The Interpretation of Desire
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1.1. Why did you allow this book to be published? Are you concerned about your reputation? Presidential wannabes and religious leaders are citing the Bible's death penalty for gays.
Yes, I was
anxious, even doubtful, about the book, especially with the explicit sonnets.
Should I use a pseudonym? Should I arrange for posthumous publication?
I like to think I am prudent, and I weighed the possible damage to me against
the possible benefit for others, and decided to find out what would happen.
1.2. So you want the book to be regarded as (a) high art or (b) medicine for our sick society or (c) a theological statement?
At least these three things. It is not a systematic theology, but what I call a MedievalPostmodern theological perspective underlies the entire book, perhaps most explicitly in the Credo sonnets.
1.3. Where did the title of the book come from?
of mine asked to sleep with me one night as a way of overcoming his heterosexism,
his fear of being close with other men. This was not a sexual request,
just spending the night with a friend. Men used to sleep with men without
any thought of sexual behavior, but since the Civil War, the fear of being
close to other men has infected the American society.
1.4. How autobiographical are these sonnets?
This is art, not autobiography; poetry, not profile; myth, not memoir; more gizmo than gesta. Should the reader care if a sonnet faithfully recounts an actual experience or if it is a wet dream? One reader did complain that a particular sonnet failed to indicate that a condom was used. I doubt that such literal reading of the book will be very beneficial. I hope most readers will value whatever insights the sonnets offer over sleuthing them for any external facts of my life.
1.5. How has the publication of the book changed you?
In a way
I feel more vulnerable because there are so many different attitudes people
can take toward the book or parts of the book and therefore toward me.
On the other hand, I feel that I have accomplished something important,
made a gift to those who can receive it; and that is satisfying.
1.6. You are a clergyman. How does this book fit into your ministry?
At my ordination
45 years ago, one of the speakers said “Vern is above all a lover.” I have
not lived up to that characterization very well, but I have worked at it,
and this book is a kind of record of my struggles and promise to love the
Part 2. Why
Buy the Book? —
2.1. Why should anyone buy your book?
If you understand
everything about love, don't buy this book. But if you are interested in
the many moods of relationships, and in diverse sexual experiences, you
may be disgusted or thrilled by what you find here.
2.2. Suppose a person just wants a taste of the book before deciding to read it. What do you suggest?
is complex. I might suggest a sampling of the sonnets for variety —
2.3. Should one read the notes before or after reading the sonnets? The book is longer than it looks. How should it be approached?
I have no wisdom
about this. Some, like Mark Belletini, advise reading the sonnets before
reading the glosses. Others like to read the glosses first to prepare themselves
for the sonnets. Some like to skip around the book. Others say it is best
to begin by reading the Foreword and the Introduction.
2.4 Using literary terms, how would you classify the book?
The Library of Congress classifies
the book as Postmodernist literature (page 2). I suppose my book, or at
least some of the sonnets, could also be characterized "neo-baroque" insofar
as the book employs intertextuality (the largest cycle of which is that
the poems are placed within the structure of the Mass), emphasizes the
reader's active role, hesitates to define reality, circulates themes of
some of the poems through the glosses, plays with polycentrism and polydimensionality,
and leaves many situations described with instability. For me this is a
most respectful style of writing about love.
2.5. Have Fundamentalist Christians seen your book yet?
I have not yet been threatened with being burned at the stake.
3.1 What are the sonnets about?
They cover many kinds of sexual activities, many degrees of friendship, youthful infatuation with its despair and exultation and folly, more mature and enduring love, the nature of religious mystery, skepticism, and commitment, and how art clarifies, deceives, and reveals us.
3.2. The subtitle your book is “the interpretation of desire.” What is your interpretation?
The subtitle comes
from one of the books by the great Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi, who noticed
a beautiful woman, Nizam, as he was making the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to
Mecca. His desire led him to spiritual insights, and prefigured Dante's
love of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.
3.3. What gave you the idea of connecting — even identifying — the sacred realm with sex?
only way I’ve been able to understand my own sexual experiences is as manifestations
of the sacred.
like Rumi, drunk on love, find in the human experience ways of enjoying
divine favor. Examples in each of these and other traditions are many.
For example, as I discovered after the book was published, I cite over
40 mystics from the Christian tradition alone.
3.4. Why do you draw upon world religions so much?
work has been major part of my career, and so I naturally think in terms
of many faiths. Many people would be shocked to find so much eroticism
in world religions, but it is there, and there gloriously. Why wouldn’t
it be there? Religion is about what is truly important, what is sacred,
and sexuality is truly important, often fascinating, to us.
Part 4. The
4.1. Why do you use an old-fashioned form of poetry, the sonnet, when you are seem to challenge traditional morality?
First, sexual desire can be overwhelming, and to turn that to art requires a strong container, like the sonnet. Second, form and content create each other, as a glass holds water, and the soul requires a body. I like to think of my book as wine of experience poured into the holy grail of the sonnet, offered as a gift to others who thirst.
4.2. What is a sonnet?
this question in considerable detail in the second part of the Introduction
to my book. Here let me say the sonnet is a European poetic form, perhaps
inspired by the Muslims, that for 500 years has been used to explore the
many emotions that arise when you ae in love.
4.3. How dare you use the Mass as a structure for erotic purposes?
I make no apology. The Mass is a drama of the cosmos and of human life. I love the Mass. I attend church every Sunday and sometimes midweek. The Mass with its many moods presents and recapitulates the human story, and it seemed a natural way to organize my collection of sonnets. The Introduction to the book explains this in some detail, but here I'll note that the Sanctus is the most erotic chapter in the book because sex is holy, beyond our knowing; it is when we surrender, empty ourselves, in order to unite with the Beloved.
