Contemplations on Rowan Williams, Caravaggio, snow, and other things.
To my shock (and slight panic), it’s already the third week of term, and my, but it’s off to a swift start!
I find it difficult to compose long contemplations amidst the here-and-there schedule of lectures (the required ones and the half dozen I attend just because, good grief, it’s Oxford and I can – I mean, could you resist attending a talk by Rowan Williams, or a lecture on Caravaggio combined with a study of the Bible as literature, or a meeting of the C.S. Lewis society with John Garth speaking on the Great War? – because I sure can’t). Between lectures, I tromp the cobblestones down to the Radcliffe Camera to cram in a few desperate hours of essay composition, I stop in every bookshop I can, haunt the Evensong services, and on Saturdays, I go for long walks in the fields and coffee-sipping, letter-writing sessions at a slower pace.
My goal is to return to a more regular rhythm of creative, contemplative writing in the next weeks, which should find its gradual way here. Though there is the constant, never-ending possibility of another social or academic activity here, there is also, to my mind at least, a daily invitation to step aside. I find the invitation, as you know, in morning and evening prayer, in the half hours set aside to kneel or watch in silence, to speak the old words of Scripture. A life this demanding isn’t sustainable without silence. I’m learning that, and learning how to fight for my quiet as an element necessary to the flourishing of soul and mind. I need hush in which to meet the one voice echoing at back of all the others, the one great Love whose pulse make every word and thought discovered here a grace. And to write about it all is, for me, a sort of prayer.
For now, in lieu of contemplations, I offer a brief summary of my current study focus, and the books stretching heart and thought and mind as I go.
My current work is on an extended essay in doctrine. When I glanced down the essay title possibilities page and spotted “Christology Explored Through Literature” guess what I chose? I’ve spent the past several weeks exploring various doctrines of Christology, focusing particularly on the Incarnation. I want to understand exactly what happened when Christ took on flesh, what redemptive quickening took place by the mere fact of his present, human life. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom come far before he died, and I want to understand, in rather technical terms, the salvific nature of the Incarnation as something distinct from the Atonement, and what this means for human relationships, and for our interaction with physical creation. God took on flesh. He hallowed the world with his presence. How should we then live?
I’ve been reading T.F. Torrance’s Incarnation, a magisterial work of systematic theology that deeply explores the nature of the Incarnation. I’m fascinated by the concept of the Old Testament as pre-Incarnation history, by the realization that God began a process of incarnation in his dealings with Israel that culminated in Christ. And I’m challenged by the realization of what was accomplished by Christ’s human life as it was lived, and lived to the full in an active, loving obedience that offered every duty and goodness that humanity owed to God, but had, until Christ’s coming, failed to give. Torrance’s knowledge is a little staggering to a beginning student, but there is a wonder, a current of excitement thrumming through his writing. He uses superlatives to explain the beauty of what God has offered and accomplished. Sometimes, when I realize the intricacy of the plan that led to God taking human flesh, I get all bright-eyed and quiet right in the middle of the library.
Jon Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads has also been an immensely interesting, challenging work. He wants a Christology centered on the historic Jesus, with a focus on the time and space actions of the Son of Man and his bringing of the kingdom of God. Sobrino writes from the viewpoint of liberation theology, with a worldview deeply shaped by the suffering and violence he witnessed in El Salvador. Whatever you think about liberation theology, this book is worth investment, because Sobrino offers a profound understanding of Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom, the one whose incarnated, divine, historic life inaugurates the reign of God. Sobrino writes about Christ’s actions as modeling “filiation,” illustrating for us what it means to live fully into our identity as children of God, and as brothers and sisters to all humankind, with the responsibility attending that connection. He also focuses on the use of power, and its only right use in the service of Love. He leaves the reader with a clear sense of choice. To read Sobrino is to know with crystal clarity that to love Christ is not merely to trust him in a passive way, but to bring his kingdom about in the time and space contexts of our own lives. Anything less betrays the Incarnation.
The literary portion of my essay shall focus on… Wendell Berry! Can you believe that I’m supposedly studying theology and I get to pour over Hannah Coulter, and Remembering, and talk about the incarnational vision of the good Mr. Berry? Such good fortune. I’m focusing on the way that Berry’s fiction illustrates the kind of relationship we need to cherish toward the created world and to each other, and the way that human flourishing hinges on faithfulness (to place and the people of one’s “membership”) and chosen, cultivated love. For those who don’t know my adopted grandfather (he isn’t aware of this connection!), he’s a farmer by heritage and a scholar by training, and he writes from a Kentuckian, agrarian viewpoint, but the quiet challenge of every one of his books is for a return from the self interest and fragmentation of modern culture to a life of “fidelity” in which people and place are restored to what they were meant to be.
I reread one of his novels over Christmas while also reading Sobrino and Torrance and was struck numerous times with how the characters in his stories embodied the themes of incarnation and the kingdom come that I was reading in books of doctrine. His stories center on quiet, local, faithful lives in which the choices to love (or hate), become the catalyst for the healing of earth and community, or for destruction. His Christ figures aren’t necessary sacrificial, rather, they’re figures whose choices to love create new spaces of possibility and growth for those they encounter. His heroes are those whose lives have roots in a love that transcends time and he speaks specifically to that, especially in his novels Remembering and Hannah Coulter.
So. You can imagine me hunched over my MacBook this week as I finish this project. I’ll have the echoes and light of the Rad Cam to help, along with many cups of tea, and a few brisk walks. I love this study. I love doctrine. I love delving into the core ideas of human existence. It makes me love God with a depth and energy I haven’t fully touched before. I see him more wholly than I have before. And to see God is simply to love. All for now. More soon.
Oh, but I must tell you this before I go: it snowed in Oxford… !
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.