Richard Vytniorgu offers an alternative perspective on scholarly freedom.
Alicia Smith’s recent blog posts on Rilke and Scholarly work under God affirm the importance of academics’ work. But they prompt me to ask some questions. Alicia’s language is saturated by an emphasis on the ‘sovereignty’ of God. She speaks of ‘working under the supreme agency of God in the world’, that God is an ‘omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being’ who ‘faces no restrictions’. Moreover, we as researchers seem called to ‘work under God’ and to ‘work in his laws […] the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality’. This makes me feel rather sat upon, reckoning with my contingent, ‘time-bound’ existence. Simply put, in this vision I am God’s handmaiden responding submissively, ‘Be it unto me’.
But I wonder how fruitful this view is. Firstly, I remind myself that God is a personal Trinity – that each person in the Trinity is a person in communion with the others, each with his special role. Christ – the God-man – is the person who reveals the Father to the human race and his Church is made up of those connected to the Head, who are becoming transfigured, revealing the divine to creation at the same time as revealing the human to the divine.
Creation was not finished at the first Sabbath; it is an ongoing project in which humans use their freedom either to work towards the realisation of the Kingdom of God, or to return themselves and the rest of Creation to nothingness. The Gospel is so radical because it asks that humans realise their full humanity by recovering their connection to the divine – to the one who has actually defeated death and promises a resurrection. As the Russian religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in The Destiny of Man (1931): "God longs for His 'other', His friend; He wants him to answer the call to enter the fullness of the divine life and participate in God’s creative work of conquering non-being. God does not answer his own call."
Importantly, when we turn to God and work with him in the transfiguration of the world, we are coming into contact with a personal Trinity – a God who has an inner emotional life, an inward movement towards his beloved (mankind): "Men are afraid to ascribe to Him inner conflict and tragedy characteristic of all life", wrote Berdyaev, "but have no hesitation in ascribing to Him anger, jealousy, vengeance and other affective states which, in man, are regarded as reprehensible". Like Berdyaev, I am puzzled by some of the attributes for which God is traditionally lauded: "Self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, stony immobility, pride, the demand for continual submission are qualities which the Christian religion considers vicious and sinful, though it calmly ascribes them to God".
The point of articulating this discrepancy is that creativity – what we engage in as academics (including scientists) – is something more radical than sliding into the grooves of pre-ordained ‘norms’ or ‘laws’. Indeed, personally I have my doubts about the very existence of such things, which seem to me to derive more from Enlightenment modernity than the Gospels.
Creativity is radically new only because it is radically personal: it develops out of a human’s transformational divine image, and is therefore a process, just as personality is also a process. All of us hope that the work we do will be considered of the gold and precious stones variety rather than hay and rubbish to be thrown on a fire. But I would argue that the only way we will create such work is by responding freely to God’s call to co-create with him (not for him), knowing that when we do so, we are bringing joy to a God who yearns to understand and love his creation as it unfolds new developments which will enter eternal life.
The Christian faith is either beset or bejewelled with paradoxes, depending on your perspective. Working under a sovereign God sounds very much like working under Caesar, and indeed, emphasis on the ‘sovereignty of God’ stems from a Roman interpretation of Christianity; it is less known among Eastern Christians. Yes, God has ‘control’ over all he made. But let’s be careful what we ‘do’ with this truth. We must remember that God’s eternal plan was always to reveal himself as the self-sacrificing one, who liberates his creation from slavery to sin and folds creatures into his sobornost (community) of transfiguring human beings. His ‘yearning’ is for this free response among us, to bring our own gifts to the great work of ongoing personal creation.
In my own work, how am I going to dignify the Triune God with a free response to his call to co-create with him as one connected to the God-man? How am I going to give joy to my yearning God?
Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.