One of my favorite poems is a poem I should have no business knowing. That’s not to say that it is vulgar or in some way something which I shouldn’t know, rather, it is an old German lieder that I shouldn’t have encountered until I was much further along in my life, if at all. Friedrich Schumann’s musical setting of this lieder was something which entranced me for its movement as much as anything: a double chorus with soaring heights and a heartbreaking climax at the perfect moment in the poem in my mind. Yet, the poem itself without music has a different sort of energy entirely, not entirely ascetic, but at the same time something which transcends the human mind and focuses on something…different, if not greater. To define this difference, I think, would be to destroy it and therefore, I’ll simply write the text and explain my thoughts on the poem after, so that maybe you’ll understand more of what I’m talking about.
In distant heaven!
Who brighten rays with rays of a better world
Do not your spectral eyes
Gaze down on earth,
Into this beclouded heart?
In distant heaven!
Does not life’s fleeting dream
Also dream up there in space?
Does not rapture, bliss,
Sadness, gloom, pain,
Beyond our sun
Also revive a fainting heart?
In distant heaven!
Do you not promise me heavenly peace
From your distant realm?
Will not unalloyed peace
One day thaw the hearts of the weary
On the golden meadows?
In distant heaven!
Till my spirit spreads its wings
And soars to your peace,
May my longing cling to you,
Full of hope and faith!
O kind and beautiful stars,
Could you ever lead astray?”
The lieder in question, if you weren’t familiar, is Friedrich Rückert’s “An Die Sterne” or “To The Stars”. In it, Rückert makes an almost airy appeal to a something which couldn’t possibly reply to him. In this case, Rückert is not appealing to an object that is tangible or appealing to a nameless, faceless figure. He appeals instead to an idea which is central to the human experience, that of the relationship between the human and the divine.
Rückert’s answer to the question of the interplay between the human and the divine never clearly rests on either side of the debate because, even in these lines, he’s not appealing to one side over the other. What Rückert appeals to instead is the complex intersection between the divine and the human element to the divine. This intersection is marked by the traditional stereotypes that permeate throughout the idea of Christianity that no sect seemingly has written off or found a way to slough off. We talk of a divine figure who’s above us, yet has the qualities that humanity does in terms of emotion and in terms of feel.
It’s impossible to not view the divine human, as I’m terming it for the purposes of discussion, as contradictions in terms. If indeed there is some divine figure above us who is watching over us, then surely it can’t be something which is dissimilar to us, but the idea in many major religions is that this divine figure is inherently different than us. Hence, the divine human-a benevolent figure who shares in human emotion and yet supposedly is above human emotion-is a contradiction in terms, yet in many ways, our appeals are to that figure, not some all-knowing, all-benevolent being which works in the ways that that being desires.
No such being exists in practical terms (though I’m fundamentally a believer in the idea of a sovereign being, whose will is unknowable to any of us). The idea of this is rather blasphemous in terms of its practical effects. We can only discuss the idea of the divine human through the vein of an appeal, not in the vein of any real tangible decision that has any real credence or any real credence in anything less than thought. However, as a concept, an abstraction which does not exist, the idea of the divine human is actually something which works marvelously well for the purposes of appeal.
The appeal that Rückert makes throughout his poem is to a distant figure seeking the interplay between the emotions that he experiences personally and the distant relative emotions he seeks. The subtle complexity of the emotions he describes in stanza two are an example of this. Yet they also prove a point about the fundamental relationship difference that is the ideal between us and this world and the rest of everything in us. We describe the divine as a figure with an all-knowing nature and an all-seeing nature who rules over the universe, we don’t describe him as feeling over the universe.
There is a fundamental disconnect with the human and the divine, or at least our description and relationship with the divine because as Rückert points out, we view it as both an abstraction and something which is very real and tangible. Notwithstanding that we know that abstractions can be very real, ideas don’t have to be tangible to have credence as something which exists, we think that relationships have to be of the incredibly intimate kind-where emotion and feeling is the ruler of the day. I would posit, however, that the simple enormity and profundity of life writ large is the connection we should have with the Divine. It stops us from the conflation of genuine love and emotion with something that by all explanation is fundamentally emotionless. Though I’m not too fond of quoting him for any particular purpose, it must be said that Augustine of Hippo hits this on the head in Book XI, Chapter 3 of The City of God Against the Pagans, “Hence, in respect of the invisible things which are out of reach of our own interior perception, we ought likewise to put our trust in witnesses who have learnt of these things, when they have presented to them in that immaterial light, or who behold them continually so displayed.”
Which brings me to another example which goes against this trope, the work of John Donne. In this case though, Donne does not so much ridicule the trope as actively avoid it by attributing to the Divine what is the Divine. He accomplishes this not so much by not actively describing a relationship with the heavenly, rather he removes the emotional element of said relationship as it comes to his belief in such. I would note here that I actually do believe in the concept of an emotional relationship as an aspect of belief in the divine, not as the primary element in any relationship. The reason for this is because of the fickle nature of that relationship. After all, how deep is faith, if faith can be thrown away on a particular whim? The answer there is not very deep at all. No matter how intense love is, love can cool. Anger can dissipate and sadness too can go by the wayside.
The work of John Donne which best illustrates the proper relationship between the human and divine is not a piece which remains in the body of work most often discussed or even remembered. It’s the first of his holy sonnets which exhibits this relationship in perfect detail, the holy sonnet which goes by the name “La Corona”. This poem was one of the first of Donne’s “Divine Poems” and follows a long period of his life which focused simply on womanizing, to be frank. I’m not going to give a biography of Donne beyond that as there are plenty out there and they can do a deal better job than myself, but Donne’s first poem relays the proper relationship between the human and heavenly.
“Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,
Weav’d in my low devout melancholy,
Thou which of good, hast, yea art treasury,
All changing unchang’d Ancient of days;
But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,
Reward my muses white sincerity,
But what thy thorny crown gain’d, that give me,
A crown of Glory, which doth flower always,
The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,
For, at our end begins our endless rest;
The first last end, now zealously possest,
With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends,
‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,
Salvation to all that will is nigh.”
In “La Corona” Donne makes no emotional appeal to the deity on his behalf or on someone else’s behalf, rather focusing on the stark realities of the divine. For Donne, this means the realities of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in reality, the lesson of the impersonal and abstract as opposed to the completely and totally personal is applicable to all major religions. When we begin to identify our personal advancement and attainment not with the figure, but with our relationship with a figure, we deny the very essence of the relationship between the human and divine. In the interplay between the human and the divine, there should be an airy gap between our personal wants and needs and those imperceptible ones of the divine. When we conflate our personal wants with the heavenly, we in effect deny the heavenly of its agency. It bends us to its will and not the other way around.
What “An Die Sterne” and “La Corona” actually propose is a completely different way of thinking about the human relationship with the divine. Both Rückert and Donne propose the proper form of detachment, not conflating our goals with heavenly goals and not conflating emotion with what really is not an emotionless, but rather an oblique relationship. The misunderstanding that might arise when one thinks about the divine is that closeness is necessarily driven by dedication to some falsified ideal or that one’s ideals are suddenly the chosen ones of whatever deity one believes in. Nothing could, in fact, be farther from the truth; what we ought to demand is not that the divine be emotionally invested in us but rather that we be emotionally invested in him.
Alex is the Editor-in-Chief of The Outpost. If you like his content and want more of it, one way to rouse him out of creative slumber is to DM him your ideas and support him on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/axperdue. He can be found on Twitter @_AlexPerdue and on Instagram @_alex_perdue.