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Learning Love in Theology and Literature

By Mark Cosens


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Grrr…. Browning began his poem The Ring and The Book. The ring had nothing to do with Frodo Baggins and the book wasn’t The Book of Mormon. All of these things are relevant here. But, what cause had Browning for anger? What stirred his soul and the souls of others who sought to write for some reason more than had been written before them?

Well, faith and doubt and disintegrating typologies in Browning’s, Clough’s, Arnold’s and Tennyson’s cases (amongst other things). When these great poets (and others, obviously) of the nineteenth century began to evolve the English language into new forms of modernism it was through an explicit and active interplay of faith and doubt. To them, the spiritual mattered enough to inspire new forms of expressing their existence.

And a quest to express newly what spiritual conditions or lack of them lay at the ground of creativity had long been intrinsic to writers producing depths of writing. The nineteenth century was just one of many ‘definitive’ periods in the evolution of English literature, but it was significant.

So what have we now? Can the Post Eliot and Pound, Post Modernist view of language and media enduringly give coherence to our understanding of what language is? Especially in its explicitly creative and expressive forms? That is, without an underlying faith dimension? Can a merely clinical view of the symbols that make meaning, really, sufficiently accommodate the meaning of those symbols??? Or are the symbols empty?  (Not everyone can do what Tom Raworth does).

Questions produce states of being that are conducive to creativity, but questions dry up when they go no deeper than the shadows of the issues in question. Where can empty and anodyne language re-find reinvigoration in a twenty four seven, online society that fails far too much to make value judgements? (Well, in my value judgement anyway).

Perhaps, when all around is shallow, we need to look deeper. In religion, theology, mysticism, philosophy, science, psychology etc… Discovering what seekers have said about life’s purposes, insights, ideas, principles and universal notions and learning how they have been expressed cannot fail to throw up good stuff for sincere seekers who can in turn become disseminators of knowledge, wisdom and Truth.

Broadly speaking, personally, I think that much literary language now lacks that deeper kind of searching element to infuse it with Life. Instead, celebrity and sensationalism inebriate the minds of the meant-to-be-creative. Does it all have to be non-committal, observational skitting and self satisfied irony? In politics apart, where are real questions being asked, and answered? That’s what I like to find out. A lot of literature currently limps for me. Nine to five, merely observational minds aren’t doin’ it.

Theology is more my thing, although not exclusively, I do put a few words into some sort of assembly sometimes for trivial reasons. But no, actually, they’re not that trivial. Poetry matters too. Reasons for writing are part of the same something driving, seeking the divine. Discourses of Joseph Smith make my apex but each has his or her free agency to exercise for working out the mysteries and purposes of our own lives. The start, at least, is to start to seek.

Do theology and literature crossover? Yes. Over the ages, from Caedmon’s Hymn (the first real ‘English’ poem) to anything Shakespearean, to Andrew Motion; ‘a child raised on the idea of heaven/ and God firmly installed there’, there is so often an intrinsic element of faith or religion in creative writing that is salt to the ocean spray.

Many of the seminal masterpieces of western literature have been religious pieces. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s The Pilgrims Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost in many ways make many of us who we are. Dig deep and you find creative strands and etymologies intertwined over the ages in religious fervour, curiosity, enquiry and investigation. Read the Psalms and the Upanishads, they are truly poetic. W.B. Yeats translated the Upanishads and T.S. Eliot was deeply influenced by his exposure to eastern religions (especially see The Four Quartets). The Song of Songs is exquisite. The list of awe-inspiring, wonderful, illuminating writings is endless, or should I say infinite? Or eternal?

When you think about it, it’s obvious that elevating expressions of exceptional persons, who sought and apprehended something of the divine, should merit recognition and inspire further creativity. The seeker, pilgrim and pioneer have always pushed the boundaries of knowledge, of human consciousness, of collective wisdom, of revelation… Eng lit has been inspired by or infused with higher modes and desires for as long as one might call it Eng lit.

For me, the enjoyment in studying the love dances of divine revelations and language comes not so much from deconstruction but more from appreciation of the essential uniqueness of that expressed. Samuel Johnson put it this way; ‘I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven’. To eureka and appreciate the originality of an insight or the authenticity of an experience, conveyed originally, authentically, uniquely, gives life to language and deepens and inspires my love of those who have dared to enquire and cared enough to say something beautiful or special or helpful.

Vic Allen in the North 33 realised recently that ‘the tomes in my bookcase that are demonstrably decayed by devotion are: Christopher Smart, John Skelton, Gerald Manley Hopkins and William Blake. Grief I’m a religiomaniac’ (p25). There’s the rub. We fear religion nowadays. What a shame that is understandable, but short sighted.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contain God’s plenty. And the Benedictine Monk, Bede Griffiths gave food for thought after sixteen years of ‘living as an Indian among Indians, following Indian ways of life, studying Indian thought, and immersing him/myself in the living traditions of the Indian spirit’. His writing is priceless life communicated. He said of work; ‘this is the way in which we awake to the presence of the Spirit in us. It does not matter what the work may be, whether it is manual or intellectual, work of organization, of management, of service or of prayer. It has to be done with detachment; it has to be offered to God. Every poet knows this. The poem cannot be manufactured; it has to come from the self within. In this sense all work is poetry, and should have the seal of beauty, which is the seal of the Spirit, on it’ (1). Not everyone would agree with him on all sorts of things, but that’s OK. Agreement isn’t the goal. Freshness and discoveries are what keep us above the mundane and the mediocre. They come from above, when we look up to them, when we do aspire to be more like the second of Wilde’s prisoners behind bars; ‘one sees mud, the other stars’.


(1) P141, Bede Griffiths, Return to the Centre, Collins, 1976.


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