4.4. Did you consider other ways of structuring the book before selecting the Mass?
Yes. After I selected the 154 sonnets, I tried to put them in a continuous narrative, but many didn't fit; and besides, a narrative might have suggested some sort of spiritual progression, like the Divine Comedy or Joseph Campbell's three-part "hero's journey," but I do not want to claim advancement. Other options were grouping the sonnets like books in the Bible with certain parallels — Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms, Gospels, Letters, Revelation — but that was too tenuous. I tied the Hindu four Vedas as a structure, and considered a kind of Buddhist sutra. But in the end, I think liturgically, and the Mass seemed the most organic and natural way to group the collection.
4.5. The book has several appendices. Why?
Some readers might be interested in Shakespeare's 1609 Sonnets,
so I've included a page about that book. Some readers want to know about
me, so I've included a bio page. Because the book can be read many different
ways, to make that point, I've collected comments from a variety of local
and national folks who saw the book in preparation.
4.6. You call the book a “prosimetrum”? What is that?
“Prosimetrum” comes from two words, prose, the ordinary way we speak
and write, and metrum, as in metrics, measure; poetry, like music,
uses measures, often called feet, as feet have been used to measure. So
a prosimetrum is a book of poetry and prose.
Part 5. Debt
5.1. How do your sonnets and Shakespeare’s compare?
and mine are largely about love for a beautiful young man and the delights
and agonies of the relationship, and coming to understand oneself better.
5.2. If you could ask Shakespeare any question, what would it be?
Can you teach me how to convey so many complex and contradictory emotions
in a single sonnet? I marvel at, for example, how you appear both as generously
forgiving your beloved young man while at the same time accusing yourself,
and in today's language, revealing a co-dependency along with other perspectives
on the relationship simultaneously.
5.3. Some have compared your sonnets to Walt Whitman’s verse; why?
While some credit Walt with practically inventing free verse, the antithesis
of strict poetic forms lke the sonnet, Walt was, for his time, remarkably
open about sexuality. Leaves of Grass was banned, he lost his job.
I expect my book to outrage certain folks when they learn about it
than the religious sources you cite in the epigraphs and glosses, what
other influences would you credit?
6.1. Would you discuss how sonnets compress meaning? How they are like full bandwidth?
In the book's Introduction I explicate devices of sound in Sonnet 14 Ad Astra. I won't repeat that here, but let me use the first two lines to make the point that a sonnet is a verbal contraption, not the way we ordinarily speak. The language is compressed and the plain sense may not be apparent until one reads through the entire sonnet. The sonnet begins
my frail frame immortal love doth dwell,
The frail frame is not my rickety
house but my body, subject ultimately to death, as the sonnet's third line
confirms. The first line claims that in the mortal flesh that I am there
lives something immortal, something that will not die, and that is love.
(The sonnet later makes that love very particular.)
6.2. Would you discuss the surface meaning of a sonnet, apart from technique?
I'll try with Sonnet 24 Passage. This sonnet is G-rated, and perhaps more mature in its conception of love than others presenting the thrill and agony of infatuation. The epigraph is from Anne Morrow Lindbergh comparing relationships to islands in a sea of flux. The sonnet picks up her metaphor of the sea.
I’ve come to this island where I don’t care
We reach each other through the deep, through arm
(first eight lines) presents the speaker as reaching an island free of
the obsession that the beloved must be a companion in the same place. Only
by abandoning our compulsive need for others, by giving up our own agendas
and the desire to make the other person as we want him or her to be, only
then can we be free enough to really see the other person. The speaker
gives up a "rank tattered ticket" of impossible dreams instead to realize
that by not worrying if the speaker is loved, the speaker can see that
the beloved's love permeates the speaker's being, through and through.
Technically — let me say this — the Octave employs hysteron proteron, that
is, the present situation is stated ("now i see") before the earlier ("I
surrendered") activity, reverse chronology.
6.3. Some of your sonnets are like cartoons or myths — meaning no disrespect — but they seem set in an imaginary universe.
Perhaps like Sonnet 68 Meridian?
of Days will dance before my throne.
Exhausted, he leaves me thus spent and flees.
helps set the theme of two impulses, from the body and from the soul, as
the Meridian, with its opposite, divides the world in twain. The gloss
details some of the allusions and nautical terminology. But the poem, structured
as three distinct quatrains (sets of four lines) with a volta between the
Octave and the Sestet, is set on an impossible ocean vessel with two competing
command centers, ruled by two kings from different countries.
6.4. Some of your sonnets are, shall we say, X-rated.
And I am not going to read any of those aloud at a general public gathering.
6.5. Why? Are you ashamed of them?
Not at all, but I want to respect the expectations of the audience. I am not Allen Ginsberg who was known for his language in advance.
6.6. Well, can you say anything about these "adult" sonnets?
Out of 154 sonnets, there are perhaps two dozen I'd not read for
an unprepared audience. Most of them appear in the Sanctus chapter and
the rest are scattered elsewhere. Sonnets that could possibly or definitely
be considered as dealing with erotic material are marked in the Contents
and Index with bold equal signs around their page numbers.
offer you accept. Now nude you stand.
7.1. Would you say that your Sonnet 84 "Postmodern Faith: What is Truth?" is a key to your religious perspective?
This sonnet, along with others in the Credo section of the book, may more obviously express my faith than the others, but of course sonnets are not systematic theology. And my perspective is always evolving because I become a different person with every passing moment.
7.2. Granting that, the glosses for this particular sonnet do not support the way most people think about religion.
You’re right. Since the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th-18th Centuries, religion (as I think of it normatively) has been seduced and corrupted by the success of scientific facticity. Religion has become propositions to be proved or denied, rather than a way of seeing the world. Here I am speaking descriptively, historically.
