The first instance of religion encountering literature is Scripture, where revelation gives itself to us in an accessible form. We are rational animals with an ability to conceptualise thoughts, and formulate ideas. Scripture, as the philosopher Roger Scruton has said, came in a time when esteem was bestowed on writing, and contains a record of people’s encounter with the Divine. Socrates refused to have his ideas put down in writing, as he believed it would corrupt the spontaneity and vigour of language which relies on continual discourse. Scripture shows us another reality, in which the divine speaks to us through human hands, passed on in a language understood by humans across generations. Scruton adds that through the Bible we see what human life is like when the full light of the Lord is shining upon it.
Scripture shows us another reality, in which the divine speaks to us through human hands
Literature is a conveyor of meaning. We often speak of writers as being “inspired” in some sense, but by what and by whom is less often a topic of inquiry. Whenever literature touches upon truth, or points us towards it, it must to some degree be sharing in Divine truth. This is because truth cannot be divided, and yet it can be incomplete. One example of this is the Holy Father who in an interview spoke about the poetry of the German poet Hölderlin as “spiritually very enriching for me”. Although Hölderlin was not a prophet inspired by the Holy Spirit, his writing has the ability to touch our hearts and describe emotions or ideas which we have previously been unable to put into our own words. In other words, literature can help us to see ourselves and the world.
In some cases, the written word can have a direct impact on humans. One example is St Augustine of Hippo, who sat in his study while he heard a child’s voice repeat the words ‘tolle lege, tolle lege,’ which is Latin for ‘take up and read.’ He looked down on his desk and opened the Bible to Romans 13:13-14, stating, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”. This was the catalyst for his conversion. St Augustine then became one of the most famous and influential Christian authors in his own right, with his Confessions being one of the most common resources for spiritual reading in the Catholic tradition.
In some cases, the written word can have a direct impact on humans. One example is St Augustine of Hippo, who sat in his study while he heard a child’s voice repeat the words ‘tolle lege, tolle lege’
The form of literature can also illuminate, for it is not static, it is a constantly developing art form, where writers attempt to articulate some aspect of the world as they see it, and present it to the reader to cast judgement upon, step into, or engage with. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, Horace Engdahl, one of the members of the Nobel Committee for Literature, said: “What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature? Often it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the higher sense, and makes it mutate.” The essence of reality may be fixed, but how we explain it or speak about it can cast new light on the true essence hidden behind language. Hence, unlike Socrates, we see that literature ensures continued discourse across time. This, too, reminds us about Revelation which is fixed, yet the work of theologians is to find ways of expressing these fixed truths to their contemporary peers.
Yesterday, this year’s prize for literature was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar in 1948, for his “uncompromising and compassionate” explanation of the effects of colonialism and the life of refugees. The prize can at times seem highly controversial, as it was when it was awarded Bob Dylan, and sometimes the choice of winner appears to be politically motivated. But what defines literature? And what defines good literature? These are among the questions raised by distributing a prize such as the Nobel, and they show us the power and importance of literature. While it is common to see science as a means of understanding reality, we ought to engage seriously with literature as another tool for accessing reality which transcends physicality and tells us not only how, but also why and what we are.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a writer and philosopher based in London and Stockholm
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