Ronald F. Thiemann, The Humble Sublime: Secularity and the Politics of Belief

[1] Ronald F. Thiemann died of pancreatic cancer November 29, 2012, at the age of 66.  The Humble Sublime, accepted for publication on the day of his funeral, was published November 30, 2013.  It includes a brief but rich factual biography composed by four of his Harvard colleagues.  In the Foreword, his daughter, Laura Theimann Scales, adds further biographical insights and honors his determination to complete this book (ten years in the planning) under what he himself termed “the deadline of mortality,” with valor “in the midst of grief at the cruel march of his disease” (xiii).  From her vantage point in the Department of English at Stonehill College, she writes hopefully of the value of her father’s work for literary studies, while also noting, “Although this book represents the wide scope of his literary and cultural interests, it is nevertheless deeply informed by his Lutheranism, and he writes, more so than in his other books, self-consciously as a Lutheran theologian” (xi).

[2] After Thiemann’s own eight-page introduction, the book opens with a chapter titled “Sacramental Realism: The Humble Sublime.”  Within the conceptual framework established there, he then devotes a chapter each (chapters 2 through 5) to four literary writers whose works, in his view, exemplify sacramental realism: Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), George Orwell (1903-1950), and Albert Camus (1913-1960).  His introductory remarks suggest that he viewed chapter 5 as the concluding chapter, noting that that chapter is constructed “so as to bring together again the literary and the theological at the end of the book” (5).  The published volume, however, includes a sixth chapter, “Conclusion,” written by Mara Willard (Boston College) and Paul Dafydd Jones (University of Virginia), two of his former doctoral students.  The book thus ends as it opens—with the living who remember and pay tribute.

[3] Thiemann’s adversary in the book is contemporary philosopher and cultural analyst Charles Taylor.  Thiemann’s analysis of what is commonly called “the secular” is very different from Taylor’s narrative of disenchantment, and his more generous “post-secular” assessment arises from a deep (and deeply Lutheran) objection to Taylor’s genealogy of the modern Western “social imaginary” (Taylor’s term for any cultural constellation of fundamental, unexamined beliefs about reality).

[4] Even as early as Sources of the Self, Taylor argued that “the reformers’ doctrine of salvation by grace alone rejects any notion of mediating between the sacred and profane” (19) and thus sets in motion the denial of the sacred that leaves modernity with an impoverished sense of reality and a denuded conception of the self.[1]  Thiemann thinks Taylor’s position is only “slightly more nuanced” (19) in A Secular Age where Taylor pointedly asserts that “all branches of Reform push toward disenchantment” and “the eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith.”[2]  Thiemann affirms Taylor’s argument that “a fundamental shift in Western culture begins earlier than the Reformation with the aesthetic, political, and spiritual changes that take place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (21), but he faults Taylor for “caricaturing” and “trivializing” the intention and influence of the mendicant friars (24) whose ministry and devotion, according to Taylor, initiated the desacralizing process that would eventually completely separate the human (or natural) from the divine.  Luther, of course, was, in Taylor’s view, even more to blame than the Augustinian friars.  Against Taylor’s description of the reformers’ theology as anti-sacramental and “excarnational” (rather than incarnational), Thiemann affirms that “Luther’s Christology and his Eucharistic theology function . . . to ‘sacralize’ the everyday” (31).  Thiemann forcefully argues that Luther did not abolish the sacramental; rather, he radically changed our understanding of it.  Thiemann suggests that whereas Taylor subscribes to a kind of supernaturalist dualism (“transcendence for Taylor requires a separate spiritual sphere, one clearly demarcated from the worldly context within which most Christians—both lay and clerical—live their lives” [28]), Luther subscribes to a truly “incarnational logic” that “resists a simple separation of divine and human, spirit and flesh, sacred and secular by focusing on the deep interpenetration of those apparent opposites” (41).  Far from evacuating a putatively autonomous world of God and God’s grace by subverting the sacramental church as an alternative source of hope in a dark world, Luther embeds God in the very darkness of the mundane.  Luther is a realist, and his realism is sacramental.  The reality we know—unsentimentalized, ragged, ambiguous, and riven with waste, suffering, and loss—bears always and everywhere the “traces” of divine grace sub contrario, where we are least likely to look for it:

“If God can bring life out of death, if God can turn an instrument of political execution into a means of salvation, if God can turn disciples’ sorrow into joy by becoming known ‘in the breaking of the bread,’ then the believer can look into the face of evil and still see the redeeming grace of a merciful God.  Through faith, believers’ eyes are opened to see what is hidden in the ordinary events of everyday life, even when that life is shot through with suffering, death, and destruction.  The ability not to look aside from suffering but to see within it a hidden grace, a secret mercy, or an arcane truth—this is the wisdom of sacramental realism.” [37-38]

In developing his alternative to Taylor, Thiemann’s conceptual allies are Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), who along with Luther is pivotal to Thiemann’s treatment of “sacramental realism” in chapter 1, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who Thiemann incorporates into his last chapter to consolidate his arguments about both the grace-bearing character of the ordinary world and the ethics of responsibility.

