The Subject of Divinity

Through Lent With George Herbert
Saturday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

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I am getting ready to submit my PhD dissertation to the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. It is a 110,000 word monster I have been working on for the past six years, and combines history, theology, biblical studies and philosophy, on the topic of Unsettling Theology: The Theological Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools of Canada. 1880-1970. As I come to the close of this stage of the project I am reminded of the joke that when one gets a bachelors degree one realizes how little one actually knows about a particular field, namely, one’s major; when one finishes a master’s degree one realizes the same with respect to a subfield within a discipline; and when one gets a PhD one realizes how ignorant one is about a very small area of research. There is always more to learn, it seems, and yet, in theory, the quest for knowledge is to simplify things.

George Herbert was an exceedingly learned man, and had a gift with poetry in both Latin and English, but he never felt that there was anything so simple as the teachings of Jesus which could be conveyed to the least educated of persons. Theologians, however, were very good at complicating things, it seems, creating schisms, divisions, and even leading to violence. Today’s poem, “Divinity”, is about that.

Divinity

As men, for fear the stars should sleep and nod,
And trip at night, have spheres supplied;
As if a star were duller than a clod,
Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav’n they also serve,
Divinity’s transcendent sky:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.

Could not that wisdom, which first broached the wine,
Have thickened it with definitions?
And jagged his seamless coat, had that been fine,
With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
Was clear as heav’n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray.
Do as ye would be done unto.
O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!
Who can these Gordian knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles, foolish man;
Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staff of flesh, but stoutly can
To heav’n alone both go, and lead.

He compares the field of divinity (i.e. theology) with that of astronomy. In the time of Herbert the old Ptolemaic understanding of the solar system and stars, with the earth at the centre of everything, still held sway. This is indicated by his reference in line 25 in the last stanza to “epicycles” which were modifications introduced to account for the strange movement of the planets, which usually went in one direction, but would then appear to go backwards (which was actually apparent motion, caused by looking at the other planets on an Earth orbiting the Sun). Copernicus was known among astronomers in Britain, but it was not until Galileo’s controversies with the Catholic Church became well known after his second trial in 1633 that the English and Scots began to talk and write about it. Ultimately, observations and Newtons physics ensured the triumph of the heliocentric model.

To keep track of the motions of the planets and the stars the astronomers built models, and they could become very complex. Herbert mocks these models and their makers, and compares them to those “men” who depend on reason and not faith to understand heaven.  He finds that a simple faith is sufficient to understand the ways of heaven, which are the ways of God, and that all that is required is clear:

Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray.
Do as ye would be done unto.

Herbert sarcastically calls these “dark instructions; ev’n as as dark as day” and a “Gordian knot” which cannot be undone (but which is undone with a sword, as the story goes). Jesus bids us drink the wine of the communion table as his blood, and Herbert thinks little of the theologians who dispute over the process and metaphysics involved in such a transformation. Echoing a rhyme attributed to Elizabeth I (but probably not actually written by her) he thinks:

Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it:
And what that Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.

Herbert was never part of the guild of theologians, although he obviously was well skilled in theology, as demonstrated in his poetry. Methinks he doth protesteth too much, but perhaps this simply shows the weariness he had when confronted with theological difference of opinion. Had he not died in 1633 and lived a dozen more years he might have had a different opinion. The view expressed in the quatrain supposedly written by the late Queen became unacceptable under the Commonwealth. Even the idea that a person could “work out their salvation in fear and trembling” by loving God and their neighbour would become heresy to the strict Predestinarian Calvinists, for whom faith and good works were only signs of God’s favour, having nothing to do with salvation as such.

As someone about to get his fourth university degree (God and oral examiners willing) I obviously do appreciate learning. And yet, to paraphrase another movement, Christianity is a simple faith for complex people. We do theology, but we run up into a wall of mystery, where words fail and our ignorance is learned but still unknowing. By the grace of God we know God, primarily in Jesus, but also in our own limits,in creation, in wonder, and the sense of responsibility to an other person. And so, on this Eve of Palm Sunday, may we say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH. Hosanna in the highest!”

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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