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Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

By David Baggett 

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.
In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

Atheism and its Impossible Imagination: How Literary Imagination Insists on Theist Morality

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in The City.

By Corey Latta 

Let me begin boldly: no atheist fiction writer, living or dead, has successfully created a world in the image of his non-belief.  The possibility for such a non-believing world vanishes the moment an atheist author exercises imagination to create conscientious characters in a fictive society.  As soon as the atheist author creates a fictive world, he populates that world with living characters.  These characters must have a semblance of will, intent, emotion, civility, and they must live by the laws, both natural and moral, of their world.  It is in the secondary world, in the tropes of character and identity, in themes of truth or doubt, in those questions of moral meaning and belief, that imagination both resists and ultimately redresses atheistic creativity.

I do not mean that atheist novelists have not created closed worlds populated by characters neglectful of morality or refusing of faith.  Many have done that.  Look no further than works like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for fictive worlds of wanton morality written from an atheistic worldview.  These, some of the most critically acclaimed and popular texts of the twentieth century, are only a few examples of unbelieving attempts to submerge, disturb, or undo theistic assumptions about life and morality.  What I am saying is that as products of the imagination, the self-enclosed communities of Hemingway’s characters, Burgess’s maddening dystopia, even Pullman’s anti-theistic celebration of deceit (Lyra “Silvertongue,” the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, prides herself on her ability to lie with “bare-faced conviction”) fail to escape the inherently theistic laws of imagination.  To put it another way, there are atheist authors, but no atheist stories.

Imagination means the power to create new and previously unknown images and experiences, along with abstract ways of knowing those images and experiences (i.e., it does no good to write a story about space explorers discovering another world if I do not imagine ways they can know, understand, believe in, and relate to that world).  It is important to note that in literature, the imagination creates those images and experiences consistent with the author’s ultimate reality.  So, to use a fantastic example, an author can write a story about a talking giant tree who befriends a lonely child, having met neither the fantastic character or the child, precisely because in the ultimate reality the author inhabits, language, trees, friendship, and children actually exist.  While the story’s images are entirely new–its characters having never existed before mental conception–the author draws from those familiar cognate realities, like trees and children, and old sensory experience, like language.  From the fragmented source material of reality–its nature, its physical properties, its diverse inhabitants, along with their morality and sense of life meaning–an author freely forms a secondary world made in the precise image of his creative vision.

In this way, the imaginative world, no matter how fantastic or illustrious, is essentially a distilled reality, a deliberately crafted parcel of cosmos written so that readers must wrestle with life’s meanings, and in wrestling, must come to understand those meanings more fully and more deeply. What is so vitally important to remember, though, is that the author, regardless of his worldview, has the liberty to make any sort of world, full of any sorts of characters, he wants from the mental material available to him.  From the raw material of his reality, an author may make any world his heart desires.  And in this way authors are subject to the great law of human creativity: we create what is new and unknown from what is old and known.  Ex nihilo has no part in human imagination.

Why is it then, to return to my main point, that no author has ever created a world free from theistic morality–that is, from a morality that transcends the human condition and does not contain inherent truths that point to a higher Being?  An atheist author is free to write any number of secular humanist stories, free to undo the aged myth of Christian belief, free to create a society unfettered from the oppressive gods of a higher truth, and yet, not one has.  Every story, even the most nihilistic, supplies a moral subtext inexplicable apart from some higher agent from whom that morality originates.  When we recall that the imagination is making what is new from bits of what is old, that we create what is not from what is, we find that no author has ever written an atheistic novel because the inherent material of his imagination is spoiled to his purpose.

If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it.  No matter how I might like to write a society whose morality gets along fine without any moral lawgiver, I instantly find that the very ideas of morality which I would like to make new carry with them nagging old notions.  And it would not take long, if I started to investigate from where exactly these nagging old ideas derive, to discover that the same moral precepts have cropped up across civilizations and their literature since the dawn of documented time.

 If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it. 

It is no use saying that these moral precepts simply come from years of evolving human social prescription, for most moral precepts, even those that defy social utility, have remained the same since their first appearance.  The questionable virtue of jealous love in Euripedes’s Medea shows up again in Shakespeare’s Othello.  The honor and shame of which Homer wrote in the Odyssey are the same ideas Hemingway disturbs in The Sun Also Rises.  Friendship in Gilgamesh is not very different than friendship in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It seems when we think about works of seminal literature written with no theist intent that some kind of inexplicable moral ascent keeps showing up.  Even in the bleakest literary moral visions of the modern age–something like William Burroughs’s non-linear, nearly impenetrable, and obscene Naked Lunch–imaginative attempts to unravel higher moral meaning only serve confirm its permanence.  In a world like Burroughs’, the imagination can only play on and push against the raw material of accepted moral principles, so when he writes a line like, “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell….Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus,”[1] he imaginatively assumes there is some “image of Man” that can experience moral brokenness (see the unnumbered Chapter titled, islam incorporated and the parties of interzone).  He makes an imaginative moral judgment.  What is brokenness, or the evil of poverty, or hatred if not all confirmations of higher polarized moral principles–for example, an unbroken image of man characterized by plenty and love – and from where did these values originate other than Burroughs’ im/moral imagination.

For all their disturbances of Judeo-Christian principles or basic theist belief, novels like Naked Lunch present an imaginary immoral world that ultimately–when we begin to question the very meaning of the work’s moral pronouncements–assumes, and then concedes to, a higher moral law.  The origins of this moral law are inexplicable and only imposed on Burroughs’ created world because they were first nested in Burroughs’ own imagination.  It is astonishing that even in works like Naked Lunch, readers do not find pages of nihilist answers to nihilist questions.  If that were the case, the readers’ moral imaginations would experience instant disconnect and that book would fade into an unpopular oblivion.  Instead, Burroughs fills his world with Ecclesiastian doubts about moral meaning while interrogating those doubts with fragmented scraps of possible truth.  And in each fragment exists an inherent meaning of which Burroughs is only a transcriber.  The imagination only creates what is not from what is, and even in a Burroughs novel, what is has loaded moral meaning.  In this way, atheism in Naked Lunch is unable to totally break the tethers of higher moral precept.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, calls these inescapable moral precepts the “moral law” and makes these key observations about the law’s perennial presence:

“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”[2]

In making what is new the imagination works with what is already there, and what is already there are the irremovable realities about how morality should look in characters’ lives.  This moral law goes “above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] It is because of this law’s presence that authors like Burroughs imagine innately morally charged themes of the human condition and poverty and hatred.  Just as the atheist author works from the imagination so the atheist imagination works from a higher moral reality.

