"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 9, 2015

Michael Martin on Sophiology

If you know nothing else about twentieth-century Orthodox theology, you have at least likely heard that some shadow of suspicion lies over Sergius Bulgakov in particular and sophiology in general. A new book tackles many of these questions head-on, and bears an impressive roster of "blurbers" on the back: the Orthodox Andrew Louth and Antoine Arjakovsky; the Catholic Francesa Aran Murphy; and the Anglican ("Radical Orthodox") John Milbank, all endorsing Michael Martin's new book, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics (Angelico Press, 2015), 246pp. I asked Michael for an interview about this fascinating new book, and his very interesting life, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

MM: I grew up in working-class Detroit in a working-class family. I hold a Ph.D. in English from Wayne State University, specializing in early modern literature, especially religious literature. I have worked as a musician, bookseller, garden designer, Waldorf teacher (hence my interest in Rudolf Steiner), and for the last fourteen years as a scholar and professor. I am also a poet. I am married, a Byzantine Catholic, and I have nine children. My wife, Bonnie, and I run a small organic farm close to Ann Arbor.

       AD: What led to the writing of this book?

MM: I’ve been interested in sophiology since hearing about it twenty-five years ago when I first encountered the writing of Solovyov. While working on my dissertation (since published as Literature and the Encounter With God in Post-Reformation England) and writing chapters on Jane Lead and Henry and Thomas Vaughan, I realized what an important figure Jacob Boehme was to 17th century English religion and literature—especially his introduction of Sophia to religious awareness—and thought “somebody should write a book on that.” That “somebody” turned out to be me. Originally, I planned on sticking to seventeenth-century England—there is more work to be done on the topic with Thomas Traherne and the Cambridge Platonists, for instance—but John Riess of Angelico Press, who was then preparing my poetry collection, Meditations in Times of Wonder for publication, approached me about doing a book and I decided to do a book on sophiology more broadly conceived and from the 17th century to the present. It was a fun book to write.

AD: For nearly the last century, anything with the word "sophiology" in the title has tended to make Eastern (esp. Russian) Christians nervous thanks to the controversy around Bulgakov—a fact several of your reviewers note by variously calling your book "brave," "daring" and "controversial." Did you feel you were beginning under a shadow as it were—like someone presumed guilty until proven innocent? Or are we far enough away now from controversy that sophiology today no longer rings alarms for people (those who, rightly, you say indulge in the "inherently ugly" business of heresy hunting)? 

I didn’t feel I had anything to lose, but I did expect to be greeted with a hostile reception. My pastor, a wise and scholarly man, was the only person to look at any of the book before it came out—I showed him the first chapter and the chapter on the Russians. He thought much of them, but said, “Michael, my son, you’re going to make some people mad.” Looking at the history of sophiology, I’d say that goes with the territory.

I don’t know if we’re far from the controversy or not. My guess is that we aren’t. I’ve had a few scholars already question my investigation of this “heresy” (their words). I really don’t care. I really did feel called to write this book, so I trust in God and pray that good may come of it.

AD: What is it, in brief, about sophiology that it seems to have been such a magnet for misunderstanding and controversy?

Two things, I think. One: some people don’t like to think of Sophia as a divine person (the “fourth hypostasis” anxiety). Two: the issue of gender. Now, despite what John Milbank has suggested, I am no feminist theologian. But I really don’t understand why some theologians get so freaked out when someone suggests that we take the feminine Wisdom figure of Proverbs and the other Wisdom books as feminine and not as code for “Logos.” Last night I was reading Augustine: On the Trinity—the Father as lover, the Son as beloved, and the Spirit as the love between them. That may be a nice way to put it, but Sophia is missing from the picture and would give it a more accurate, gendered typology with real applications in our current cultural situation—and I am NOT saying we need to add Sophia to the Trinity, just that we need to think about gender (and how God works) differently when it comes to theology. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Augustine—we even named one of our children after him—but classical culture was all about the dudes. As I argue in my book’s conclusion, despite/due to feminism, gender difference has been rendered almost inconsequential and even changeable. How’s that for heresy? A sophiological approach could restore some balance and common sense to some aspects of theology, not to mention philosophy and culture.

        AD: Give us your brief sketch of how you understand sophiology and why it is so important.

I understand sophiology as a poetic intuition, primarily, as a way of perceiving. In this, it has much in common with phenomenology, for both are grounded in contemplation. For one, contemplation is one way in which Sophia—the Wisdom of God—is disclosed, is seen as shining through the phenomenal world (von Balthasar’s notion of “splendor” is a great help in this regard). This can happen through the natural world, through the arts, through liturgy, through another person.

Sophiology is important because it offers a way to bring reverence to scientific modes of inquiry and return beauty to the lexicons of both art and theology. Sophiology asks us to be attentive to the possibility of God’s presence in the phenomenal world, in history, in the human person, and in the cosmos.

