In some ways, the term “religious essay” is an oxymoron, since “religious” is commonly used to suggest faithful devotion or orthodox certainty while as Graham Good suggests in The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (1988), the essay tends to explore “inconsistencies” rather than reinforce existing systems. Yet the essay, like much literature in the West, has deep roots in Christian tradition and practice. Although in “Über Form und Wesen des Essays” (“On the Nature and Form of the Essay”) in Die Seele und die Formen (1911; Soul and Form), Georg Lukács saw medieval German mystics as a source of the essay form, medieval writers drew on a tradition of confession, apology, and polemic begun by early Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions (wr. 397–98 CE), Augustine initiated a tradition of reflection on experience that placed the subjective “I” in a dynamic dialogue with both God and the reader.
Before the Reformation, that dialogue usually took place within a framework of doctrinal certainty, yet, in the 12th to 14th centuries, visionaries such as Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena affirmed the authority of subjective experience. Graham Good, like other critics, describes the essay using terms that reflect its roots in this tradition: it is concerned with “illumination” rather than with “the accumulation of knowledge,” it substitutes a subjective “configuration” of experience for the “figura” of a received system, and its structure is “provisional” rather than “providential.” While medieval mystical texts foreshadowed this emphasis on subjective vision, the essay genre came into being as the mystics’ world was passing away.
The Reformation provided later essayists with strong models of religious texts in the vernacular, including translations of Scripture, polemical treatises, and sermons.
Vernacular translations of the Bible, including Martin Luther’s (completed in 1534) and the English Authorized Version (1611) helped to produce the “plain style.” In Germany, Luther’s religious prose also made its mark. Works like Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (1520; The Freedom of a Christian) provided later writers with a model of a ruggedly plain style, which gained force from its use of popular idiom.
Perhaps the Reformation’s greatest gift to the essay and to religious prose was its elevation of the sermon to the center of religious life among Protestants and Dissenters.
In The English Sermon, 1550–1660 (1976) Martin Seymour-Smith notes that from 1550 to 1850 the sermon was “one of the main vehicles for current reflections about the way of the world,” exerting an important influence on prose, particularly in England. The word “sermon,” which comes from a Latin root meaning “talk” or “speech,” denotes a discourse, usually based on a text of Scripture, designed to present religious instruction or exhortation in oral form. Although from the 16th to the 19th centuries most sermons were written out, the fact that they were intended to be spoken shaped their length and rhetorical techniques. Like the essay, the sermon explores a limited subject, is relatively brief, and often is structured as an unfolding reflection on received tradition in the light of individual experience. The plain style coming into being at the end of the 17th century owes much to the ways sermons sought to communicate complex ideas in accessible language. In addition, while the sermon was an oral form, sermons were often printed and thus read by a wide audience. In the 16th century, the lucid prose of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Homilies (1547) and the carefully crafted sermons of Hugh Latimer, who, Seymour-Smith suggests, seemed to “invite his listeners casually into the ramifications of his mind,” were influential.
In the 17th century, the meditative tradition shaped both the sermon and the prose essay. In “Meditative Poetry” (1971), Louis L.Martz states that by the 17th century, European Christians had developed a widely accepted method of meditation as “interior drama” in which the individual examined himself or herself, engaged in a dialogue with God, and imaginatively re-created the scenes of Christ’s life. This tradition shaped the dramatic preaching of John Donne as well as his prose “meditations” and “devotions.”
Sir Thomas Browne embodied his attempt to sort out his beliefs in Religio Medici (1642) and in Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial (1658), ornate prose essays that delight in paradox and depict the believing writer as “that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live…in divided and distinguished worlds.” These words embody one of the central patterns enacted by religious essayists as they dramatized tensions in their experiences of faith and doubt in an increasingly rational and secular world.
