My radiant little heresy


by Emilio DeGrazia, 10/9/08 • Antinomianism: Belief that salvation comes by faith and Grace alone, not good works or obedience to moral law.

Sunday morning again at First Congregational, the dust stirred by an organ prelude that sends tremors through the chapel like a distant train passing in the night. Here I am helpless to tweek the course of history one tad, trapped again by an inevitability playing itself out in this ritual hour. The dentist’s chair comes to mind––the way we’re stuck, like good citizens waiting for some technician to sear another twentieth century nerve, in open-mouthed speechlessness. That one hour in church can be worse than being strapped into the seat of a jetliner cruising at the speed of sound at 30,000 feet. Above the clouds I’m also required to surrender to circumstance, but from there the view is wide enough to inspire a thoughtless enjoying of the helpless glide.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona.All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

My church captivity is not wholly the minister’s fault. He’s a nice enough fellow who deserves to be liked, even though his sermons are hopelessly entangled in the knotty improbability of making history and theology out of mythology. Imagine what he can’t avoid: The funerals of people (like me) he doesn’t really like, the mutterings of souls that can neither be touched nor healed, the stares of conservatives convinced that certain sermon topics hurt business, the insincere faces of children swallowing whole the indigestible facts of hardened belief––Moses parting the Red Sea and Jesus walking on water, et cetera. Worse, imagine the suspicion that coils itself around the minister’s mind at prayer time as he pleads for God to stop Beatrice’s lymphoma or George’s bleeding ulcer, his simple enough requests crashing head-first into God’s action—or was it inaction?—in the earthquake that killed 20,000 in India last week. Does our poor minister dare open a window to logic or to the noise of traffic outside, or sneak a look as the offering basket goes around begging the true believers to put in enough loose change to pay this week’s heating bill?

The minister has a good tenor voice and loves to sing. We’re all relieved to stand with him and let our voices try the lyrics of one of those dreary hymns penned in more puritan times. Maybe this tune, so often dragging us wearily up toward a heaven we fail to feel, see, or attach to any shred of fact, will take us beyond church. We sing along, most carried away by the loud but earnest voice behind us so woefully out of tune. In that moment of awful heartfelt dissonance, we forget that the chap behind us is one of them, a no-nonsense Christ-convicted successful businessman.

I don’t dare ask how I ended up here in this vestigial organ of English Calvinism. Thankfully the congregation is oblivious to its Calvinist roots, and the minister doesn’t let what he knows about it get in his way. Few seem mindful that Congregationalists are descended from the church the original Puritans planted after arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Thanksgiving provides pause to think back, but what’s conjured is the usual logo highlighting festive autumn table, turkey, and black-suited gent in tall hat. The other simplistic view, H.L. Mencken’s, reduces puritanism to “the haunting fear that somewhere someone is having a good time.” Hence a puritan has come to be any Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, or atheist who drives through life with the moral emergency brake engaged. Maybe that’s my link to them.

Some of the facts about the early Puritans disturbingly collide with the imagery of the Thanksgiving logo. As is usual, we consign troubling facts to the specious silence that serves as history’s wastebasket. Though the Puritans practiced a courageous and early form of democratic government, in both doctrine and practice they were exclusivist. Their world was animated by two kinds of souls, sheep and goats, and the vast majority—Catholics, Native Americans, Anglicans, and almost everyone else both like and unlike themselves—were goats doomed to eternal perdition. They were hard-working when it came to enforcing their faith. No doubt a few had studied enough New Testament Greek to know that the word “puritan” derives from pyros, or “fire.” Above all Catholic art required purification, as did actual Catholics in the Battle of Severn in 1655, a minor affair compared to the earlier Pequot War of 1637 which concluded with the killing, in about an hour, of some five to seven hundred men, women, and children, many of them burned alive. King Philip’s War of 1675-76 was an even livelier event; more than 3000 Native Americans were purified in that holocaust, not all of them at the hands of strictly Puritan folk.

Anne Hutchinson, brainchild of the radiant heresy that came to be dubbed Antinomianism, suffered mere excommunication and banishment for going head-to-head in 1636 against John Cotton, a chief Puritan divine. The issues that landed Anne in the General Court in 1637 were doctrinal, not the fact that she was feisty, outspoken, well-educated and eventual mother of twelve. The issue: Are actual behaviors outward and visible signs of God’s saving Grace, or are actions, good or bad, entirely irrelevant indicators of whether Grace will be conferred? Cotton argued that people better behave because those who do are likely to be granted salvation and heaven; they’re more likely to make money too. Anne argued that our behaviors and worldly success are insignificant indicators, indeed irrelevant to Grace. Yes, because God’s graciousness had a comprehensive selectivity we cannot comprehend, even obvious sinners can go to heaven too.

