This afternoon one of my students met with me about his next paper, which he wants to write refuting The Da Vinci Code and defending the divinity of Jesus Christ. I found myself struggling to explain to him why he can’t write such a paper to fulfill a university assignment. I tried to help him think about possible lines of argument he could pursue that would allow him to discuss his beliefs in intellectual and secular terms. It is my pleasant responsibility to help him master the norms of the university, and that means learning to speak, think, and write about religion in terms accessible to public consideration, in the terms of rational argument and empirical analysis. On the one hand, I deeply respect those terms; I’ve chosen with great joy to spend my six-day-a-week life examining the world in them. And learning to think about one’s beliefs in intellectual terms can be a vital and invigorating experience, although there are far too few spaces in the borderlands between the university and the church where believing students can bring the disparate pieces of their lives together; as a believing scholar, I long for more such spaces. But on the other hand, perhaps we secular educators (among whom I must count myself, insofar as I teach a secular subject in a secular context) sometimes rush too quickly over the losses incurred in the secular environment. The most essential expressions of religious belief are generally precluded by secular norms; in an important sense we allow every possible discussion of religion except what it most essentially is.
My fleeting acquaintance with Western intellectual history, as well as with contemporary struggles between secular Western public life and certain visions of Islam, has given me a deep appreciation for the secular compromise. In the wake of the Reformation and the ensuing centuries of blood spilled in the name of religion, it’s not hard at all difficult to understand the eighteenth-century impulse toward a secular ethics and political life. And the secular compromise is incredibly powerful; it opens a space of public discussion and negotiation and consensus in the face of our most constitutive differences. But much as I strongly favor it, it comes at the price of a deeply privatized religious life, and it’s worth pausing over that price.
The irony of negotiating the secular university is, of course, that both in its origins and in the very intellectual forms that have come to be thought of as thoroughly secular, the Western university is a deeply religious institution. My next two sisters, Lynnette and Kiskilili, are both scholars of religion, and so they experience the pleasures and frustrations of life in academic contexts in which religion is, by definition, taken seriously. Lynnette has lived and worked and studied with Catholic priests and Episcopalian divinity students, and she labors in an environment saturated with the seriousness of religious belief. Similarly, because of her field of study, many of Kiskilili’s professors have been various kinds of Jews and Christians. A passion for theology or for the Hebrew Bible is almost by definition often grounded in lifetime of religious experience. Although I don’t envy my sisters their sometimes difficult negotiations among personal devotion, religious community, and intellectual analysis, what I do envy them is the basic assumption that religious conviction–as opposed to religion as a sociological or historical phenomenon, or religion as a contextual component of literary texts or works of art–is an intellectually serious matter.
My discussion with my student this afternoon reminded me of another experience I had a couple of years ago, the first day of a literature class, on which the professor began with a lecture on respecting the subaltern and the unknowable Other, and then divided us into pairs and had us introduce each other to the class. When my partner introduced me as from Utah, the professor broke into uncontrollable laughter. Utah, it seemed, was a hilarious place in his mind, as I somehow suspect that Saudi Arabia, for example, or Iran, would not have been; for all his Other-respecting discourse, he could not conceive of Utahns, Mormons, or Christians as Others, only as Other-oppressors. In the same class the professor once mentioned casually that the hardest part of grasping the literature we were reading was understanding the significance of prayer, which, he assumed, had lost all meaning for us in our contemporary secular context. I suppressed the temptation to raise my hand and announce that I, personally, prayed every single day, although it would have been fun to proclaim myself a religious nut. (One of my absolutely favorite parts of my mission was assuming the public role of religious nut, but that’s another story.)
For much of my life as a literature scholar, I’ve read literature so saturated in religious conviction it’s really impossible to understand it apart from religion. I think of the Bible, of course, but also of the ancient Greek tragedians, of devout Roman poets, of the visionary writings of the Middle Ages, of Dante, of Piers Plowman, of Donne’s holy sonnets, of Milton, of Pascal. Even the writers we read as more secular and often value for their secular skepticism or their attraction to secular topics–Petrarch, for instance, or Montaigne, or Shakespeare–often write in a broader religious context or take up religious themes in ways I suspect we miss, neglect, or downplay. On the one hand, at least a minimal level of the secular compromise permits the very study of literature. Some kind of secular consciousness is necessary for me to bracket my own beliefs and seriously consider the religious context in which someone else writes–and the more distant that religious context from my own, the more important that secular consciousness becomes. On the other hand, just as we never seem to pause over the religious losses of the secular compromise more generally, we never seem to pause over the religious losses of considering religious literature secularly. The loss itself is inevitable, and largely historical; I simply can’t read Dante as a high medieval Catholic. But at what price to my understanding of Dante?
I’ve sometimes wondered if literary theory hasn’t become the intellectual graveyard of the West, where old theories go to die after they’ve been largely cast off by the disciplines in which they originate (psychoanalysis and Marxism spring immediately to mind). Similarly I sometimes wonder if literature is where discounted religious texts go to die, or, to put it differently, if literature is itself an aestheticizing mode of reading what we can no longer believe. Don’t get me wrong: I love the aesthetizing mode almost to distraction. But I also want to consider what we lose by attending to it at the expense of the devotional mode. In studying poetry, I’ve heard the same story over and over: an ancient text’s forward-thinking poetic and skeptical elements (often improperly aligned, and often improperly understood in terms of the Romantic model of poetic genius) exist in unreconcilable tension with its devotional ones, and our current mode of reading almost always slights the devotional as the contemporary oppressive cultural imposition which the essentially Romantic poet struggles to throw off. What this story precludes is the possibility of understanding poetry as a fundamentally devotional expression and as a devotional act.
Poetry and literature have to say something–even if what they say that is they cannot say anything, or that there is nothing to say. Why, when what they say is religious or devotional, do we posit such insuperable contradictions between form and content? Why do we consider religion oppressive to poetic expression in the works of Petrarch or Donne in a way that we would not consider the skepticism of Philip Larkin oppressive to poetic expression–however personally arid and painful?
It’s time for a far more robust theory of devotional literature.