Alongside the subjective drama of the meditative tradition, a number of other patterns developed during the 17th century. The sermons of Lancelot Andrewes contributed to the popularity of a witty, metaphysical style, ornate and linguistically playful, which is sometimes labeled “euphuistic.” In pamphlets such as Areopagitica (1644), John Milton forged a rhetoric of argument that is ordered yet imaginative, grounding his arguments equally in faith in a providential God and in the experience of the questing individual. In France, Jacques Benigne Bossuet’s sermons and prose writings created a polemic model that was balanced, dignified, and courteous, while clothing important ideas in simple language. While his fellow countryman Blaise Pascal is best known for the fragmentary Pensées (1670), his Lettres provinciales (1656–57; The Provincial Letters) exemplify another strategy for the religious essayist in his satirical dramatization of a plain
Frenchman’s questioning of a Jesuit official. The pattern of aphoristic and fragmentary reflection in the Pensées influenced many 20thcentury religious essayists.
In colonial America, existing patterns of meditation, spiritual autobiography, preaching, and polemic were reshaped by what Reverend Samuel Danforth called the “errand into the wilderness.” In “Religion and Literature” (1988), Lynn RossBryant notes that the Bible was a central literary model and suggests that the plain style’s reliance on “clear, concrete images” demanded that writers bring the details of their everyday experience in the New World into their prose. She also argues that the utopian aspirations of early religious settlers made the jeremiad an important pattern for American writers, since it not only examines the failures of the covenant people, but reasserts their providential relationship to God. This sense of providential mission is apparent in Increase Mather’s “An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences” (1684), which follows the format of a scientific treatise, suggesting that the language and prose strategies of the new sciences were already reshaping the way religious writers examined the evidence for their faith. Jonathan Edwards best exemplifies the resulting combination of observing intellect and mystical faith in the prose of his sermons, treatises, narratives, and reflections. The spiritual autobiography of his “Personal Narrative” (wr. 1739?–42?) and the visionary exposition of A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734) suggest two central patterns for North American religious writing.
By Edwards’ day, in England as well as in America, the plain style and the rational epistemology of the scientific era dominated religious discourse. While the sermon was still an important form, it had become increasingly plain and direct. In The English Sermon, 1650–1750 (1976) C.H.Sisson describes the sermon in the new style as “on the whole, shorter than the old; it made three good points and sent people home to their dinner. Above all, it said nothing that would strike sensible people as out of the way…”
At the same time, the burgeoning popular periodical press made the essay a major means of disseminating information and opinion. In the periodical presses, the essay began to replace the pamphlet as a means of public debate on religious issues, as is evidenced by the many responses to David Hume’s skeptical consideration of revelation and the supernatural in “On Miracles” (1748).
While many who saw their faith as endangered by rationalism and empiricism attempted to respond by using rational arguments and natural law analogies, another sort of religious essay flourished under the influence of writers like William Law. His A Serious Call to a Holy and Devout Life (1728) kept alive an affective, mystical, and pietistic approach to faith which flowered in the evangelical revivals later in the century.
This strain of religious writing favored confessional modes, emphasizing spiritual autobiography shaped by patterns of self-scrutiny, conversion and epiphany, and pilgrimage or spiritual quest.
Both skeptical demythologizing and spiritual pilgrimage were important 19th-century modes of dealing with issues of faith. By the 19th century, the essay had gained a cultural authority that enabled the essayist to assume the role of sage or prophet. Many 19thcentury essays stretch the boundaries of the genre by incorporating narrative and extending its length. In England, writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle sought to redefine received Christian tradition. From his “Religious Musings” (wr.1794–96) to Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge, who “never yet read even a Methodist’s ‘Experience in a Gospel Magazine’ without receiving instruction and amusement,” sought to create a tolerant faith grounded in experience, intuition, and process. In Sartor Resartus (1833–34) Carlyle combined the techniques of autobiography, novel, and essay to embody his sense of the need for a “natural supernaturalism” to counter the spiritually and morally deadening force of mechanistic views of the universe. In contributions to Tracts for the Times, which was published between 1833 and 1841, and in works like Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), John Henry Newman set another pattern, addressing questions of faith and belief in ways intended to restore confidence in religious orthodoxy. Newman’s learning, his elegant style, and his successful embodiment of his own motto, cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaking to heart), gained him a wide reading audience.
