This essay is part of the address Dr. Ray delivered on Oct. 6, 2021, at the second conference sponsored by Theology Matters at Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Theology is a challenging form of inquiry. How can one know where to turn when he is seeking knowledge about the creator of the universe, the concepts of the incarnation and salvation, the ultimate purposes of our creator, and the final meaning of our lives? These are very big questions. Sometimes they even encourage us to think in very different ways. In my case, however, I believe they formed a sense of curiosity before anything else. And that seemed to be an early gift. I was afflicted by questions. A restless soul.
I slid in and out of my high school years like a bemused visitor from another country. A curious mind is hard to keep in hand. When I strolled into a scheduled class I sat down in a desk, took my bearings, and proceeded to ease, for a large part, into my own interior world. It was an interesting place in which to consider the possibilities that life might hold. Even the redhead with a nice smile who planned to dance her way into the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and who sat behind me in English could not always capture my attention. I viewed the world of thought as a great unending mystery, even though at the time I had no conception of what the world of books, let alone the confrontation with other dimensions of thought, would hold.
It was, however, soon after I found my way into college that an initiation occurred. I remember it as though it were yesterday. Seated before an open window, the golden light of a New England autumn pouring through, I turned to my assignment. The essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And while there would be even greater challenges in time, I dove into the text. When I had finished reading these essays and emerged, I thought to myself, whether this stuff is true or not, I had never encountered such mental dexterity. It was, of course, later that I realized that John Calvin would have choked on it. Even so, an introduction to a broader world was underway. I dimly realized that the arena in which thoughtful people crossed swords with one another was going to entail a special kind of combat. The wonder of unfamiliar ideas opening within one’s own mind had made a landing on my small heretofore protected beach.
It was not to the Bible that I turned next. I was yet to know how mysterious and beckoning it could become. There was, however, a vast landscape of books waiting for one who had been captured by his own curiosity. I
climbed over the wall of the required class texts and began to use my small funds to buy all manner of additional publications. Among them were two volumes on the evolution of European moral ideas, one that was written about a hundred years after the former. A Nobel prize-winning novel by Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi, investigated mystical thought among intellectuals and, foreshadowing the development of game theory, proved to be a guide to the big bang concept and the expansion of the universe. There were two volumes of research by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, a critical introduction to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and a bewildering fictional account of the nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I recently picked up the latter again and noted that when I had finally finished reading it so long ago I had I scribbled on the inside of the dust jacket “This book has led me into the valley of the damned.” Unknown preparation in the playing fields of the mind.
Of course, I had no thought at that time that all of this would later become a force which drove the awakening to theology. I later realized that there was nothing so extraordinary about all of this. Plenty of others had been down such paths. The more intelligent ones went far deeper. They eventually recognized that it was a recovery of the classics and the theological works, some of which had been only lightly perused, that had opened the doors to both the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation and prepared the world of faith for a new birth. Where would Aquinas have been, we might wonder, without his Aristotle? Where would Luther have been without his Augustine? And where would the youthful Calvin have been without his Seneca? We may not know. An unsuspected form of preparation on the playing fields of the mind.
It was Desiderius Erasmus, the Christian humanist, who knew that there was no other path than that of ad fontes, “back to the sources.” He had prepared the texts that even the more traditional reformers could not evade. They all became driven, however, by the recognition that words mattered and that some of them mattered a great deal. In Humanists and Reformers, Bard Thompson wrote, “The civilizing effect of language was an idea that possessed the whole of the Renaissance. … The issue of whether to include a given item in the curriculum was resolved by asking the question, “‘Does it form human beings and make them whole?’”[i] I had not been interested in the civilizing effect of language. What I had noticed was something much different. Reading books so carefully written but so different from oneself was accepting a challenge for combat.
