Over the past weeks, I’ve had a banquet from my bookshelf, rereading and relishing the Master Chef of theology, Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013). For my first Capon post, see Flights of Fancy over a Pedal Note of Grace – thanks to theological blog Mockingbird for a mention in their weekly recommendations. Here’s another serving of reflections, with lashings of Capon’s tasty fare.
In my theology studies I’ve hacked at some tough steaks. Some are nutritious, while others lack any juice at all, with prose as colourful as cold porridge and as hard to digest. In The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History (1996), Capon describes the “Scripture-starved void” of much academic theology. It’s populated by a “bestiary of intellectual ‘-isms’”, with scholars bent on exterminating “whatever beast preceded our latest monster into the melee”.
We allowed philosophical house-wrecking to replace theological home-building as the principal joy of academe… debating not the issues but the shape of the negotiating table – for an interminable kaffeeklatsch on the porch of theology instead of an exploration of the house of faith…
We are so busy sampling the predictable little quiches and crudités on the academic buffet that we have ruined our appetite for the startling flavours and large portions of the Supper of the Lamb. (AH 12-14)
For Plato, philosophy began in wonder; for Capon, theology started with an astonishment that savours the full-flavoured fun of the Gospel. The job of theologians is not to “unscrew the inscrutable”, but to “display the beast of the faith in all its oddness”. They must uncover the mind-boggling goodness of the Good News that’s been “buried 6 feet deep under a pile of unalarming piffle” – proof, for Capon, that
We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.
Capon takes up arms in service of the Gospel’s surprise, wielding “a mixture of serious thought and stand-up comedy”. He exegetes Augustine, chats with his reader, and juggles the images of Scripture – itself the most quirky of books. Neither the Bible nor Capon suits rational apologists who try to prove the faith like a mathematical theorem. I turned to such authors in my late teens, hoping to reduce life to a formula I could grasp. Had I read Capon back then, I’d have known the equations would never balance.
Everyone who rests his life on his ability to hold his world together by intellectual synthesis runs the risk that some day, years hence perhaps, the doubts will suddenly “blow it up with one appalling laugh”. (PG 4)
It is the divine incongruity which, because it stands the Great King Intelligibility on his head and takes off his pants of provability, is the last laugh of God.
Capon reminds me that I’m saved by a person, not an intellectual system, and I don’t have to understand how it all works.
Trust Jesus, then. After that, theologise all you want. Just don’t lose your sense of humour if your theological surfboard deposits you unceremoniously in the drink. (PK 27)
The first mark of a theologian is a deep awareness that his pack of cards is not what gives him life… At the end of the game of images, we put the cards back in the box and go to bed with nothing but the trust we started with. (BNT 229, 250)
Faith is not a logical proof, but a game, “a gamble, a leap, a vault into another order of reality”. The mystery of grace “makes mincemeat out of plausibility”. In The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology (1995), Capon pictures theologians as hunters of this Mystery. Although they know they’ll never run it to ground or “get even one clear shot at the Beast, they are happy enough keeping their guns oiled and tramping through the woods.” (RW 307)
Above all, they must love dogs – they must be persons who delight in their kennelful of words… The language of theology is a pack of foxhounds, and theologians are masters of the hunt. Their job is to feed, water, and exercise their dogs so that they will be in peak condition for the hunting of the Divine Fox. (RW 370)
In The Mystery of Christ . . . and Why We Don’t Get It (1993), Capon takes us on the hunt via a series of pastoral conversations, each followed by debriefing with a semi-fictional “Reader Advocacy Committee” that represents a range of views. Like some of them, I grew up with Capon’s “football game” understanding of Christ’s incarnation (MC 80). For the first half, God coaches from the heavenly sidelines. During half time, however, he decides “it’s time to get Deity itself into the game” and sends on the Son. So Jesus was a late and short-term player on the soccer field of history, God’s plan B to patch up creation after Adam and Eve trashed the first design.
By contrast, Capon’s theology centres on the ever-present Mystery of Christ that was revealed in Jesus, much as the stone concealed underneath the plains bursts up through the surface in the Rocky Mountains.
This Mystery, as the New Testament presents it, is not at all a transaction poked into a universe that previously didn’t have the benefit of it. Rather, it is a cosmic dispensation that has been present at all times and in all places, but “kept secret for ages and generations” (Romans 16:25)… hidden “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). (MC 25)
The action of God in Christ is not that of a sewing-machine needle running a basting stitch through the world; it is the presence of the iceberg of the incarnation under the whole of creation. The needle touches only some points of history; the iceberg floats (nine-tenths hidden) beneath it all. (AH 112)
Unfortunately, writes Capon, the church has often marketed the Mystery like a power company, with access fees of good works, and threat of a cut-off leaving us in darkness if we don’t keep up our payments of moral behaviour. We have forgotten that:
The Mystery of Christ shines from one end of creation to the other: the whole shooting match is already lit up everywhere, free for nothing. (MC 65).
Jesus is the Light of the World, not the Lighting Company of the world. Neither he nor his church is an electricity supplier you have to get wired up to in order to have light in your life. He is the Sun, not a power utility; all you have to do is trust him enough to open your eyes and presto! You had light all along. (RW 25)
Changing the metaphor from sight to sound:
The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. The music of the Mystery, of course, is hidden music: we have to trust that it’s being played… And so the real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music – and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at. (MC 170)
The invisible Mystery underlies the whole story of Scripture – in Christ all things are created, reconciled, and held together (Colossians 2). God didn’t construct the cosmos like a builder and then walk away, but he continually and intimately sustains it all:
God runs the world from beginning to end by the radically astonishing device of romancing it into being out of nothing. It leaps into existence in a fit of longing for the incarnate gorgeousness that calls it… Creation is a dance of desire. (AH 122)
The world isn’t God’s surplus inventory of artefacts; it is a whole barrelful of the apples of his eye, constantly juggled, relished, and exchanged by the persons of the Trinity. (RW 178)
Therefore everything is sacred: not just theology, but also carpentry or cooking or computing. All things reflect God’s glory and can be offered up in worship, says Capon in An Offering of Uncles (1967), even bodies and faces – and beards.