On the continent and in the United States, 19th-century religious writers used a variety of essay forms to explore their religious crises and to reshape the language of conviction for an increasingly skeptical world. In the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson combined the sage’s office with oratorical techniques in his Essays, First Series (1841) and Essays, Second Series (1844). In works like “The Divinity School Address,” “Self- Reliance,” and “The Oversoul,” Emerson rejected orthodoxy, redefining the sacred in terms of complete, honest personhood, harmony with the natural, and the spontaneous, oracular utterances of the “Orphic” voice. In Russia, Lev Tolstoi described the crisis which led him to reject orthodox religion in Ispoved’ (1884; A Confession) and went on to construct a gospel ethic stripped of supernaturalism in V chem moia vera? (1884; What I Believe). In Denmark, Søren Kierkegaard’s essays were both theologically and stylistically innovative, creating a genre of religious essay that combines theological reflection and imaginative construction in EntenEller (1843; Either/Or) and Stadier paa Livets Vej (1845; Stages on Life’s Way). He is one of the first writers to explore what he called the “existential” sense of man’s tragic situation in a universe that seems entirely at odds with man’s spirit.
The dilemma Kierkegaard named has been central for many zoth-century religious essayists. Albert Camus used the essay to explore philosophical and moral questions, creating a sort of theology without God. In Spain, Miguel de Unamuno’s essays, like his fiction, explore the tensions between reason and faith in the context of a strongly Catholic culture. In such works as Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (1913; The Tragic Sense of Life) he explored living in uncertainty.
The 20th century has also been rich in the work of writers who, like Newman, find it possible to embrace some sort of religious orthodoxy or supernatural religion. Early in the century, G.K.Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc both used the weapon of laughter to defend Roman Catholic orthodoxy. During and after World War II, English popular essayists C.S.Lewis and Dorothy L.Sayers created a vigorous Christian apologetic grounded in humor, reason, and the experience of everyday life. French essayists Simone Weil and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin responded to the challenges of skeptical science, social tyranny, and human need; their posthumously published works exerted a strong influence, particularly in America. Teilhard sought to recover the consciousness of the world as a”divine milieu,” while in works like Attente de Dieu (1950; Waiting for God), Weil embraced a faith grounded in identification with the suffering outsider. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in 1943, provided the model of a reasoned, devout, and deeply moral faith in his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison (1953).
For essayists in the Jewish tradition, the Holocaust has provided a literal and metaphorical crisis of faith which demands a theological answer. Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel, two notable writers in this tradition, attempt to synthesize Eastern European and Western experience and ideas. Heschel’s essays present the “pathos” of God in order to reinvent the ground on which 20th-century rationalists can meet the Divine. Wiesel explores the mystery of suffering in journalistic essays and fictional narratives that have earned him the label of “a modern Job.”
In the United States, the 20th century has seen a lively variety of writers on religious topics, with several patterns emerging. Thomas Merton and Henri J.M.Nouwen exemplify the revival of the contemplative tradition in essays that combine spiritual autobiography with moral and spiritual guidance. Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard have embodied a strong spiritual response to the natural world, coupled with a keen sense of moral responsibility, and, in Dillard’s case, a soaring, magical prose style. Frederick Buechner and Madeleine L’Engle have taken fresh looks at old spiritual paradigms, through the lens of the joys and pains of ordinary life. Walker Percy examined the malaise of modern life and diagnosed the need for a renewal of belief to fill the vacuum created by skepticism, technological advancement, and materialism. The sheer variety and energy of these voices suggest that the United States has remained open to belief, fulfilling the dream of another influential American essayist, William James, who declared in The Will to Believe (1897) that “Religious fermentation is always a symptom of the intellectual vigor of a society” and urged his readers in a pluralistic society to continue to take “the risk of belief.”
LINDA MILLS WOOLSEY
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