Facing The Darkness: Towards a Gothic Theology

'The Abbey in the Oakwood,' Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10).
'The Abbey in the Oakwood,' Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10).

‘The Abbey in the Oakwood,’ Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10).

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to welcome Jon Greenaway, a PhD Candidate from Manchester Metropolitan University working on Gothic theology, to the Transpositions team. This is his first post as a Regular Contributor in a series on Gothic theology.

The Gothic has been an unusually productive field for scholars as of late and has seen a similar boom in popular culture as well. With TV shows like Hannibal, Dexter and American Horror Story all proving exceptionally successful, the rise in cultural representations of the horrific seems to suggest that our collective interest in the darker side of the imagination has never been higher.

As a term whose meaning has come to signal a certain foreboding aesthetic as well as its own discursive field of inquiry, the Gothic in all of its ominousness has begun to find its place in the Academy as well. But what of theology?

Given the common dismissal of the Gothic as a morally questionable area, a cultural mode best suited for “the trash of the circulating libraries” in Coleridge’s memorable phrase, it may seem odd to posit the Gothic as a discursive field well overdue for theological examination. [1]

As a cultural and literary form, the Gothic emerges in the same historical era as British Romanticism and thus amidst a time of great philosophical and literary change. In a philosophical landscape irrevocably shifted by Kant’s work, philosophers and writers in both Britain and Germany were seeking new ways of articulating the relations between man, nature and their Creator. In practice, what this entailed was the assimilation of Christian language and thought into areas traditionally considered secular.

Perhaps nowhere else is this convergence of the “secular” with the spiritual more clearly sighted than within the poetry of the time. It is here that we see language once primarily linked to worship, the sacraments, and divine revelation spreading rapidly into the unregulated realms of nature. And so just as Milton sought to “assert Eternal Providence, And justifie the wayes of God to men,” [2] Britain’s national poet of the time, William Wordsworth, took up the poetic mantle of his predecessor in order to re-examine the essence of man and his place within nature.

Wordsworth, like many of his contemporaries, saw a new kind of man emerging: one transcendent, reunited through creation to his Creator. Drawing on the Neo-Platonism of Christian history and the philosophical writing of the time (particularly Kant, Schiller, Fichte and of course, Hegel) the Romantics constructed an elegant and complex new theo-literature that explored the potential for man’s salvation and transcendence with the powerful addition of modern reason and sensibility.

But what of those who are not saved? What of those who do not find a place in the new utopian philosophies and writing of the early 1800s? It is from this question that a critical methodology for reading the Gothic theologically can begin to be constructed.

For it is concurrent with the rise of a theologically literate and spiritually sensitive writing that a wave of Gothic writing uniquely interested in monstrosity, evil and the failure of the Romantic Imagination begins to surface. Far from seeing the progress of the new man of the 1800s as an upward journey towards a redemptive unity with both creation and its Creator, the Gothic perspective unearths the unresolved tensions of the Romantic literature, philosophy and aesthetics of the time.

The Gothic perspective is thus the more philosophically cynical flipside to the transcendentally informed Romanticism of poets like Wordsworth. As such, it becomes the means of questioning and subverting various theological ideas.

In the course of the next few posts I will examine the substance of this Gothic perspective, its critique of spiritual or theo-literature, and the possibilities it offers for addressing, both creatively and theologically, the issues of evil, the fall, and of course, the monster.

Jon Greenaway is a PhD Candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University where he is working on Gothic theology. 


[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, “Review of ‘The Monk’ by Matthew Lewis,” The Critical Review (London, November 1794).
[2] Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 25-26. Accessed here: http://www.paradiselost.org/8-Search-All.html.

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3 Comments

  • Christopher R. Brewer says:

    Jon, I was reading W. Desmond today and thought of you and your post. He asks: “And further: why should only the faces of beauty show the divine, and not the faces of the repulsive? Startling us, sometimes monstrous faces seem truer masks of the divine, for even in the revulsion they call forth a reckless consent. The divine is there in the grotesque, disproportionate to our sense of finite harmony, shattering the concord of our finite measure of love. There is excess to the repulsive we cannot stand, but the ultimate stands with the monstrous too, and we must look at the monstrous differently to be with the ultimate differently. We need agapeic beholding of the beauty in the ugly, the eyes of God in the scabby countenance.” (William Desmond, God and the Between, 197.) Reading this I couldn’t help but think of D. Brown’s discussion of “Ugly and Wasted” in his God and Grace of Body, 185ff., and perhaps even his more recent essay on finding God in evil. Food for thought …

    • Jon Greenaway says:

      Chris,

      It’s encouraging to me to see this kind of thing from theological writers – the idea of the monster as a transcendent “other” is a powerful one, though there are few who have explored the positivity of the monster (Alison Milbank being someone who springs to mind)

      This is great stuff and thanks for giving me 2 new books to check out!

      Jon

      • Christopher R. Brewer says:

        Sure thing, and though Desmond is a philosopher (rather than a theological writer), he’s well-liked by the RO crowd including, by the way, Alison’s husband, John. If you do decide to read Desmond, I’d recommend starting with Simpson’s reader.

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