Hopkins Lectures 2002

Hopkins and God - A View from Theology

James P. Mackey Professor (Emeritus) of Theology, University of Edinburgh

Mackey holds that Poets and artists are the unacknowledged legislators of the race. An artist, a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, servant and master of imagination, is the finest theologian.

Had I two hours rather than less than half-an-hour, I would broadcast three themes in order to prepare properly the ground for the few ideas I would wish to sow in your minds today, in the hope that these ideas might then enjoy the best conditions for bearing some fruit.

First, I would spread the thought that imagination is our prime heuristic faculty; and that the image, and more especially the symbol, and still more especially the metaphor (that drawing of images into those pregnant tensions that give birth to the most depth-sounding symbols); the image is the primary tool of that prime heuristic faculty, the imagination.

[An opening excursus of this kind, did time allow, would involve a lot of arid epistemological argument to the effect that our first and last way of coming to know ourselves and our world consists in the simultaneous openness to and construal of those images of reality which carry us beyond the factuality of a momentary snapshot to the potentialities always inherent in mutually interdependent minds and materials; an epistemology of vision, in short, in its suggestive ambiguity of what is seen and what has to be simultaneously envisaged; an epistemology which treats reason, itself imagined as a separate function and faculty, with its characteristically critical processes of analysis and synthesis, as a second-level, if sometimes - often? always? - necessary sifting of the truth value of the visions with which we must begin and would be wise to end.]

Some of what I would have to say on this first theme is sometimes in part at least acknowledged in any case, for example, by the one who said - who was it? - that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the race. But I would say more, and say it of all our artists. If only because someone else said, equally truly, that the law is an ass, and I would not want your highest accolade to rest upon your alleged prowess at designing donkeys, I would want to add that the artist, servant and master of imagination, is the first and finest theologian of the race.

Second, and in part explanation of that last claim, I would want to add the thought that imagination and its characteristic vision already encompasses the concept of revelation, and does so at any depth or height of reality we may care or dare to visit. To put the matter in the terms of Hopkins' own metaphysic and epistemology of instress/inscape: some power of being (perhaps what Dylan Thomas called 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower'?) that gives and sustains in everything its individually distinctive form or inscape (the primordial creative instance of instress), sees that inscape further in-form in the imagination of the one open to receiving it a corresponding inscape (a consequent revelatory instance of instress); but as this perceiver is conscious of the creative-evolutionary cooperation of all of these individual and mutually instressing inscapes, and most particularly of the perceiver's own cooperation with all these others, she construes and expresses as much as she merely receives these second in-formations or inscapes, and at her best publishes them primarily as art ( a concluding revelatory-creative instance of instress). In so far then as the primordial power-source of all formed entities in formation of a universe is identified as divine - and it is as the constantly operative energeia, operative in all forms of life and existence, that the god is always identified - the linked sequence of instress and inscape outlined just now yields the vision of the artist as the primary recipient, custodian and dispenser of the revelation of the divine, the unacknowledged theologian of the race.

Third, and in part development, part defence of that last point about revelation, art and theology, I must issue a caution concerning the word 'Otherness' in the conference title. The term, The Other, is much bandied about in continental philosophy and by its borrowers on these islands; and the presumption seems to be that everybody knows what is being talked about. So much so that, like talk of the emperor's clothes, we badly need the voice of the little child to pipe up and, whenever The Other is introduced with capital letters and solemn tones, to ask insistently, 'the other what?' For otherwise the presumption of meaning will be overtaken by the suspicion that mere mystification is afoot, and that analysts of The Other themselves quite literally don't know what they are talking about. Then this mystifying talk about Otherness is seized upon by those who want nothing to do with divinities, as a means of talking about mysterious dimensions of the universe, particularly in its personal dimensions; while it is equally welcome to religious folk who see it, much like The Absolute or The Infinite - also with capital letters and solemn tones - simply as a cover term for God. And finally, such religious talk about Otherness is often linked with talk about utterly supernatural transcendence, so that revelation of or from the divine is pictured as crossing occasionally and miraculously some infinite chasm; thereafter to be handed down as doctrine or dogma, with little or no prospect of people seeing the meaning or truth of it for themselves.

