Read: C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green & Walter Hooper.
Watched: the first part of HBO’s Elizabeth I
This is a re-hash of a previous post. My students & I have been exploring this topic in Language Arts classes recently, so I repost it here for their sakes, looking forward to their comments.
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 think that the debates over theological points are as fertile as solid convictions. The “Problem of Evil,” for example, functions as 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. We’ve been reading Macbeth for the last month or more, putting it into the context of cultural controversies. One hot topic of Shakespeare’s time was this problem about “Does God deterimine all things beofre they begin, or are human beings free to create their own [eternal] destinies?” And it was very hot; wars were raging all over Europe in the latter half of the 16th century over Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Shakespeare, man of the age, was certainly not going to let this red-letter debate slip by. But he also didn’t want to lose his head.
However that may be, the author of the introductory matter in our Norton Critical Edition, Robert S. Miola, claims that “Whatever his personal convictions, Shakespeare clearly adopts a Catholic view of the action and theology of free will in this play” and “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).
Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure. I have a problem with that sweeping generalization. I wouldn’t say that predestination freezes all possibility of dramatic action. I’d like to make 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 might be predestined by God, if such is the writer’s or audience’s belief. Second, they are certainly 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.
So, here’s the question: Is Macbeth free to choose his fate, or is he destined to follow the prophecies? We’ve talked about how much the witches knew, could they see the future, would Macbeth have become king even without killing Duncan, are the “equivocating” words of the weird sisters quite “fair” from a spiritual point of view, do telling the future and making big decisions create parallel universes… you know, the usual literary discussions. :)
So now, let’s continue that conversation. Feel free to answer the above question, offer new questions, or give other examples of how this doctrinal dilemma has been the catalyst for great passages of writing. Or 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!