Stevie Smith And Christianity Essay, Research Paper
Discovering the essence of Christianity is too varied and diverse a topic for anyone to pin to solely one definition. How one approaches the topic of Christianity is often in accordance to their personal foundations of religious belief. Sometimes these beliefs are deeply seeded during childhood so, as children mature into adults, they seldom doubt that which has been taught to them for so many years. English poet, Florence Margaret Smith, was not one of these individuals. Smith, more popularly known by her nickname ?Stevie?, was raised in and around the Catholic religion and Christian tradition for many years but still grappled with many issues surrounding the Christian church and the heralded deity they called Lord. Stevie Smith wrote theologically inspired poetry because she was an existentialist who was attempting to understand the Christian environment while Christianity had shifted from the existentialist?s point of view.
To be an ontological existentialist, one must ?participate in a situation, especially a cognitive situation, with the whole of one?s existence?, according to Paul Tillich, German philosopher, theologian, and author of Courage to Be (124). Operating within this definition, Smith would be obligated to interact within the infrastructure of Christianity. She would have to attend church on Sunday mornings, visit with elderly women at socials after the service, and passionately immerse herself in at least one Bible study course offered within the ?House of the Lord?, for a significant amount of time. However, Tillich does not just state one must become physically involved in any given situation to be marked as an existentialist, but become involved ?with the whole of one?s existence? in a ?cognitive situation?. Smith is required at this point to completely surround herself, physically and mentally with the Christian tradition and all it represents to her and for others.
Historically, Smith was quite involved both cognitively and physically with the Christian realm of the world from her baptism as an infant straight through to her funeral in the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. She did not appear to have scurried away from the Christian world and theologies that surrounded this religion?s persona. Smith was aware of the presence of the Christian tradition and even the existence of a holy omnipotent somewhere beyond where mortal eyes can see. She had knowledge of that presence. Tillich stated, ?An existential knowledge is a knowledge in which these elements, and therefore the whole existence of him who knows, participate? (124). Smith had knowledge of her surroundings within a Christian society and was gaining courage to be as herself within that environment.
She was unsure, however, of where she fit into a courageous role of being staunchly independent and openly proud to be who she was. For at the same time she had discovered existential knowledge was a key to understanding if she could only get involved within its structure. Soon she would learn a disheartening truth. ?In all existential knowledge, both subject and object are transformed by the very act of knowing? (124). She discovered the one truth she could always rely on. This was that by looking for the truth, one always inadvertently changes it. By searching for answers within the infrastructure, the product only dampened her spirits.
Thus she began grappling within her poetry regarding the idea that we ?are able to transcend, in knowledge and life, the finitude, estrangement, and the ambiguities of human existence? (125). She focused many of her poetic topics towards the acceptance of Death toward her position in life. ?Come Death? and ?Tender Only to One? are both vivid examples of how Smith seemed to dislike life and taunt Death to arrive at her doorstep and take her away from this world and the confusing Christian Lord.
She lyrically proclaims in ?Come Death?, a poem within the New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith, ?Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god / Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know / Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp, / Come Death. Do not be slow? (Smith 146). Smith is begging the haste of Death to her bedside in an attempt to overcome the mortal restraints Christians suffer when trying to understand who God is. By inviting Death, she solely took comfort in the one constant everyone on Earth will agree upon, which is the fact dying is the one thing every human has in common. As opposed to putting her faith in a debated theory, Smith turned to the reliability of the Reaper. However, Smith could never completely turn a deaf ear to the subject of God and His affect on her life.
A longtime personal friend of Smith?s, Reverend Gerald Irvine, declared, ?One could say she did not like the God of Christian orthodoxy, but she could not disregard Him or ever quite bring herself to disbelieve in Him? (MacGibbon 9). In that manner of thinking, Smith was not on a congruent page as the Lord of Christian orthodoxy, but seemingly she was congruent at some point in her younger life. Thus it is fairly obvious either Smith or the Church altered their paths so as to become non-congruent.