If you were to ask most Greeks of the ancient world for evidence of the existence of the gods, they would be puzzled by the question and perhaps point to the temples and shrines of the gods as proof.
Or take ancient Egypt. In a single short text, these people, who were so smart they constructed the pyramids, might refer to the sky as a cow or a goddess bent over without any sense of illogic because the sky is nurturing. Walt Whitman answers the question, “What is grass?” by saying it is the flag of his disposition, the handkerchief of the Lord, a uniform hieroglyphic, the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Is he not seeing the world in a richer, more spiritual way than can be captured by mere facticity?
For example, among some Jews, Christians, and Muslims, dispute about the divinity of Jesus is a fruitless argument if it is conducted as a factual inquiry. It is like saying that only one — Star Wars or Star Trek — can be the truth; or that only one, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Melville’s Moby Dick or Shakespeare’s King Lear, reveals sacred reality. I may have a preference; that preference may change several times as I age, or even according to my mood. I certainly have no right to tell you which to prefer; your background and interests may not be mine; I would violate your integrity to insist that you must elevate what I find best.
Why is it that we have no difficulty with talking animals in Aesop's fables or The Wizard of Oz, and no problems with Superman who can fly with merely a cape, or Alice in Wonderland when the caterpillar smokes a hookah? I’ll tell you why — it’s because religionists, wanting to be as respectable and important as scientists, started interpreting their stories as facts. The Reformers mounted this miserable mistake by their cry Sola scriptura! which eventually led to the literalism and Fundamentalist authoritarianism of today.
In brief, instead of sensing the sacred directly, recent categories of thought desacralize religion.
One could say
that modernism is digital, Medieval-Postmodernism is analog. What is this?
The Medieval-Postmodern answer might be "a beautiful sunset over water." The Modern answer might be "This image shows the sun as the position from which the photo is taken moves away from direct view of the sun due to the rotation of the earth about its axis," or even simply "an image of 299 by 168 pixels," which replaces content with measurement. OK, I caricature, I'm exaggerating to make this point: the Enlightenment turned us away from particular qualities toward measurable quantities, from values to facts, from the genuine to a general system by which truth-claims presumably can be adjudicated, from the beauty and multi-valent meaning of the sunset to the digital domains of the color light-wave frequencies, the pixels in the picture, the radius of the sun, and such. The modern world has pixelized the world. Analyzed, isolated, measured facts easily become separated from meaning; the Enlightenment bifurcated meaning and fact. Values like beauty and morality are not facts but they are meaningful.
How do you determine the "truth function" of the following? How do you digitize it? Is the rime either true or false? or both or neither? If it has no meaning, why is it cherished?
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,The assumption that truth is univalent, that there are many wrong answers but only one correct response, is inadequate when, as always, there are many frames of reference or language games in play. For example, what can you say about this image? --
If you know your Shakespare scenes, you mighty say, "This is the page Cesario in Twelfth Night." But you might also say "This is Viola pretending to be a boy." Or you might say this is the actor Merritt Janson. Or this was Merritt Janson in the role of Viola. Or a colorfully dressed character. Or an image on a computer monitor. Or a cropped photograph of professional quality.
I am always stumped when I am asked who I am. The
answer keeps changing. Different requests in various circumstances elicit
different answers. The Enlightenment has created the test mentality many
of us learned in school, about one right anwer because it presupposes a
single character for reality, instead of the multiple realities and ways
of framing situations recognized by PostModernism and the play of levels
of reality in the Neo-Baroque.
7.3. But the sonnet's couplet seems to recognize the modern assessment of religion as being, to use your phrase, a "pious tale."
Ah, but quote the entire couplet:
know the Gospel is a pious tale,
The final line denies the value of the modern assessment, the category of facticity, by pointing to the experience of worship when in awe, one apprehends the sacred through the pious tale, the myth, the sacred story.
Perhaps here it is useful to repeat a couple citations from the gloss—
From Wallace Stevens: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe it willingly.”
From W H Auden: “It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character in a novel; one can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.”
Viewed from ordinary awareness, myth is a model of sacred reality. Within mythic awareness, myth is reality, which includes ordinary awareness while transcending it and isomorphic with it, just as a three-dimensional cube includes a two-dimensional square and is prodigiously isomorphic with it while transcending it.
To Auden’s remark, I added, “Indeed, the client following a therapist’s suggestion to ‘place your deceased father in this chair and tell him how you feel’ may be in practice little different from the person of faith who prays. Religion is more about what is meaningful than what is factual. The deceased father is not in the chair, but what is important is the transformation that occurs in such an imaginary conversation. Religion is a commitment to openness, more confidence than a commitment to certainty, and not a commitment to a set of facts, which themselves are actually inherently contextual. No “fact” stands alone: facts are embedded in language and culture and all kinds of assumptions and contexts and disintegrate when these are removed.
What I mean is that we do not need to translate old creeds or ritual actions into scientifically and historically valid expressions. On the contrary, we need to be open to the immediate experience, clear and potent, to directly apprehend genuine and paradigmatic reality, usually hidden from us by our literalism. Here I apply the phrase from Coleridge, which makes art and my view of normative religion possible: “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
The very word which so many people identify with religion, belief, has been turned to rot by the Enlightenment. The original meaning of belief, certainly as late as the King James (1611) translation of the Bible, was trust, what you rely on, commitment, engagement, what you love and prize — not some abstract theological proposition. It did not mean assent to abstruse philosophical formulations in obscure, ancient categories of thought.
The word belief [belove] is related to the Latin word libido, desire, and the German liebe, beloved. In English belief originally meant trust. It’s more “I love my spouse” than “My spouse exists.”
