Literary Answers to Theological Questions

By Tristan Navarro
Literary Answers to Theological Questions

Wednesday, Apr 10, 2019

What would it be like to talk to God? The Whitmore Rare Books inventory features a few answers to this profound question. Thomas Aquinas valued the use of academic study and the written word as a way of coming into conversation with God, while Thomas à Kempis rails against the use of bookish learning as getting in the way, preferring the mystical experiences of the sacraments as well as direct prayer to God. John Bunyan [James Burdwood] is focused specifically on the healing power of talking to God. All would agree, as written in the beginning of the Gospel of John, that God is the Word, a Word which surpasses the word which is written, seen, and heard. Each author expresses the inner experience of their conversation with that Word in human writing, aiming to capture even a little bit of the transcendent wisdom made available to them in the exchange. Though words are necessarily insufficient for the task, the resulting texts can prove to be beautiful, even transcendent.

The yearning to speak with God is so widespread it can almost be considered a human impulse. One of the hallmarks of medieval European spirituality however is that it focused these impulses for millions of people across centuries in Europe onto a singular goal: the imitation of Christ. A 200-year old movement known as just that, Imitatio Christi, culminated in Thomas à Kempis’s devotional masterpiece of the same name. In it, he envisions a future where humankind imitates Christ by offering themselves as “a sacrifice of perpetual praise” (IV.ix.1). The holy vision itself provides a taste of the real thing, and fuels further praise and celebration.

Not all times call for such visions of hope and joy. Suffering can also drive one to call to God, as Bunyan shows in his Heart’s-Ease in Heart-Trouble, a Puritan text encouraging readers to turn to Jesus Christ as their only cure in the face of persecution. “Man is naturally born to trouble,” opens the text. Whether the author was Bunyan or Burdwood, their troubles were only multiplied by holding Puritan beliefs when it was still possible to be publicly maimed and branded for them. They led a lonely and dangerous existence, and found a cure by listening to the “sweet language” of Jesus Christ, and responding to it — “You have His ear, open to your cries still.” When the author talks to Jesus, Jesus validates him even when nobody else will.

Even the most learned of theologians, Thomas Aquinas, stresses the centrality of a personal and emotional connection to God as Jesus Christ in his impressive but unfinished Summa. “It was fitting that Christ, as the most excellent of teachers, should adopt that manner of teaching whereby His teaching is imprinted on the hearts of His hearers,” as opposed to merely writing and having his teaching judged on the quality of its rhetoric. For, “if Christ had committed His doctrine to writing, men would have had no deeper thought of His doctrine than that which appears on the surface of the writing” (III.42.4). In this way Aquinas agrees with our other writers by stressing that Christ is not a cold theological proposition, but a living Word always accessible to the faithful.

Though God can speak every language, to speak with God means to speak in the language of praise. Thomas à Kempis calls upon the reader of his text to “receive the echoes of the soft whisper of God” (III.i.1). When one hears these echoes, they naturally praise the Creator, and so find true “enjoyment of the Creator... enjoyment of eternity and time, of light uncreated, and of light reflected.” But just as in Bunyan’s Heart’s Ease, one’s relationship with God does not stop with listening to him, because God only speaks to those who speak to God.

The power of religious feeling in these three works comes from a common belief that life is only complete when it involves this kind of direct communion with God. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas is said to have experienced such intense communion with God toward the end of his life that he ceased entirely to continue with his worldly dialectic, remaining mostly silent and denouncing his own work. He did not even spare the magnum opus that was his Summa, declaring it mere worthless “chaff.” Never mind that Aquinas continues to be consulted as foundational to Roman Catholic theology. From this “merely symbolic straw and chaff,” writes Aldous Huxley, Aquinas transcended “to the bread of actual and substantial Fact,” speaking with God, the Word which transcends the written word. He achieved that true state of the imitation of Christ that Thomas à Kempis wrote of: subsuming the entire self for the glorification of God, remaining silent except to sing praises; he considered his own works as nothing as he beheld the glory of God in all its splendor in his final days — yet, he was unable to share that joy with others.

 

Aquinas, Kempis, and Bunyan are all caught in the same predicament. Their various dialogues with the divine must be chaff, recorded in mere mortal words. Yet therein lies a beauty, because those imperfect words, unlike a mystical experience, can be shared and perhaps lead others to transcendent communion with God. They know that their writing is not just writing: it points to something that cannot be contained on a page, that is, the mystery of a Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14). And those words on the page are not ultimately dead letters, but exhortations to listen back to the soft whispers of God, and to find a voice to speak back.

 

 

Backman, Clifford R. Worlds of Medieval Europe. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 2014. 482-493.

 

Library of Congress. “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.”  Accessed 7 April 2019.

 

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009.

 

 

Tristan Navarro, this month's guest blogger, graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies. Currently he works as a printer in Brea, California.