task of self-critical concentration on their essential concerns, and must forget the security traditional conventions or dogmas offered, the stability of institutional supports, the cult of numerical or public success. In general literary education nowadays students are led to the inner sanctum of the contemporary literary problematic, though few will make it their full-time business. Should not religious education aim in the same way to initiate its receivers into the contemporary religious problematic, into a faith which is largely made up of open-ended exploratory questions, just as matter in contemporary physics predominantly consists of empty space? Great modern writing, such that of Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats, is a permanent opening up of such a space of questioning, of contemplative thought. As Greek metaphysics and spirituality pointed to `being' as the locus for Christian religious reflection, so the thrust of contemporary literature indicates just as forcefully a new locus for that reflection. The play between being and God, in all its forms, belongs to history; now a new play is opening up, the play between a questioning faith and the space of literature.