Still, I affirm the integrity of folks who “believe,” however they understand “belief,” so long as it produces a loving spirit within them. In my own church, I know folks approach the altar with very different world views; and yet, in our own limited ways, we acknowledge a Mystery so ultimate that while we may respectfully discuss our experiences, arguing about the Mystery seems blasphemous. Some believe as a fact in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Others believe in the story as revealing a quality of existence wherein apparent defeat is followed by renewal. Or as I put it in my Sonnet 82 “Easter Morning”—
time a wonder, God or not, has stood
Recognizing our different backgrounds
and modes of illumination, and appreciating and valuing individual paths
to the Mystery, creates human community with depth. This is why heresy
is better than schism.
7.4. Well, do you believe the creeds of the Church? What about Scripture?
I grant that the Nicene Creed, for example, grew out of disputes using ancient modes of thought that are now nearly impossible for us to access. But when I say the creed, I believe it — I trust it, as a glorious attempt to find words for, to point to, a Mystery, the Mystery of Reality in which I am embedded. I cannot understand Reality because I cannot get outside of it, but the words are isomorphic to my experience of Reality; they map onto the majesty of creation and the horrors of human cruelty.
Human cruelty in the name of God is frequently found in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Nonetheless, I “pray” horrendous things like Psalm 137:8-9 — “O daughter of Babylon, . . . happy shall he be who seizes your babies and smashes them against a rock!”
Such murderous cruelty is unthinkable
— which is why it needs to be thought, to be “prayed,” as a reminder of
the wickedness in our heritage and, alas, still in hearts today. In “praying”
this psalm, I am reminding myself of the gore and not simply the glory
in my heritage as a human. It keeps me awake to the sin and folly in the
news, and those smaller temptations of hate that rise within me, so that
I may resolve anew on a better way.
7.5. You mention Mystery and Reality, but you don't say God.
The mystics in many faiths understood God simply as all of Reality which they perceived whole, although there is no proper way to put it in any human language. I have no problem with atheists who genuinely have considered and understand religion. (Alas, the so-called “New Atheists,” brilliant in their fields, do not know what religion is — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens). Considering our culture’s dominant images of God as a Supreme Being, I must call myself an atheist, a non-theistic Buddhist, close to the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart for whom Nothing was a proper designation for God; recall his famous prayer: “I pray God to rid me of God.” My religious name, after all, is Vern the Void. Instead of a Supreme Being or a categorical Creator Diety, what makes sense to me is an ongoing Process in which each movement, each event, every particle, is related and mutually creating what comes next.
Still, in some contexts, I find the word God useful to point to Reality. And my life works better for me if I trust Reality, without denying the disasters of nature and the wickedness of humankind, and my own stupidity and sin.
The Sanskrit word sat has several related meanings such as Truth and Reality, and in some contexts refers to Brahman, one term for God, one way of understanding God. One of the names of God in Islam is Al-Haqq, the Truth, a way of talking about what is really Real. A related idea occurs in Buddhism — Dharmakaya, the Truth-Body or Reality of the Buddha, which, manifested as Nirmanakaya, is the universe itself. If you look carefully at the Biblical name for God revealed to Moses, Yahweh, the word seems to mean something like “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be,” which can be understood as a reference to the Supreme Identity, Reality. The writer of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus with the Logos, the order or meaning of the cosmos, another grand way of pointing to ultimate Reality. The great 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich was accused of being an atheist because he did not believe in a Supreme Being apart from existence; rather God for him was the Ground of Being. And the contemporary Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, speaks of the Interbeing, a beautiful way of pointing to the Buddhist principle, pratityasamutpada, that all things mutually arise — no Creator God separate from the universe is needed.
So I may use the word God interchangeably with the Void, Reality, and the Infinite (I’m especially indebted to the 15th Century mystic and Catholic cardinal Nicholas of Cusa for making this term so meaningful to me, as is his embrace of both in omnibus omnia and omnium nihil, the all in all things, the nothing of all things). I use “God” with respect and affection for the traditions I’ve named and many others.
Actually, I discuss the word God in
section 5 of the Introduction to my book. There I mention Suhrawardi's
valoration of Imagination — in sense we create God; that is, we create
Reality; and I bring the power of imagination to bear on the theme of my
book when I say “Desire is another word for Imagination” (p19).
7.5a. Shakespeare's Sonnet 105 proposes an ancient Greek trinity — the beautiful, the good, and the true. How does this pagan trinity fit with your Christian faith?
There are many trinities, and Shakespeare’s terms in that sonnet — fair, kind, and true — are predicates of his beloved youth. Please study the triad, or trinity of nature, selfhood, and community outlined in the Appendix to my book under “The Three Crises of Our Time.”
I cannot, nor can anyone, explain the Christian Trinity because it is a Mystery; for Christians it points beyond itself to the nature of Reality. I especially like the idea of perichoresis (from Greek, rotation; also, from Latin, circumincession or circuminsession, to make room for, or to contain, or to step around) — a dynamic reciprocity of the three divine “persons” which can be understood as a dance, a process in which each enters and completes the others.
All I can do here is vaguely point to how I am currently accessing the Trinity through the merest pinhole in the film that covers and obscures Reality; for Reality, God, is beyond human categories, even when we can work with the divine energies; our brains do not permit us to picture a photon as both wave and particle at the same time, yet the equations of quantum mechanics work though we cannot picture how. My pinhole peek is heretical, as is my atheism, but nonetheless I worship God, and here I acknowledge that the familiar language is patriarchal and we should move beyond it.