I conjure Anne’s heresy almost every time I find myself in First Congregational drifting off. Since my attitudes toward the afterlife depend on mood swings that tilt only slightly above or below a solid ground of indifference, I don’t trust Antinomianism to save a soul like mine. I must confess to my personal attraction to Anne––the Bad Boy in me hot for the Bad Girl as I imagine her. And this is clear too: I probably would have dismissed her then, as I do now, as just one more religious fanatic in a world ablaze with absurd belief. One of my favorite heretics is Sebastian Castellio, who in an introduction to Martinus Bellius’ book Concerning Heretics, wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine but to kill a man.” His Bellian Heresy, as this peculiar variety came to be called, prompted him to conclude that, “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.”

Castellio’s heresy is good enough, but Anne’s Antinomianism is still my favorite. The word is too heavy and awkward to carry (if I may borrow a wonderfully meaningless phrase) the incredible lightness of being it implies to me. What I mean by it has little to do with any dictionary’s claims for the term, and even less to do with any church’s theology per se. Its etymology prefixes “anti” to “nomos,” a sum which equals “anti-customary.” But for me the word lambent almost irrelevantly comes to mind. It’s one of Faulkner’s favorites, providing its light in the scene of Light in August in which Reverend Hightower, having just watched Percy Grimm murder the murderer Joe Christmas, achieves a summary vision:

The wheel whirls on. It is going fast and smooth now, because it is freed now of burden, of vehicle, axle, all. In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about fully to come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces. The faces are not shaped with suffering, not shaped with anything: not horror, pain, not even reproach. They are peaceful, as though they have escaped into an apotheosis; [Hightower’s] own is among them. In fact, they all look a little alike, composite of all the faces which he has ever seen. But he can distinguish them one from another: his wife’s; townspeople, members of the congregation which denied him, which had met him at the station that day with eagerness and hunger; Byron Bunch’s; the woman with the child; and that of the man called Christmas….

(Light in August, Modern Library, 430)

Here Hightower, as if beside himself, stands apart from Hightower the puritan (in his case Presbyterian) minister to see things radiant and whole. What does he see? The small wheel of an episode in Southern history inexorably turning, containing faces at once familiar and strange in its circle of necessity, the faces all serene in a halo glow, as if good and evil were irrelevant to them; all the players necessary to fulfill an experience that is at once comedy and tragedy, complete and satisfying to an observer (the reader as Hightower) transfixed in a wise passiveness.

How seldom we see the world and feel it this way, manifesting what Joyce

called “radiance,” the quidditas or whatness of a thing, or “that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal” and Luigi Galvani called “the enchantment of the heart.” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Viking, 213) We all experience moments like this in the presence of genuine art. The mood comes on as we observe the faces in a choir transported beyond self-identity and given over wholly to music full of words the singers feel no need to approve or understand; it has the quality of the luminous dust suspended in a shaft of light penetrating the shadows of Chartres, where the unbeliever stands in awe of the strange triumph of the incomprehensible marriage of beauty and power; it dawns like a sunset at the conclusion of certain novels and poems that bring a closure and clarity we are at a loss to explain in our own words. In all such instances experience is transfigured, seen in a new light, and we also are remade, able to see ourselves objectified within the landscape of the art and detached from it, as if momentarily omniscient. The conclusions offered by what we deem sound judgment, arrived at by labored distinctions and a prejudice for condemnation of what we exclude, fade in such luminous moments. Even the line between what we name Good and Evil dissolves.

Such validation does not depend solely on art’s evocative power. The mood sometimes descends when we’re standing in a crowd and find ourselves gradually seized by a luminous perception; or when an ordinary face slowly mesmerizes us with an extraordinary singularity that takes us beyond our conventional notions of beauty and unseemliness. Antinomian moments are lived, at times as epiphanies that result from art, more often as moments experienced as art.

The mind leaps fluidly between fiction and fact, from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha to a Mississippi River sandbar just south of Winona, Minnesota, where locals steal away to sunbathe, drink beer, and swim. It’s a Sunday and I’m there too, keeping my sunglasses on to secure some privacy. On this day there’s a small crowd on the sand and the sun is so sultry it mutes all talk, giving a damp weight even to the squeals of teenage girls. My eyes quickly sort, find the loveliest forms, the smooth curves of tanned skin. Others less attractive also come and go, not talking of Michaelangelo. Here and there I single out the others on the beach I like and don’t like—the good, the bad, the card-carrying Republicans, the complacent liberals, the nameless middle-aged woman who knows me by name and smiles. I smile first this time and eye strangers suspiciously, now and then running a self-conscious hand through hair that won’t stay in place. In the distance, standing knee-deep in the river, is the big-bellied coach who can’t stand my guts. Without admitting we exist, we mumble unspeakables to ourselves. To my right a well-known slumlord, sinking askew like Ozymandias in the sand, is asleep on a lounge chair, the half-dozen college girls he brought with him sitting safely away with their backs turned to both of us. A frisbee flies past my ear, seems to spin suspended a moment until I hear the thud of a muscular youth diving on the sand to make another heroic catch. Two of the slumlord’s girls lift their heads to smile, and I feel a quiver of jealousy.

