Sunday, 30 November 2008

Herbert's God

I've been rereading the late A. D. Nuttall's Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John. At only 144 pages, it is a staggeringly compressed, clear and strong-brained book, situated in Nuttall's familiar territory between literary criticism and philosophy.

The longest section in the book is a fairly full reading of George Herbert's The Temple, seeing it as a partly submerged but very radical critique of Calvinist doctrine, to the which Herbert consciously assented as a Puritan divine. Nuttall is brilliant at showing how lyric poetry can constitute an unexpectedly, even unconsciously, trenchant philosophical and theological critique.

The argument is complex, but it is entertaining to read Nuttall's horror of Calvin's grotesqueries. Hard Calvinism is truly the most monstrous of all theological systems; Nuttall points out that the gall and ashes of its most extreme tenets are also its fundamental ones. First, human beings are totally depraved, incapable of doing good - any kind of good - without the action of God's grace. Even an apparently 'good' or 'virtuous' human action without God's grace active in it has the nature of sin in the eyes of God. Even your virtues are sinful. All truly good actions are, in fact, performed by God. When a Calvinist acts with virtue, it is not he or she who acts by their own will, but God who acts in them. When you praise God, that is in fact God in you praising Himself. We remember Herbert's line in 'Prayer I', defining prayer as 'God's breath in man returning to its source.' (As Nuttall wryly comments, 'The image is very beautiful but at the same time obscurely troubling. Most of us prefer fresh air to CO2.') To Calvin, we are incapable of willing good; esse est peccare, to exist is to sin.

On the other hand, we are capable of willing evil: we are responsible for our sins but not for our (apparent) virtues. All human beings thus deserve eternal damnation for our utter depravity. In damning all, God gives himself material on which his grace may more gloriously act; God redeems some human beings in Christ entirely to please Himself, for His own glory, rather than from any mercy. God saves some - never by their desert - and damns the rest eternally. Except that 'damns', in the present tense, is the wrong time-frame to employ, in Calvin's view: as God is eternal and unlimited by time, He had already decided whether you or I are headed for Hell or Heaven even before the creation of the universe. So when you stand before the Heavenly Judge on the Last Day and are consigned to the pit of fire and brimstone, then it will be true to say that you will have been damned from all eternity. Calvinist theology necessitates doing some very funny things with tenses.

The hideous God of Calvin - a bloated divine tycoon concerned with getting a return on His 'investment', arbitrary and filled with hatred for His fallen creation - is an unattractive figure, Blake's Urizen mingled with Moloch. Nuttall argues, cleverly, whether the obvious question had not occurred to Herbert: if this horrendous theology is correct, then - one shudders to say it - is God, in fact, evil? Some of the poems of The Temple do indeed seem to imply an unconscious assertion of the moral victory of the creature (Herbert) over the creator, as Nuttall reads them. After all, some virtues - humility, submission, worship, for example - become precisely meaningless and cease to exist qua virtues when not performed by an inferior being to a superior one. If Herbert's humility before God is actually God being humble in him, if his submission is really God in him submitting to Himself, then his humility and submission are self-cancelling. Virtue becomes a kind of weird divine self-respect, conducted through a human subject. Herbert knows this, and recoils from it.

Further, Nuttall shows that the assertion - absolutely fundamental to all Christian theology - that God is good, is severely problematised by the implications of Calvin's arguments. The crux of the matter is what we mean when we predicate something of the Deity. 'God is our Father' is a predication which is ultimately analogical, a metaphor based on human experience of biological paternity. God is not my father in the way that my father is my father. But, there are deeper metaphorical underpinnings: God is, like a human father, a source and a protector, for example: qualities that support the metaphor of 'God is our Father' from below, as it were. But when we say 'God is good', we are not employing a metaphor. There must be a continuum of identity between human goodness and divine goodness, otherwise they could not both be denoted with the same word. (This argument also holds good for 'wise' and 'wisdom'.) When we say 'God is good' and 'Jane is good', there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. But if we separate human virtue and that which pleases God so wholly as does Calvin, then we have to posit a special category of 'goodness', entirely separate and distinct from human goodness (which is, of course, really evil in God's eyes), defined in circular fashion as 'What God is.' If human goodness and divine goodness are thus completely uncoupled, it is impossible to predicate of the Deity any of the things we commonly see, in human terms, as belonging to and characteristic of goodness. If God is good in a unique, divine sense of 'good', then God is not thereby obliged to be, say, merciful, just or loving. Being outside human moral laws, He is quite at liberty to be hateful, unjust and merciless, whilst as the same time remaining wholly and utterly good.

Nuttall is superlative in his explorations of the way that these kinds of bleak paradoxes are played out within Herbert's poetry; Overheard by God is a little book which I highly recommend. However, be warned: like many of Nuttall's writings (e.g. A New Mimesis, at once a homage to Auerbach and a learned critique of deconstruction, or Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?) it is long out of print and hard to find.


Anonymous said...

C. S. Lewis said that even if the Calvinist God promised us Heaven for our obedience, we'd still have no motivation to obey him, because his idea of Heaven might well strike us as Hell. Rodger Cunningham

Bo said...

Very true! Of course if there is indeed no goodness in us natively (because anything that is good is part of God) then we already dwell in an existence intrinsically utterly removed from God, i.e. hell!

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