Reading as a Creative Act

I recently posted some epigraphs from the novel Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch. In that novel most of the epigraphs come from the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer whose theology provides a historical backdrop for the novel itself. Farrer’s words also serve as a foil and as a guide for the narrator in the novel. In this post, I wanted to look at a passage in the novel where the narrator, Charles Ashworth, picks up one of Farrer’s book of sermons. His reading of Farrer sets off a series of connections and insights for him, and Howatch masterfully shows us how reading itself can be a creative process.

In the scene Charles begins to ruminate on a profound encounter he had recently had with a sculpture. When he was looking at the sculpture, he and the artist began to discuss the intimacy of creating, the deep emotional investment the artist makes in order to create. Later, as he remembers the scene, his mind turns to a sermon he had recently read, so he picks up a copy of Austin Farrer’s sermons Said or Sung and turns to this passage on the divine creator:

“The skill of the divine potter is an infinite patience of improvisation. No sooner has one work gone awry than his fingers are pressing it into the form of another. There is never a moment for the clay, when the potter is not doing something with it. God is never standing back and watching us; his fingers are on us all the time.”

After reading the passage, he begins to think of his own life, the loss of his wife and the ensuing catastrophe, and he remembers the way in which the artist had caressed her own sculpture: “When I remembered how she had caressed her sculpture, I knew I was being called to believe in a creator who never gave up, a creator who suffered alongside his creation, a creator who was driven by “an indestructible sort of fidelity,” by an “insane sort of hope” and above all by the most powerful form of creative love to bring order out of chais and “make everything come right.”

I love this scene because beyond being a lovely meditation on the beauty of art and the redemptive love of God, it is striking representation of the process of reading itself, of thinking along with a book. Charles has a thought that leads him to pick up Farrer’s book. As he reads the sermon, he imagines himself as the ball of clay being sculpted and re-sculpted by God, which then turns his mind again to the artist and the sculpture he had recently seen. And then he ruminates more, reflects, and as he does more of Farrer’s words begin to interweave with his own thoughts. What he had seen in the studio, what he now reads on the page, all interweave to affect a profound thought which helps him see his own circumstances in a new light.

By showing us the connections in Charles’ own mind, Howatch invites us to reflect on the power of art and of reading itself. It’s a masterful scene in a profound novel.

More Austin Farrer or Nice Epigraphs

I recently finished the sixth novel in the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths. I ‘ve very much enjoyed the entire series, and I commended the first novel, Glittering Images, as my favorite novel from last year. I was eager to read this closing volume because it is narrated by the same priest, now bishop, who narrated Glittering Images, and he was the character I personally most identified with in the whole series, both in terms of theology and temperament.

I’ll post some quotes from the novel in a different post, but here I wanted to point out Howatch’s masterful use of epigraphs. In each novel of the six novels, Howatch opens each chapter and section with a quote from a theologian or prominent figure from the Church of England. The figures she selects typically reflect the theology and spirituality of the narrator, but they also reflect the larger Church of England within the time frame of each of the novels. The epigraphs are interesting on their own, and they never distract from and often illuminate the scene that will follow in terms of character motivations. They also offer a broader sense of the Church of England at the time. I found her use of epigraphs to be masterful precisely because of this mutual informing quality, namely that I learned more about the characters through the epigraphs, but I also learned more about the Church of England through the thoughts and actions of the characters, especially the narrators.

I was especially delighted to find that Howatch selected Austin Farrer for her epigraphs in Absolute Truths. Farrer is someone I’ve blogged about here, and he is a figure I’m increasingly fascinated with. His lectures on scripture, metaphysics, and poetry collected in The Glass of Vision are extremely stimulating, and I hope to post some thoughts on his account of revelation in the future.

For now, here are a few epigraphic gems from Farrer:

“No doubt it would be more suitable for a theologian to be absolutely pickled in devout reflection and immune from all external influences; but wrap ourselves round as we may in the cocoon of ecclesiastical cobwebs, we cannot altogether seal ourselves off from the surrounding atmosphere.” Austin Farrer, Said or Sung

“The universal misuse of human power has the sad effect that power, however lovingly used, is hated.” Austin Farrer, Said or Sung

“Temptation is what distracts us, beguiles us or bullies us off the path. Temptation is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams. We dream a world which is wax under the moulding of our ambitions or of our aspirations; we meet a world which faces us with trials we have not the character to surmount, and with seductions we have not the virtue to resist.” Austin Farrer, A Celebration of Faith

Vanity and Humility in Theology: Some Thoughts from Austin Farrer and Balthasar

“If we are never to say anything unless we said everything, we should all be best advised to keep our lips sealed: but we are all vain enough to think that if we express within a limited compass what in fact interests us, it may have the luck to interest our indulgent friends.” Austin Farrer, from the Preface to The Glass of Vision

With this statement Farrer provides a fitting mantra for the blogger and the theologian alike. Thank God for indulgent friends!

Jokes aside, Farrer expresses something profound in these words. Though he speaks of vanity, he exhibits humility, and in doing so points to something crucial for anyone engaged in theology.

Faithful theology requires some mixture of vanity and humility. Vanity because the theologian presumes to speak about God. Humility because though the theologian may speak in expressive and illuminating ways, though the theologian may clarify difficult concepts and may even (we must hope) move readers and hearers to worship, the theologian never speaks comprehensively, totally, or with finality.

For this reason, Farrer’s quote put me in mind of a couple of sections in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, vol 7: The New Covenant where Balthasar discusses the nature of theology as an ongoing task. As Balthasar puts its, “The subject of theology is not to be ‘mastered’ gradually by the understanding through a series of approximations that circle round the subject: rather, every approach in thought is continually ‘judged’ anew by the absolute superiority of the subject. For this subject is the absolute trinitarian love of God, which discloses itself and offers itself in Jesus Christ, which disarms by its humility and simplicity every ‘stronghold’ of would-be mastering thought that ‘rises up’ (2 Cor 10:5)” (GL7, 15).

Theology therefore is “an interpretative act of standing and circling around a midpoint that can indeed be interpreted, but is always in need of interpretation and has never been exhaustively interpreted” (GL7, 103)

Though the task never ends, theologians are not condemned to a Sisyphean fate. The circle is reciprocal not vicious. Think revelation received, revelation interpreted, revelation lifted back up in thanksgiving. Think love at the center of it all.

All that being said though, theology begins and ends in silence. (For more on the necessity of silence, see these quotes from Benedict XVI in the previous post).