The books in my head(er image) 3: Poetic Justice

This is the third in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique.

Since I arrived at Dartmouth for my undergraduate degree in what turned out to be English literature, I had assumed I would go on to do doctoral work. Beside the fact that I have always enjoyed school, and so more school seemed like something to be desired on its own merits, I have also always enjoyed teaching. As I learned more about research and the work of the academic, the PhD life grew in attraction. However, as mentioned in my post on The Limit’s of Critique, when the time came, I didn’t find the preoccupations of my chosen field to be very congenial to the questions that occupied my imagination, and so for that and other good reasons, I didn’t pursue what had been, more or less, a lifelong desire, despite being consumed with curiosity about questions like “how do stories work on people?” and “how do stories help us think about God?”

By the time I had begun entertaining the possibility of returning to school for doctoral studies, “because it would be fun” no longer seemed to be sufficient reason to put myself through the famously grueling work of getting a PhD. The intensely personal work of being a priest, as well as observing the material good being done by friends and loved ones had opened my eyes and my heart to questions of the value of the work we do. “Because I find this question fascinating” and even “because I can’t take my mind of this field of knowledge” were no longer sufficient grounds for dedicating year of my life to the work. Surely there is more good I could be doing, right?

My quandary was close cousin to the broader question being asked in the academy and beyond, namely “What good are the humanities?” Living and working in a part of the world that is enchanted and consumed by the potential for technology to solve many (all?) of the world’s problems, the value of such “soft” fields as literature, theology, and cultural studies are easy to dismiss as unnecessary luxuries. Less necessary, indeed, than Tesla sports-cars or wearable computers. (Are my prejudices showing?)

And so, despite feeling a deep desire to pursue the questions and interests that occupied my mind, I found myself needing to be able to say why my doctoral work would be of value beyond my own gratification. Martha Nussbaum helped me find the words.

A philosopher of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum also has an abiding interest in the power of art and literature to serve the cause of ethical formation. In Poetic Justice, she argues that the very act of reading invites the reader to see the world from the perspective of someone unlike themselves. This is the very act of empathy. Literature, then, can serve as a practice arena for developing our empathic faculties, and it can offer a point of concrete reflection on questions of difference and interpersonal conflict.

Literature, of course, can be used in the service of any kind of agenda, engendering empathy only with certain populations and promoting negative or even sentiments against others. However, Nussbaum argues, its capacity for promoting and fostering needed skills of empathy and fellow-feeling is likely unrivaled by other art forms. Narrative’s capacity to capture the temporal experience of human life and the interior experience of a variety of characters is certainly peculiarly strong. By learning to read deeply and critically, we are able to build out and learn the kind of value for difference on which a democracy depends for maintaining the sense of a common life.

What does any of this have to do with theology? Well, not necessarily much directly, except inasmuch as ethics and theology are always bound together. However, her steadfast and well-reasoned argument for the practical value of the study of stories and narrative art inspired me. Here was the framework I had been seeking to put words around the value of studying cultural artifacts and reflecting on them in ethical or indeed theological terms. For much of my ministry, I have considered it the role of the priest to help their people learn better how to read the world theologically, to discern in the shape of their own story how God is moving and how to join in that movement. Nussbaum’s articulation of the moral value of literature and the practical value in teaching people to read literature and the world more deeply has been vital in helping me to articulate why it is worth it to pursue this work: worth it to me, worth it to the church, worth it to the world.