The Pope's Rhinoceros, or Are Theologians Idiots?

Chris Harris


William Blake's anger at Sir Joshua Reynolds's pontifications cannot be contained when Reynolds intones the praise, 'He was a great generaliser .. .'. Blake's (marginal) retort is:

To Generalise is to be an Idiot. To Particularise is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.

This sounds sweetly in our postmodern ears. We have become suspicious of the grand narratives of generalisation. We have learned to detect the hidden agenda behind such narratives. Literature can glory in its pursuit of the particular and it can, with clear conscience, join itself to religion as long as religion deals with particular religious experiences. So we have courses and conferences which exist under the headings, Literature and Religion or Religion and Literature.

But what of theology? Are theologians generalisers, and, hence, idiots? Are they to be kept isolated from discussions of literature lest they infect it with the old drive to generalise? Theorists of literature, such as Anne Freadman, can call for permeability of discourse: the social sciences have much to say to literature and vice-versa. But is theology to be kept out of this dialogue? After all, theologians are reasonably honest in confessing what they are about. The most famous definition of theology is Anselm's 'faith seeking understanding' (fides quaerens intellectum) . So theologians presume faith and try to explain it. Are historians as honest as this in confessing the faith they live by? (Witness the Manning Clark affair!) Are politicians? (John Howard's 1996 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture looked like a reply to what Manning Clark was supposed to have said!) Are anthropologists? (Remember Derek Freeman's hatchet job on Margaret Mead!) The question stands: is a healthy relation between theology and literature possible? Is the faith presumed by theologians so general that it is, in Blake's terms, idiotic?

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