The raw materials of the imagination, and this point can hardly be overstated, with which an atheist writer creates are utterly saturated in higher moral meaning.  The imaginative act, then, entails envisioning new worlds for old truths, gleaning from those moral meanings already available to the author, about whom George MacDonald–fantasy writer, theologian, great imaginative theorist, and C. S. Lewis’s self-proclaimed “master”– says, “for the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents…the meanings are in those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling.”[4]

The atheist author writes in no other imaginative power than that from the inexhaustible storehouse of forms offered by the world.  Like the precepts of the moral law, each and every outward configuration of external reality already contains meaning, waiting for the imaginative act to reveal their deeper truths.  In creating those inherently meaningful forms through stories, the writer exercises  “that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God.”[5] Unbeknownst to them, atheist writers imitate this prime operation of divine power by creating worlds that unintentionally affirm a transcendent moral law.  And so atheism is pitted against man’s imagination, man’s chief creative power, which MacDonald describes as being “made in the image of the imagination of God.”[6]

To show how inescapable imagination’s adherence to theistic morality is, I want to look at one short text that embodies atheism’s inability to be carried over into an author’s created world: Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  I choose Hemingway’s short story for two simple reasons: First, it is a superbly written short story, rich and layered with complex meaning, beautiful in style.  Second, Hemingway wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” without any Christian or theist intent.  It is truly a case study in the atheist imagination.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the story of two waiters, one old and one young, both waiting to close up a café one late night.  The remaining only patron is an old deaf man who tried to kill himself the week before.  The two waiters see the old man’s lingering late into the night differently, the younger waiter impatient for the deaf man to leave and the older much more understanding of the old man’s need for a “clean, well-lighted place.”

The old waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”  He feels the need for to create a space for “all those who do not want to go to bed” and to wait along with “all those who need a light for the night.”  The younger waiter does not understand why the deaf man cannot just go to a bar, chirping to the older waiter, “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”  To which the older waiter replies, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”[7] We see in Hemingway’s works a subtextual morality­–and what I would call a subtle metaphysic–at work.

What good is a clean, well-lighted place, anyway?  It has no inherent value.  It’s neither moral nor immoral.  Hemingway has merely imagined a café incandescently illuminated and contrasted it against the outer dark of night and the dimmed atmosphere of a bar. And yet, Hemingway has, in drawing from the cafés and bars and storehouses of imagery from his own life, written a sort of apologetic for morality.  According to the older waiter, Hemingway’s moral voice, the deaf, unsuccessful suicide puts himself in the way of hope inside the café.  Hemingway imagines the café as a solace with latent moral cleanness and order.  The hopeless and desperate need “a certain cleanness and order” in their lives, according to the old waiter.

But Hemingway’s realist imagination raises questions about ultimate moral meaning.  For example, what sort of statement does the narrator really make about the old waiter, when he says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing?”[8] It seems as if Hemingway, despite his salient personal unbelief, makes a statement about morality and life meaning that mysteriously transcends what seems to be a closed world of artificial light, failed suicides, and mundane waiters.

To get at just the kind of statement Hemingway’s short story makes, I think a look at C. S. Lewis’s essay on Christianity and culture might prove helpful.  On the value of culture in relaying higher theological truth, Lewis writes, “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.  These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit.  But God created the soul.  Its values may be expected, therefore to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.”[9] When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

Hemingway’s café, its cleanness, and its well-lighted atmosphere reflect something greater and more essential to the human condition.  Morality and hope and a bright existence in the community of others are imbedded in Hemingway’s imagery of the deaf man in the clean, well-lighted café.  These fixtures of the atheist imagination, despite the atheist author’s creative intentions, ultimately “resemble the regenerate life,” but only, Lewis points out, “as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.  But though ‘like is not the same’, it is better than unlike.  Imitation may pass into initiation”[10] Lewis here captures what Hemingway’s café means as a function of the imagination.  It is that imitation of the storehouse of reality imagined as a place of moral initiation.  Hemingway writes a café story with threads of humanist morality–themes of goodwill toward another, care for life, the need to recover a hurting life–that come to nonsense apart from transcendent truth working to weave those threads into universal moral meaning.

To apply Lewis’s terms to Hemingway’s fiction, the deaf man might move from the imitation of clean moral order to an initiation into actual moral transformation.  He might go from the reflection of moral truth in an artificially well-lighted café to the substance of truth in the real light of a redeemed life.  What Hemingway imagined as a story of minimalist morality, becomes, upon consideration of the story’s embodiment of that morality and its higher meaning, a story of moral ascension into metaphysical truth.

Once the old waiter finally leaves the café, he stops at a bar.  The old waiter stands at the bar smiling, while thinking through a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”[11] It is as if Hemingway’s imagination cannot completely shed spiritual language, as he turns to the Lord’s Prayer as a way to stir nihilistic doubt in his character. This barroom prayer is an instance of doubt seeking the assurance of faith.  The old waiter’s dismissive prayer fails to dismiss, as the old waiter has already given himself to the prayer’s requests.  Hemingway’s imaginative vision for this scrambled prayer includes splintered versions of the lines, “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” lines that get at the essence of the old waiter’s service to the deaf man.   It is fitting that the old waiter would recall these particular lines from Jesus’s prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as he literally served the deaf man his daily bread as well as delivered him from the dark world outside of the café.

The waiter, like Hemingway, uses his imagination to mock a God for which he has little use.  And through that same imagination, creates a moral imperative that transcends the story’s closed world, subtly pointing toward some higher Being.  Interestingly, the waiter’s actions move in a different current than his mock prayer, as he refuses another drink from the barman and goes home to lie awake till the sun comes up.  A kind of small eschatology emerges as the story that begins in artificial light ends in the light of day.  The old waiter’s atheism, as evidenced in the false prayers, turns out to be a failure in the imaginative act.  Why, given the freedom that atheism theoretically provides, would the old man bind himself to a kind of loving his neighbor?  For the same reason that Hemingway, an author free to create any moral vision he desires, imagines a world of moral obligation and angst over Christian spirituality.  The literary imagination does not allow for any other world.

I began by saying that no atheist writer has ever created a fictive world in his own image, and I have given only a few brief considerations as to why I think the imagination redresses atheism’s influence.  I will end this introduction where I started it, by saying that the role of imagination in atheism is subversive.  It cannot allow an author to construct an inhabitable world apart from those transcendent, timeless moral laws that govern necessarily imaginable habitation.  If, as MacDonald said, the imagination is that power most alike “the prime operation of power of God,” then we would do well to study it in the work of atheist authors in hopes that we might better know the creative resemblances of the regenerate life in literature as well as learn how the imagination’s imitation of theist morality passes into Christian initiation.





