John Donne and Religious Authority in the Reformed English Church.
John Donne was a complicated man; his vocational trajectory suggests as much. He was born into a venerable, if politically quiet, Roman Catholic family and spent the rest of his life struggling out of that confessional identity and into the reformed English Church. He was a scholar, rover, pauper, and writer of satires, an eventual court favorite, husband and father, a priest, and a poet. The man eludes neat categories, religious and literary, but according to Sweetnam, it was ultimately as a preacher that Donne found bearing and purpose in life.
It is not easy to get him there. S. begins his study with some heavy lifting, moving aside mostly political and ideological assumptions assigned to Donne in one form or another since the 17th century. Most recently, New Historicist scholars have threatened to reduce his protean thinking and writing to "a cocktail of apostasy and ambition that supposedly intoxicated the poet and preacher" (186). S.'s studied response is to let Donne speak for himself, and so nearly every page of this book resonates with some excerpt from the Donne canon. There are lines from prose works such as Donne's satires and the Essays in Divinity. A few of the poems are here as well, but the real witnesses to Donne's understanding and practice of religion are his sermons, and it is fitting that they should be, given their primacy of place in the liturgy as the preacher's explorations of the living word of God.
This study has the merits of brevity and focus. Rarely does S. stray from Donne's understanding of the religious authority that guided his life. Of the book's six chapters, the first two address the fundaments of this religious authority, in particular the centrality of the Scriptures. Little is presumed in this regard: S. patiently moves through Donne's understanding of the canon but also the necessary encounter of the individual with the transformative power of the Word so cherished in the Reformation tradition. But how the Scriptures are understood requires the church's ongoing guidance, most authentically witnessed in the preacher's work. In turn, this interpretive authority is never singular; it is shaped by other Christian authorities--ecclesiastical, legal, and governmental. With Donne's scriptural foundations set, S. moves to a more systematic examination of his ecclesiology in the book's two central chapters. While Donne emphasizes in his sermons the rewards of common ground and shared beliefs amid Christian communities (what S. calls Donne's "essentialist ecumenism"), Donne also insists that one cannot "shuffle religions together, and make it all one which you chuse" (112). The final two chapters sum up Donne's understanding of religious authority centered on the vocation of the preacher, and this is perhaps the finest treatment in the book. It was as a preacher that Donne found ultimate meaning in his life, "a task that demanded the highest pitch of the oddly assorted talents with which his earlier life had furnished him" (139).
S.'s sharp focus on Donne's theology yields considerable rewards. Donne's complexities are abiding, and S. avoids falling into the trap of forgiving his subject every idiosyncrasy. While S.'s scrutinies of Donne's language help the reader appreciate the nuances of his theology, at times the larger world of Stuart England with its tempestuous religiosity seems to be absent. Perhaps more about Donne's career as dean of St. Paul's and the inevitable politics this appointment had to play in his preaching would have added more subtlety to this work. But we do get glimpses of Donne's larger world and the intellectual forces that shaped much of his thinking and preaching: his affinity for the natural philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, for instance, and his obvious appreciation of the writings of Richard Hooker and Donne's own contributions to the Stuart fascination with apostolic succession. Of the latter, Donne not surprisingly maintained that a reverent and necessary link with the Apostles was less a matter of ordination ceremonies and more the bond of evangelical preaching.
In sum, this is an excellent study of the English Reformed Church through the prism of one of its most celebrated, brilliant, and complex pastors. It deserved a better final production in editing: an unfortunate number of typographical errors in S.'s commentaries on Donne's language--missing or wrong words and occasionally stray punctuation--mar this masterful study.
William J. Dohar
Santa Clara University
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|Author:||Dohar, William J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 31, 2015|
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