Distinguished theologians and literary scholars explore the workings of the sacred and the sacramental in language and literature.
What does a sacramental poetics offer that secular cultural theory, for all of its advances, may have missed? How does a sacred understanding of the world differ from a strictly secular one? This volume develops the theory of “sacramental poetics” advanced by Regina Schwartz in her 2008 book on English Reformation writers, taking the theory in new directions while demonstrating how enduring and widespread this poetics is.
Toward a Sacramental Poetics addresses two urgent questions we have inherited from a half century of secular critical thought. First, how do we understand the relationship between word and thing, sign and signified, other than as some naive direct representation or as a completely arbitrary language game? And, second, how can the subject experience the world beyond instrumentalizing it? The contributors conclude that a sacramental poetics responds to both questions, offering an understanding of the sign that, by pointing beyond itself, suggests wonder. The contributors explore a variety of topics in relation to sacramental poetics, including political theology, miracles, modernity, translation and transformation, and the metaphysics of love. They draw from diverse resources, from Dante to Hopkins, from Richard Hooker to Stoker's Dracula, from the King James Bible to Wallace Stevens. Toward a Sacramental Poetics is an important contribution to studies of religion and literature, the sacred and the secular, literary theory, and theologies of aesthetics.
Contributors: Regina M. Schwartz, Patrick J. McGrath, Rowan Williams, Subha Mukherji, Stephen Little, Kevin Hart, John Milbank, Hent de Vries, Jean-Luc Marion, Ingolf U. Dalferth, Lori Branch, and Paul Mariani.
Introduction 1. Cloven Tongues: Theology and the Translation of the Scriptures 2. “Those are pearls”: Transformation, Translation and Exchange 3. How to Write Like God: Dante and Sacramental Poetics 4. Sacramental Poetics and Quasi-Sacramentals 5. The Sacramental Dilation of Richard Hooker 6. The Miracle of the Eucharist and the Mysticism of the Political Body 7. Doubling Metaphysics 8. Verbum efficax: The Theopoetics of Real Presence 9. Dracula’s Sacramental Prosaics and the Remains of Religion in Modernity 10. The Franciscan Hearts of Hopkins and Merton
Regina M. Schwartz is professor of English and law at Northwestern University. She is the author and editor of numerous books, including Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism.
Patrick J. McGrath is associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is the author of Early Modern Asceticism: Literature, Religion, and Austerity in the English Renaissance.
“In this brilliant and wonderfully arresting set of responses to Regina Schwartz’s important work Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, an eminent group of contributors helps us think about the capacity of signs to point beyond themselves in our modern secular world.” —Mark Knight, editor of The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion
"Toward a Sacramental Poetics offers a compelling invitation to recognize the inexhaustible depths of meaning available in a sacramental vision of reality. Such depths of meaning embrace the poetic in its broadest artistic, epistemological, and communal dimensions. The essays gathered here are a wonderful expression of the depths of communal meaning to which the volume points." —Vittorio Montemaggi, co-editor of Dante, Mercy, and the Beauty of the Human Person
“It is impossible to read Milton, Shakespeare, or Jonson the same way after the insightful literary analyses in Toward a Sacramental Poetics.” —Ilha do Desterro
“Man is unavoidably a sacramentalist and his works are sacramental in character.”
A rather odd disjunction is occurring in scholarship today. While the “return to the religious” is a familiar phenomenon in philosophy, in much of cultural studies --whether grounded in linguistics, the many varieties of postmodernism, postcolonial theories, class, race or gender theory, or theories of globalization-- an opposite drive to argue for decidedly secular approaches persists. It’s high time to rethink that. Ironically, because the idea of “secular” itself has come under scrutiny, understood not as a “subtraction” of religion, as what is left when religion is removed, but as a robust ideology in its own right with its own agenda and attendant consequences, we can now profit from this critical distancing, and can rethink religion, not just as the construct of the secular. We can surely dismiss fruitless distinctions between reason and superstition (who is more rational than Aquinas?), knowledge and belief (how could science function without core beliefs?), and avoid reducing religious impulses only to “confessional” allegiances and identity politics. As Vincent Pecora explains, “For many, the Enlightenment’s triumph of reason over nature has become a historically impoverished narrative unless it is seen in relation to the religious heritage with and against which it was dialectically defined.”
Let us, then, begin by raising the core question: how does a sacred understanding of the world differ from a strictly secular one? What does a sacramental poetics offer that secular cultural theory, for all of its advances, may have missed? The secular vision largely gives us a world of dead objects. They can be assessed, measured, categorized, used, instrumentalized as sites of power or of play, but these dead objects are not redolent of meaning. They are acted upon, perhaps, but they do not interact with us. The sun is a burning sphere that planets move around; it is not the source of warmth and life, of renewal and rebirth. In contrast, a sacramental poetics may see the world as given—even as a gift—or as constructed by human consciousness, but either way, that world is very much alive, answering, interacting, enjoining not just our use, but also our appreciation, even gratitude. A sacramental poetics is not afflicted by the poverty of signs, the inept ways in which language falls short of conveying meaning. Instead, signs are understood to be effective, empowered, if not to confer grace, then to change the apprehension of their viewers; if not to grant them eternity, then to manifest a living world.
Sacramental signs open onto another dimension, transcendence. A sacramental poetry, Sacramental Poetics (2008) argued, is a poetry that says more than it shows, that creates more than it signs, yet does so through a celebration of language, images, sounds, and time that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements, much like liturgy. Indeed, Paul Valéry has written about poetry in ways that sound remarkably like a description of liturgy:
"…it is necessary…for the simple arrangement of words…to compel our voice, even the inner voice, to leave the tone and rhythm of ordinary speech and to enter a quite different key and, as it were, a quite different time. This inner coercion to a pulse and a rhythmical action profoundly transforms all the values of the text that imposes it. All at once this text is no longer one of those intended to teach us something and to vanish as soon as that something is understood; its effect is to make us live a different life, breathe according to this second life; and it implies a state or a world in which the objects and beings found there, or rather their images, have other freedoms and other ties than those in the practical world."
A sacramental poetics is not any sign-making, then, for it entails a radical understanding of signifying, one that points beyond the life and presence of the artist, to manifest a new world, “a second life.” Lori Branch has described two urgent questions we have inherited from a half century of secular critical thought: one, how to understand the relationship between word and thing, sign and signified, “other than direct representation and certainty in propositional truths” or as completely arbitrary language games; and two, are there other ways of experiencing the world than as “subject[s] of mastery and certainty,” i.e., approaching our world without instrumentalizing it? Hopefully, a sacramental poetics responds to both questions, offering an understanding of signs that, by pointing beyond themselves, offer a response to the world that includes wonder.