The Place of Religion and LiteratureBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Devon, PA. My talk from the annual Ciceronian Society Conference, held in joy and good company last weekend at the University of Virginia, has now been published on the Anamnesis website. The essay, “Literature between Theology and Religion” grew out of my own first experiences as a graduate student and professor, and speaks to the vexations that inevitably occur to students and scholars who wish to consider the things of God in an age that seems to have an intellectual vocabulary only adequate to speak of the stuff of dust (an eternal, purposeless sort of dust that none of us has actually encountered, of course). The essay speaks of Cardinal Newman, Wesley Kort, Nathan A. Scott, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, but at the heart of it is a nameless figure who may be more familiar to us than any of these worthy names:
An undergraduate student approaches a literature professor for direction on a senior thesis. When asked about his interests, the student confesses being primarily drawn to modern literature, and to be particularly interested in writing on the work of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He does not know what he would say about them, only that he likes them better than the authors he has generally read in his literature courses. The professor detects that the student is more comfortable with the novel form, but that the underlying unity at which the student hints is the authors’ Christianity or Catholicism. He therefore assigns the student a topic that invites inquiry about some historical aspect of the writers’ works—perhaps, for instance, the significance of place names in Eliot, or the representation of Southern evangelical women in O’Connor. In doing so, the professor seems to have found a prudent answer to the request. The student’s evident desire to study these authors pertains to their identity as writers who wrote sometimes about Christianity, but always from some kind of Christian perspective. Stimulated though that desire is by Christianity, it does not seem resolved into some definite theological interest. And, finally, the professor’s recommended subject for research is scripted on a historical and political line, so that whatever the student writes, if done well, will prove intelligible and methodologically “relevant” to a broad audience of literary scholars, including those serving on admissions committees for graduate school.
The resultant thesis would prove, most likely, to be a novice but model essay for much of what constitutes the field of Religion and Literature in our day. It would certainly be historically grounded. That is, if it speaks of Christianity, it does so because the lives and the works of the authors immediately occasion such discussion. Any references to the Incarnation or to the supernatural in it would derive from either the plot of a Greene novel or a quotation from the English mystics in a line of Eliot. In this respect, the thesis falls under the category of Religion and Literature insofar as it refers to a specific corpus of subject matter, just as a thesis in Medicine and Literature might rake over references to maternity and birth in the Nineteenth-Century novel. Certain features plucked from the vast literary record of the past are brushed together and taxonymized as a field of scholarship.
But the impetus for this study began not in a disinterested recognition of the determined lineaments of the past. It began in the desire of the student to encounter something vaguely felt as “religious,” which was in turn answered by this novel or that poem rather than another.
Readers may find the whole essay here.