Stevie Smith appears to have attempted to separate but became ensnared in a web of faith, God, and Christianity. In an attempt to disentangle these three titles, she became a confused and trapped woman in bonds of theological theory and biblical interpretation, which wound around her arms and legs, pulling her toward a cognitive captivity. In the existentialist?s point of view, with regards to the Fall of Man as described in the Old Testament, man had fallen out of favor with God and had therefore becoming something other that what he had been created as. Plato stated, ?Man is separated from what he essentially is in the conceptual world? (Tillich 127). Existential theology interprets this act as to mean man is essentially good due to the fact the essential nature of man was good at the time of the divine creation. Stevie Smith, thinking as an existentialist, would also believe humanity is generally good in their hearts and not deserving of a fire and brimstone eternity of hell and damnation.
John Mahoney, author of Seeing Into the Life of Things: Essays on Religion and Literature, thought Smith was unhappy with the way people had begun to view God in the context of religion and faith. ?Stevie bemoans what men and women have made of God, how they have shaped institutional configurations that belie the purity of the message, how they have twisted God?s words into tortuous and stern creeds of good and evil, heaven and hell, rewards and punishments, into a forbidding, otherworldly asceticism? (Mahoney 324). Smith had made a distinction between a God who had created the Earth and the God that was worshipped in the church buildings on Sunday mornings by flocks of Christians.
Stevie Smith responds to this type of worship in a poem she wrote entitled, ?Our Bog is Dood?. Within this poem, the speaker tells a story of encountering a group of natives who believe blindly there Bog is dood ?because we wish it so / That is enough, they cried . . . And if you do not think it so / You shall be crucified? (Smith, 58). She questions their allegiance to this deity and leaves them confused in their definitions of goodness and their god, upon which they never agreed. The speaker slyly retorts, ?Oh sweet it was to leave them then / And sweeter not to see / And sweetest of all to walk alone / Beside the encroaching sea / The sea that soon should drown them all / That never yet drowned me? (59). Without any attempt to aide these individuals in coming to some sort of conclusion or realization about their god, the speaker leisurely exits the scenario to walk by the side of the impending swell of the sea that has proved to do nothing more than envelope those who are ignorant of the secret the speaker implies to possess.
Although it is not necessarily a good idea to read every piece of literature as a narrative voice directly reflective of the author, in this instance, Smith?s personal history tends to support this stylistic comparison. The natives are most certainly representative of the Christians Stevie Smith has met along her journeys in life who have naively accepted the ?goodness? of God without wondering what that truly means to their beliefs and how such a belief survives in the world they live in everyday. This was an imperfection of the church as an institution, which is something Stevie came to recognize as no longer part of God, but as part of man who had tainted his message of love and acceptance.
Sanford Sternlicht, professor at Syracuse University and author of Stevie Smith, noted, ?She was progressively disillusioned by Christianity. She saw dishonesty in the churches, and disagreed with the conventional construct of God as demeaning, vain, jealous, revengeful, (or) eager to sacrifice the innocent? (Sternlicht 106). This slowly developed distaste for Christianity did not come out of her disbelief in God, only in the God who was presented to her by those involved in a particular religion. Smith was not an atheist, and she even once mentioned to a friend, ?how very imperfect an agnostic I am? (Barbera 214). However, as an imperfect agnostic and a non-atheist, one is only left the option that she is a Christian, which is also a term she chose not to associate herself with very often at all.
As a matter of fact, Smith was so abhorred by the confusing ideas adopted and supported by Christianity that she created a poem, for which she has become known, entitled ?Oh Christianity Christianity?. This poem features multiple questions posed to God that He does not answer. Smith ponders, ?How could he take our sins upon Him? / . . . Was he horrible? Did he feel guilty? / (because if he was) Man without sin? Perfect Man without sin is not what we are? (Smith 102). These questions Smith brought up deal heavily with sin and death and the wages thereof and how Jesus, the perfect son of God and Son of Man, was able to take on mortal sins and live as a mortal human.
Once again, existentialism has polluted this situation because once Jesus became a knowledgeable individual completely cognitively entranced in His situation, he changed the circumstances from what they were. Thus is the logic of the existentialist. For Jesus to have come down to Earth and behaved as though He were mortal, Smith would argue He needed to not be informed who is Father was. No mortal boasted familial blood from the veins of the Lord of the Universe so this gave Jesus an unfair advantage to being a mortal over others on earth.
