Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Relationality, Impossibility, and the Experience of God in John Donne's Erotic Poetry

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Relationality, Impossibility, and the Experience of God in John Donne's Erotic Poetry

Article excerpt

How does theology name the experience of God in the context of human relationships-specifically, relationships of erotic love? While many contemporary theologians have focused on ways in which relational harmony mediates the experience of God, this article explores ways in which relational ambiguity mediates the experience of God. It suggests that the erotic verse of seventeenth-century poet and priest John Donne offers important resources in the search for ways to attend to divine disclosures within the absences and, impossibilities of erotic relationality. In-depth, constructive readings of two Donnean love poems ("The Good Morrow" and "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day") highlight eros's power to give rise to experiences of the hiddenness and revealedness of God with(in) the absence and presence of the beloved. With its close interplay of form and content, Donne's poetry enacts relational impossibility from within, thereby inviting interpreters into participatory understandings of eros's revelatory aporiae.


In a perceptive 2003 essay,1 Edward Russell questions the extent to which "relational" theological anthropologies speak adequately to the realities of human experience. While Russell commends relational theologians for challenging overly rationalistic and individualistic modem accounts of selfhood, he critiques their tendencies to overlook sin and suffering, idealize interpersonal encounter, and dismiss the boundaries of the self, Russell's argument could probably be summed up with the following indictment: relational theologies, on the whole, do not adequately take into account the role of negation in human life. The present essay begins with this basic critique, but takes it in a new, constructive direction. It tries to show that the poetry of seventeenth-century poet and Anglican priest John Donne may serve as a unique counterbalance to the idealizing impulses of much relational theological discourse.

What is meant by "relational theology"? Russell describes a relational theological anthropology as one in which "the self is construed primarily in relational categories - the person s relation to God, others, self and the world."2 Broadly speaking, then, a contemporary relational theological approach is one in which encounter functions as a central, organizing motif in Christian theological reflection. In such theologies - many of which are dubbed "postmodern" - interpersonal and communal relationships are often said to be revelatory of a relational, Trinitarian God of love in whose image humanity is created and in whose presence humanity dwells.

Russell argues compellingly that relational theological approaches to the doctrine of humanity inappropriately obscure sin, suffering, embodiment, and finitude. But it might also be noted that, on the whole, relational theologies tend to frame personal and communal encounter in terms of unity, wholeness, presence, and mutual joy, and to underplay elements of fragmentation, void, absence, and impossibility. The danger here is a facile, caricatured account of relationality that leaves little room for affirming the potential co-inherence of negation and revelation in interpersonal contexts. This threat is perhaps especially real for those treatments of eros in which sexual difference is said to imply an incompleteness, constitutive of the individual, which is overcome through the delightful, integrating, and whole-making communion of (hetero)sexuaj encounter.3

At first glance, it may seem that an effectual corrective here would be a robust discussion of the impossibility of the "tout autre" through analyses of the writings of such "apostles of the Impossible"4 as Jacques Derrida or Jean-Luc Marion. In this article, however, I try to show that a poetic route may prove helpful. Specifically, I suggest that the erotic verse of the early modern poet and preacher John Donne - for whom "theology . . . was erotic, and the erotic theological"5 - proves an invaluable resource in the search for creative, compelling ways to attend to divine disclosures within the ambiguities, absences, and impossibilities of erotic relationality. …

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