We had the chance to interview Robert Farrar Capon recently about his indirect approach to theology and his most recent work, Exit 36: A Fictional Chronicle.
Frederic Brussat: How did you first get interested in doing theology in an indirect form?
Robert Farrar Capon: I suppose mostly from preaching and teaching. At the present time I don't think you can offer theological truths to people in a straight or canned way. Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images. Most people, however, are literalists. Their education is so non-imaginative they are almost incapable of taking the images of Scripture and dealing with them. So what we have to do is provide sets of images for people so they can get in the habit of picking up theological truths by way of images.
Even the literal truths don't mean anything until you image them. For example, Jesus died on the cross. Now presumably everyone agrees that is a literal truth. But what does it mean? It doesn't mean anything until you decide that he was a victim or he was stupid or he was the Lamb of God or he was the sacrifice by which the world was reconciled — i.e. until you have images for the event. This is why we try to write in terms of imagery, to get our theology across in terms of parables. We assess it from the side rather than head-on because the head-on approach is really inadequate.
FB: Are there precedents in history for this style?
RC: The first precedent is the Bible itself. The Bible picks up images like the sacrifice of Isaac, the tree of life, the paschal lamb, the manna in the wilderness, and repeats them in different situations. By the time they have been used for the nth time, there is a great classic image. You can interpret Christ's death in terms of the paschal lamb, the Passover, the escape from Egypt, etc.
Someone in recent times who has used images in this way is C. S. Lewis, especially in his children's books where he makes some marvelous parallels to the theological situation of redemption through a fairy tale world. Certainly J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is the same type of thing. Christ himself taught in parables. He presented the analogue to the divine human situation in terms of a made-up situation, a story.
FB: Why did you decide to write theology via a novel?
RC: Even though everything else I've written has been parabolic and indirect to a degree, I wanted to try something different. Instead of only using classroom parabolas, I wanted to take a continuous fictional parabola and use it to explore death, judgment, and related issues. And it seemed appropriate to me after thinking about a number of priest suicides to use that situation which is habitually canned into simplistic questions — did the poor fellow have a minute to repent before he died? — and move from there into the whole business of death itself.
FB: Was it only natural that when you began to confront the mystery of death, you also got into the mystery of sex?
RC: I think so. Obviously in the Christian religion, the mystery of death is part and parcel of the mystery of reconciliation. And one of the biggest reconciled and unreconciled propositions is sexuality and interrelationship. Sex raises the issue of reconciliation immediately. And that is what the fiction form is good for. It gives you a proposition to work through.
Of course, the theological point of the book is that there is reconciliation in spite of failure. The main subject here is the priest suicide who has folded up his two failed relationships — with his mistress and with his wife. The narrator, also a priest, talks about salvaging the situation and gets four women — his wife, the suicide's wife, the suicide's mistress, and his friend Audrey — in on the act. But nothing is resolved, not in his mind or in his life. Things could go in any direction. The book deliberately leaves the characters in limbo as far as a resolution is concerned in order to stretch the point that the resolution comes from Christ and not from us. We really are saved by him. The thing is put right by him. The only thing we can possibly do is resist the reconciliation. We certainly can't cook it up on our own. That option is out.
FB: How would you compare the process of writing this book with your other work?
RC: It was very much like the exercise I used in my other books — taking two subjects and running them together. One subject here is obviously a theology of death and judgment and reconciliation that tries to concentrate all the weight of the theology on one life being held in Christ. It starts with that and then works in a narrative chronicle of a parish priest picking up the assorted hot potatoes of another priest who has committed suicide. And as the narrator finds himself getting emotionally and intellectually involved, he realizes that his involvement is not just one of the little meaningless accidents of life. It is his vocation to stand in the other guy's shoes — the shoes of the suicide — and as a different person reoffer what the first priest couldn't or didn't succeed in offering. The point is that the reconciliation works — Christ works in all of us — and consequently we do bear each other's burdens, quite apart from any logical connections.
FB: How do you think clergy will respond to the book?
RC: I think by and large they will find it fairly realistic. Perhaps lay people won't. In some places it's a bit raunchy and off the cuff. I suppose those who have a stereotypical image of the clergy will find it hard to swallow. But those clergy who are living up to the realities of their vocation do face the raunchiness of the world. And they probably also have a certain anger toward great parts of the theology by which so far we have been taught to reckon with the world. Yet underneath it all — a firm commitment to God. It really is a matter of sorting out a solid commitment to the passion of Jesus. That is the final guarantee: we will through his passion and death come to whatever it is he has to promise us called the resurrection. And above and beyond that, all is largely structured philosophy, the result of somebody else's labors, and you can get pretty fed up with it at any time.