[The terms, Otherness and The Other, probably slipped over into philosophy from the cognate discipline of theology, where it is still often embellished and re-phrased as The Wholly Other; then glossed by references to infinite qualitative distance between God and creatures, linked with loose talk about utter transcendence, not the least of this looseness becoming evident in the apparent assumption that transcendence and immanence are contraries, whereas in fact they are corollaries (you can transcend whatever it is you wish to transcend, better from within than from without); all conspiring towards the overall impression of a god separated from our world by some infinite distance, crossing that chasm spasmodically and arbitrarily, first to create the world ( a reference now to a single act of putting the world in existence at the outset, rather than think of creation in terms of forming, in terms of a continuous process more in line with the linked stages or 'cleaves' of Hopkins' instressing), thereafter only crossing the chasm to admonish, punish, send down laws, redeem and resurrect, all occasional acts in favour of just one species in creation - us; all in the end resulting in an idea of divine revelation in which one instance of it is natural, in the sense that the very existence of the natural world makes us think that someone sometime must have put it there; and all the other instances supernatural, communicated by some miraculous means in order to fill in the details of the god's intentions for us humans and of the concrete course and condition of our destiny with the god. These special, miraculous divine revelations are then thought to be conveyed in the first instance to distinctive individuals or groups, thereafter to be spread by word of mouth to other members of the race. Further, different groups identify different discrete instances of claimed divine revelation as being definitive - the Jews the Mosaic revelation, the Christians the revelation that came in and with Jesus, Muslims Mohammed, Baha'is the Baha'ullah, and so on - and each one then tries to argue into submission or on occasion even to kill off the groups of believers who went before or came after.]

But there is another idea of revelation, and of divine revelation at that, which avoids the mystifying, absolutist images of otherness and transcendence-as-separation; an idea of divine revelation that is much more aligned with ideas of creation-as-continual-forming (deforming, reforming, transforming), and therefore much more aligned with the linked levels of Hopkins' instressing as a cosmic-encompassing, indeed cosmogenic process. The source-former, the ur-instressor, itself without particular form - else there would be a limit to its forming, and there appears not to be - fashions each individual thing; and as each in Hopkins' words 'deals out that being indoors each one dwells,' propagating its kind, and all mutually transforming each other in that interdependence by which each finds life and life more abundant at each other's expense, the source of all this pullulating, self-transcending life-forming, as it moves up the levels of inscape/instress to the poet's receptive spirit, results in the revelation of the cosmic form-er, ur-instressor, utterly immanent source of all this continuous transcendence, in and through the co-ordinated in-formations of all these individual things - 'myself it speaks and spells,' - and all together speak and spell the forming source of all. And it is all natural - in the Aristotelian sense of nature, physis, as form which has within itself the source of change, that is, of development and death and out of death new life.

The Christian Bible, incidentally, recognises the naturalness and immanent transcendence of this continuous creation-revelation. In the opening hymn of the Fourth Gospel, when speaking of the creator of the world, in the metaphor of the divine Word that took human form in the life, death and destiny of Jesus; then changing the metaphor from word to light; the text describes this fashioner and former of all things at all times as the light that enlightens everyone: the creative power revealing itself in all of creation at all times to all; and the same text further finds that power now so focussed in and through the common human nature of this individual man as to make his followers grasp for that elusive image of incarnation, in order to do justice at once to its individual existence and its universal reach. [The relation of individual to universal in Hopkins, following Duns Scotus, would take another talk.]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomism and St Thomas Aquinas
Saint Augustine and Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Nun Gertrude and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Horace and Gerard Manley Hopkins