And so it goes, another afternoon of our days, its pleasures crossed by likes and dislikes, right and left wings, loathing and desire. How ordinarily we live our lives as puritans full of motive, will, good, evil, thought, creed, and dim wits.

Then, from around the bend in the river north of us, a wake-up call: Two garpy blasts from the steam whistle of The Mississippi Queen lazily paddle-wheeling its way downstream from St. Paul to New Orleans. Most of us on the sandbar know the sound. Calmly, summoned by an authority unlike our own, we rise from the sand and make our way along the beach for a better view. Talk seems hushed as we gather and wait for the steamboat to appear, our excitement expanding like a ripple on the water away from us. Slowly the boat comes into view from around the bend, signaling to us by tooting out “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

The approaching steamboat spreads a steadying calm, its quiet glide buoyed by the calliope bobbing the air with its tunes. As it comes closer those on the sandbar meander toward the water. For most there is no rush; they seem to sense that river and boat (unlike most technologies) have made an accord with time. A few venture into the river up to their waists; most stand on the bank watching the boat loom large as it nears. One by one small figures appear on its decks, men in their Sunday best and women waving white hankies at us. As the boat’s musical pipes begin playing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” a small cheer erupts from the sand.

The antinomian moment occurs just as the steamboat and people glide past each other in a panorama in which greetings and farewells are one and the same. Time stands still in that momentary minute or two as I, part of a strange objectivity, find myself both in and strangely apart from the scene. There is a sudden wholeness and clarity about what I see, a softening of the light that becomes visible in a slow-motion stillness. In that moment I see everyone with new eyes: The ones I like and don’t like, the good, the bad, the card-carrying conservatives and complacent liberals, I too among them—all are suddenly, generously, accepted, as if by the nameless middle-aged woman who knows me by name and smiles. There is no logic in this democratic light, no good and evil, no politics, no loathing or desire.

The spell is broken when it becomes evident that people on the boat and sand are waving no more than farewells. Soon the steamboat is out of sight. As the ripples of its wake arrive on shore, a few others from the sandbar wade into the water up to their waists. They laugh and splash all around. I see them as animals—elephants or hippos—flesh in the round feeling how cool and necessary the water is under the hot sun.

Writing this, I recall H.D.’s poem called “Scribe.”

Wildly dissimilar

Yet actuated by the same fear,

the hippopotamus and the wild-deer

hide by the same river.

Strangely disparate

yet compelled by the same hunger,

the cobra and the turtle-dove

meet in the palm-grove.

We wonder about the palm-grove, not whether such an Eden exists as a place (it doesn’t, more and more), but whether it’s credible as a presence we dare keep alive in ourselves. Does ripe fruit never fall there? Should we, turtle-doves all, be horrified by the eventual fate of the unfortunate wild-deer? We’ve seen the “nature” pseudo-documentaries on TV, those shows rigged to illustrate that Nature exists to justify a free market chase thriller climaxing with the survival of the fittest, some king of the beasts on our current endangered species list. On occasion, the camera catches the actual kill close-up, the moment when the beast’s jaws clamp themselves on the wild-deer’s throat and all struggle is suddenly becalmed. Not yet dead, the deer, wide-eyed but serene, resigns itself to the inevitability of its fate, lets itself go as if in satisfied surrender to a lover who himself is suddenly becalmed, partnered in pleasure with the life about to enter his.

The implications of such rapes of life are not pretty to pursue. They quickly entangle us in questions about defense spending and right and wrong, the puritan ways by which we normally congregate, earn our bread, and strive to build a society in which to pretend we are secure. Is antinomian enchantment really seduction of the heart and mind? Did the original antinomian Anne Hutchinson let herself go as if in satisfied surrender to a lover who is suddenly becalmed, partnered in pleasure with the life about to enter his, when, probably in 1637, she and several of her children were butchered in an Indian uprising against Puritan colonists? What, in short, is the place of an antinomian aesthetic in a realpolitik world?

One thing is sure: Realpolitik puritans, wary of antinomians in their midst, are fond of invoking the actual word to clip left-wingers who practice habits of the heart. But they don’t like to be reminded that their own warrior laissez-faire lusts are inclusive too, promiscuously blurring the lines between right and wrong. About one thing we’re perfectly correct: Only in a cartoonish world full of good guys and bad is heresy really heresy.

So what do we say to them? That we can’t help ourselves, that we’re driven to antinomianism by demonic necessity. That certain silences and inactions are powers too, usually less harmful than most good deeds. And that puritans, no matter how out of tune they sing in all their congregational churches, will always have a radiant place in our rare heretical highs.