In a recent conversation with some former Jesuit friends, I mentioned that I’d read a thinly veiled complaint that there were no theologians actively contributing to the ongoing conversation about pressing issues of the day. Hiding behind a litany of some of the most influential religious thinkers of the last century, the author was crying out, almost plaintively, for a strong, persuasive voice that could shed some light, provide some guidance about a possible course of action. He or she obviously felt that a religious perspective makes a difference and it is missing.
I asked my friends about the authors they were reading. I have to admit that I was less than impressed by some of the suggestions, but obviously I was just putting on my snarky and judgmental persona so I decided to take a step back and see if I could discover some of the characteristics that I thought made some writing and writers really stand out. This led me to examine what kind of writing, and I suppose by extension, what kind of thinking generated the kind of following that might help people in one way or another.
What are the characteristics of truly great spiritual writing?
The most important characteristic is that people read it and that it generates some interest. This might be expressed in fostering more writing, spearheading some cultural ferment, or provoking a line of inquiry. And from a personal point of view, each one of us acts as our own unique editor. I’m no longer a kid with the possibility of many years for reflection and study. I might reread Shakespeare or explore certain tragedies that I neglected in my misspent youth, but I probably won’t. I’m a realist. I know that I don’t want to spend a lot of time on pulp fiction or pulp theology. I’m not going to exercise my peculiar tastes, or at least try not to, and condemn some popular writing that other people like but I wouldn’t touch with an unwiped hand, but I will try to distinguish it. For me the limiting characteristic is that it aims to hit certain notes that tickle my fancy but doesn’t really invite me to entertain a new line of thinking, or follow an uncomfortable thought to an unexpected conclusion or insight.
We’re talking theology, so obviously the sacred texts have generated quite a bit of interest, at least for the religions that have attracted followers. If they represented a particular type of literature, my task would be easy. But they do not really match the criteria that I’m looking for. Whether the Testament of Jesus, the Hebrew Bible, the vast array of Buddhist literature, or works that are considered sacred in India and China, they are for the most part a conglomeration of works by various writers or schools within a particular tradition. There are notable exceptions, The Qu’ran is the work of one man, the Prophet Mohammed, over a period of time. The evolution of his thought might reveal itself with study just as the various currents within the Biblical literature can also reveal themselves with study. This kind of study, however, requires more background, cultural and linguistic scholarship. If we were to consider the letters of Paul, or the prophetic writings of one figure from the Jewish tradition, perhaps I can use Amos as an example, or one particular Buddhist thinker, Eihei Dogen comes to mind, at least I feel closer to the kind of writing that has had an outsized influence and we can leave what we refer to as sacred writings in a category by themselves. (Just a note: at least as far as sparking interest or gaining some insight, there’s no chicken and no egg--you don’t need to know the detailed history of the covenant with Moses to get Amos, although the prophet might open a window into a deeper understanding of the Jews’ relationship with their god. You don’t have to know the sutras to be intrigued by a turning word from Dogen, although your curiosity might illuminate something about the sutra literature along the way).
Perhaps if I can identify several books, or types of literature or particular authors that I feel changed the world, and talk a little about what I think makes them special, I might begin to make my case. In no particular order and with huge obvious gaps, here are three works and two authors who exemplify what I’m aiming at: The Summa Theologica, Ovid, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, Diderot, and Howl.
My personal view of Aquinas is based on the rather vague and scurrilous rumors that he was as dull as dishwater. He had been a boy monk and thus insulated, my guess, from the tumultuous world at the end of what we call the High Medieval Period. I suppose that some of my resistance is also based on my assumption that he more than anyone was responsible for the rigid worldview in which clerical culture had wrapped itself for self-preservation. But these are just my prejudices, based on a loose reading of history. I just doubt that I would have asked Thomas to share a glass in the aula and sing the Carmina Burana.
Another confession: although I have listed the Summa as one of the books that changed the world, I’ve only read the usual bits and pieces that were assigned in the ratio and got enough of the Unmoved Mover to pass the examiner. (Not entirely convinced actually, but that’s another story). So why do I include him? He invented Natural Theology. He had enough curiosity and intellectual integrity to actually explore the work of Aristotle and Averroes in a rigorous way that would begin the separation of reason from myth and magic, a process which after a few hundred more years would birth the Enlightenment. I have drifted far from his synthesis that we learned in philosophy, but I recognize that every time I begin a study of any modern philosopher, from Richard Precht to Michel de Certeau, I owe a debt to Aquinas.