[1] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 141.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low Marston & Company, 1893), 5.

[5] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 3.

[6] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 4.

[7] Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 382.

[8] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Ballentine Books, 1967), 30.

[10] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” 31.

[11] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.


Video: Too Good Not to Be True: The Shape of Moral Apologetics – David Horner

Dr. David Horner  is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology. Today we are excited to feature the video version of his essay, “Too Good Not to Be True.” Here is the blurb describing the video from the Forum of Christian Leader’s YouTube page:

Apologetics is about communicating, not merely talking. It requires that we understand those with whom we speak: what they think, the questions they’re asking (and not asking), the assumptions they’re making; and the misconceptions that keep them from listening to what we have to say. If we don’t understand the soil, we may be scattering seeds in vain – talking but not communicating, making noise but not making progress. Perhaps the deepest, soil-hardening challenges to the apologetic task in our time are moral objections to Christianity – to the (perceived) immorality of Christian attitudes and behavior in history and the present. In this talk we think about apologetics and its relation to “soil management,” consider the apologetic role and importance of moral goodness, and suggest some ways to help people come to see the gospel as too good not to be true.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to read Horner’s essay, this lecture will be well worth your time.



Image: “What a beautiful day – Bavaria today” by digital cat. CC license.

Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 2

By Corey Latta

(Part 1)

Temporality, once reflected upon and resigned to, proclaims to humanity its essential question—the one Tolkien so eloquently asked—“what to do with the time given us.” It’s a common philosophical observation that time isn’t in itself material but is used to measure the distance, relationship, and alteration between material things. We measure our lives by time. We consider a relationship significant if it lasts fifty years. We call service to a job quality if it has the tenure of time. We want to make something of our lives in the time we have. We reflect on the past as a way to understand what kind of people we are. We look to the future in hopes that we won’t repeat the mistakes of today. We hope to leave moral legacies behind us as we near the end of our time.

Biblical authors understood the importance of time in creating moral urgency, and they often wielded timely rhetoric in attempts to empower their audiences to action. Jeremiah laments for the time wasted by his kinsman and delivers an urgent warning, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8:20). Chiefly, the scripture writers emphasized the importance of the present. The temporal now is the only time to obey the will of Yahweh. 2 Corinthians 6:2 tells us that God proclaims, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you. Indeed, the ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation.” If one is to know Christ, there is no other time in which to know him than the present. And since God meets me only in the always present and since existence, in response to God’s presence, isn’t actualized in past or future,[1] I have only this present moment to respond to God. The eternal Christ can’t be met yesterday or tomorrow, only in today’s exact now.

Perhaps no period of time has seen more attention paid to the present than the twentieth century. Writers like Joseph Conrad, Walter Benjamin, Paul Valery, Wyndham Lewis, and C. S. Lewis fore-fronted the importance of time as the ultimate measure of humanity’s existential significance. Through time, we know ourselves. In time, we become the people we desire or fear to be. By time, we measure the space between the meaningful moments in our lives. From time, we learn an Ecclesiastian mortality. For Christian writers like C. S. Lewis, time pressed upon the human soul with all the force of heaven and hell behind it. In The Great Divorce, Lewis’s most superb example of his theology of the present, a ghost with a little red lizard on his shoulder is approached by a flaming, radiantly angelic solid person on the high plains of heaven. The ghost, a lost soul, has a strained, spiritually unhealthy relationship with the lizard, a metaphor for the ghost’s besetting sin of lust. Lewis catches sight of the ghost and noticed that “he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him.”

Lewis then narrates the solid person’s reply, “Would you like me to make him quiet’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.” Once the ghost admits that he would like to be rid of the lizard, the flaming Spirit announces, “Then I will kill him.” Shocked and afraid, the lizard-clad ghost defers, “Well, there’s time to discuss this later.” The flaming Spirit announces, “There is no time.” The ghost complains, “It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.” To which the solid person replies, “There is no other day. All days are present now.”

As a part of Lewis’s fictive eternal order, the angelic being serves as a metonym for God’s very essence. Though eternal, though standing outside of time—the slippage of time runs throughout the text serving as the novel’s bedrock theme—the angel’s eternality speaks to his moral perfection. In the high plains, once good is ripened, perfect timeless solidity constitutes nature. God’s timelessness, like His holiness, His perfect loving-kindness, and His omnipotence becomes the banner under which our temporality, like our sinfulness, our selfishness, and our weakness surrender. The solid person incarnates an apologetic of the present, which exposes the ontologically incomplete and morally decaying nature of temporal existence and of the ghost’s ephemeral sins. It is the weight of the present bearing down on the ghost that causes his conversion. He dies to what is temporal, knowing it as non-existence against heaven’s ultimate reality, and lives into the eternal. Once the ghost resigns to time’s deterioration, giving his decay over to destruction, a death by eternity, he transforms into pure, immortal substantiality. But transformation must take place in the present. All days are present for the ghost because all days are present for God.

If, alongside Augustine, Boethius, the biblical writers, and writers like Lewis, we are to understand God, then we must do so in full embrace of His atemporal existence. If I am to know God, then it will be at that crossroads of eternality and temporality called the present. Temporality proves an apologetic of ruin that forces from us the undeniable cry of mortality. The eternal God stands in perfect existence beyond time, though He enters time through the always present that we might shed the temporal and put on the incorruptible. Through time time is conquered. We turn to the eternal through the temporal present, which is the eternal present for God, and we gain immortal solidity. As Lewis says in his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress, “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” May we enjoy more than time can afford.

[1] In other words, there is only evidence of my existing yesterday through artifact and memory. And I’m sure I’ll exist tomorrow. But I only exist in freedom of will and full actualization of life now.


Photo: “Museums foot tunnel, South Kensington,” L. Plougmann. CC License.

Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 1

By Corey Latta

The time has passed when time doesn’t count.