There was, of course, nothing about the books that had come my way that resembled the ones Erasmus had in mind. And there were none there that Thompson would regard as helping me to become “whole,” a thought that the Renaissance left us. They certainly never would have been regarded as literary comfort food. And that is the point. I read them because they had a uniquely invasive force. They penetrated the cultural world in which I had lived and thereby began to determine the rules of combat which I would face when I began to realize that theology mattered.
They were worthy informants, helping me to know that the humanity was not as simple as I had thought. As later I discovered, such complexity could guide one to look more carefully about the gospel. I also learned that some of the theologians who had been forerunners of the Nicene formulas had spent long years in the study of rhetoric and literature. Apparently, it was a deft form of intellectual combat that eventually begins to prepare such people. And that became the most curious outcome of the whole extracurricular experience. It led me to a world in which one begins to unravel the texture of commonplace ideas and to look for something more enduring beyond them. It also led me in time to understand that the Bible is the most penetrating book of all. In this regard, to read it circumspectly is to become prepared for a unique kind of cultural combat.
Words upon words the biblical texts unroll. And yet until the time is right the curtain remains mysteriously closed. To put it in an even more challenging perspective, some authors had involuntarily tipped me off that when I began to read the Bible it might become my enemy as well as my friend. They thus suggested, to my mind at least, that the perilous thing about reading the Scripture is that it would always remain an invasive presence, and that it was precisely in this regard that it would merit our respect. Those who felt that they had the right to soften or diminish the painful authority of its cut would in time diminish its relevance and become my most puzzling opponents.
We cross paths with an unfathomable depth of both judgment and mercy through the unfolding narratives of Scripture. And does not this peculiar paradox, one which breaks us loose from accounts of European morals and nineteenth-century poets, prompt us to read even the passages which would normally be avoided? I have discovered that this mesmerizing dialectic within its pages binds us to a strange accountability.
If we walk through the comforting passages, the long chapters of the canonical text until we approach its conclusion, we come near the end to an alarming passage. There are angels galore, which might be a signal that an authority like no other is near. In Revelation 14 one of them soars over the earth and issues a command, “Fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come.”
It occurred to me that this was not only enough to move the authors of my extracurricular reading on to a very small place on a back shelf but also to find a place for me there as well. Perhaps some spiritual writers who coddle their readers might shudder when they see what then follows. Another angel puts his sickle across the earth and throws the entire grape harvest “into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” Noticeably, we do not read that we have been given an exemption from this searching test. It could lead us to wonder that if in the biblical perspective, one’s most challenging combat will ultimately include oneself. And our relationship with God will be like no other. Theology committed only to a blissful assurance will find nothing that supports it in such texts. And in such voices as these I have also heard a very subtle warning that the most palliative theologians were the ones that could rot my soul. The ones in which I might find my own political identity confirmed would be the most dangerous of all.
There are works of art which, if we give them a longer look, also have a capacity to pull back the curtain of confidence in our minds. We stumble upon them in unexpected places. And then they inaudibly whisper to us that mysteries are near.
Albert Einstein was known for theoretical physics, but his life gives us pause for thought. Apparently, Einstein attended a Roman Catholic elementary school for a few years as a child. What came of it? In Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark notes that in his small Mercer Street study in Princeton, the aging Einstein had “a rather beautiful Madonna and Child” and an “early Italian Christian painting” on a shelf.[ii] There is still more. The mystery deepens. Einstein is quoted as saying, “I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. … No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.”[iii] There is, apparently, more in the reach of the Gospel than we may have realized. Such an insight can move us to recognize that our limitations have been within ourselves.
It is also true that pictures do not explain themselves. Nor do they overtly explain any of us to ourselves or to our friends. They come to us more silently than that. Good art often proposes a riddle which, if we try to solve it, can draw us toward theology.
As a student far from home, New England snowstorms provided a particularly bleak surmise about the world. Their presence in art became especially haunting. Peter Bruegel the Younger, whose father had died when he was five years old and his mother when he was fourteen, produced a painting with the title “Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap.” As suggestive for this picture as the loss of his parents might have been, we wonder if there were deeper reasons why he painted it sixty times before he was satisfied with it. Would it echo the realism of a biblical text as well as that of his personal life?
