Thursday, March 22, 2007

The gnostic temptation

Theology as Literary Criticism

By Ralph Roiter-Doister

I love the idea of theology as literary criticism. Much of literary criticism can be reduced to the explication of metaphorical language, or of the language of symbolism (which, with the flash and filigree removed, is only a more complex and challenging permutation of metaphor). The common denominator of both metaphor and symbol is the illusion that two separate things are actually one. With a simple metaphor, such deliberate confusion may amount to nothing more than a conceit, designed to highlight the cleverness of the author. With a symbol, however, a more complex statement is being made, the template of which is typically (1) A is not B, but (2) in a different and more profound way, A is B. The "more profound" way has to do with the cleverness of the author, of course, but also with his relationship with the reader: the author has set out in his text a deeper, more profound and elusive subtext, a hidden level of meaning which only the best prepared, most intelligent, most sensitive, most attuned, can fathom. It is a game of perspicacity, and also of exclusivity.

Thus, there is a certain gnostic tincture to literary criticism: a secret, "higher" knowledge which only the initiated can appreciate. The exquisite insights of Keats and Shelley are lost on workaday drudges, who prefer the ringside orations of WWF freaks of chemistry. The "quiet desperation" crowd is clueless before the altar of Shakespeare, and must wallow in the trashy cultural trough of soap operas and "American Idol" (and, as post-modernists might claim, the poor boobies don't even grasp the proper significance of that!)

But hark ye, a yet deeper layer. As the American university has transformed into a standard item of upper middle class accessorizing, many departments have had to staff up. The ability to teach is all well and good, but it has long been assumed by departmental pashas that performance and promotion has to be decided by more than just that: the basis for promotion in most English departments across the land is popularly referred to as "publish or perish", which means that you must demonstrate your attainment of the gnostic inner circle of knowledge by having your insights on a suitable topic accepted for publication in a book or a journal that is likely to be read only by other members of that inner circle. You must have your parchment placed in the gnostic Nag Hammadi, or face banishment to the bleak desert of the berber bourgeosie, where people actually perform manual labor for money, follow the doings of local sports teams, and watch the Fox Network – all willingly!

Quiet desperation indeed. And the effect of it has been to reduce literary criticism to an almost atomistic level of relativity – an incidental but absolute vindication of the postmodern thesis. My personal favorite example of this phenomenon is Moby Dick. Where once, not so very long ago, there was a fair amount of agreement about what was going on between Ahab and the white whale, today, Moby Dick resembles less a great work of literature than an abandoned strip-mine. The Bible, Shakespeare, Freud, Jung, John Calvin, Pierre Bayle, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Zoroaster, the Ophites, Hindu mythology, Polynesian mythology, even Husserl – it is common, in piling yet another interpretational apparatus upon the novel, to extol the greatness of its symbolism as lying in its ability to "support" all of this gnostic dead weight. A true knee-slapper, that! The post-modern horselaugh in a nutshell: there is no deeper knowledge, no deepest layer: the Nag Hammadi parchments may as well be blank.

How marvellous, then, to see theologians behaving like literary critics! From Han Urs von Balthazar's radical inflation of Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage" into "all's a stage, period", to ressourcement fascination with the perfumed vitalistic metaphors of Blondel and Bergson, to Scott Hahn's promotion of the family as a suitable symbol for the triune God, to the current competitive "gnosticizing", if you will, over the proper reading of the metaphor of communio (why, for example, it is more than just a shiny new term for the pockmarked old one, "dialogue"), our "call to holiness" seems to lead so many of us into pursuit of one or another "white whale".