Prof. Benson Integrates Theology & Literature

Originally published on bensonian.wordpress.com.

Giant Mountains, Poland. Photograph by Tomasz Rojek

As I take up the question “Why bother with theology?” in the opening days of my course on theology, my friend and former student, Joey Jekel, recommended that I consider Scott Cairn’s poem, “And Why Theology?”, in his volume, Idiot Psalms (2014). My commentary will be interspersed between the stanzas of the poem.

because the first must be first

The title of the poem asks an apologetic question about why any finite human being should undertake the study of an infinite God while the epigraph, quoted from the 20th century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Treatise on Theology”, provides an historic answer: “Why theology? Because the first must be first. And first is a notion of truth.” The  first refers to God, who is what Aristotle calls the First Cause and St. John calls “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). The first also refers to theology vis-à-vis other ways of knowing. In medieval Christendom, theology was regarded as “the Queen of the Sciences”a synthesis of all other liberal arts. This view about the primacy of theology has a biblical origin: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7, ESV).  In secular modernity, theology is either relegated to a science on par with any other, or rejected altogether as a dubious science. Cairn’s poem tries to reclaim the supremacy of the theological enterprise.

And the first, if you don’t mind me saying, is both an uttered
notion of the truth and a provisional, even giddy apprehension 
of its reach. The dayfortunately, a winter’s dayis censed 
with wood smoke, and the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly
spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin.

In the first stanza, the speaker asserts a paradoxical trait of theology: it is a sayable (“an uttered notion of the truth”) and unsayable (“a provisional, even giddy apprehension of its reach”) science. The Western Church has emphasized positive (or kataphatic) theology (God is knowable through the two books of Scripture and Nature), whereas the Eastern Church has emphasized negative (or apophatic) theology (God is unknowable). Both traditions are true. God is knowable, as theologians attest in their “uttered notion of the truth,” otherwise known as the creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). But God is also unknowable, as monks and mystics attest in their “giddy apprehension of its reach.” The word apprehension means the faculty of understanding through perception on a direct and immediate level, as opposed to ratiocination, which involves logical reasoning. When monks and mystics apprehend God, they are likely to be “giddy” because fathoming the unfathomable God induces vertiginous wonder.

The study of God, this poem suggests, happens on “a winter’s day,” which reminds us that we lack the clear-sightedness of a summer’s day. Wintery weather conceals more than it reveals. As we try to know God, we may experience a synesthesia of the spiritual senses, tasting what we smell (“the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin”). God, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, spreads the fragrance of Christ everywhere; He is the aroma of life diffused in a world undergoing decay and death, akin to the season of winter (2 Cor. 2:14-17).

Or, I can. Who knows what you’ll manage? The day itself
is shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke
and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent,
slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light just here,
and over there, and they move a bit, shifting round as high weather
shoves the clouds about. 

The second stanza continues the imagery of a winter’s day, which by now seems comparable to knowing God, who is “shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent, slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light.” Using an ancient emblem, God is the sunthe source of light that can be glimpsed, on occasion, despite the obscuring clouds. Truth shines through mystery. In our present lot as slow pilgrims, we never see the fiery orb of the sun in all of its intensity and brilliance because our eyes would burn. Like Moses, we hide our face from the light of the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Like Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we fall on our faces when the voice speaks from the bright cloud that overshadows us (Mt. 17:1-13). Only a fool tries to make a tent for the transfigured Christ: we cannot house God in our systems of theology. He is always too grand for any shelter that we erect. All we can do, like John the Baptist, is “bear witness about the Light” (Jn. 1:8), ever mindful that this “startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light” is strained through clouds of unknowing.

Theology is a distinctly rare, a puzzling 
study, given that its practitioners are happiest when the terms
of their discovery fall well short of their projected point; this 
is where they likely glimpse their proof. Rare as well 
is the theologian’s primary stipulation that all that is explicable
is somewhat less than interesting. 

The third stanza is a digression, touching upon the odd features of theology. First, theology finds satisfaction in unsatisfactorily reaching its objective: knowing God. Failure in other sciences is success in theology. Second, theology circumscribes its explanatory power, keenly aware that any explanation of God cannot explain Him away since God is Wholly Other to us. The prophet Isaiah admonishes God’s chosen people, who were prone to domesticate God in their understanding: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (55:8-9). In short, the task of theology is insanely ambitious because it seeks to know Godwho constitutes what philosophers call “the really real”and embarrassingly modest because the cognitive equipment of fallen human beings can only reach, at best, the orbit of Reality. 

In any case, the day
keeps loping right along, and blurs into the night, which itself
will fairly likely press into another clouded day, et cetera.
The future isn’t written, isn’t fixed, and the proof of that is how
sure we areif modestlythat every moment matters.  

The fourth stanza returns to the winter’s day but focuses on the transition into night and the extended forecast. The night can be interpreted as what one mystic famously called la noche oscura del alma (“dark night of the soul”), where the light is absent, where God seems aloof or silent, where theologians stumble in the dark. The extended forecast assures us that there will never be a cloudless day in knowing God until our final union with Him, as St. Paul says: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Cor. 13:12, The Message).

Take this one, now. We stand before another day extending like
a scarf of cloud, or wood smoke, or incense reaching past what’s visible. 

And sure, you could as easily rush ahead, abandoning what lies in reach
in favor of what doesn’tbut you don’t, and we here at your side are pleased
to have you with us, supposing that we’ll make the way together. 

The final stanza of the poem carries the sentiment from the last line of the previous stanza. Because “every moment matters” in knowing God, we should be content to receive His self-disclosures to us in this moment rather than reach for tomorrow’s revelations with arms outstretched like Tantalus, grasping, in vain, for water and fruit that will never be ours. Theology is a task that we take up each and every hour in our pilgrimage. Theology is not knowing about God, for even demons have mastered that science (Mark 1:23-24, Jas. 2:19). Theology is knowing God through loving obedience (1 Jn. 5:2-4) and indemonstrable faith (Jn. 20:29), as Richard of Chichester’s prayer memorably says: “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”