Tagged: california

Wordsworth in the West

wordsworth in vacant or in pensive moodWilliam Wordsworth perfected a certain type of nature poetry, a particularly spiritual sort of nature lyric. He celebrated the movements of the infinite Spirit making itself known to humanity through the forms of nature as contemplated by poet-prophets who were the universe’s appointed spokesmen. Nature herself elected certain sensitive souls, forming them throughout early life to be receptive to her revelations in later life.  As he recounts in The Prelude, Nature populated his young imagination with the forms of giant cliffs and dark forebodings, of dancing daffodils and of entire hillsides humming as aeolian harps, so that in his poetic maturity he could be shown greater revelations: the vision atop Mount Snowdon, “the perfect image of a mighty Mind… that is exalted by an underpresence.” Nature was trying to tell him something, and his job as a poet was to relay that message to us.

In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley wrote a short essay attempting to deflate Wordsworth’s poetry by identifying it as not universal, but narrowly local:

In the neighborhood of latitude fifty north, and for the last hundred years or thereabouts, it has been an axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting. For good Wordsworthians — and most serious-minded people are now Wordsworthians, either by direct inspiration or at second hand — a walk in the country is the equivalent of going to church, a tour through Westmorland is as good as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To commune with the fields and waters, the woodlands and the hills, is to commune, according to our modern and northern ideas, with the visible manifestations of the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe.”

Wordsworth, says Huxley, misunderstood himself. He was not telling us what universal nature says about itself; he was telling us what the Lake District says. At best he was speaking for a territorial spirit, a particularly nice one; but certainly not for universal spirit. Not God but a British sprite or nymph.

In Huxley’s view, if you hand the microphone to nature at another latitude, you’d hear a different testimony:

The Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed. Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste, mild deity who presides over the Gemüthlichkeit, the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the Lake District.

For Wordsworth, Nature had her terrors, but in global context the terrors of the English countryside are merely cute. “The worst that Wordsworth’s goddess ever did to him was to make him hear ‘Low breathings’ … and ‘sounds Of undistinguishable motion.'” And scary as that might be to a kid in the country, the mature Wordsworth still “seems to have imagined that this was the worst Nature could do.”

But “a few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him,” says Huxley.

The sparse inhabitants of the equatorial forest are all believers in devils. When one has visited, in even the most superficial manner, the places where they live, it is difficult not to share their faith. The jungle is marvelous, fantastic, beautiful; but it is also terrifying, it is also profoundly sinister. There is something in … the character of great forests … which is foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man. The life of those vast masses of swarming vegetation is alien to the human spirit and hostile to it.

Huxley’s essay is stimulating to read, and even though it soon becomes evident that his arch dismissiveness is part of a strategy to to conceal the fact that he is out of his depth in criticizing Wordsworth, he does score some points. For one thing, Huxley is able to critique the Lake Poet from a New World perspective:

It is a pity that he never traveled beyond the boundaries of Europe. A voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity. Nor would he have felt so certain, in the damp and stifling darkness, among the leeches and the malevolently tangled rattans, of the divinely anglican character of that fundamental unity.

There are many things happening in Wordsworth’s poetry, but one of them, as Huxley rightly notes,  is a kind of natural theology. He believes nature is showing him something about what is beyond nature, and on that basis he makes certain statements about God –though it took Wordsworth decades to learn distinctions between the mandatory pantheistic mood of his poetic idiom and the trinitarian commitments that worked as a corrrective against it.

In light of Huxley’s “you’ve never even seen a rainforest” criticism, I have two questions about Wordsworth’s natural theology. The first is regional, the second is doctrinal.

The regional question is this: If we grant that Wordsworth is (receptively) sensitive to and (productively) articulate about his natural environment, then it may well be that the poet is prophet of the spirit of nature. But perhaps he is only prophet of the spirit of nature as it is available in one region. If all this is true (a chain of ifs, admittedly), then perhaps other poets in other regions can also speak the truth of their microclimates and localities. Instead of just saying “I’ve seen the tropics, and the people there believe in devils,” Huxley could seek out nature poetry from tropical regions, and see if in fact they are constructing a rougher, less humane natural theology.