— Paul Valéry, “La Crise de l’esprit” (1919)

Humans live in time . . . therefore . . . attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to . . . the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity . . . in it alone freedom and actuality are offered.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Throughout philosophy’s history, notions of eternity have developed alongside and in response to developments in theology of God’s nature. Significant texts like Augustine’s Confessions Book XI and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy spurred philosophical conversation about the nature of and differences between eternity (atemporality) and everlastingness (sempiternity). Now’s not the time to examine all of the nuances of eternity and timed reality, and even a cursory look at the paradigms of epoch and eternal duration will have to wait. For now, I want only to make that small case that an existential function of man’s temporality is to draw him to God’s eternality. And because Augustine, Boethius, and I are eternalists, I will proceed from that position.     Among the implications of God’s timelessness is His transcendent experience of tenselessness. Simply put, God, whose whole life exists beyond chronology, sequentiality, and temporal duration, experiences the past, present, and future in an eternal present, an “always present,” as Eliot poetically put in Four Quartets. To say it another way, God presently exists at all punctiliar moments. And all punctiliar moments exist presently in the transcendent God before He in them, to say it yet another way. This is no new view.

In Book XI of his Confessions, considering God’s relation to time’s reality, Augustine wrote of God’s causal agency in all timed things, stating that since God cannot precede created time (that would imply sequence—an utterly anthropomorphic idea), He must dwell outside of it. The age, then, in which God dwells, the “sublimity of an eternity” Augustine calls it, is “always in the present.” Augustine enjoyed good company in his eternally privileging the present. Early sixth century philosopher Boethius, who parsed eternity as the “complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life,” argued that God’s atemporal existence occupied one “simultaneous present.” God couldn’t know beforehand or afterward, for example, because future and past were always present for God.

Lewis also championed an always present view of God on several occasions. In a superb example of Lewis’s eternalism from Miracles, Lewis says:

It is probable that Nature is not really in Time and almost certain that God is not. Time is probably (like perspective) the mode of our perception. There is therefore in reality no question of God’s at one point in time (the moment of creation) adapting the material history of this universe in advance to free acts which you or I are to perform at a later point in Time. To Him all the physical events and all the human acts are present in an eternal Now. The liberation of finite wills and the creation of the whole material history of the universe (related to the acts of those wills in all the necessary complexity) is to Him a single operation. In this sense God did not create the universe long ago but creates it at this minute—at every minute.

Here, Lewis paints free will and the moment of creation in the color of divine simultaneity. To God, man’s continual expression of freedom and a definite moment in time, like creation, gather synchronously. God exists outside of time, transcendently beyond its sequential nature and effects. In a letter to a fan named Gilbert Perleberg, who is contending with Lewis’s view of time, Lewis states his idea of God’s eternality in a similar way,

This is v. [very] odd. All the arguments you advance as objections to my theory of eternity seem to me to show that you are in exact agreement with me. A doctrine that God ‘was’ more creative ‘at the beginning’ than ‘now’ is absolutely excluded by my view–‘was’ and ‘at the beginning’ being meaningless when applied to the Timeless Being. As I say in Screwtape the total creation meets us at every moment.[1] The distinction between miracle and natural even is not between what God once did and what He now does: it is always NOW with Him.

Temporalist critics of a timeless God accuse the eternalist position of presenting a virtually unknowable Deity. An eternal God is virtually unknowable, if He exists outside of time, man’s only known perception. If, indeed, God is transcendently beyond time, then how can we know him in our temporal trapping?

T. S. Eliot poeticized the theological tension between an eternal God and temporal man with “through time time is conquered.” Alluding to the incarnation, Eliot hit upon the nexus of God’s eternality and man’s temporality. God enters any temporal moment, and therefore into the stream of duration, with full ontological maintenance of His eternality. In entering time, God doesn’t change anymore than a man does when he enters a river. Time, though, changes. The “always present” nature of God’s existence opens up the temporal present, animating time with spiritual reality and allowing chronologically natured man to know the eternal God. The Incarnation demonstrated this break in the temporal more profoundly than any other historical event. The incarnational, tensed rhetoric of the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world [time]” reflects God’s taking on a tensed existence not only that man might live beyond time but also that he might live in time and in communion with eternity. If God is eternal, yet an occupant of time, then every singular moment within the continual flow of past, present, and future partakes in an eternal reality.

Indeed, God’s ever-occupying the present redefines humanity’s tensed existence. God, in full expression of His eternal nature, enters into all moments causatively and with consequence for those bound to dwell in time. Therein lies the apologetic of time. Against God’s eternality we must redefine our experience of past, present, and future. While time, and man’s experience within and of it, operates in tandem with God’s operative will, it also works against it. God exists perfectly within His own eternality. Eternal life is perfected in His nature. He occupies atemporal existence in perfection of non-decay. Humanity, though, suffers the effects of time until eventual death. By its very nature time endures in antithesis to eternality. Augustine knew this, saying of man’s experience with time that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.” Time’s finitude is the existential progression of fatal rot ending in death, and temporal man moves through that progression in steady entropy. Whereas God remains in whole existence, man breaths his way into non-existence. The life God enjoys in atemporal existence stands above decaying man as a great tower into which man longs to seek refuge.

(part 2)

[1] From Screwtape, letter 15: “The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them” (61).

Photo: “Dawn of  Eternity” by Waiting for the Word. CC license. 

On Playing the Man: Personal Reflections on Polycarp

By Corey Latta

Apologetics is all logos, and mind, and cerebration, and ism. And theology, apologia’s paterfamilias, conceptualizes and constructs new theories about God. If it’s very good theology, it recalls those older ideas from which the theories are built. I confess, as one who toils in both apologia and theologica, I find myself and my fellow thinkers a tad tiresome. Who are we, after all, that we would presume to argue on God’s behalf? What could I say to move a man’s mind closer to his Maker? Apologetics can be a presumptuous field full of ambitious intellectuals. I’m pressed to publish new material, to articulate anew at annual conferences. We say a lot, we apologists, maybe too much. I would distrust the apologist who didn’t doubt an old diatribe or regret not having a bit more reticence on occasion. And I suspect apologists and theologians are professional pundits and theatergoers critiquing God’s moving picture show.

In moments of clarity, I’m reminded that apologetics is, was, more.  I know myself involved in something greater. Apologists were the gospel of the crucified Christ embodied. Rationalizers and reasoners who bannered all truth as God’s. Defenders of the faith, I must remember, whose arguments weren’t vetted by editors or tenured peers but by persecutors and oppressive government officials. This is the apologetic tradition. I’d hold suspect any modern defender of the faith whose entire life was spent in the safe arena of academia, whose creed never faced the sword, or whose apologia didn’t determine living another day, if he didn’t feel just a tinge of sheepishness for all that theorizing so far behind the frontline.