God the Father (I would prefer “God the Parent”) is the awesome Process by which the universe and all within it appears, from what Christians call Creation and what Buddhists call the Very No-Beginning, to the present and the ongoing future. This Process often seems violent, in earthquake, flood, drought, tornado, famine, and the incomprehensible suffering of animals killing for food — “nature red in tooth and claw.” And in the wickedness of human beings. It is right to be both stunned by the beauty we behold and to fear the Power which sometimes manifests in horror and destruction. Most religious liberals reject ascribing the violence found in places in the Hebrew scriptures to God, but it seems realistic to me. Most Christians say God is wholly good, but if God is all of Reality, then, while God is beyond human categories of good and evil, surely God manifests in ways that seem to us hideous. We’d be stupid not to fear approaching an erupting volcano.
This view is found not only in non-Christian texts, such as in the Bhagavad Gita, but even in Hebrew Scripture.
First, from the Gita:
[Slowly Krishna led Arjuna through all the fibers of his spirit. He showed him the deepest movements of his being. It's the most secret knowledge. He showed him the whole of truth. He taught him how the world unfolds.]Arjuna: I feel my illusions vanish, one by one.
Now if I am capable of contemplating it,
show me your universal form.
I see you. In one point I see the entire world.
All the warriors hurl themselves into your mouth
and you grind them between your teeth. . . . .
Through your body I see the stars.
I see life and death. I see silence.
Tell me who you are. I am shaken to the depths.
I am afraid.
Krishna: I am all that you think, all that you say.
Arjuna: My illusion is dissolved, my error destroyed.
Now from Isaiah 45:7, in several English translations:
form light and I make darkness,
I form light and I make darkness,
I form the light and I make darkness,
I form the light and I make darkness,
Other Biblical passages also indicate God is a source of evil. such as Jeremiah 18:11, Joel 2:25, etc.
This perspective is found in my sonnets. See, for example, Sonnet 85 “Theodicy 9/11” or Sonnet 86 “Interbeing.”
God the Son (again, I would prefer “God the Child”) is inseparable (homoousian, consubstantialis, “of the same substance”) from the Father, but as I focus in a human way on those aspects of Reality that are constructive and healing, those that draw us toward knowledge, love, service, sacrifice, and renewal, I see the Son who in the Christian myth is Jesus the Christ, whom I seek to follow. I particularly cherish the line in the Nicene Creed which proclaims that Christ is “eternally begotten of the Father,” a way of pointing to the ongoing process of the redemptive power which is “of one Being with the Father.” See, for example, Sonnet 80 “The Cosmic Christ” or Sonnet 82 “Easter Morning.”
For me as a Christian, the story of Jesus the Christ is the story of Reality expressing, admitting, its finitude, its fallibility, in life and death and resurrection, that amazing affirmation of the goodness of God. Jesus, in his utter humanity, is also the absolute and complete manifestation of the divine, that which is implicit in the carbon atom (for example) with both its perfection and its inadequacy to banish suffering and make a world of justice and peace; nonetheless, Jesus showing us our parts in perfecting our time and place, giving us joy in duty to the world.
Ancient Greek rational modes and Reformation and Enlightenment categories of thought cannot penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation, just as the Creed itself seems absurdity followed by absurdity, and subject to the liberal criticism that focus on the nature(s) of Jesus and his historical circumstances detract us from His teachings.
But entering into the claims of the Christian mystery of the Incarnation, that Jesus the Christ is both God and human, infinite and confined, unchanging and mutable, omnipotent and vulnerable, glory in the humble, we encounter the same limit of language the Hindus encounter with "Atman is Brahman" or both "Tat tvam asi" and "Neti, Neti," and the Buddhists with "Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form" and "samsara is nirvana." William Blake (1757-1827) invites us to a similar contemplation:
To see a World in a Grain of SandRichard Crashaw (1613–1649) writes specifically of the Incarnation:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!God the Holy Spirit likewise is inseparable from Reality, but in attending to the capacity we have to communicate, to know one another, to be transformed as we cannot transform ourselves, I say it is the working of the Holy Spirit, present within us as Breath (spirit is part of the word inspiration, which has a double meaning: physically it means breathing in, inhalation, and also means arousal by exalted thought or feeling). See, for example, Sonnet 50 “Seville: Burning” for the Spirit is often associated also with fire, as at Pentecost, or Sonnet 45 “Husam.”
This Trinitarian God is completely natural — Reality — though beyond understanding. Reality is “one, namely many,” as Kitaro Nishida has written. What we perceive and how we perceive it gives rise to various faiths. Is a zebra a white animal with black stripes, a black animal with white stripes, or an invisible animal with white and black stripes? Because we are finite, very finite, we have cause to be modest in our constructions of Reality, and certainly to be open to the experience of others. Yet Imagination can be a beautiful veil given by the Holy Spirit.
This is a sketch of my present working approach of the Trinitarian God, which I worship not in these abstract thoughts as much as by the thoughts of my heart (to employ the kind of language found in the Book of Common Prayer, entering into the story of Jesus the Christ. I may answer differently tomorrow.
This story, and the Reality in which it is embedded and to which it points, is vivid for me in the Mass. Jesus, both divine and human, is experienced both in his death and resurrection. The dead of winter is followed by springtime budding. The horrors of our Civil War lead to the emancipation of the slaves. The vicious pogroms against the Jews led to many fleeing to our country and enriching it with their genius. We never know the ultimate outcome of wickedness, even as we must condemn it. Confessing our sin, the arrogance of our presumed knowledge, in the rite by which we accept both the suffering and the exaltation of the Jesus story gives us the possibility of apprehending the Glory of God and serving others in the possibilities open to us without destructive attachment. Yielding our self-importance to be one with the flow of the universe while accepting our own particular responsibilities and rejoicing in our special competences and gifts, we become disciples and heirs of the Eternal community (traditional language: “kingdom”).