In the picture the frozen river holds two dozen skaters. The bare dark branches of the trees could be reminiscent of fish nets. Blackbirds haunt the scene, some innocently ambling toward their death, toward the trap that has been set to fall on them. A solitary person is sitting alone in a distant boat. Who is that person, who are these birds and who am I the picture asks us? And who is coming into this winter of my life with an invisible trap?
From 1868 to 1869, Monet worked on “The Magpie.” In it the dark bird sits alone on top, of all things, a gate that someone has closed. Snow covers everything in sight like a shroud. The house on the right has no windows and no doors. One can feel a chill that carries with it more than a change in the temperature. Could the magpie also be as lonely as this scene makes me feel? What might that suggest to us? And if the gate could be opened where would the road lead us? Does it amplify Scripture’s hint that someone is waiting to prepare us for a combat in which we must struggle against heretofore unknown foes? Could the one who was known to paint all things bright and beautiful have suggested that there is a gate waiting for us that we must enter alone?
The nineteenth-century American lithographers, Currier and Ives, provide pictures that decorated the walls of homes across the United States. The figures are as motionless as stone statues in most of their pictures. In “Early Winter” a snow-imprisoned landscape contains an empty road that comes out from some place of mystery. It crosses a bridge and goes past the pond that holds thirteen skaters. The house sitting on the bank is devoid of apparent entrances. Everyone is very still. Have they, under the morbid sky and the cloak of apparent activity reminded us that, in this great new world to which our forebearers came, we have inadvertently brought cemetery art from Europe with us? Tucked away within such superficial calm, hidden within the still, solemn nature of lithography itself, could such scenes as “Early Winter” suggest to an apprehensive eye that combat in the metaphysical realm could call those as dead as statues into life? Could they remind us that the world waits for Christ to wake it for combat with the universal death, one which threatens humanity within the guise of “Early Winter?”
As a college student, I occasionally carried my ice skates out to the north side of the Dartmouth College campus to the banks of Occom Pond. The surface had been completely frozen across. And there I sat on a snow-covered log and laced them up. There was a bonfire on the other side of the pond, children with their hockey sticks, parents talking, and pet dogs barking. I had quietly slipped into the minds of Bruegel, Monet, and Currier and Ives and I felt the loneliness of the place. There was, I knew, more to it than that. There were quiet murmurs of messages that I could not yet hear. Perhaps a perspective drawn from the earliest and then later the medieval theologians, something akin to metaphysical conflict, might provide food for thought. The fruit in our personal gardens is not always apple red.
Regardless of its poignancy, I certainly felt that I lacked the necessary decoding sensibility to understand an experience like this one. Was something being said, hovering within the social groups and the darkened conifers, hinting even in these post-Enlightenment days that spiritual warfare may still exist? The mystery was not only in pictures on the walls. It comes to us within the primordial garden of our own lives as the familiar text suggests. The invasive contents of Scripture strike us when we have been asleep, telling us that the battle must begin right here. Do they not provoke some of us, unguarded as we may be, to put down our nets and to enlist in that strange struggle to which Christ calls us?
The early theologians, sometimes in remote and painful circumstances, provide an example of spiritual combat. Augustine, after his conversion, did not stay in Milan. He did not write his theological works in Rome. Instead, he returned to north Africa. And from there, one of the most learned men of his time, continues to teach us.
When I consider Augustine’s book, The Trinity, written in the dawn of the fifth century, I understand why those who have tried to define his views in succinct descriptions are so often defeated. I read and reread him, reaching for the meaning hidden in his words. There are depths that clearly remain beyond my understanding. Is it because his mind is so filled with an awareness of the profound reality and inexplicable mystery of the Trinity? Surely, but there is also something else. His work is shaped by a relentless concern to overcome his own preconceptions and spiritual weaknesses. And is that combat, witnesses to in almost every work that has prepared him for theology. It is such a victory that enables him to draw from his classical reading the ideas that he will address.
