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Religion and Literature: The Second Stage

David H. Hesla
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Vol. 46, No. 2 (Jun., 1978), pp. 181-192
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1462220
Page Count: 12
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Religion and Literature: The Second Stage
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Abstract

For several years I have sensed a lack of direction in my work in the field of "Literature and Theology," and have intuited a similar lack among some of my colleagues. In an effort to understand the reason for this I review the history of the field. Although there was a certain amount of interest in the interrelations of theology and literature prior to the decade of the 1950s it was not until that decade that the interest began to take cognizable shape, notably at Chicago and Drew. At about the same time the hegemony of Church Theology (Barth, Brunner) was being challenged by Apologetic Theology (Bultmann, Tillich). The latter found existential philosophy a useful tool, and insisted that theology should be dialogical, involved, and above all "relevant." During the same decade literary criticism was developing into an academic discipline. Under the influence of the New Criticism, and in controversy with both literary historians and neopositivists, the "new apologists for poetry" maintained that poetry was "organic" and "autonomous." The poetic context was "sealed and sovereign" (Krieger). The aesthetic value of autonomy was therefore in direct conflict with the theological value of relevance. In the "first stage" of Religion and Literature it was necessary for theologians to demonstrate that the doctrine of the autonomy of poetry was inadequate, and to show that poetry had existential, religious, and theological meanings and dimensions. By the middle of the sixties and certainly by 1970 it was obpious that the theologians had made their case, and that their value-relevance-had successfully challenged the poetic value-autonomy. It was exactly the success of the theological effort, however, which left me (and some of my colleagues) with the sense that there was nothing left for us to do. This sense is unfounded, however. The success of the first stage means rather that we no longer need to apologize for our interests in the interrelations of literature and theology, and we no longer need to be "relevant." In this "second stage" of the field we are free to pursue our interests in any way we see fit. Three areas of study seem especially promising: the religious dimensions of non-Western literature; the religious significance of popular culture; and the importance of religion as a cultural factor in literary history and biography. In this new stage we shall hear less of "literature and theology" and "literature and Christianity" and more of "literature and religion." And as the enterprise was sustained in the first stage by existential philosophy, it will be sustained in the second by the methods and language of the social and behavioral sciences.

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