The one thing I hope is that people don't think the priest narrator has lost his faith. That is not the point. This priest's faith is solid in the passion but he realizes that his faith liberates him to bellyache about practically everything else. And also to wander away and question the kinds of fast shuffles by which the Christian religion has been put out.
FB: Do you think the book inherits a twilight zone where the conservative church people will find it too wild and the liberal people will say it is a curious book with all its heavy theological input?
RC: That could very well be. That's what happens when you walk a tightrope. It will be interesting to see the reaction to the book. Although to me the theology really stands pretty much on its own feet, by the same token it is only brushed against. For a person who wants to read a novel, however, the theology may seem rather obtrusive; for a person who wants to read theology, the novel may be too obtrusive. It may make absolutely no one in America happy! But that's the way I decided to do it.
FB: It is interesting that you and John Updike have both in your latest works chosen to talk about adultery, although in different ways. Do you think the institutional church has done a valid job in confronting this issue?
RC: Well, in Exit 36 the issue is left squarely up in the air — namely, it may be the world's worst idea to condemn adultery, and it may be a reasonably good idea to condemn it. The book is about something beyond adultery. The book is really about all the things that lie beyond the derelictions of human beings. Adultery was simply picked out as a very convenient and recognizable dereliction. You could just as well use betrayal, watering stock, genocide, or anything else in order to set up a vivid situation to which reconciliation is the answer and for which there is no simple reconciliation.
FB: Tillich is gone. Bultmann is gone. Bonhoeffer is gone. In theology today, where are the giants?
RC: Many giants are discovered late. Kierkegaard was not a giant when he was writing; he didn't come into his heyday until the Forties and Fifties of this century. Teilhard de Chardin was not considered a giant while he was writing but we are now seeing his importance.
FB: How do you think we can best appropriate Teilhard de Chardin's theology for today?
RC: Well, the first thing about Teilhard de Chardin is that he was not a theologian. Nor was he even first of all a philosopher. He was a scientist, a paleontologist and a biologist. Hence, the imagery which he settled on was the omega point. He explored where the world is going from the point of view of how it looks from down here. Now the theologian approaches it from the other end, from the fact that he or she knows Christ — who in de Chardin's point of view is the end of the process — is also the intimate indweller of the process: the end is in the process right from the start.
I don't think there's much more we can do than play around with imagery. One of the keys is in the book I did just before this one called Hunting the Divine Fox. It dealt with our use of imagery. Most images of God are not invalid. The only mistake is to invalidate others in favor of a particular one. To say that God is transcendent is just great news. To say he's imminent is great news. The mischief comes only if you play them off against each other.
One of the simplest rules in theological imagery is this: if you don't like it the way it is, don't throw it out, reverse it. If you don't like the image of Christ's ascension into heaven because it might imply that Jesus is going away from us to sit with his Father while we suffer down here, reverse the image. Say that instead of Jesus going away from the world, the world is being drawn up into Jesus — which is said in the Scriptures anyway! Reverse the imagery and see if it fits better. And don't fuss so much about it. We will always use all the imagery unless we're stupid. The heretic is the person who refuses to use some of the imagery. The orthodox person is the one who is truly free because he keeps it all. He's even free to be contradictory with himself. That's my definition of orthodoxy and I think it is a good one. Orthodoxy is liberating. You don't make decisions between modes of consciousness and modes of perception — you take them all.
FB: Why hasn't more work been done with the huge reservoir of imagery in Scripture?
RC: I think a lot has been done. But we need to scare it up again. Often one image will drive out another. If you start with the image that the soul persists after death, that will conk out a tremendous amount of other imagery — the idea that you are risen right now, that you are sitting with Christ in heavenly places right now — all of which is said in Scripture. Images are very powerful and they often militate against each other to a degree. The essence of orthodoxy is letting every one of them have its full end, not letting others get in the way — no matter how uncomfortable it may be to keep two images going at once.
FB: Since Exit 36 focuses at least at the outset on suicide, do you have any personal reactions to the Van Dusens' suicide?
RC: It was so closely tied to euthanasia, it is really the least problematical type of suicide. There are so many good reasons for euthanasia. It doesn't raise the difficult questions of suicides riddled with guilt, suicides coming as the result of impossible situations, etc. The book does hint at one idea: even the most unreconciled suicide still is perilessly close to what Christianity holds up as the ideal — the offered death of Christ. And although a suicide may be a whacked-up offering: it still remains an offering.
FB: That's a pretty radical thing to say in terms of our traditional understanding of suicide, that suicides are people who have rejected God's gift of life.