Like the die-hard patriot who refuses to enlist, I’ve certainly let my theological arguments venture out beyond the truth of my life. And I might better know my place if I looked back to my greater kin. The authority from which I speak might gird me up if I leaned against it a little harder. If I could incarnate my ideas with more muscle and enflesh my Christian apologia so that it ran vein-long through me as it did my fathers in the faith.

Suppose, like Polycarp second-century Bishop of Smyrna, my case for God from the moral law or whatever defense for the historical validities of the Gospels I may make came from the same Christ-held-center that caused the apologist to say, “It must needs be that I shall be burned alive,” when his defense would cost his life. Sought, arrested, and led into a stadium for fatal interrogation, Polycarp heard what seems to me the apologist’s call, a voice from heaven saying “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Play the man. Would I, too, as one who defends the faith of Christ, who stands in the line of Polycarp?

When pressed by the Roman magistrate to consider his frail old frame and swear the genius of Caesar and “revile the Christ,” Polycarp replied, “eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” An apologetic from testimony laden with as much keen logic as poignant pathos, Polycarp deals in reason and reciprocation. Polycarp’s response—my life proves that I’ve been treated well by God, so why should I not return my faithfulness to him?—is a sound defense in itself, but how much more coming from one whose best defense for the faith was his mere presence? Polycarp could play the apologist only because he played the man.

It seems to me, when reading Polycarp, that modern apologetics is at stake. My role as an apologist is at stake. What else should define my call, if not some Polycarpian paradigm? Indeed, if I, with mere degrees and books and a couple dozen conference papers, might wrap rhetorical wit the way Polycarp did, as a deflection against heresy premised by the apologetic of my life, then I might occasionally move to a defense beyond a regurgitated designer theory of the universe’s fine-tuning or an armchair deconstruction of naturalism. I might be more than a professional apologist, more than scholar, as Polycarp was more.

When the Roman magistrate commanded the Smyrnan Bishop to turn away from his fellow Christians, often accused of atheism because they denied Roman gods, and dismiss his kin’s faith by saying, “Away with the atheists,” we’re told that Polycarp answered, “with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, ‘Away with the atheists.’”

An essential apologetic employs rhetorical wit in service to the Savoir. Polycarp knew no other kind. So he stands as, and so I’m reminded of, the Christan apologia’s beau ideal. It’s the old idea on which the western church was founded: that idea of a faithful disciple learned in the scriptures and sharp in thought, a living and breathing proof of Christ. No superfluous theologizing here. Only lived apologetics. A breathed bastion for the gospel. That’s the old idea.

Perhaps some modern apologetic publications would have more teeth if they were written to uphold the tradition of Polycarp, the “puller down of the gods,” as he was called. To pull the gods down so that the world might see Christ unobstructed. That we would have Polycarp’s strong shoulders able to topple over the statues of unorthodox thought. Modern apologetics as pulling down false gods. That’s the tradition in which I toil. I’m beginning to remember.

When threatened to be thrown to wild beasts—and if that wasn’t vile enough—to be burned, Polycarp said: “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” Polycarp’s pitting temporality against eternality and positing that life is best lived for the latter . . . that has teeth.

It’s all very romantic, I guess, and some esteemed colleagues might object to such a lofty, even unnecessary, return. Why should any western apologist want to champion Polycarp as anything more than a mythic figure? An antiquated model. Don’t we tend to see the first apologists as Thors and Herculeses and Beowulfs, really, trapped in distant hero tales? How unsettling, now in 2015, to meditate on my line of work in the light of Polycarp’s death. Polycarp died by fire and dagger in front of frenzied masses, while some apologists live by speaking to safe rooms of moderately hostile audiences, for goodness’ sake. I write this to recall the history in which I stand in hopes that I might remember to play the man when I play the apologist.

God, that we would be more romantic. That we would rehearse the myth when the times call for it. That we would pray Polycarp’s prayer when our backs are to the posts of the unbelieving world, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You. . . . I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ. . . . You that art the faithful and true God. For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen.”

What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall (Part 2 of 2)

By Corey Latta

Part 1 

The ovenbird’s universal song, the natural revelation everyone has heard, is an augury of seasonal diminishment. Having a masterful knowledge of the Old Testament, Frost constantly drew from its imagery and themes. Frost’s use of biblical imagery—particularly images of the Fall—in “The Trial by Existence,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “The Onset” (to list only a few) underscore his reliance on the theological here in “The Over Bird.” As both are certainly present in the first three chapters of the Genesis narrative, it is fitting that Frost would marry these two themes of natural revelation and the Fall. The biblical account of the Fall describes a naturally perfect realm in complete harmony with itself and man (Gen. 2:8-19). Upon the entrance of sin into the created order, not only mankind but nature is said to have fallen: “cursed is the ground because of you. . . both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you [mankind]. . .” (Gen. 3:17-18). The Fall is the most cataclysmic theological and ecological occurrence in all of scripture: the entire natural world fell from an ideal form to a perpetual state of aftermath. Likewise, “The Oven Bird” depicts a natural realm where life once existed in an ideal state of spring, but in which now organisms are in a fallen condition, degraded by the passing of spring into summer. Echoing the narrative voice in Genesis, the ovenbird declares a state of natural decadence; the message that everyone hears exclaims a state of fallenness.

The poetic speaker shifts slightly from what the ovenbird proclaims to a larger theological context:

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

“And comes that other fall we name the fall,” Frost declares with a definitive tone. The poem shifts to a more distinct doctrinal voice here. The octave presents a naturalistic mode of revelation: the poet can assert the theological implications of mid-summer’s diminishments. The double occurrence of “fall” in the first line of the sestet foregrounds the theme of the Fall that will run throughout the remainder of the poem. In this line Frost deploys his most foundational, and perhaps most important, poetic device—the previously explicated use of metaphor, Frost’s theology in poetic practice. At this point Frost begins to make his strongest metaphorical-theological connections.

When the poet says “and comes that other fall we name the fall,” the reader can certainly trace the seasonal meaning, which the poem endorses on its most basic level (spring to mid-summer to fall). However, the poem’s subtle theological undertones along with Frost’s insistence on metaphor should alert any interpreter that “fall” is a loaded term, one that draws on both natural and theological spheres. The ovenbird’s message of seasonal decay—the end of the flowers’ bloom at the peak of summer—culminates in the topos of the Fall of the natural order. The movement from natural occurrence to theological abstraction is a common gesture for Frost. The “fall,” both seasonal and lapsarian, is Frost’s entrance into both the natural and theological world in order to stretch the borders of each, interrogating the implications of one with the other, and perhaps rewriting the boundaries of both—all to create a highly charged poetics.