[5] Auerbach, a Jewish German philologist and literary critic who was dismissed from his position at Marburg in 1936, is best known for his extraordinarily influential 1946 book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.[3]  From the argument of Mimesis, Thiemann derives the construct of “the humble sublime.”  According to Auerbach, the sermo humilitatis (lowly writing style) characterized all Christian writings on all subjects from the very beginning—in distinctive contrast to classical writers who were scrupulously careful to match sublime rhetoric with sublime subjects and a low style with everyday topics.  Christian convictions concerning the incarnation, together with the gospel stories of the humble origins and life of the Messiah, worked against any such conventions, resulting in style that at once insisted on, exhibited, and created the humble sublime.  Thiemann joins this to Luther’s Eucharistic theology: “God’s presence is always, according to the reformers, hidden ‘in, with, and under’ mundane and human realities like the flesh of Christ and the words, water, bread, and wine of sacramental ritual” (3).  Auerbach traces a history of literary realism (from The Song of Roland to To the Lighthouse), showing, as Thiemann puts it, that “even the most apparently secular stories” exemplify the humble sublime in works that “depict the strange depths of ordinary objets, the curious inseparability of the ordinary and the sublime, and background beneath the surface of the everyday” (5).  By this means, Thiemann slides imperceptibly from Auerbach’s argument that writing informed by the Christian worldview exhibits these traits into advancing his own position that all realistic portrayals of ordinary, particular lives—however “secular” they may look or may have been intended to be—must “[hide] forms of the mysterious, uncanny, unexpected, and sublime ‘in, with, and under’ the mundane” (5).  Thus literature becomes freighted with precisely that dimension of sacrality that Taylor alleges to have been lost.  Readers may legitimately wonder, though, whether this turns all realist authors into anonymous Lutherans.

[6] While Thiemann gives attention to the visual arts (the book includes several relevant color plates), imaginative literature becomes his primary focus as he turns to four authors who, along with Bonhoeffer, attest to the sacramental character of reality.  Notably none of the literary figures, with the possible exception of Akhmatova, would typically be considered religious.  Hughes’ relation to Christianity is, by his own account, that of someone “outside the tent.”  Orwell and Camus are widely regarded as atheists.  Thiemann’s response to any objection on these grounds is that “sacramental spirituality always assumes the absence of God” (111), but to assume the hiddenness of God is not quite the same thing as to assume the absence of God.  Perhaps aware of this, he does insist in his last chapter, where he characterizes the human condition as “a situation of precarious vulnerability” (175), that “the vulnerable God is present precisely under the sign of God’s absence” (174, italics added).

[7] Also notably, the important work of all of them is clustered in the mid twentieth century, and all of them are presented by Thiemann as figures whose writing “functions to develop social and cultural critiques of the oppressive power of the tyrannical regimes under which they live and work” (5).  It thus becomes clear that Thiemann is not solely developing a theo-poetics, but is also using this discussion of literature to generate an ethics—what he names variously “an ethic of limits” (168), “a politics of resistance” (238), and, more often, “an ethic of responsibility” (169 and passim).  Akhmatova’s work was banned as seditious by the Soviet government from 1922 until the 1940s.  Forbidden to write, she composed poems in the medium of memory and taught them orally to friends, hoping that no one would betray her.  Langston Hughes and George Orwell, who respectively focused on making visible the “hidden lives” (79) of African Americans and the English working poor, engaged social issues of race and class through texts meant to collapse the alienating social barriers between readers and the lives depicted—lives whose pains and joys are demonstrably not so different from the readers’ own.  Thiemann seems deeply committed to the view that social change must begin with changing the views of individuals.  At the same time, neither Hughes nor Orwell considered empathy sufficient.  Literary art in their hands became a way of making injustice, inequality, and moral constriction palpably real to the well-placed, comfortable, and complacent.  Hughes’ poems and Orwell’s narratives “[serve] a moral and political purpose” (133).  Thiemann seems convinced that where empathy is established, “critique, resistance, and transformative action” will follow (81).  Sometimes it does, but often it does not—as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, American racism, and Camus’ fictional city of Oran make abundantly clear.  Camus, of course, was involved in the French resistance to German occupation, and his treatise The Rebel outlines, in Thiemann’s view, nothing less than a “humanist rebellion” (the refusal on the part of the oppressed to allow continued domination” [157]) and a “revolutionary politics” (154).