Smith hosts multiple amounts of questions about Christianity and the churches and why no one within the church answers her questions. The answer to that lies in the reaction of churches in the last century. Many churches have slowly veered away from the word of the Lord as set forth in the Bible, allowing them to be governed by a political office as opposed to the Old and New Testaments. Smith?s complaint with the church was its? continual separation from the Lord and studying of the Word as opposed to a more separatist notion supporting the apocalyptic teachings of Revelation and the hell that can be sent down my God to strike down those who doubt God.
In the same way Stevie Smith took some time to get to know herself and have the courage to be herself, it is similarly that way with those who are coming to the Lord. Smith struggles with concepts of the Lord because she does not know the Lord and it is virtually impossible to hold one on one conversation with Him so as to get to know who He is and what His plan for us is. Smith must rely on the teachings of the priests and clergymen in the churches she disagrees with due to the material and quite non-existential attitude hosted by the churches during her lifetime.
Stevie Smith is striving to find the truth in a world where it is better to be safe than truthful. According to Paul Tillich, ?Christian theology should decide for truth against safety, even if safety is consecrated and supported by the churches? (Tillich 141). Some religions have strayed from the idea of relaying God?s word to herding others to one central church location and Smith feels as though God is getting left behind in the brimstone and damnation speeches utilized to attract crowds and bring the masses to church.
So this poet tried to communicate with the God of the Christian orthodox slightly differently. She wrote poem after poem calling upon Him, demanding he speak, even speaking for Him once. Michael Tathum, author of That One Must Speak Lightly, quoted Smith as having said her goal as ?a poet was to sustain a dialogue with God in which there was no pretense that a comfortable response was possible? (Tathum 323-4). Speak she did, numerous times in numerous ways, each time awaiting a possible response other than the dirty looks she received from Christians on the church pews who were aghast she would even attempt to question God.
In response to negative reactions Smith received from Christians, Paul Tillich stated, ?One does not feel spiritually threatened by something which is not an element of oneself? (Tillich 141). Saying that were true, then each Christian Stevie Smith met also harbored their doubts about the church organization or about Christianity itself. Smith does not seem to nor is there any evidence to support that she does not believe in God entirely. Likewise, those who felt threatened by her comfort of self and willingness to question were not immediately doomed individuals who did not believe in God, they simply desired to explore another avenue of divine analysis. Smith did not desire to analyze whether or not God existed, rather why He did what He chose to do and why we as His people seem to be losing what our purpose is here on Earth.
Frances Spalding, author of Stevie Smith, argues Stevie was approaching topics with a strategy, ?confined within the areas of rational discourse? regarding subject matters, ?that belong in the language of faith? (Spalding 242). Perhaps Spalding is correct. Perhaps Smith is stabbing randomly into the dark to try to make sense of the Christianity, God, and the role of the two in her life either together or separate. However, Smith was most likely intelligent enough to have been familiar with the analogy of comparing apples to oranges and she knew better than to put matters of faith into sound logistical answers and vice-versa. Stevie Smith was simply trying to make sense of a world slowly becoming devoid of church and God in the only way she knew how. Her existentialist views are no longer applicable to the successful shelf life of a church congregation.
Smith believed humanity was full of generally good individuals. She believed God was a generally good God, who desired to help and not hurt those who were made in His image at the time of the divine creation. She did not believe that the church was the most appropriate venue for dispensing God?s word due to their clash of presentation styles, she being an existentialist and many churches shying away from that form of preaching style today.
By questioning the motives of God and the reasons as to why something has been done on Earth, Stevie Smith came across to many readers as an atheist without any interest in the Christian God. Stevie Smith dared to look beyond what was handed to her. She pressed the limits of what was socially acceptable within her class and status, refusing to accept what was handed to her and accept it on the basis that everyone else was. She refused to be a native chanting that her God was good without really knowing if He was. She refused to leap into an ocean that had consumed so many others without knowing whether or not she desired to be there in the first place. As an existentialist, she knew who she was and what she believed in and refused to compromise her beliefs for anyone or anything regardless of how unacceptable her action seemed to be.
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