Friday, July 09, 2010

Theology as Poetry, Part II

Having written the post below, which introduces a plea for theology considered not as if it were a precise science but as if it were a form of art, Father Anonymous slept quite poorly. This actually had more to do with a nauseated wife and a needy toddler than with either theology or blogging, but still it gave him time to think. And here is what he thought about:

Marcus Terentius Varro.

Varro, acclaimed as the most learned man in Rome during the collapse of the Republic, was a highly prolific author. Sadly, the vast bulk of his life's work is lost to us, including the Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum. (The fragments of this book have been collected, with German commentary, by Burkhardt Cardauns.) The best-known device from the Antiquitates, and the one that echoed in your poor sleepless blogger's head, is discussed by St Augustine in Civ. Dei 8:6, the "tripertite [sic] theology."

Varro divides pagan theology into three categories:
  • mythic (or "fabulous," or "poetic," depending upon your translation) -- the popular description of the deeds of the gods used by, for example, playwrights;
  • physical (or "natural," or "philosophical") -- philosophical meditation upon the gods and the universe, of a kind "which men's ears can more easily hear inside the walls of a school than outside in the Forum." (CD 8:6:6, quoting Varro);
  • civil (or "political") -- the rites prescribed by priests for public uses, such as watching birds in flight or studying a bull's entrails to determine the outcome of a day's battle (our example, not Varro's).
We cannot trust Augustine's witness completely, since his goal is to discredit pagan theology in any form. But Augustine says that Varro, as a man of cultivated intellect, finds the vulgar legends contemptible, and so criticizes the mythic theology freely, and would criticize the civil theology as freely if he were not constrained by fear of outraging the powerful. After all, those old stories full of animals and sex and sexy animals (Europa, Leda, etc.) are kind of creepy, and the civil rites are just as bad. Augustine has particular fun with the customs surrounding marriage, in which so many gods need to be appeased that the bridal chamber is full of them, even before the bride is expected to sit on the unnaturally large, um, member of Priapus.

The problem with mythic theology is that it betrays the work of natural theology, by reducing the gods to caricatures when it does not simply lie about them.

Being philosophical types, both Varro and Augustine seem inclined to respect "natural," or philosophical theology, in the latter case so long as it is subject to Christian revelation. And thereby hangs a tale, since Augustine is, by any reasonable account, the critical Christian thinker after the Biblical writers themselves. What our faith became, after the 5th century and especially after the 16th, it became in many ways because of Augustine. Even if his own theological method wasn't truly "natural" in the Varronian sense, it was shaped by the methods of academic philosophy -- close attention to rhetoric and etymology, for example; the constant drive toward abstraction, for another. This is the sort of abstruse, technical writing that most Christians mean when they talk about theology, especially of the sort called systematic or dogmatic.

It didn't have to be this way. The earliest Christian theological anthology, the New Testament, includes quite a variety of genres, and, although Varro's schema cannot easily be superimposed upon it, we can without too much stretching identify the narrative portions as mythic, and divide the epistles up between the three types, with an emphasis upon a philosophical exegesis of the myth. (This is not, we say again as clearly as possible, "natural theology" in the full sense the term has since acquired; but Paul and especially the author of Hebrews are "natural" in the original sense of philosophical reflection).

But setting Scripture aside as a unique case, it is easy to see Varro's theological modes at work in the next generations of Christian literature. The Shepherd of Hermas and Lactantius' Phoenix are clearly mythic, as (in another way) is the vast literature of dubious "history," from Lactantius's Deaths of the Persecutors to the ever-more-spurious "gospels," acta and passiones. The Didache and later church orders are civil, at least so far as there was a Christian "city" before Constantine. And academic philosophical reflection is everywhere, particularly in Alexandria. All of these methods of theological writing seem to have been given equal standing, up to the fourth century. After the Constantinian establishment, civil theology gained ground; and after an era dominated by Augustine and the Cappadocians, so too did the vision of theology as an intellectual enterprise, best suited to monks and scholars.

But mythic theology was left behind. Worse than that, it was discredited. And worse still, it was discredited because it became incredible. As Christian theology came to be identified more and more with systematic speculation on one hand and prescriptive ritualism on the other, the theology of narrative and metaphor became identifiably third-rate, the "popular religiosity" of the Middle Ages which reaches its nadir, we suppose, in the Legenda Aurea. Much of it was suitable for children and mental defectives. To the eyes of an Aquinas or Bernard, we can only imagine that these ludicrous legends looked as contemptible as the popular drama had to Varro. Both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (think of the Bollandists) launched attacks upon the worst excesses, while creating new versions of their own.

We haven't got much further since. There is still a "mythic theology" among Christians, and it still isn't good for much, consisting as it does mostly of superstition compounded with bad theology and worse art, much of it directly at odds with the official teaching of any particular church. It overlaps with what sociologists call "civil religion," which -- whew -- shouldn't be confused with Varro's civil theology.

But consider this. The "mythic" theology derided by Varro and Augustine includes, along with the usual amounts of forgotten tripe, things like Homer, Ovid and Euripides -- household names even today, and writers cherished even by those who do not believe in their gods. They are no less central to our culture than Plato or Aristotle, and in some ways perhaps even a little more so.

The question, then, is whether modern Christianity has room for a kind of theological investigation largely abandoned sixteen centuries ago. Can serious theology any longer be done with tools other than those of logic and argument, and without using language so abstract it might as well be mathematics?

It is tempting to say, "Ah, but of course there has always been great Christian art. Wasn't Bach a theologian?" With all due respect to the dozens of people who have taught courses by that title, no, he was not. He was an artist, serving the Church and using his art to promulgate its teachings. This is quite an impressive thing by itself, made more so by the fact that he succeeded so brilliantly. We are talking about something else, something different from Christian art -- although in perfect honesty, we aren't quite sure what. We are talking about something as different from the Sistine Chapel as the Sistine Chapel is itself from a a traditional icon. That is to say, something that uses many of the same tools, and that may even treat some of the same subjects, but which lifts them to a new level.

Perhaps we mean something like this: Christian art, even at its best, serves either to support or (on some occasions) to rebut the doctrine agreed upon by "the theologians." When we try to imagine a mythic theology, we are seeking a kind of discourse which would create doctrine, just as systematic theology does -- not by itself, but in dialogue with the rest of the Church. It is a tall order, so tall that we can't quite see the top of it. But we think it is worth a look anyway.

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