Forty-five years ago in a college English class, the professor was talking about literary genius. To illustrate a point, he told us about the poet John Keats's notion of "negative capability," which Keats had described in a letter to his brothers George and Tom: "at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason …"
A student asked the professor for an example of the opposite of negative capability. The professor answered without hesitation: "Religious beliefs." He smiled. It was 1967, and we all knew that religion was fading away.
A lot has changed in the years since that classroom discussion. English professors don't talk so much about genius nowadays, let alone Men of Achievement. Religion, it turns out, hasn't faded away. But misconceptions about faith persist—especially the notion that religious belief functions primarily as a refuge for people who are desperately trying to escape from reality, from the dazzling and sometimes unsettling multiplicity of human existence, from uncertainty and change.
In The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (Thomas Nelson), Joseph Loconte gives a very different account of Christian faith—not at all contemptuous of "fact and reason" but grounded in mystery, holding opposing truths in tension, alert to the limits of our knowledge but unhesitatingly affirming the hope that we share. This is a good book to give to someone who is looking at faith from the outside, but it will also be helpful to believers who have been led to expect tidy answers and neat resolutions and have come up hard against disappointment, absurdity, and loss.
Loconte, who teaches at the King's College in New York City, is best known for his commentary on foreign affairs and public policy, published over the years in The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and many other outlets. He is a tough-minded observer, as you might gather from the title of a book he edited several years ago, The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm, wherein he gathered pieces written by Christian leaders who argued against the United States' involvement in the "European war" and juxtaposed them with pieces by Reinhold Niebuhr and others calling for the United States to engage.
Grappling with Mystery
The Searchers is a very different proposition. Here, Loconte's point of departure is one of the most striking passages in the Gospels, the conversation on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), quoted in full at the outset. From this episode, several recurring themes in the book unfold. The two followers of Jesus walking together toward Emmaus—disheartened by his death on the cross, hopeful yet confused by reports that he is alive—stand for all of us, grappling with a world in which so much is clearly awry. Loconte is uncompromising in his accounts of the ways in which faith itself is so often perverted, from the tortures of the Inquisition to the deadly toll of Islamic radicals.
Then there is that striking detail in the Emmaus story: When Jesus joined the two men, walking and talking with them, "they were kept from recognizing him." What? The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, behaving like a … trickster? If that offends you, you'd better close your Bible and enroll in a seminar where you'll read learned thinkers deciding what God can and cannot do.
But God isn't bound by our expectations. "Perhaps Pascal got closest to the truth of the thing," Loconte writes, "closer than either the scientific skeptics or the religious dogmatists: 'What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a hidden God,' he wrote. 'Everything bears this stamp.'"
The presence of a hidden God: talk about negative capability! But if God only rarely manifests himself "with a flash of light or a Voice from Heaven" (as he evidently did, in time, to Pascal), he is not indifferent. Tweaking a phrase from Sally Lloyd-Jones's Jesus Storybook Bible, Loconte speaks of "God's Secret Rescue Mission," which can also be described (and here he acknowledges Dallas Willard's inspiration) as the "divine conspiracy."
More negative capability! A divine conspiracy Such anthropomorphic fantasies are unworthy of a God suitable for modern minds, are they not You can imagine those fastidious thinkers we met earlier adjusting their ties and pursing their lips. But there's worse—much worse, from their point of view—to come. You may have wondered about the title of Loconte's book. If you are a movie lover, his title probably made you think of John Ford's 1956 Western starring John Wayne. If so, you're on the right wavelength.
Loconte's title has a double meaning. We are the searchers, looking for home, looking for some kind of order in the apparent chaos of our lives and in the history of our species. But the triune God is also searching for us, the way John Wayne's Ethan Edwards searches relentlessly for his niece Debbie, who was taken by Comanches after they murdered the rest of her family and burnt the ranch to the ground.
No, we're not to think of God as John Wayne somehow magnified. That would be silly and blasphemous at once, a bad combination. But the "God of Jesus, as we are led to believe from the Bible, is something like this—fearsome and yet forgiving, a God who does not rest until he recovers those who have lost their way." And yet "we are still left with the mystery" of his presence in our lives, the presence of a hidden God. That's the divine conspiracy. Jesus is the Rescuer.
"Why might God work this way? Why doesn't he just announce himself and get on with his agenda?" Perhaps, Loconte suggests, because he refuses to coerce us. Ultimately, though, we can't answer such questions. We're left, again, with mystery—not a secret for initiates only but rather an irreducible fact of our common condition.
"Mystery" doesn't mean we are left in the dark. Remember the last paradoxical twist of that pensée from Pascal "Everything bears this stamp"—the stamp, that is, of a hidden God. Loconte quotes a wonderful passage from C. S. Lewis, often quoted but worth hearing yet again: "Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off … is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation."
We have glimpses, hints, foretastes of a new heaven and a new earth every day—in the flash of a bluebird's wing, in a fleeting song, in the Eucharist. In this new home, Loconte writes, we will "see the face of the hidden God and … walk with him as a man walks with his friend."
One caveat: Talk about mystery and paradox can easily morph into yet another way of putting God into a box. You can write a book explaining why God utterly exceeds our grasp—and by the time you're done, you may be feeling pretty smug. Then your dear friend and fellow believer comes along: "What's all this about a 'hidden God'? He's not hidden at all!" Your friend isn't angry—just baffled. And he has a point, doesn't he? The hidden God—that trickster!—is right in your face as well as in your heart. He wants to know what you've done lately for his kingdom. The problem, in this instance, isn't an excess of mystery: it's an uncomfortable clarity. Someone is thirsty. (Remember who said, "I thirst"?) You'd better bring a cup of water. The Lord of Negative Capability said so.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.
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