A Hirsute Interlude
So I offer you my Uncle Frank and his facial forest. Not long after I finished school, where regular razor-scrapings were expected, he suggested I kick the habit for the summer holidays. I did, and my chin was never seen again.
People asked, “Isn’t it itchy?” – No – “or uncomfortable?” – Only the first winter before I learnt, painfully, to tilt back my head before zipping up my jacket. But the most common question is “Why?”
I mostly reply that male facial follicles naturally produce such growth (at least in Nordic races: for one excited hairdresser in Bangkok, mine was the first beard she’d trimmed). In short, I have done nothing. The question is, “why do you choose to shave minutes off your day fighting the divine default?” I like to think this slams the ball of justification back into my smooth-faced interlocutor’s court, but good Father Capon played far better.
He maintained that “the most benighted ages have been the eras in which the razor has been rampant”. To the question “Why do you have a beard?” he gave seventeen possible answers:
(Simple): I like it.
(Taciturn): I just do.
(Sheepish): Lots of men have beards.
(Rude): None of your business.
(Cowardly): Oh? Don’t you like it?
(Confident): It is manly.
(Overconfident): It keeps women away.
(Practical, in respectu causae efficientis): Because I don’t shave.
(Agnostic): I don’t know; I stopped shaving and it grew.
(Theological, but cautious): You will have to ask God.
(Practical, propter incommoditatem rasurarum): I was tired of cutting myself every morning.
(Devout): It is a gift of God.
(Practical, pro bono prolis): I look more paternal with one.
(Meditative): It would be ungrateful to die without having seen it.
(Practical, sed propter vanitatem): It hides my weak chin.
(Theological, propter causam finalem): God meant man to have one.
(Practical, ad placendam uxorem): It tickles my wife. (RW 111)
Capon’s world wasn’t all such hairy hilarity. In 1974 he experienced a personal tragedy and found his life was “over, gone, kaput”. He was dead. Gradually, however, he saw that:
My death was not the tragedy I first thought; it was my absolution, my freedom… if there is a God who can take the dead and, without a single condition of credit-worthiness or a single, pointless promise of reform, raise them up whole and forgiven, free for nothing – well, that would not only be wild and wonderful; it would be the single piece of Good News in a world drowning in an ocean of blame. It was not all up to me. It was never up to me at all. It was up to someone I could only trust and thank. It was salvation by grace through faith, not works. (RW 8)
In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole test-passing, brownie-point-earning rigmarole of the human race has been canceled. (MC 9)
From then on, Capon constantly proclaimed the “huge, hilarious gift” of this grace. Like the Protestant Reformers, he
ranted and raved endlessly… about the falseness of the notion that the gasoline of grace could be made to give better mileage if you put into it the additive of some more direct performance… Grace was to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale. (BNT 109)
Rather like Martin Luther did after he despaired of his own righteousness, Capon rediscovered the message of St Paul:
The Epistle to the Romans has sat around in the church since the first century like a bomb ticking away the death of religion; and every time it’s been picked up, the ear-splitting freedom in it has gone off with a roar. The only sad thing is that the church as an institution has spent most of its time playing bomb squad and trying to defuse it. For your comfort, though, it can’t be done… [So] hold on to your hat. Compared to that explosion, the clap of doom sounds like a cap pistol. (BNT 287)
The Reformation was a time when people went blind-staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar-full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, 200-proof grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture that would convince anyone that God saves us single-handed… that the saved were home free even before they started. (BNT 109)
Over and over Capon serves up this lip-smacking message, revelling in his favourite verses from Romans (see end of post). Faith is in no way a transaction or accomplishment or the cause of God’s gift. It is simply our acceptance of God’s acceptance. This means that:
The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party – the endless reception of the Lamb and his bride – and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town. (MC 10)
Grace is wildly irreligious stuff. It’s more than enough to get God kicked out of the God union that the theologians have formed to keep him on his divine toes so he won’t let the riffraff off scot-free… if all we can think of is God as the Eternal Bookkeeper putting down black marks against sinners – or God as the Celestial Mother-in-Law giving a crystal vase as a present and then inspecting it for chips every time she comes for a visit . . . well, any serious doctrine of grace is going to scare the rockers right off our little theological hobbyhorses. (RW 11)
There’s a warning for the systematizing, mystery-fearing accountant-theologian who lurks in my heart! To spite the malnourished though heavy-weight bore still more, I’ve just ordered Capon’s slim and sinful Light Theology & Heavy Cream: The Culinary Adventures of Pietro & Madeleine (2004) for some “culinary and theological snack food”. For now, I bid you farewell:
May you glimpse the wondrous Beast and hunger for the hunt.
May you surprise the Gospel and take the saving punt.
May you hear the Mystery’s music, cast off guilt and pride,
and trip the light fantastic of the scot-free grace-mad jive.
Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears. (BNT 72)
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…
There is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Flights of Fancy over a Pedal Note of Grace (my first Capon post, with more links)
- Some of my favourite brief Capon quotes (on Twitter)
- Robert Farrar Capon on Self-Knowledge and Atonement
- “Remembering Robert Farrar Capon” by Mary Hietbrink (a tribute from Capon’s publisher)
- Robert Farrar Capon: Saved in his Death (another tribute)
- Robert Farrar Capon on Goodreads