[8] Thiemann incorporates the later work of Bonhoeffer[4] into the chapter discussing Camus not only on the grounds that both risked their lives in acts of political resistance and both were convinced that human life must be “lived in full recognition of the fundamental vulnerability of human existence” (173), but also because, as he reads them, both “believe that the virtues of the responsible life—faith, hope, happiness, and love—are born of the deepest forms of human intersubjectivity” (183).  The ethics of responsibility is thus to be contrasted with approaches to ethics that, being “knowledge-based,” treat moral persons as “autonomous agent responsible only to themselves and their principles of ethical deliberation” (175).  One might worry that both Bonhoeffer and Thiemann paint with rather a broad brush in suggesting that such approaches to ethics risk idolatry in seeking “to establish [human creatures] as the origin and deliberator of all things good and evil” (175).  More intriguing is the observation that it is not virtue but “bondage,” as it shows itself in the moral life, that produces “an ethic of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation, both of which render the agent incapable of discerning new possibilities and taking more radical ethical action” (178-79).  The marks of an ethic of responsibility that is not “self-deluding” (175) are these:  it will be concrete rather than abstract, intensely aware of human limitations, committed to “solidarity with the humiliated,” collaboratively social in its orientation and exercise, creative in discerning new and better social arrangements (and acting disruptively to bring them about), and capable of “answering” flexibly to the immediate situation, which is always particular and always new.  What saves this from a sort of intuitionist relativity in Bonhoeffer’s work is his emphasis on the will of God, and Thiemann quotes this passage from Ethics:

“The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of available possibilities.  The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason human beings must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.  The heart, the understanding, observation, and experience must all collaborate in this task.”[5]

Ethicists who work across the boundaries of the disciplines of theology, literature, and moral reflection could make a significant contribution by looking at particular literary and imaginative texts to see how this particular complex collaboration of heart, understanding, observation, and experience yields or fails to yield reliable insight into “what the will of God may be.”  Thiemann has, of course, undertaken to do just that, but in a way he makes his job too easy by choosing moral issues on which we have such a broad social and moral consensus. The more compelling question that now presents itself is whether literature can help us toward the necessary collaborative task of examination in situations in which the will of God is still “very deeply concealed.”

[9] The Humble Sublime has not yet received the notice that it deserves—perhaps because it is available only in hard cover and at an unfortunate price ($112 and up, depending on the vendor).  Theologians, ethicists, and lay people with a particular interest in the Lutheran tradition, especially those not already familiar with Thiemann’s earlier essays on “Sacramental Realism,”[6] will find both the history and the theology thoughtful and resourceful.  Ethicists will find this rendering of responsibility ethics, though uneven, provocative—particularly as this book offers the final contribution of a figure whose earlier works have established his credentials in the conversation about the weight, function, and boundaries of religious convictions of “public theology” in Western democracies.  Readers who intuitively find religious resonance in even some very “secular” literary works will find in Thiemann’s book an intriguing account of the reasons for that.  Thiemann has also provided a powerful argument for the value of turning to literature to enrich and deepen our religious lives in a time when the language and tropes of a fading cultural configuration of faith seem too often flat, worn, predictable, and uninspiring.




[1] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).  The focus of Thiemann’s criticism is chapter 13, “God Loveth Adverbs,” particularly pp. 216-17.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 266. 77.

[3] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).  Mimesis was originally published in German in 1946, having been written between May 1942 and April 1945 while Auerbach was living bereft as an exile in Istanbul.  Thiemann also draws upon two other works by Auerbach: Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquicty and in the Middle Ages, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton University Press, 1965); and Dante: Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

[4] Thiemann relies primarily on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Touchstone, 1995). and Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald Fuller, et al. (London: Macmillan, 1971).

[5] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 41; quoted Humble Sublime, 185.

[6] Ronald Thiemann, “Sacramental Realism: Relocating the Sacred,” in Reforming Reformation, ed. Thomas F. Mayer (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012); Ronald Thiemann, “Sacramental Realism: Martin Luther at the Dawn of Modernity,” in Lutherrenasissance Past and Present, ed. Christine Helmer and Bo Kristian Holm (Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).