 AD: Your first chapter draws on a vast and very impressive array of people ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, philosophical and theological. But what I truly did not expect to find was a disquisition on genetically modified organisms! Tell us how you see the links in Western theological developments, Eastern ressourcement, and GMOs.

Well…rationality is not always a good thing, for one. I trace the problem from the nominalist/realist debates of the Middle Ages to natura pura with early modern Neo-Scholasticism to scientific materialism to our current, postmodern nominalist cultural milieu. Sophiology—at least since Boehme—has been pushing against this trend.

My interest in the GMO issue is connected to my understanding of farming. But the GMO issue, as well as transhumanism and the postmodern dismissal of gender as a reality, all lead back to nominalism. For a postmodern nominalist, GMO corn, for instance, maybe not genetically be corn. The postmodern nominalist attitude is, basically, “So what? ‘Corn’ is just a name.” Same with the human person: “gender is culturally determined.” There is something, and I don’t mean this metaphorically, inherently demonic about such language. Sophiology pushes against this extreme violence and, like phenomenology and ressourcement, returns “to the things themselves” in order to reset our notions of the real against what is clearly a disordered state of affairs.

AD: Your fourth chapter treats the "noble failure of romanticism." What was noble about it, and why was it a failure?

What was noble about it was that the Romantics at least tried to come to what I would call a religious intuition in their rejection of the Enlightenment. It failed because it wasn’t grounded in the historical Church and tried to realize that essentially religious intuition on its own. I greatly admire their attempt to find the good at the center of the world. But you can’t find it without Jesus. This is why, for me, of all the Romantics, Novalis comes closest. He sensed, even more than Goethe, the importance of the Church to this seeking. Had he lived (he died—on the feast of the Annunciation, incidentally—before he turned thirty), he may have made it a reality.

      AD:  In that chapter, Goethe features prominently. What role do you see for him in sophiology?

For me, Goethe’s great contribution is in introducing the concept of “reverence” into scientific inquiry. His phenomenology is itself a kind of sophiology, attentive to presence, beauty, and “things as they are.” He was suspicious of ideology, especially scientific ideology, and such an attitude is truly helpful for beholding and comprehending that which is before one. And the end Faust, part 2—when the Mater Gloriosa rescues Faust from damnation—is some of the most beautiful sophiology/Mariology I’ve read.

AD: Your conclusion notes that a "complete sophiology has yet to be realized" in part because of attempts to turn it into theology or doctrine. If it is not those latter two things, or part of them, what is it? How would you characterize it? What is its "genre" if you will?

I think it could be part of them, but I wonder if academic theology would be welcome to such an idea. I doubt it, frankly. Academia, in my experience, is a pretty politically-charged work environment generally hostile to new ideas.

What I am envisioning for a “complete sophiology” is probably far too idealistic, but here goes: I think it would include a complete teardown of our current secularist worldview—a worldview that, as you know, almost totally permeates Catholic higher education. The kind of sophiology I envision is one that integrates science, art, and religion. I think this idea is beautifully manifested in Henry Vaughan’s poetry wherein God, the natural world, and poetry are united in a fully integrated whole. So, maybe it is best to say that such an idea probably couldn’t be realized in the academy. But it could happen in the context of a community (or communities).

Sophiology’s genre, as I argue in the book, is poetic. But I am thinking of “poetic” here as a way of perceiving, not necessarily as a form of writing. For me, like liturgy, a farm or a scientific discovery can be every bit as poetic as a poem. I follow Heidegger in that way:
“All reflective thinking is poetic, and all poetry in turn is a kind of thinking.”

             AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and who should read it.

I hope the book can help reset the conversation about sophiology, for one. For another, I hope it can offer people a way to rethink our relationship to the created world and culture, the Church and the cosmos. I also hope it can encourage some people to interrogate the Enlightenment/scientific materialist assumptions about knowledge of the world that our culture has interiorized to such an alarming (if, for the most part, unconscious) degree.

Though I am an academic, I didn’t write the book only for my peers. I wrote it for people interested in religious ideas, in ideas about what is most important in human life. In a way, I think I had my eldest son and people of his age in mind when I wrote the book. He’s twenty-five and I know how people at that time of life are trying to find meaning in the world and are often turned off (or away) from the religious discourses or communities available to them. Beauty has a way of speaking to them directly and drawing them more effectively to the Church than hours and hours of (often) sterile apologetics. Sophiology, if nothing else, is engaged with beauty.

AD: Having finished this book, what projects are you at work on now?

First, I have been trying to finish an article on the Catholic specters in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Nicholas Ferrar’s community at Little Gidding. I am also preparing a sophiology casebook which will consist of about 120 pages of primary source material (Boehme, Jane Lead, Goethe, Solovyov, Bulgakov, and so forth), 75 pages of poetry (Blok, Novalis, Hopkins, Merton, etc.), and 7 or 8 critical essays. This summer, I hope to work on some new poetry and then get to a book on poetics. I also have a garden to plant, some goats to milk, and a few beehives to shepherd.

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