RC: Yes, but it certainly is possible. I think everyone can conceive of suicides which are well offered. There are also demonic offerings. I don't think you can make a case for suicide any more than you can make a case for anything. Human acts all stand and fall on a full range of criteria by which you judge human acts. All you can conclude is that some suicides can be classified as elegant offered deaths and others as wicked offerings, perverse, nasty, mean things. Which is about all you can say about cooking dinner for people. Or throwing a party. It can be either glorious and gracious or wicked. As humans we have to recognize both possibilities.
What we have done in many cases is single out specific moral species — suicide, adultery, lying — and said that the species itself automatically determines the morality. And it doesn't. Now you can't make an instant wipe-off of a species either and say "all lies are ok, all adulteries are ok, all suicides are ok." Either approach — automatic approval or automatic disapproval — simply shirks our duty to face these things as human acts. It reduces them to mechanical parameters.
FB: What you seem to be talking about is a situation ethic that moves beyond our usual understanding of a situation ethic. You can't have a rigid categorizing of activities as good or bad, but at the same time you can't have a free-floating everything's-ok-if-it's-all-right-for-you attitude. So how do we distinguish between good and bad?
RC: The answer in the book is that it feels right. And that is really a crooked answer. But let's think about it. At one point the narrator is trying to decide whether to call on a gal who is obviously very attractive. He goes through all his options. Finally he realizes that his moral theology consists of two propositions. The first one is borrowed from Norman Mailer: if it feels right, it is right. The second is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the long run, we are not going to be saved by our morality because we never could be. The Law can tell us how far we are away from the truth but it can never save. We are saved by the passion. The fact that we have done "no-no's" doesn't really matter as much as the fact that our "no-no's" bring us into the passion of Christ.
FB: Do you see any reason for the re-emergence of interest in mysticism not only among college youth but also among theologians?
RC: I have one comment about it. Whatever mysticism is, it isn't the same thing as Christianity. It is a natural spiritual phenomenon that has occurred many times in the history of the world. And it is simply one more thing that needs to be saved. The ability of people to get in tune with God is not necessarily any more saving than the ability of some people to repair plumbing. Plumbing, carpentry, poetry, novel writing, politics, and mysticism are all human subjects. They are all equally capable of entering into glory. And they are all equally unable to save. The idea that mysticism is somehow a trapdoor into Jesus is not true. The ultimate Christian mystic — whoever he or she may be — still dies dead with no mystical experience left and is still reconciled and brought home by the death of Christ. I think it is very important that we not overrate the power of mysticism. Certainly we must never substitute it for what the Gospel is about. The crucifixion was not a mystical experience.
FB: And the mystery is a different thing altogether.
RC: Absolutely. Mystery is whatever it is that cropped out at the crucifixion and the resurrection. Mystery is the direct hand of God controlling, leading, guiding, and shaping the world.
FB: What is it in human nature that makes us want to tinker with the mystery, to try to put it all together ourselves?
RC: I suppose I'd have to say it is original sin — namely pride. Oddly enough we would rather have some salve for our own pride than the free gift of reconciliation. To see this, all you have to do is preach the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Both are stories of free grace. In the first, everyone ends up agreeing with the elder brother who's complaining about the prodigal getting a free ride, and in the second, everyone agrees with the people who have worked all day and are furious because the others are getting the same pay. No matter what we say, we don't want free grace. We don't want it for others and we don't want it for ourselves. It robs us of our last justification. We don't want the party, we want ourselves. A little kid is banished to his room during dinner for doing something wrong. Finally his father tells one of his sisters to go upstairs and tell him to come back down. But the kid doesn't come. He would rather sulk. To one degree or another the entire human race is like that. You could put the meaning of original sin this way: it's the perpetual dose of sulks. Given a choice we would rather sulk than rejoin the party. What we're really tending is not the party and not the fun and not the creation and not the whipped cream but something inside us which wants to be God.
FB: Many critics say that preaching is a dead art. Do you have any ideas on how we can freshen up our ability to communicate through preaching?
RC: For my money the best approach to both homeletics and apologetics is simply good Scriptural dogmatic theology that takes the images and plays with them. I don't know what in the world God literally did when Jesus died and rose — nobody does — but this is the classic image. You put into people's minds the image of the paschal lamb, the temple sacrifices, the suffering servant, the rejection of Israel, and on and on, and you hope that over a lifetime these images will shed light on each other. And somehow the mystery — which will always remain dark — will be reflected — at least one corner of its ear lobe — by these lights.
Anyone who thinks the task of the church is to provide some sort of literal information about the mystery of God is crazy. There is no literal information about the mystery of God. There are literal things to know — Jesus was born at a certain time, walked around, said a few things, did a few things. But those literal things themselves only point to the mystery. The mystery remains. So, as far as I'm concerned, Christian education at any level — for children or adults — is simply furnishing their minds with the images of the faith and then kicking those images around, stirring them up, and making them arc over at each other as life goes on. That's it.