The great secret of morals is Love: or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own.
P. B. Shelley, A Defense of Poetry
Something that’s been at the back of my mind this year is how to resolve the discussions I have in the classroom with those I have in church. Especially because we talk unabashedly about death and love and desire and in great detail — the mucky murky parts of being human and alive. It is tricky, since attempts at resolution run the risk of offending either side. On one hand, my faith colors the way I look at poetry and the way people have tried to reason with/about poetry, from Aquinas to Freud. Every corner I turn, I am hit by the depth of yearning, the ache for meaning along with the shock and disillusionment when confronted humanity’s baseness. It makes me want to diagnose these people/recast them along the lines of sin and redemption. But on the other hand, studying literary theory makes me more skeptical about the way I approach the word and apply it to my life. Why does Plato seem so strongly to have pre-empted notions of Christianity? (Augustine says something intelligent about this to the effect that we are like Israelites plundering the Egyptians, reclaiming ‘treasure’ that was unrightfully robbed.) Literature/reading/writing also constitutes a very tempting and viable way to interpret myself, the world, and to make meaning. Expression as ointment. Writing as birth. Reading as pleasure. Learning as love, as morality. It can displace or imitate a lot of the issues my faith seems to address.
I think the bottom line for now is that the humanities execute the brilliant (and heartbreaking) task of representing the quandary of the human condition, of formulating deep and disturbing questions. It is very poetic and very moving. But after nearly three thousand years of searching, it does not have the answer. My faith begins with the answer – I am left with the happy task of working out my salvation, with fear and trembling, with the help of the best Helper, and plenty of good friends I don’t nearly deserve.