I just noticed an author using a technique for communicating very difficult subject matter, and I wanted to make a note of it. I’ve seen it employed in various kinds of writing, but my main interest in it is as a way of teaching theology.
Here’s the example. It’s from Frederick Faber’s Bethlehem, a book-length meditation on the mysteries of the incarnation and the early life of Jesus. I highly recommend the book as extremely theological Christmas reading, but three warnings: 1. You’ll need a very high tolerance for All Things Roman Catholic, because Faber is, you might say, really into that (I could imagine even John Henry Newman warning him to cool it a bit). 2. You’ll need to tie your shoes tight, because this book will knock your socks off. And 3. You need to be in the mood for poetic prose (“No sound reaches the secluded bird in that region of still sunshine where he is pouring out those glorious hymns…”), because Faber is an artist with a taste for vivid colors and significant ornament.
In the passage in question, Faber is explaining, or earnestly desiring to explain, the human devotion of Jesus Christ to God the Father. Faber has already, four hundred pages earlier and at considerable length, described the eternal subsistence of the divine Son in “the Bosom of the Father…amid the unlocalized fires of the Godhead…in the white light, inaccessible… unutterably blessed.” Faber writes about as well on that subject as anybody! But now he turns his attention to the incarnation, and asks us to consider the human devotion of the incarnate Son to the Father. Faber’s Trinitarian and incarnational theology is in good shape (he’s just covered anhypostasis in non-technical language a few pages prior), and what he wants to explain now is the divine Son, by taking on human nature, relates filially to the divine Father in a new way. Here he goes:
We may perhaps be pardoned, if, in order to make our meaning clear, we speak for a moment in a human way and according to human conceptions. It is as if our Lord could do no more for his love of the Father by being the Eternal Word. This was an old glory, because it was in truth an unbeginning one. Hence it was his grand delight in the Incarnation that it furnished him with a new way of loving and glorifying the Father. Of course this is not true. It is untrue, first of all because of the adorable self-sufficiency of God, and secondly because the Eternal Generation is not a mystery done, but forever doing, like a pulse of the Divine Life, which as it never began to beat can never cease beating. yet this way of putting the matter represents to us at truth which would otherwise be inexpressible, and enables us to bring, at least imperfectly, into view an impression which results from the study of our Lord’s words, read by the light of his Divine Person rather than by that of his simple Divinity. It serves also to illustrate our Lord’s extreme joy in his Sacred Humanity, in connection with his peculiar devotion to his Father’s glory. It was not merely falling from a higher fountain to a lower, nor even adding a lower fountain to a higher. It was the gaining of another fountain for it, –lower, indeed, not less than infinitely lower, but at the same time new. (Faber, Bethlehem, 400-401)
Did you catch the move? Faber is well aware that the divine Son was not looking around heaven, wishing he had some new way of adoring his Father, and then getting excited about the idea of taking on human nature to love the Father more. The whole idea is silly: it undermines divine blessedness (or here, self-sufficiency) and risks picturing incarnation as a great event of enrichment in God’s life when God finally realized his full potential and improved his condition considerably. Faber knows all this, and no sooner sets up the idea than he knocks it down. He gives it with his left hand and immediately takes it away with his right.
What is gained by this theological prestidigitation? What is the value of this rhetorical conjuring trick?
I think it leaves in the mind a residue which serves to inform or support the subject matter under consideration. To offer, and then retract, the idea that the Son of God “could do no more for his love of the Father,” is to implant in the mind the awareness that something so great happened in the incarnation that it has profound meaning even for God himself; even, precisely, for the relation of the Son to the Father.
It’s a risky technique. For one thing, it’s dangerous for a teacher to spend words on describing something false, because teachers are not in full control of which of their sentences will prove to be the sticky ones that stay with the students. A student may forget nine true statements and retain the false one. It’s even riskier if the false idea is both inherently attractive, and becomes more attractive by being proscribed as forbidden. In the example from Faber, there are in fact plenty of modern theologies motivated precisely by the notion that divine self-sufficiency is an idolatrous error, and that God is greatly enriched by his relation to the world. Why feed this beast? Why not rather starve it?
I think the answer is that some things are very, very, very hard to say, and that when the time comes to attempt to teach those things, all sorts of desperate communicative strategies may come into play. Emily Dickinson knew that “success in circuit lies,” so you often have to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” T.S. Eliot knew that communication was often “a raid on the inarticulate / with shabby equipment always deteriorating / in the general mess of imprecision.” Theology is no different –in fact, theology requires a considerable amount of speaking as clearly as possible about things ultimately ineffable.
This technique, which I’ve seen used in fiction from at authors as different in temperament as Chesterton, Steinbeck, and Dillard, summons a vision into the mind and then rapidly shuffles it away. But when the vision fades, some kind of mental readiness or receptivity remains. That receptivity is where true teaching can go: accurate, precise, correct, careful teaching. It is perhaps a literary version of learned ignorance; a compositional technique in which a particular kind of silence is created, in which a particular word can be heard.