The speaker moves from his pun on the “fall” by returning once more to the message of the ovenbird: “He says the highway dust is over all.” The winged prophet describes a desolate condition in a sweeping statement. This fall, the Fall, has covered everything in the natural world. Going back to the role of human agency, it is the dust of the highway that has covered all. The poem seems to associate the origins of this desolation to a manmade object, perhaps as an indication of human agency in keeping with the Genesis narrative. Though the fallen world of the poem is purely natural, man—as the originator of sin in Genesis—is implicated as well.

After providing an aphorism on the Fall, the poem’s narrator then addresses the ovenbird’s condition: “The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing.” These first two lines of the poem’s final quatrain provide a fascinating element to Frost’s use of the doctrine of the Fall. By postulating that the ovenbird “would cease and be as other birds,” the poet speaks to the bird’s role by reverting back to the biblical theme of functioning animals. Numerous times in the Old Testament animals were assigned specific functions, at times in an evil capacity (i.e. the serpent in the Garden of Eden—Gen. 3:1-4) but more often as agents for God (e.g. the dove sent from the ark by Noah—Gen. 8:8-9; the donkey who spoke to the prophet Balaam—Num. 22:28). Though there is no explicit divinity in the poem, the speaker makes a clear distinction between this ovenbird and other birds who merely sing without substance, “but that he knows in singing not to sing.”

The poem’s last two lines are by far the most powerful and poignant: “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.” The theological elements of the poem necessarily culminate in the ovenbird’s inquiry. The speaker writes the last line as the sine qua non, the inevitable question from all the bird has said before. It is difficult to nail down what exactly this “thing” may be, but I think there are two likely options.

So profoundly diminished is this “thing” that the bird’s revelatory message primarily serves to frame the question of “what to make of a diminished thing.” Given the mid-summer state of immediate and approaching death, given the fallout and the degraded state of the natural world, what does one make of such faded and diminished objects? It is fitting that Frost ends with a question rather than a conclusion as he rarely seems interested—even in his exploration of biblical and theological tropes—in declaring answers. Instead, he interweaves the natural world of the poem with the theological and experiments with poetic meaning by metaphorizing the natural with the theological. Frost is more interested in writing catechistic verse than providing moral platitudes, and as a result, the poem concludes with inconclusiveness. The fallen condition of this “thing” bewilders the ovenbird, leaving the bird, the poetic speaker, and the readers in a state of contemplation over the poem’s two most prominent themes: the natural order and the assertion that it is fallen. Both themes, indeed Frost’s entire creative schema, argue for the presence of the theological as necessary for poeticizing the natural.

Photo: “Sunset” by Kamil Porembiński. CC License. 

What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall (Part 1 of 2)

By Corey Latta

Part 2

Robert Frost was a poet on whom nothing was lost, nor was anything outside of his poetic jurisdiction. His poetry—though seemingly narrow in its New England regionalism, prosaic in its focus, and proletariat in its characterization—envisions a conspicuous natural world containing an intrinsic theological system of great interest. Frost’s knowledge of the Bible and his poetic engagement with religious doctrine reveal an acute investment in the theological by one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. This investment proves an underlying argument in much of Frost’s work: perhaps an artistically literary experience of the natural necessitates consideration of the theological. Poems like “The Oven Bird,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” unveil Frost to be a writer deeply invested in the use of theological tenets for deeper poetic meaning and a creative mind especially taken with the biblical narrative of the Fall. Within Frost’s verse lies an apologetic of creativity, a philosophy of poesy that implies the natural world cannot honestly be captured without the presence of the theological.

Frost’s continual return to the Fall—along with his employment of other theological matters, such as natural revelation—find fullest expression in the natural worlds of his poems. The landscapes, wildlife, and seasonal cycles of nature are all subject to theological animation and all detectable through metaphor. For Frost, these metaphors of animation could not attain their fullest meaning without synthesizing the natural with the theological. An important consideration when discussing any poet’s inclusion of theologically charged is his use of metaphor. And, in fact, Frost maintained an ardent belief in metaphor as the chief trope and function of verse; according to Frost, metaphor is where poetry begins, exists, and ends:

[T]here are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another. . . . Poetry is simply made of metaphor.

What I see as a type of Frostian orthodoxy, metaphor enables meaning by enacting a poetic schema inclusive of religious, scientific, and philosophical discourse. In Frost’s own terms, metaphor is a way to “say matter in terms of spirit.” If there is spirituality, theology, and the supernatural in Frost’s poems, they reside in his implementation of metaphor. Through metaphor, Frost opens the natural to the supernatural, and every natural object, every leaf, tree, brook, and animal is subject to fuller meaning through the metaphorical. Metaphor becomes a theological act.

The conversion from theological thought to metaphor was for Frost the ultimate act of literary and religious expression. If theology is the study of God, then metaphor is Frost’s theology, his attempt to give form to theological inquiry. For Frost, metaphor making is the doing of theology. Exposure to one trope is exposure to the other, as Frost said, “the person who gets close enough to poetry, he is going to know more about the word belief than anybody else knows, even in religion nowadays . . . now I think—I happen to think—that those three beliefs that I speak of, the self-belief, the love-belief, and the art-belief, are all closely related to the God belief.” Through poetry, one can “bring the thing into existence.”

In his poem “The Oven Bird,” Frost uses the theological tropes of the Fall along with natural revelation to give new meaning to the natural world of the poem while also continuing to develop metaphorical poetics in which meaning itself must be both natural and supernatural. Frost displays remarkable poetic dexterity by both theologizing and naturalizing the act of this common bird’s call.

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I see this poem primarily exploring two theological tropes in relation to one another: natural revelation and the doctrine of the Fall. Note that, as is so often with Frost, the theological is deeply contextualized in the world of nature. Like the ovenbird’s nest, characteristically built on the forest floor, Frost grounds theology in the natural world. On the other hand, the poem’s natural imagery channels a theological dimension that forces the reader to contend with the work’s metaphorical meaning. Precisely in this melding of immanence and transcendence lies Frost’s poetic agenda: to infuse nature with theological phenomena so that both spheres (the natural and the theological) inseparably coalesce. This coalescence, in turn, creates an apologetic for the necessity of theology in the poet’s creative act.

Here, in the claim that “everyone has heard,” Frost interjects the doctrine of natural revelation, a theme that wends its way throughout the entire poem. Natural revelation is the doctrine that God has revealed, and continues to reveal, himself to all men through the natural order. As systematic theologian Louis Berkhof states, “The mode of [natural] revelation is natural when it is communicated through nature, that is, through the visible creation with its ordinary laws and powers.”