His writing still invites us, after all these years, to sense that theology like this calls us into something very powerful. Significant for us, he did not avoid the term “enigma.” Augustine drew near the end of his fifteenth book with these words, “So now let us bring this book to a close at last with a prayer in preference to an argument.” He had read so much, written so much, but what had most powerfully prepared him for combating the claims of the Roman Empire that his God was at fault for its fall, was his personal awareness of the Trinity. Here was unparalleled power. Here lies the preparation for combat with the “empire,” whether it lies within us, within our world or even within the church.[iv] The three paintings mentioned hint at the presence of an empire so unfathomable, so enigmatic that only Christ and his cross can ultimately bring victory. I found hints in so many places, beginning when I was in college, reading works that began to unveil “the valley of the damned.”
To study theology is to wake up to the liminal glances, the ones we might not see at first, which suggest transcendent dimensions. There could be more, the books, the art and primarily the personal experiences in our lives, used to sharpen the weapons of the mind. Preparing us to deal with enemies yet unseen. One might learn from Augustine’s early readings, in Cicero, Virgil, and Plotinus, and ask, “How has all that I have read, thought, and deeply experienced been molded into the armory of my mind?” In the end the role of conflict in the most profound theology really does matter. In it you could discover the “luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
Snow had gradually become a symbol for me of a world under siege. One winter evening I sat near the lectern where Robert Frost stood, watching him intently, listening to him read his poetry. It gradually came to mind that there could be more in these simple lines than I had thought, a beckoning, a suggesting, an interro-gation. Theology might not be far from the angst of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And here words and images come together, print and visual art, as they do for most of us. “Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though.”[v] Will he, whoever that might be, also come from “his house” in the village to look for us, within the snow-filled scenes of our lives? Perhaps this perturbing moment, reminiscent of Bruegel, Monet, Currier, and Ives, beckons us to consider that within the most subtle settings, when the snow is deep, when the magpie sits on the gate alone, when a trap waits for us, when we feel as frozen as statues, we still have faith that we know whose woods these are. Could it lead us toward those places, in which Christs meets us in what, with Frost, we might call “the darkest evening of our years?”
And then we join Augustine using his prayer as our own, “Before you lies my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other.” Augustine knew the one who had prepared him for combat with forces both material and spiritual. And as he concluded his book, he believed that God would bring to him both the reinforcement of his strength and the healing of his weakness. When it comes to us today, perhaps turning again to the words of Augustine, it is the “awareness,” as he put it, of the Trinity that prepare us for battles that no one has ever seen. It led him to prayer. Likewise, abandoning our assumptions and arguments, perhaps we will enter the opaque battles that lie ahead. We should never forget that it is with such chilled encounters that he has prepared us for combat with that which we have long tried to evade and never understood.
We should never assume that the convictions of theologians like Augustine came to them easily. To begin to think theologically is to accept an invitation to be opened by the beliefs that inspired them. But this can never be done lightly or casually. The minds of theologians like Augustine radiate wonders. They open the doors to the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the everlasting life. There is no intellectual invitation as great as the one they have left us.
And here is our own mystery. The books which we read, the art that caught our attention, and the experiences which have marked our lives can be the dust out of which God creates the theological adventure of our lives and an endless source of joy. An important dimension of the Resurrection of Christ and hence of the Trinity is that God thereby gives us a heart and mind that is intellectually alive. It is highly personal. Theology is entrusted to the church, as it draws on the wisdom that was given to it through the centuries. It is also, however, assigned to each of us. Here we have an invitation in which we become prepared for combat against all evil and empowered to seek the good. We will not ignore it.
[i] Bard Thompson, Humanists and Reformers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1969), 207.
[ii] Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: Harper; 1971/1984), 747.
[iii] Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 386.
[iv] Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 1991), 435f.
[v] Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951), 183.