23 May 2006

Worldview Point #3

Read: Romeo & Juliet
Listened to: finally finished listening to Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc on tape. It’s been quite a journey, a meticulous and heartbreaking journey.

Link to the original worldview discussion

…but first, some more discussion on point #2. Rosie asked, what truth can we find in another religion that isn't already expressed in our own? Whew, wow, well, huge question. I have to answer this two ways.

First, I think there are truths we can find in other religions. I don’t know what the traditional theological position is, but there are things taught by other religions that are not readily known through any of the above-mentioned three means. There are religions, for example, that unify medical practices with their faiths, discovering the healing powers of herbs and so forth but attributing health to deities, spirits, etc. The Bible does not give much medical advice. There are religions, such as those that use astrology, which have made various scientific or quasi-scientific discoveries of which the Christian faith as yet knows nothing. Astronomy is finding out some things through “proof”—celestial influences via radio waves, for example—that eastern religions have taught for centuries by instinct. Can anybody think of other instances?

However, and here’s the other part of my answer, obviously I do not believe that any religion, science, or other interrogation of man can find out anything in contradiction to the Bible. Many appear to be in conflict, but these will be resolved upon further research or understanding. Furthermore, I wonder if any piece of knowledge comes by means other than man’s gifts as God’s image or through general revelation? In other words, doesn’t everybody everywhere know what they know, and indeed know anything, merely and totally because God give them brains and an orderly creation? So therefore all knowledge is given, in a round-about sense, by means of the Christian faith?

I have not dealt at all with other putative revelations—other sacred texts, dreams, visions, etc. Any takers?

Now, on to Worldview point #3: God is sovereign, man is responsible, and this “paradox” has great implications for art and life, the past and the future.

David Taylor once said artists must read their systematic theology. Indeed, I do believe that great Christian art is (partly) only as good as its doctrine. Partly; skill/craftsmanship/aesthetic excellence are also essential. But I also am coming to think that the debates over theological points are as fertile as solid convictions. The Problem of Evil is once such difficulty, the catalyst for large passages in Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s trilogy, Milton’s Paradise Lost,….

And the debate over Free Will vs. Predestination is another such matter. I am reading Macbeth just now. The introductory matter in my Norton Critical Edition is by Robert S. Miola. He puts it into the context of culture controversies, one hot one being just this of Free Will vs. Predestination. He claims that “Whatever his personal convictions, Shakespeare clearly adopts a Catholic view of the action and theology of free will in this play” and “Rejecting the Protestant dichotomy between the elect and reprobate, Shakespeare deploys the Catholic view of free will perhaps from theological conviction, but more certainly from theatrical necessity. For the doctrine of predestination renders human action essentially undramatic: when the end is known, preordained, and absolutely just, there can be no real choice, suspense, conflict, or resolution. This conception of divine justice and human action renders pity an impertinence, terror a transgression, and tragedy an impossibility” (pp. xv, xvi).

I don’t think so. OK, sure, Shakespeare gives Macbeth the power of choice in this work, fine. I am not taking issue with Miola’s entire intro, not by any means. It’s splendid, well researched, and correct in its specifics. It’s only with the sweeping generalization I have a problem. I wouldn’t say that predestination freezes all possibility of dramatic action. What about Oedipus ? One of the greatest plays ever written, so I’ve been told, and it’s very power comes from the dreadful inevitability, the horrendous fate, the attempts to escape from destiny, indeed, from the very lack of free will! Am I right?

Let’s take another Shakespearean example: Romeo & Juliet. Right from the very get-go the end is determined:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Well I guess I don’t need to stay and watch the play. The prologue gives it all away, it’s fated, it’s written in the stars, they’re going to die…. And yet I do stay, watch, am moved; and every time I hope (against hope, indeed) it will end differently! I wait for Friar Lawrence to get to the tomb before Romeo, I shout out loud “She’s not dead!” (only when reading, mind you; not when it’s on stage, although I have much ado to restrain myself!). When listening to Joan of Arc today I kept waiting for the rescue that would save her from the stake—O dreadful death! But I know my history; why did I wait for what I knew would not come?

[Why did Claudius sit still and unmoved when the Players acted the dumbshow, but jumped up disturbed and called for lights when he saw the “real” play, the Mousetrap?]

