Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Nathan Scott and Postmodern Testimony

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Nathan Scott and Postmodern Testimony

Article excerpt

The life and work of Nathan A. Scott, Jr., has by now been rightly memorialized by the discipline to which he contributed so much. I share with others the sense that Scott's work not only showed me the value of grace and style but also transformed my thinking about civility in public life and the lasting value of literary texts on the human spirit. Yet, I think it important also to recall an aspect of Scott's work that has been consistently overshadowed by his early efforts in theology and literature. While clearly regarded as a vigorous intellectual and wide reader, Scott is often remembered for his work correlating Paul Tillich's theology with Modern literature. Scott's early period may in fact be described as the programmatic search for a rationale that would allow literary texts to make theological claims on those who read and write them. In the search for this strategy, Tillich proved very helpful, and a recent article by Terry Wright demonstrates that this remains the widely held view of Scott's legacy. For Wright, Scott deals with modernity, whose qualities Wright sees as the emergence of large scales of industry, the megalopolis, and the public disappearance of God, through a basic appeal to theory. In this case, the theory was the version of existentialism offered by Tillich's theology and of which perhaps the most important tenant was that all cultural objects embody a religious response to the dilemma of human finitude (11). Wright finds, with Wesley Kort whose criticism he references, that Scott was never able to move beyond basic modern suppositions like the stability of the self, the sense of crisis at the center of human experience, and the notion that there is a stable, shared reality on which literature can reflect (12). (1) More than this, Scott remains certain that an ultimate reality can be known and discussed through language whose formulations can be enshrined as canonical literary forms free from indeterminacy.

Wright's classification of Scott as a modernist indicates that Scott was working with now outmoded assumptions and techniques. (2) It reflects the traditional critical reception of Scott as a Tillichian theologian of culture, a theology which might be seen as itself "modern" in its monolithic and static notions of culture as well as ultimate concern (11). (3) It is certainly well known that Scott's first volumes invite this comparison. He explicitly cites Tillich's method of correlation as his governing rationale in Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier (ix). Likewise, his effort in The Broken Center to determine the literary and existential "style" of the modern period clearly references Tillich's use of that term in the first volume of the Systematic Theology. Similarly, both volumes demonstrate the basic Tillichian stance that artistic works have as their ground the ultimate concern best described by Christianity--though writers may not yet recognize it. Indeed, Scott's analysis of tragedy and comedy in The Broken Center are high points of his Christian poetic grounded in Tillich's method of correlation.

I have trouble, however, identifying Scott as one trapped within a strictly modernist worldview because I think the work of the second half of his career moved past a Tillichian foundation to address the very climate in which interpretation of literature and religion occurs. I do not think it accurate to say that this latter period of Scott's falls neatly into the modernist trap of identifying literature as simply a less accurate version of the ultimate truth disclosed by theology. In such a classification Scott appears unable to appreciate two basic distinctions set out by Robert Scholes in his MLA presidential address. The first one indicates that the humanities differ from religion because they understand human beings in relationship to one another and their world rather than in relation to God. The second recognizes that these goals mean that literature and the arts do not necessarily lead us to virtue or absolute truth. …

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