Drawing on my work with world religions, I find in the Mass a recapitulation of the essential discoveries of all faiths. (Primal religions find the sacred in nature, Asian faiths in inner experience, Monotheistic traditions in the history of covenanted community.) The bread and wine fuse and transcend nature, personhood, and community. Look! The bread and wine of the Eucharist are gifts from nature (God the Father, Parent, Creator). In them we find Christ (the Son, the Child), God incarnate as a person, our exemplar. And through the partaking of communion we become the Body of Christ, the Church, the beloved community (enabled by the commun--ication of the Holy Spirit; think Pentecost; recall 2 Cor 13:14, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”).
7.6. If God is all of reality, and reality includes evil, doesn't that make God less than "all-good"? Aren't you denying one of the central claims of Christianity?
Please recall what I said about “God the Father” above.
Archibald MacLeish summaries the problem of theodicy in his play, J.B, retelling the story of Job: “If God is God, He is not good,/ if God is good, he is not God.” And surely Milton fails in “Paradise Lost,” wittily acknowledged by A E Housman in A Shropshire Lad: “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.” In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously struggles with the argument that whatever end God may hope to achieve by permitting suffering, it cannot be “worth the tears of that one tortured child.” Perhaps the best short analysis of the many ways Christians have tried to justify “God's ways to man,” to explain the presence of evil in a world created and overseen by an all-powerful and completely good God is Al Truesdale’s If God Is God Then Why? in which this Nazarene theologian examines every major solution and finds them failures; but while there is no solution for the problem of evil, there is a response: the Cross and the Resurrection.
My approach depends upon (1) using the term “God” to mean all of reality, (2) upon an evolutionary perspective which sees human life in the context of the processes resulting from the Big Bang, such as the capacity of the carbon atom to combine with many other elements, and (3) an analysis of how we use language, and (4) an assessment that most of us most of the time choose to be alive.
Reality is both good and seemingly unjustifiably evil, with unmerited suffering. In this sense, the usual Christian claim that God is wholly good does not satisfy me. However, the mystics’ claim that God is unblemished good can be affirmed in another sense. If God is not separate from the universe but actually its Unfolding Process, then we may ask what expectations can we have of a carbon atom to be good or evil. Ordinarily we do not apply categories like “good” and “evil” to carbon atoms, for example. But the Processes of Reality include the various ways in which atoms and energies have produced our world of good and evil. Shall we blame the carbon atoms? Good and evil are human categories of thought, not physical or chemical properties like valence, mass, and atomic number. And we may disagree about whether a particular something is good or bad.
But if we are asked to choose between existence or not, we would usually prefer being, amor fati. We chose being, even though we are aware of the enormous suffering carbon atoms implicitly cause. So in the sense that we accept the conditions of finitude, which includes suffering and evil, we affirm life, we affirm existence, we appreciate the amazing contingency that there is something rather than nothing, that the universe exists, that Reality includes us, that we have the gift of awareness. In this sense of affirmation of Reality, we can, like the mystics, say God is wholly good. Usually our consciousness is so divided and scattered that we cannot make such an affirmation, but there are occasions when, without denying the reality of evil, we see the whole "package" and, in our gratitude and understanding of the limitations of the carbon atom (to return to that example), we affirm that Reality, that God, is good. While I disagree with much of Augustine, I think that in his own distorted way, with some inkling of the Big Picture, he properly begins The Confessions with the urge, the desire, to praise God as ultimate Good in an isomorphic sense.
For me as a Christian, the story of Jesus the Christ is the story of Reality expressing, admitting, its finitude, its fallibility, in the life and death and resurrection, that amazing affirmation of the goodness of God. Jesus, in his utter humanity, is also the absolute and complete manifestation of the divine, that which is implicit in the carbon atom with both its amazing perfection and its inadequacy to banish suffering and make a world of justice and peace; nonetheless, Jesus showing us our parts in perfecting our time and place, giving us joy in duty to the world.
One need not be a mystic to catch a glimpse of this vision even in the most practical, pedestrian of thoughtful decisions. For example, those of us in Tornado Alley affirm being here even though we know disaster could happen soon. Driving is itself a risk; and while I no longer drive, drivers are a risk to me as I walk in the city. Still I walk. We all are subject to accidents and illness and crushing disappointments; yet most of the time we see, or at least hope for, the presence and power of meaning.
It is hard to see beyond our selfish agendas and our particular circumstances, beyond secular fragmentation, into the world as it is, sacred, where everything is connected, where any one thing involves everything else. Even God’s glory is implicit in the carbon atom.
7.7. Let's come back to another troublesome word, "worship."
Myth, the sacred story, reveals how the world unfolds. Worship is the enactment of the myth; or the myth is the explanation of the ritual. The Hajj for Muslims, the Seder meal for Jews, Durga Puja for Hindus are examples. For liturgical Christians, the Mass enacts the sacrifice and resurrection of incarnate God. For Christians who practice open communion, the Mass with its universal sharing is a model to redeem the world.
As I note under Sonnet 78 “Advent,” Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann sees the historical development which led to the evisceration of the meaning of the ritual:
At the end of the Twelfth Century a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours, was condemned for his teaching on the Eucharist. He maintained that because the presence of Christ in the Eucharist elements is ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic,’ it is not real. The Lateran Council . . . condemned him and . . . simply reversed the formula. It proclaimed that since Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real, it is not ‘mystical.’ . . . Western theology thus declared that . . . [the] ‘mystical’ or ‘symbolic’ is not real, whereas . . . [the] ‘real’ is not symbolic. This was . . . the collapse of the fundamental Christian mysterion, the antinomical ‘holding together’ of the reality of the symbol and of the symbolism of reality, . . . a collapse of . . . Christian . . . ontological sacramentality.We have such a weak understanding of ritual, a form of sacred play, which takes us out of ordinary time into the very breath of reality! — Folks who dress up as comic book or movie characters — think of those who dressed up, brought props, mouthed the lines, and even stood in front of the theater screen at The Rocky Horror Picture Show — nonetheless reject many of our culture’s religious enactments as superstitious. Why do folks buy and wear a numbered sports jersey if not, by identifying with the athlete, to gain, at least unconsciously, some of the athlete’s power? Why, then, do folks scoff at receiving the body and blood of Christ, identifying with Him and becoming a member of his divine Body?