The most relevant aspect of natural revelation—and the most relevant distinction between natural and special revelation—is its universality, its common annunciation to all mankind through nature. Being a student of both science and the bible and often troubled by their apparent differences, Frost frequently sought to fuse religious and natural imagery, and it is extremely probable that Frost was well acquainted with the biblical doctrine of natural revelation and potentially saw it as the literal and metaphorical melding of theology and science.

In the case of “The Oven Bird,” natural revelation manifests itself in the winged singer’s “loud” call that “everyone has heard.” Frost positions this ovenbird as a prophet of nature, characterized by his seasonality, the audience of his message, and the nature of his oratory. Significantly, the one note Frost provides for the poem mentions the ovenbird’s common designation as the “teacher bird.” As a “mid-summer and a mid-wood bird” the ovenbird is situated seasonally in the progressive natural order, and it is from his seasonal office that he declares a natural message to the “solid tree trunks.” The ovenbird’s first hearers are not human, but rather organic members of his community that respond to the bird’s message, “the solid tree trunks sound again.” The revelatory world of the bird’s song is accessible and detectable to the listeners of the natural world. Indeed, the poem’s speaker describes the bird’s message as “loud” and resonating to the surrounding natural realm as the trees “sound again” the ovenbird’s oracle, implying a form of acceptance of the message by its hearers. In anticipation of that end, the ovenbird’s oratory begins to introduce the poem’s other prominent theological trope: the theological trope of the Fall. It is in the sonnet’s octave that Frost delves into the substance of the ovenbird’s natural revelation while also inaugurating a theology of the Fall. As the sonnet unfolds, the picture grows increasingly grim. The sonnet reaches its turn in both tone and theological theme as the natural revelation of the octave turns poignantly to a treatment of the Fall in the sestet. The ovenbird reveals a declining natural order where the first beauty of spring life has passed and all is given to the imminent coming of fall:

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

By mid-summer—the time of the ovenbird’s announcement—the leaves that spring birthed are old and on the verge of seasonal death. The ovenbird sings at a time of declivity as mid-summer holds little to no importance to other organisms in the poem. In a somewhat ambiguous line, Frost seems to say that “for flowers” summer is lowest on a scale of importance—numbered “one to ten”—because their time to bloom has past. The preposition “for” signals the position of the flowers as understood by the bird (“He says”). Just as the flowers’ petals have long fallen by mid-summer, so too have the pear and cherry trees, whose blooms “went down in showers/ on sunny days a moment overcast.” The bird speaks of sweeping loss and the beginning of death as leaves, flowers, and fruit trees—all images associated with the Garden of Eden—testify to their seasonal demise. As interpreter of this profound phenomenon reflected in nature’s cycles, the bird knows that mid-summer holds little importance for spring blooms and that the flowery life spawned in spring cannot live throughout summer.


Photo: “Arastradero Open Space Preserve” by Justin Kern. CC License. 

Selma and Sacrifice: Dignity and Vigilance

By David Baggett

Watching Selma is a visceral emotional experience. True to life, it didn’t need to resort to the hyperbolic or maudlin, the sentimental or heavy handed—which makes it, to my thinking, considerably more profound and authentic than the self-important trainwreck God’s Not Dead. The story of Selma is itself compelling enough, a drama about issues like equality, dignity, respect, humanity, inhumanity. It requires no extra props, no tortured plot, no artificial melodrama, nor fictional caricatures to promote an agenda. It need not feign meanness or superficiality; history here is sadly replete with actual instances of such real people who, unwittingly, played their inverted roles to help justice prevail.

The movie chronicles the story of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) going to Selma, Alabama to protest the de facto lack of voting rights among the black citizens there. They had the legal right to vote by this time, but in practice they were denied it by the enforcement of all sorts of arbitrary and prohibitive local requirements—like the need to quote the Preamble of the Constitution by heart or answer a series of highly specific legal or political questions at which most contestants on Jeopardy would stumble.

Spearheaded by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who once said that anyone who doesn’t understand the religious underpinnings of the movement doesn’t understand the movement—this arm of the civil rights front was, unlike those in the tradition of Malcolm X, committed to nonviolence. The restraint, wisdom, and courage of this approach is on full display in this remarkable film, which by turns stirs both shameful despair and soaring hope. We can read about such events and be deeply moved, but seeing various facets of the tale graphically depicted on the big screen—a church with four innocent girls blown to pieces, a young man shot defending his elderly grandfather against police brutality, women punched and kicked and beaten, men bludgeoned with a hideous array of blunt objects—carries with it an undeniable new level of poignancy.

The success of the movement would arise from the crucible of anguish and pain and sacrifice—as images of gross injustice, wicked violence against innocents, and beautiful and inspiring courage gradually did their work to capture moral imagination and change and turn the heart of a nation whose conscience had been seared and for which accommodation to evil had become normative—too often draped with the imprimatur of sanctimony. It is remarkably moving to see the tenacity displayed, the hope that survived such adversity, the faith manifested in the darkest of hours and in the face of such systemic and unspeakable violence, only bolstered by a silent White House—or worse, an administration that, to knock the movement from the radar and render silent its most prophetic and erudite voice, used tactics of intimidation, fear-mongering, and character assassination to undermine King’s credibility and resolve.

By certain recurring foibles, King was in fact susceptible to moral criticisms, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this uncomfortable fact; this unflinching honesty is one of the film’s many virtues. As is known, King had several adulterous affairs with other women, and the movie includes this regrettable feature of this great man with feet of clay. David Horner discusses this aspect of King, using “GMT” for “Great Moral Teacher,” writing that

Dr. Martin Luther King is almost universally considered a GMT, despite evidence of his sexual infidelities. … Why is it that we consider Dr. King a moral authority, despite his moral imperfections? Part of the answer, surely, has to do with the importance of what he said. The truths he expressed concerning human dignity were much “bigger” than he was, so to speak, and his infidelities do not cast doubt upon them. … But, of course, anyone—including Adolph Hitler—could have said those things, could have articulated those same propositions. What is it that made Dr. King a GMT, and not merely a conduit or reporter of significant moral truths? A necessary, core condition, I submit, is a special case of what I am defending here, and that is integrity, which expresses the coherence or intrinsic relation between content and character. We consider Dr. King a GMT, despite his lack of complete moral integrity, partly because he never claimed to possess the latter, and partly because there was coherence between what he did claim and how he lived. He uttered profound truths about liberty and racial equality, and he lived consistently and with integrity with respect to them, to the point of being jailed, beaten, and ultimately killed. I dare say, however, that had his central message been the importance of sexual fidelity (or had it turned out that he was actually a secret informer for the Ku Klux Klan), he would not in fact today be considered a GMT—no matter how exalted had been his teaching in other respects.