As part of an ongoing project of understanding California theologically (see the website and the recent book), I am especially interested in what has been said by nature poets of the American west. If we have had our California Wordsworth yet, it would probably be Robinson Jeffers, whose rock-and-hawk, surf-and-sky Inhumanism claimed to give voice to the opinion of the California coastline. Indeed, the natural theology of Jeffers was (as perhaps Huxley would have predicted) considerably darker than anything Wordsworth ever dreamed of. Wordsworth was haunted by cliff forms that chased him; Jeffers imagines mountains splitting humans open to see what’s inside these noisy mites. If Wordsworth in the tropics would produce a natural theology of devils, our Wordsworth of the west coast produced a natural theology whose gods are at best indifferent to human destiny and at worst are in a hurry to shrug off the parasitic vermin that is man.

The doctrinal question that occurs to me is this: Wordsworth operates poetically at enough of a distance from orthodox Christianity that while he speaks of Nature making things known about supernature, he never speaks of “general revelation” or of God revealing himself through nature. Everything depends on ambiguity on this point; the Platonizing, pantheistic mist is essential to Wordsworth’s achievement as an oracle. But what if we can turn to Wordsworth as a spokesman, not for what God says about himself but for what nature says about God? What if we can hear in a nature poet –chastened, relativized by localism, and filtered for the way his or her own personality necessarily colors the poetry– not the voice of God but the voice of non-human creation, saying something about God? If nature makes messages known through poets, those messages are not binding, canonical, or authoritative. But they do come from an older source with privileged access to things humans can’t know without help.

Theology and California: The Book

ashgate cover screencap

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a strange, new book: Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Ashgate, 2014), edited by Jason Sexton and me. It’s available in hardcover for your libraries, softcover with a gorgeous cover photo, and e-book for portability.

As Kevin Vanhoozer asks back-handedly on the back cover, “Theology is faith seeking understanding –yes, but of California?”

Yes, of California. This book of essays is the result of several years of collaboration in a project called Theological Engagement with California Culture, which Jason and I dreamed up around 2010 and have been pursuing ever since, in a series of small interdisciplinary workshops and conferences where we’ve been joined by a host of interesting scholars. TECC’s work is ongoing: we’re hosting two more sets of papers at this November’s ETS & AAR meetings in San Diego, where –spoiler alert and I kid you not– Richard Mouw will introduce Gerhardus Vos as a California poet.

And with the publication of this Ashgate volume, we’ll be doing some book release events at places like Biola University, Cal State Fullerton, Vroman’s Books in Pasadena, and Green Apple Books in San Francisco. That last event, by the way, features a conversation with eminent California historian Kevin Starr.

This is something relatively new under the warm California sun, and may take a while to figure out, so here’s a taste of it. Consider this table of contents with a representative quotation from each of the chapters.  And consider buying the book, or recommending it to your library.

1 The Enigma of California: Reflections on a Theological Subject (Richard J. Mouw)

We can generalize here on the images we applied to California cuisine: innovation and eclecticism. California means innovative drawing together from diverse sources, perhaps even suggesting some sort of stable locatedness from which to draw. This produces much that is good –there is much to thank God for in what we have received from Silicon Valley and various other things the California imagination and industry has given to the world. But the resulting way of life can sometimes become a surface thing, lacking depth, an absence of rootedness.

2 California, Localized Theology, and Theological Localism (Fred Sanders)

“California Studies” is now, as they say, a thing. It has classes, courses of study, academic conferences, a journal, and in the inevitable logic of academia, it will no doubt have majors and graduate degrees before long. In this interdisciplinary conversation, theologians have not been prominent so far. As a result, the conversation has lacked a depth and seriousness which theological categories could provide.

3 Can Theology Engage with California’s Culture? (Jason S. Sexton)

A theological reckoning with California identifies a culture that uniquely creates “myth” and re-creates this same vision for others. And what kind of theology can engage with this culture? The kind that doesn’t let the siren calling myths have the final say, confronting them by the coherence of the indicative nature of Christian witness (Acts 1:8), and expressing good news in various evangelistic ways, especially in meaningful localized forms of service for the common good.

4 The Significance of the California Missions in Californian Theology and Culture (Allen Yeh)

The California missions provide an argument for the state’s cohesion… Frs Serra and Lasuen did not distinguish between north and south in their minds as they set up the missions –to them, it was all one piece of land. As such, Fr Serra, Fr Lasuen, and the other Franciscans can be viewed as establishing California by uniting the 21 missions in the same way that the Founding Fathers can be viewed as establishing the US by uniting the original 13 colonies. Perhaps this can be a good historical rethink of California and the British colonies framing the founding of our nation –it was not just a one-directional sweep from East to West, but rather Spain landed on the West, Britain on the East, and they met just over the Sierras.