Aquinas is entirely different from the second name on my list, Ovid. I actually do read Ovid, though with a dictionary and a grammar in hand to get through the tricky parts. Why do I select Ovid above Homer or Virgil? Because it was through him that some memory of the myths of the classical world survived when the darkness of war and cultural destruction descended on Europe. His verse was so simple and eloquent that they were preserved in monastic libraries. The monks could and did read him. We can still taste an unchaste godly world that we might find licentious and promiscuous, wild and irrational. Beauty, pleasure, sex, trouble, mystery. Totally worth it.
The next book that I’ve included on my list is The Spiritual Exercises of Father Ignatius. Thin, filled with a kind of jargon and extremely formal prayer formulas that makes it easy to dismiss, still it makes the short list. It is of course a very different kind of writing. There are examples in other religious traditions of step by step practice manuals, but nothing I think has had as far ranging effect on the inner life of individuals as Ignatius’s directions. I’m even withholding universal approval. The good bits have to be weighed against the bad, but through its use of imagination, concentration, and various mental disciplines, thousands and thousands of people have turned their attention inward. Whatever the result, this is important. I don’t think that you can find another book with a relatively short number of pages that’s had a wider effect.
Next we come to Denis Diderot. I learned about Diderot when I was studying 16th century French literature in Caen. He was one of the founders, editors and collaborators of the important "Encyclopédie." The Encyclopédie's aim was, according to Diderot, "to change the way people think.” Apparently it was also an ordeal to edit and write, but it was one of the main publications that promoted the Enlightenment, as well as the political upheaval that was to follow. Diderot appeals to me personally. He was Jesuit educated, had an early affinity for religious life which faded when he got some real experience in life. He was also a Bohemian. But most importantly he is an example of the kind of intellectual inquiry, mainly in France, but with ripples throughout Europe that changed society. I chose him for my list of important writers rather than someone famous like Voltaire or another rabble rouser because his aim was to simply present the argument of various luminaries on a level field as a way of fostering the debate that was going on in the salons of Paris. Reading between the lines, he was not motivated by personal gain at all--he always struggled--but he loved ideas and debate.
On a cold Friday night in 1955 at the Gallery Six Reading in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg read his long poem “Howl” and the world really did change. There would be a far reaching legal decision about obscenity; City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Movement would enjoy their moment, actually several moments, in the sun; the collective discontent with the materialistic world of post war America found a focal point, and a sexual revolution, fueled by a new sense of freedom and to some extent drugs, would emerge along with its own art and music. I was only 11 years old, living a sheltered middle class life in a New England suburb. Of course I had no idea that 35 years later I would begin my own Zen training with one of the poets who also read that night, Philip Whalen. The effects were deeply personal. When I reread Howl, my current feeling is that it rambles and butchers language in ways that my Jesuit trained mind finds offensive, but I cannot deny that it is the kind of powerful writing that tapped into a very deep emotional reservoir and left anyone willing to listen shaken, questioning, and seeking new answers.
So after all that, what kind of writing am I looking for that would even begin to address the kind of situation that we find ourselves in? First off, none of these writers or their books are perfect; they do not contain the last word. I don’t think that they pretend to, not even Aquinas, which is the reason that I wanted to keep them separate from the category of literature we call Scripture. But as in Aquinas, the line of inquiry is open and curious while remaining rigorous. With Ovid there is also a deep respect for memories of the sacred stories that have guided our search, even with a touch of beauty. Perhaps their beauty is one of the most important characteristics. With Ignatius there is an invitation and a road map for an interior exploration using our own imagination and contemplation. Then onto an open field of inquiry we can join Diderot and his cohorts in a debate (How I would love to have visited the salon of the chatty but impeccable Mme de Sévigné and tried to follow the conversation). I think that even Allen Ginsberg would have enjoyed it, and I do know from experience that he could totally mind his manners while mysteriously funneling a high emotional jolt.
From Aquinas to Ginsberg, a slightly different take on the Western Canon.