Denys Turner: finding God, not in the clouds, but in bread and wine
Denys Turner spent the first half of his teaching career thinking a lot about Marxist ideology, and the second half immersed in medieval theology. Some might call that a jarring shift of interests. Ever the good sport, Turner won’t blame you for thinking so.
But as he prepares to leave his full-time faculty position at YDS and Yale’s Religious Studies Department, Turner makes the case that he has been connecting the dots all along. Both Marxism and medieval thought have kept him on a pursuit, the endeavor to relinquish false idols, false thinking about God.
“I’m still hoping to put two halves of a career together,” says Turner, the Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology. “And it still has something to do with hunting down the idols, the false gods.”
“With Marx,” he explains, “I was interested in understanding which God Marx was denying. Marxist critique in a vague way seemed to have something in common with the medieval mystics’ attempts to abandon the idols, all the false gods that deepens one’s own worse mental habits. Reading John of the Cross or The Cloud of Unknowing or other medieval works, you move into a new darkness, a cloud. But the darkness of God also turns out to be the overwhelming light of God, too bright for us to see.”
A conversation with Denys Turner is bound to roam with high spirits across continents and centuries. He is a Roman Catholic theologian, with a special interest in medieval and mystical traditions, who came to Yale in 2005 after a university teaching career of nearly 40 years in England and Ireland. (He returns to his native England this summer but will teach at YDS again in Spring 2013 and Spring 2014.) His influence and popularity were demonstrated last month at a March 22-24 Yale conference organized in his honor called "The Trials of Desire and the Possibility of Faith," addressing "desire, faith, and the darkness of God.” (Click here to read accompanying story.)
Arriving at Yale, he says, was “a fantastic liberation.” In English universities, he had to be reticent about his faith and its relation to his research interests, especially after he began reading the great medieval theologians seriously in the early 1980s. Here, he could be up-front about his religion, a repositioning that broadened his theological conversation, enriched his teaching and enlarged his writing projects to include the lives and questions of churchgoing believers, not just other academics.
“Here, one can do theology with the ecclesiastical tradition one belongs to, give an account of what it means to be a Roman Catholic and write about theology and its significance for the actual life of Christians and churches. And the conversation is broader and deeper. We learn that Aquinas and Calvin can actually talk to each other—because they are both reading Augustine! So let’s read Aquinas and Calvin and Augustine ourselves, together.”
Thus his next book will be a study of St. Thomas Aquinas for non-theologians and non-philosophers, to be published by Yale University Press probably next year.
“Thomas is a writer without ego—the man’s life is his work,” says Turner. “He is somehow or other a saint by virtue of his having written books. When you think about the life of holiness, you usually think of that as separate from books. Normally holiness is found in the heart, or in works of charity. Thomas’s case is different. The holiness is in the books: he had a holy mind. A holy teacher—that’s what he is. That's what he thinks a theologian should be.”
Turner argues that Aquinas, despite a formidable reputation as the towering figure of the medieval age, is very much a feet-on-the-ground theologian. Turner wants to rescue Thomas from those who read him strictly as a Christianized Plato.
“For Thomas, theology recognizes that the material realm speaks God,” Turner says. “Where God is most visibly present is in eating bread and drinking wine—don’t look in the clouds. Eating and drinking become, amazingly, the body and blood of Christ. The meaning of the whole universe is something as basic as bread and wine, eating and drinking, the washing of baptism. So I read him as a feet-on-the-ground theologian, not head-in-the-clouds. That puts him closer to Aristotle than Plato. I’m trying to retrieve my Aquinas from the Platonizers.”
Aquinas has had an intriguing public career in the last century and a half. As Turner describes it, Aquinas was cast as the official Catholic theologian from 1870 until the Vatican II Council in the early 1960s. “He was a captive of the Roman curia. He became a textbook version of himself.”
Since Vatican II, there’s been a shift away from the scholasticized view of him. By now, Aquinas is read and debated across Christian traditions, to the benefit of all, including Aquinas.
“This is a wonderful moment for him. He’s finally out of the ghetto and is now where he wanted to be all along—as a teacher for all, the whole group. He is the communal possession of all sides, no longer just a Catholic version.”
Turner’s eyes flash and flicker when he contemplates his next book idea—possibly another rescue mission, this time Dante, a medieval poet that Turner has read closely for decades.
“I’d love to be able to write about the theology of Dante—he’s so in the captivity of literary theorists,” Turner muses.
“What you find Dante saying is that theology ought to be done in the vernacular, the language that cries ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ and you don't cry ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ in Latin. Our theological ideas of the 14th century would shift to find him in the company of theologians, once you begin to account for the vernacular and the poetic. Once you allow the genre of poetry, then women start to be heard.”
Across four decades, Denys Turner’s lively spirit continues to blaze, dedicated to the vocation of teaching and the clarity of ideas.
“Yes, the idea of Dante as theology instead of literary criticism attracts me. It’s kind of high risk, but a risk or two at my age is worth the fun."