For me, recognizing that the structures of the world are largely human creations, that we live in illusion much of the time, that ultimately the universe has no purpose beyond itself, is a perspective Shakespeare beautifully and powerfully articulates. For example, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5—
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerAnd again, As You Like It, 2.7—
All the world's a stage,One more example, The Tempest, 4.1—
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,Perhaps the Buddhist Diamond Sutra presents a similar theme—
Taraka timiram dipoFrom Plato’s discussion in the Theaetetus about dreams and madness to Alice in Wonderland to the French Postmodernists and the recent Spanish “Neo-Baroque” writers, not to mention contemporary psychology, uncertainty seems better to characterize what it means to be human than the Enlightenment-Modernist project of discrete categories into which experiences must be placed.
Though Shakespeare was a Renaissance writer, nurtured in both the classical tradition and the Christian theology of his time, and though the Diamond Sutra is ancient, these views seem Postmodern. Shakespeare is compassionate about the human condition, and clear-eyed about our insignificance in the universal drama. Of course the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:2, 14) was also clear-eyed when she or he wrote—
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
My faith is Medieval insofar as I
do not find Enlightenment categories of thought -- that concern with overarching,
testable models, with facticity -- useful to my spiritual life. My faith
is Postmodern insofar as I realize my own model is finite and incomplete,
ultimately vain. Thus I relish other folks’ ways of understanding Reality
and cherish Jean-Francois Lyotard’s way of defining Postmodernism as “incredulity
toward meta-narratives,” although I would rephrase this as “delight in
multiple meta-narratives,” and suggest he examine the implied Enlightenment
notion of “belief.” Perhaps Postmodernism, as I would like to use the term,
was anticipated by the ancient Jain teaching of anekantavada,
the doctrine of multiple viewpoints, and the Hua Yen Buddhist use of the
image of Indra’s net, suspended over Indra’s Palace, a metaphor for the
universe. At each node of the net, or vertex is a multifaceted jewel placed
so that it reflects the palace and every other jewel. This image of multiple
viewpoints betokens the interconnectedness of all things. While William
Blake is often called a Romantic poet, these famous 1802 lines exhibit
is embrace of multiple perspectives:
Perhaps my “Medieval-Postmodernism” might be described simply as “Neo-Baroque,” congruent with the rich complexion of reality suggested by Shakespeare and his contemporary, Cervantes, and the English “metaphysical poets” like John Donne. Baroque art like Bernini’s statue of David and the Cornaro chapel with his St Teresa in Ecstasy, Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, Valesquez’s Las Meninas, Hals’s The Women Regents of the Old Men’s Home at Haarlem, and Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son are for me theological testaments, as is the music of Bach and Handel, even though I think of myself as a classisist in terms of musical ideals. I don’t think “baroque” is often used in non-European art, but, with different labels, elements of the style appears in many cultures. What could be more baroque than Indra’s net or The Arabian Nights or a late Shang Dynasty ritual bronze gu?
Psychologically, think of the tricks of perspective (optical illusions and such), our human urge to create or discover meaning in pattern, and beauty in nature and art whose Source is Imagination and whose end is healing environmental, personal and social fragmentation and distress.
What may be a “Neo-Baroque” theme of transformation happily is found in Henry Nelson Wieman’s description of God: What transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, provided we give ourselves entirely over to that Power, the Power of Creative Interchange, another term for which I think is Imagination.
Thus my sonnet’s “Medieval-Postmodern” or “Neo-Baroque” Christian faith, my commitment, is an enjoyment in the company of others of the Mystery of Reality that some call God, a path of wonder, gratitude, and service.
Others have other ways of understanding faith — how could they not? — they are different people; their experience is not mine; so I revere their faith so long as it leads to healthy, meaningful lives of insight and compassion.
8.1. You begin the book's Foreword with an epigraph from the Latin poet Catullus (84 – 54 BCE, which you translate as "It suits the dutiful poet to be chaste himself; his verses don't need to be that way at all." And at the end of the Foreword you include the full text in Latin. You note that it is has been called the most obscene poem ever written. Will you translate it in full?
OK, here is the poem and a Wikipedia translation follows:
ego vos et irrumabo,
I will sodomize
you and face-fuck you,
8.2. You also note that the poem is 14 lines, but you don't compare it to the 14-line sonnet form.
It would really be a stretch to compare the Catullus poem to a sonnet. There are 12 syllables per line instead of 10, for example, not to mention the absence of a sonnet rime scheme. The shifts in meanings do not follow the logic of a sonnet. It is an accident that the poem falls into 14 lines.
8.3. Why then did you quote it?
To remind readers that my book, which contains four-letter words, is fully within the Western literary tradition in dealing with sexuality in graphic language. And, following Catullus, to put some distance between the poet and the poems.
It is also to
remind readers that Shakespeare's sonnets employ rough language, although
this often is difficult for contemporary readers to see. For example, read
his sonnet 129. The opening quatrain is
The "expense of spirit," in Elizabethan talk, refers to semen and vital energy, with "sprit" a slang term for erect penis. The word "waste" is a pun on "waist" and "shame" puns on the Latin for the word pudendum, which refers to female genitalia. At once these lines brilliantly expose and express both Shakespeare's passion for, and revulsion of. the mysterious dark lady. The word "bloody" need not be further explained in the age of Donald Trump.