5 “I Have Adonis DNA”: Californian Entertainment, Celebrity Culture, and Evangelicalism (Monica Ganas)

From its love affair with spectacle and broadcasting to its emphasis on eternal youth, celebrity, and most importantly, human perfection, the culture has provided heady material for an ad hoc belief system I have called, for lack of a better word, California-ism. Among other things, this belief system allows for the propagation of man-made forms of transcendence, especially in and around Hollywood, based on the imperial idea that people and their manufactured systems can be their own gods.

6 In Pursuit of the Consumer Crown or the Crucified Crown? (Matthew S. Farlow)

 Is the model of the megachurch driven towards the empowerment of the individual and their consumeristic mindset? Or does it promote and embody a Christ-centered reality that seeks to participate in Christ so as to elevate the “other” as opposed to commodifying them? This chapter suggests that the theological underpinnings of the church are dramatic in that they require participation as opposed to observation.

7 From the Beach Boys to Surfer’s Chapel: A Theology of California Surf Culture (Robert S. Covolo)

In contrast to a facile romanticism or, conversely, a nihilistic fatalism, the biblical narrative views the sea through a complex lens as both a vehicle of judgment and grace –a foreboding and providential realm. Emulating the Bible’s complex understanding of the sea, surfers speak of the sea as both terrible and beautiful –a means of both revelation and judgment: “You are simultaneously propelled by the wave and pursued by it. The best position is the worst; the greatest power is closest to the curl. Apotheosis and annihilation are separate by the narrowest margins.”

8 Silicon Valley and the Spirit of Innovation: How California’s Entrepreneurial Ethos Bears Witness to Spiritual Reality (Bruce Baker)

My thesis is that by viewing the entrepreneurial ethos of Silicon Valley through a biblical lens, we shall gain insights into the business climate which has produced such remarkable entrepreneurial success. Through this study I hope to offer fresh insight into the social, cultural, and moral conditions which have contributed to the ethos of Silicon Valley, and I hope also to gain wisdom capable of contributing to the cultivation of productive and soul-enriching work in modern society in general.

9 Drive-By Evangelism, the Growth in Gang Violence and Community Development (Paul Louis Metzger)

Churches from across the city and the region must come together in solidarity to address the problem of social fragmentation and what it entails for gang violence. It will not do to engage in drive-by evangelism, where affluent churches in well-to-do sections of town, the suburbs or outlying areas engage in charity events and quick-fix solutions and make inner city ministries victims of their charity or worse.

10 Is There a Theology of California? (Fred Sanders)

As for an application of such a higher provincialism, or localization, of theology to the subject of California, that task is perhaps best thought of as somewhere between “A Theology of California” and “Theology from California.” Those two phrases would encapsulate the two main emphases of such a project. The former, “Theology of California,” indicates bringing theological reflection to bear on this entity which is California, to offer a theological account of its existence and character. The latter, “Theology from California,” indicates that we’re doing theological reflection about the usual subjects (for example, God, creation, providence, humanity, sin, redemption, church, eschatology, and others) in this particular location, intentionally cultivating resources that are Californian.

 11 Is There a Theology of California? A Sociologist’s Response (Richard Flory)

In the end, I think one way to think about California and theology is not to focus on the unique or unusual characteristics of California, or theology of/from here, or to argue for some sort of California theological exceptionalism. Rather, perhaps one goal might be to create a prophetic role within and for the theology that results from this project that is rooted in the experiences and realities of California that then might serve as a model for thinking about theology more broadly. As my USC colleague Manuel Pastor likes to say, “California is America, only sooner.” Thus perhaps a theology of/from California(s) can make a contribution to theological discourse that, while rooted in the California experience, transcends that experience.

 12 Is There a Theology of California? An Historian’s Response (Richard Pointer)

 Reading some of the other chapters in this book makes it clear that the TECC Project wants to pursue what might be labeled a “Theology for California.” By that I mean work that will be of direct service to the church and Christian activity in California. Crafting such a theology or theologies will naturally fall primarily to the theologians. But they will do well to keep inviting the sociologists, historians, and other students of the Golden State to the table.