I remember a civil rights course in college as one of the best classes I ever took. In that class we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” After watching Selma, I reread the letter, and I would encourage you to do the same if you can find the time. It’s really quite remarkable. So many lines stand out from this letter to ministers who were lamenting the involvement of the SCLC in Birmingham, but I’ll share just a few:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

In that letter King outlined a few of the reasons nonviolence was his favored approach, the sort of nonviolence we see in Selma. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Explaining that justice too long delayed is justice denied, King goes on to make clear that the time for action had arrived:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Much could be discussed from Selma. This is nothing like a thorough review of this terrific film which offers a painful snapshot of actual history about brave men and women putting their lives, reputations, and bodies at risk to battle grave injustice and be given a voice. The film features people animated by and collectively embodying a rejection of Bentham’s perverse notion of human rights as nonsense on stilts. Their example was a living, breathing refutation of the idea that our only rights are those that government deigns to confer.

More primordial underlying moral truths are the real bedrock on which our legal and political rights reside, and it’s those unchanging moral verities alone that can ensure a trajectory of justice, however incremental and protracted, labyrinthine and excruciating, the political process required may prove. Under totalitarian rule that categorically denies God-given and intrinsic human rights and equality and dignity, callous to claims of justice, victory in this world is by no means an ineluctable, inevitable historical contingency, which reminds us all the more that a sanguine dismissal of the ultimate foundations of morality is a foolhardy, historically myopic, and objectionably short-sighted pitfall we need assiduously to avoid.

Jean Bethke-Elshtain once wrote, “It is interesting—and troubling—that we are in an age of human rights par excellence, and yet there are forces at work in our world that undermine the ontological claims of human dignity that must ground a robust regime of human rights.” So the one take-home I want to emphasize is that the battle to accord human dignity and value, worth and equality, their proper pride of place is one bathed in blood and sacrifice, and that vigilance is necessary to ensure that this labor was not in vain.

As Selma shows.


Photo: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

By David Baggett

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

In this section of the chapter, Adams emphasizes that moral obligation can’t be understood apart from its relation to guilt. If I voluntarily fail to do what I am morally obligated to do, I am guilty. I may appropriately be blamed by others for my omission, and ought normally to reproach myself for it, in some degree. Perhaps I may incur some just punishment for it.

The presence of obligation in a moral system divides actions into three classes which can be distinguished precisely in terms of guilt. If an action is morally wrong, one is guilty if one does it. An action that is morally optional can be either done or omitted without guilt. But if an action is morally required, or obligatory, one is guilty if one omits it. Examining the nature of guilt will help us understand how moral obligation depends for its role on a broadly social system of relationships.

The word ‘guilt’ is not properly the name of a feeling, but of an objective moral condition that may rightly be recognized by others even if it is not recognized by the guilty person. Feelings of guilt, though, may reasonably be taken as a source of understanding of the objective fact of guilt to which they point. We do not have the concept of guilt merely to signify in a general way the state of having done something wrong.

It is true that one is not guilty, however unfortunate the outcome, for anything that was not in some way wrong. But there are two other typical features of wrong action that are responsible for much of the human significance of guilt. One is harm that one has caused by one’s (wrong) action. It is wrong to drive carelessly, and no less wrong when one’s lucky enough to avoid an accident, but the burden of guilt one incurs is surely heavier when one’s carelessness causes the death of another person than when no damage is done. (Harm caused to other people is not a feature of all guilt, however. One can be guilty for a violation of other people’s rights that in fact harmed no one.)

A more pervasive feature of guilt is alienation from other people, or (at a minimum) a strain on one’s relations with others. If I am guilty, I am out of harmony with other people. This feature is central to the role of guilt in human life. It is connected with such practices as punishing and apologizing. And it makes intelligible the fact that guilt can be (at least largely) removed by forgiveness. The idea that guilt consists largely in an alienation produced by the wrong is supported by the fact that the ending of the alienation ends the guilt.

This should not surprise us if we reflect on the way in which we acquired the concept, and the sense, of guilt. In our first experience of guilt its principal significance was an action or attitude of ours that ruptured or strained our relationship with a parent. There did not have to be a failure of benevolence or a violation of a rule; perhaps we were even too young to understand rules. It was enough that something we did or expressed offended the parent, and seemed to threaten the relationship. This is the original context in which the obligation family of moral concepts and sentiments arose. We do not begin with a set of moral principles but with a relationship, actual in part and in part desired, which is immensely valued for its own sake. Everything that attacks or opposes that relationship seems to us bad.

This starkly simple mentality is premoral—we need to go on and learn to distinguish between cases when we’re actually guilty and when we’re not. In grasping such a distinction we must learn to make some critical judgments about the moral validity of the demands that people make on us. Nevertheless, Adams believes it isn’t childish, but perceptive and correct, to persist in regarding obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt as consisting largely in alienation from those who have (appropriately) required of us what did not do.

Some moralists hold that in the highest stages of the moral life (perhaps not reached by many adults) the center of moral motivation is transplanted from the messy soil of concrete relationships to the pure realm of moral principles; and a corresponding development is envisaged for the sense of guilt.

It is certainly possible to come to value—even to love—an ethical principle for its own sake, and this provides a motive for conforming to it; but this way of relating to ethical principles has more to do with ideals than with obligations. To love truthfulness is one thing; to feel that one has to tell the truth is something else. Similarly, failing to act on a principle one loves seems, as such, more an occasion of shame than of guilt. Merely violating a principle, without alienating anyone, is likely more a reason to feel ashamed or degraded than a reason to feel guilty. It’s also significant that insofar as my reaction arises from my personally valuing a principle, it may not matter very much whether the principle is moral or aesthetic or intellectual. But aesthetic “guilt” doesn’t make much sense. Guilt is not necessarily worse than degradation, but they are different. And a main point of difference between them is that, in typical cases, guilt involves alienation from someone else who required or expected of us what we were obligated to do and have not done, or who has been harmed by what we have done and might reasonably have required of us not to do it. (This is of course not to deny that shame often accompanies the complex reaction to things of which we judge ourselves to be guilty.)