Another example. In Sonnet 4, one of the 17 "procreation" sonnets, at the beginning of their relationship when Shakespeare is trying to get his friend to marry and sire a son, Shakespeare upbraids his young friend for masturbating:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
For any readers shocked by my discussion
of sexuality in my own sonnets, I want them to know I am working within
a tradition spanning thousands of years, and within the sonnet tradition
of hundreds of years.
on the Interfaith Council's website at
also printed in the Council's 2016 Fall newsletter, pages 7-8
Geneva Blackmer Interviews Vern
Geneva Blackmer, intern for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, interviews the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, who founded the Council in 1989, about his new book, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire.
As many Kansas City natives
are aware, you have an extensive resume as a Professor of Religion, teaching
a variety of classes at Ottawa University, St. Paul’s School of Theology,
and the “Interfaith Academies” partnered by Harvard’s Pluralism Project
— to name a few. So the first, and most obvious, question seems to be:
Why did you decide to write the book of sonnets before the well anticipated
book on world religions, that many people were expecting? And did you have
any reservations about this decision or how it may potentially effect your
Yes, many people have known me for more than thirty years as an advocate for celebrating religions, especially in the lives of folks in our own community. And when, after 947 columns in The Kansas City Star and monthly articles in Many Paths, many friends asked me to compile the best of these pieces as part of a book on world religions. I feel urgency about the three crises of our time — in the environment, in personhood, and in the social fabric — and the parallel wisdom from the Primal, Asian, and Monotheistic traditions to heal these diseases.
But, frankly, I’ve not found an effective way to communicate the shattering urgency of the big picture about world religions. We are still at the “let’s be nice to one another” stage, not ready to address the convulsions of our desacralized culture that are so large most of us cannot fit them into our fields of vision. We recognize “these” and “those” problems and dangers, but cannot see how they are all connected and amplified by the pervasive loss of the sense of the sacred.
So, because I don’t know how many days or years are left for me to make a contribution, I decided to tackle the unruly confusion about love throughout today’s world, in a very personal way, with my book of sonnets aimed, through a multi-faith landscape, to show how sexuality and spirituality are intimately related, and how the poetic form can propel the journey by which this truth can be discovered afresh.
This, of course, opens me to challenge, and I did consider publishing the book anonymously. I do not want to offend those with different views. I do not want to lose precious friendships. I hope that, just as Shakespeare wrote that he was “shamed by that which I bring forth” in his Sonnets, so the spiritual exploration he has bequeathed to us helps me to hope that my sonnets have authentic spiritual, medicinal, and artistic value as well.
Anyone who opens a copy of Thanks for Noticing will quickly draw their attention to the extensive footnotes seen throughout the book. What makes these footnotes so important in regards to each individual sonnet, and the complete work? Were there certain religious traditions or sacred texts utilized more than others?
From A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, I draw upon religions of the world. I cannot expect most readers to recognize allusions to themes from faiths with which they are not familiar. The footnotes and glosses are critically important to convey the message of the book, which is, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, an integration of poetry and prose. While each of the 154 sonnets in a sense may stand on its own, the sonnets are arranged by the movements of the Christian Mass, and so a larger picture emerges from the book as a whole, with its introductory material and appendices, as well as the notes.
I am an Episcopalian. After the book was published, I discovered that unconsciously I included over a hundred references to writers in this tradition, and many more from the larger Christian faith. The subtitle of the book, The Interpretation of Desire, comes from the towering Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi, and Islamic thought pervades the book. My doctoral dissertation was on Sunya, the Void, Emptiness, a key Buddhist teaching, and that also has significantly shaped my sonnets.
These and many other religious citations are indexed as a kind of “Concordance” on a developing website which can be found at VernBarnet.com.
Sonnets are obviously a unique and old-fashioned poetic form, and you have mentioned many times the bridge between your work and that of Shakespeare’s. In true Shakespearean form, your sonnets take the reader on an exquisite journey of passion, love, and sexuality. Do you feel that your sonnets help the reader truly embrace sexuality in the sacred world, rather than isolating it in secular world? Or perhaps help to reduce the stigma around sexuality in certain religious interpretations, that deem it as “evil” or “impure”? Was this a factor in why you chose this particular medium to express your thoughts?
Absolutely! Most folks don’t know that Shakespeare, an icon of Western culture, as we see from all the commemorations during this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death, wrote most of the Sonnets to a young man with whom he was profoundly in love. Those, and the sonnets to a “dark lady” tell of rapture and anguish, enchantment and despair, disgust, deceit, and forgiveness, death and art. They mature into an astonishing spiritual testimony.
My sonnets are similarly addressed. Shakespeare did not have the benefit of studying what the world’s religious traditions have said about the flesh, and even today most readers do not know how affirming religions have been of the multiple ways in which love is expressed, and of how love can open to the experience of the divine. I wanted, in sometimes the earthiest way possible, to celebrate such explorations in my own sonnets, to show that the flesh is sacred, that love is divine, that sexuality and spirituality are, or can be, identical. As Rumi wrote, “The way you make love is the way God will be with you.”
One strand of Christianity, from Augustine’s Manichaean background, does separate matter and spirit, and considers one evil, impure, and the other good. The perversion of Augustine’s influence has often overwhelmed a more wholesome understanding of holiness. Through Western colonial culture, this Christian influence on some forms of Islam and Hinduism, for example, has been a disaster. I hope my book, accessing the religions of the world, will illumine the holy from the various traditions in a fresh and beautiful way.
Where can people get the book?
The Kansas City Library has copies and it can be purchased at several local bookshops or on line. Also I’m giving talks about it around town (see my website), and folks can get copies there.
I want to add that I am forever indebted to the
folks serving on the Interfaith Council, past and present, from whom I
have learned so much and for whom I have such affection. The book, with
its footnotes and all, is, in part, a tribute to them.