[Why do we watch the same play more than once, the same movie over and over, why do we reread our favorite books? Not only for forgetting…]

Two points:

1. The characters do not know the ending. They are within a double predestination, as it were. Theologians will pardon me for abusing the term. First, they are predestined by God, if such is the writer’s or audience’s belief. Second, they are predestined by the intent and will of the artist. Or perhaps I have those in the wrong order?

2. In life, we do not know our ending. The staunchest Calvinist, if he has his wits about him, believes that here inside time we must make choices. Yeah, perhaps God has set the choice before hand, certainly God knows what will be done, but that does not make the psychological and emotional experience of choice any less a reality. Any less real. It is also thus inside works of art.


Iambic Admonit said...

C. S. Lewis, in his preface to MacDonald’s Phantastes, says that “On the intellectual side his history is largely a history of escape from the theology in which he had been brought up” [namely, Calvinism] and repudiates this theology. Perhaps Kirstin could tell us if Lewis’s assessment here is accurate?

Yet, ironically enough, Lewis himself writes his way through this debate, and look where he comes out. Ransom, in Perelandra, has had to decide whether or not to fight the Un-Man. He realizes he must (and I again realize how much I detest these little summaries of profound and poignant passages in great works of Literature!):

“The thing still seemed impossible. But gradually something happened to him which had happened to him only twice before in his life….in both cases the thing [he had to do] had seemed a sheer impossibility: he had not thought but known that, being what he was, he was psychologically incapable of doing it; and then, without any apparent movement of the will, as objective and unemotional as the reading on a dial, there had arisen before him, with perfect certitude, the knowledge ‘about this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible.’ The same thing happened now…. The future act stood there, fixed and unaltered as if he had already performed it. It was a mere irrelevant detail that it happened to occupy the position we call future instead of that which we call the past. The whole struggle was over, and yet there seemed to have been no moment of victory. You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice has simply been set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had [been] delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the many arguments he had heard on the subject.” (p. 149 in the 1944 Macmillan edition; emphasis mine).

Does anybody have other examples of how this doctrinal dilemma has been the catalyst for great passages of writing? Or, you know what I’d really love to see: examples of other genres (visual arts, music, etc.) that use this or other theological paradoxes for their meaning and motive!

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's an abstract for a paper I gave at a UMass Grad. English Conference, dealing with this issue from a non-theological perspective.

Historical Tension in A Tale of Two Cities
ABSTRACT: The tension between historical reality and created fiction is obvious in the events of A Tale of Two Cities, but it is also discernable as a tool of craft and an undermining influence. Those events in the category of historical fact are inevitable since they occurred in the past; against this, Dickens deploys the uninevitable actions of fiction, creating a strain of hope against resignation. He employs a gathering inertia to drive the “created” against the “real” by means of dates. If the reader had any early hope the Manette/Darnay family could escape The Terror, the pace of inexorable time carries that away. I intend to demonstrate that history, marked by the mention of specific moments, both determines the momentum and is itself determined in relation to the fictive characters. It is at once the inevitable force and only a part of a story that pronounces its own inevitability. Every rereading adds given plot to the unalterable pressure of history, increasing those tensions of hope against predetermined velocity.
I also intend to show that what appears to be historical determinism or prophetic declamation loses its force when the distorting lens of fiction is imposed on the past. Dickens announces: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind” (367). Does his warning voice have power to produce change, or is the shift located in the writing, not world-historical events? History-writing, like history-making, works forward into the future as well as back over the past with its own particular color. In this vein, Sydney’s imaginary prophecy closes the book: “If he had given utterance to his [thoughts], and [if] they were prophetic, they would have been these…” (371, emphasis mine). Since he did not utter them and they would not have been prophetic if he had, this afflatus is a falsehood within the larger fiction, though it projects a future (imaginary) history as “true” as the recorded (imagined) history of the “real facts” framework. Furthermore, Sydney sees/does not see Lucie’s unborn son telling a child his (Sydney’s) own story. It is not irrelevant to ask how this story would be told. Certainly it would cast a changing light backwards to illumine Sydney favorably. Thus the fictive past is changed within itself. Surely all [hi]story-telling has this disfiguring/refiguring effect? By framing the events of the French Revolution as a novel—narrativizing the past in a generic shape—Dickens gave it a particular color. I argue that though this shade has been called prophetic, the dyeing process undermines his position as seer in the precise locus where the foretelling resides, because that reading of the Revolution is contrived.

Anonymous said...

The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is available online here free at