Sunday, December 10, 2006

Four poles of the Christian imagination

The placement of this chapter immediately struck me as curious--we don't hear about the "perennial Christian tradition" until Ch. 5 (pg. 174). BP offers the following explanation: "With the examples of Butler, Cowley, Pope and Thomson already fleshed out, it will be easier to summarize the conflicts between Augustan and Baroque imagination" (175). It's interesting to see him go back to the material that the Augustans were responding to, and then to move on to fideism in post-Augustan writers.

BP remarks early in this chapter that the Augustan "is the strand which has formed in different ways the prejudices and habits of thought for the class of enlightened elites which encompasses both capitalists and radical intellectuals" (175). I would propose this remark as something we might discuss further in the comments below. I would have thought, for example, that dissent and fideism were more fruitful philosophical veins for some radical thinkers--or even for capitalism in very traditional accounts of the Protestant work ethic via Weber.

BP presents four modes: the logist (which imagines "a faith perfected by knowledge . . . a faith presenting a distinct object to the intellect"); the analogical ("rather than verbal formulation and equivalence, it seeks in the image of the creature an intelligible or imaginative trace of God"); the mystical ("it attempts a severe discipline to find the unmeditated person of God") and the fideist (it "exists whenever God is perceived as an absence").

The delineation of these modes gives scholars of Christian writing a number of effective tools, allowing for precise descriptions of how a Christian author understands and represents God, and how a Christian author might represent or attain knowledge. Like any delineation, however, the boundaries between "modes" might be investigated. In fact, BP allows for some overlap between the modes within individual works, within the Bible as a whole, and within the careers of individual authors. He notes "the special relations of the two symbolic and the two ontological modes" as well. I would have liked to see more commentary on how some authors combine multiple modes and whether these modes can also be held as distinct categories of Christian symbolism and ontology.

For example, Bunyan is placed as a fideist writer on the chart of 194-5. This makes sense, for Bunyan does indeed seem to be alone in a world vacated by God, and often terrified of having been abandoned by God. As well, he works within classic genres of fideism--the confessional biography and the allegorical spiritual journey narratives. I am wondering, however, whether there is an element of the logist in Bunyan's writing which contradicts the fideist elements. Bunyan, of course, is a very different logist from, say, Eleanor Davies, but he does seem interested in verbal puzzles and in the revealing power of the Book. After all, there is an "Interpreter" figure in The Pilgrim's Progress--and Scripture and Biblical text seems to take on an extremely active role in Grace Abounding as well. And does not the great writer of allegory see God in the "creature" as well? Is there no capacity in Bunyan for the experience of a "figure-making God?" [Donne's words, quite by BP].

My final impression of the "four poles" is that each "pole" is a fruitful interpretative tool to approach Christian writers--but that individual Christian writers might have more of a mixture of each mode than BP allows here.

I would be interested in talking about the emphasis in fideist Christian cultures of "fellowship" or even congregational unity. After reading BP's account of fideism, I wonder if the Lutheran and anabaptist and/or independent emphasis on fellowship is not a direct response to the hollow feeling of an absent God (the second half of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress might exhibit this kind of fellowship, as Christiana is accompanied by a vast company of fellow believers.)

On a separate but related note re. the baroque and shifts of cultural priorities, think of Alex Ross's remarks in The New Yorker about the resurgence of interest in Handel (of course, some of us never left him). Ross writes: "it’s a bit of a mystery why Handel has become so crucial for early-twenty-first-century listeners. The prior century made a cult of Bach, whose music takes the form of an endless contrapuntal quest. Perhaps, in an age of information overload and ambient fear, we have more need for Handel’s gentler, steadier art." Of course Ross also adds that Handel grants us not only gentleness and steadiness but also "high-class melodrama and psychological theater."

Here's the link:

I enjoyed this chapter a great deal.