Theological genealogists of modernity have always recognized the importance of literature to the sweeping intellectual stories they tell. Alasdair MacIntyre devoted a chapter of After Virtue to Jane Austen. Charles Taylor acknowledges a profound debt to Iris Murdoch’s novels and dips in and out of a vast array of poetry, from Homer to Milosz, to illustrate the spirit of the age. John Milbank’s counter-modernity is enchanted by Charles Peguy and Tolkien, while Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern casts Coleridge as tragic hero. Yet in none of these projects does fiction or poetry receive sustained engagement on par with philosophical and theological texts; rarely is literature allowed beyond heuristics and into the argument. (The great exception is Hans Urs von Balthasar, who generates some of his most important and genealogically surprising moves in sustained, textually sensitive engagements with Dante, Calderón, Hopkins, Peguy, Claudel, Bernanos. Minor exceptions are Pfau’s 20 pages on Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Minding the Modern and Jennifer Herdt’s wonderful reading of Jesuit drama in The Splendid Vices.)
In Beyond Reformation? David Aers dares to enter these debates with a book-length essay on Piers Plowman, the most ambitious work of theological poetry produced in England before Milton’s Paradise Lost. Aers’s most pressing concerns are also the most urgent questions for the likes of MacIntyre, Milbank, or Brad Gregory. How have political and economic forces shaped the ethical landscape of modern society? How have churches and individual Christians contributed to the de-Christianization of the west? Where do the temporal and spiritual authorities of church and state begin and end?
These are also the pressing concerns of Piers Plowman, a thrillingly, even sublimely, difficult dream vision composed and serially revised between around 1365 and 1390 (overlapping with Chaucer’s writing of The Canterbury Tales) by a poet who may have been named William Langland. In fluent alliterative verse, Langland manages to produce crystalline vignettes of vivid, personal beauty out of intensely learned biblical, theological, and natural-philosophical explorations. As in Dante’s compressed and allusive Divine Comedy and in T. S. Eliot’s fragmentary The Waste Land, the only way to the theology is through the poetry. David Aers, who has spent the latter part of his career at Duke interpreting Piers Plowman to Duke Divinity School faculty and students, is the ideal guide to this mysterious yet evangelically direct poem. Writing always with non-specialists in mind, Aers explains how the poem works as poetry in order to reveal its significance for historical and modern theology.
Aers demonstrates that Langland was vigorously involved in the ethical and ecclesiological debates of his own day and, indirectly, in those of the Protestant Reformation. The result of this conversation is that William Langland emerges as a profoundly insightful, agile, and unique theological voice addressing the crises of a de-Christianizing church. Any account of the theological origins of modernity must grapple with this powerful figure.
The following responses do just that, engaging not only with Aers’s arguments but also with Piers Plowman directly. And this direct engagement is necessary, for while Piers Plowman raises first-order theological questions that admit to exclusively theological discussion, the poem proffers multiple, often conflicting answers in a range of forms alien to the magisterial theological tradition. The discipline of theology is not capable, by its own resources, of handling and adjudicating these conflicts. Each respondent, then, must grapple with the literary side of topics familiar to theology—authority, revelation, dialectics—as well as with less familiar topics such as personification allegory. The result, as Stanley Hauerwas notes, is that “questions regarding the genre of theology cannot be avoided.”
And so the respondents’ disagreements over ecclesiology and other theological topics ultimately hinge on the form of the poem. As the dreamer Will searches for Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best—for the right form of Christian living—he discovers no shortage of answers, but the answers conflict. Readers of the poem have a similar experience. One passus ends with a monarchist (or proto-Erastian?) solution, a virtuous king taking the Church’s interests into his own hands. Another episode exposes the thorough corruption of the aristocratic court, setting it in enmity with the authentic quest for Saint Truth. Which model of church-kingdom relations commands credence?
At the mystogogical climax of the poem, the dreamer is transported by the Apostle’s Creed into hell (descendit ad inferna) to witness the events of Holy Saturday. He awakes on Easter morning and exhorts his wife and daughter to join the simultaneously penitential and triumphal procession to kiss the cross. Next Will falls asleep again, this time in Mass, and encounters Piers Plowman as Christ in the Eucharist. Together these beautiful and mysterious scenes commend participation in the devotional and sacramental life of the institutional church. Yet the poem itself ends with the institutional Church—the “Barn of Unity”—attacked and ruined by corrupt clergy and laity, with the only persistent seekers after truth wandering out into the wild world in search of Grace and Piers Plowman. It is an apocalypse of what Aers, echoing John Paul II, calls de-Christianization, a process at work throughout Christian history but particularly pernicious in the late Middle Ages. Which of these conflicting images does the poem hold out for our orientation, and which are spurious?
The answer to this hermeneutical question will have to rely on formal analysis. Aers’s interlocutors here generally agree with him that Piers Plowman works dialectically, but what kind of dialectic is this, and just which elements are sublimated and which negated along the way? Perhaps the most important formal datum for these considerations is the poem’s ending. Does the end of the poem command special hermeneutical insight, as the ending of a comedy or tragedy conditions not only the direction of all that came before it, but also its genre and therefore the very conditions of its interpretation? Or does Piers Plowman’s final ending have a status equal to the many other endings in the poem (the ends of its chapters, or passus; the ends of dreams; the ends of alliterative patterns), drawn back by a centripetal force to the theological middle of the Incarnation and the structural and sacramental middle of Easter morning and the Eucharist?
Aers’s understanding of the poem’s dialectical structure leads him to read the ending as itinerant beyond every form of church that has come before. In the wake of the Barn of Unity’s corruption, Will the dreamer joins a group of “fools” (Piers Plowman C.22.213-16), a “small, dissident remnant” (151) who commit themselves to “learn[ing] to love” (C.22.208). Aers argues that “the eschewal of institutional solutions and formations by the inspired fools in Passus XXII [the final passus] . . . [has] a tendency, a drawing beyond the poem’s ending, an ending, after all, which is the initiation of a search for Piers the plowman under the invocation of the Holy Spirit. My name for the direction in which Langland is moving with the ‘foles’ and the present absences is congregationalism” (160). Aers ventures this interpretation tentatively, with the qualification that Langland develops this image of the church of holy fools not as a radical ecclesiology to be institutionalized universally but with “thoroughly particular contexts and justifications” (160).
Where might this tendency have led in Langland’s own world? Aers cautiously suggests as historical example the house church of Hawisia Mone of Loddon in Norfolk, a lay woman who was tried for heresy in 1430 (155-56). Mone and her friends eschewed sacramental confession and considered the Pope the Antichrist. Instead of participating in the Roman church, they forged a community bound by charity alone, constructing a church within the heart, as Piers Plowman counseled Will in passus 7 (cf. 169). Aers sees similar congregations emerging a century or so later “in opposition” to all institutional and hierarchical instantiations of the church, Protestant as well as Catholic. Langland then becomes a precursor to Milton, sharing the seventeenth-century radical Puritan’s “subversive [vision] of Constantinian Christianity [and] the magisterial forms of authority it performs” (168).
The responses to follow all take issue with some aspect of the ecclesiology Aers finds in Piers Plowman. The points of contention are of several kinds. The participants in the symposium disagree about ecclesiology; about what kind of ecclesiology the author of Piers Plowman commended; about how the poem’s forms and structures guide us to resolve these disagreements; and about the historical possibilities for ecclesial reform. Such disagreements require several approaches, among them first-order theology, church and political history, and intellectual history. They also demand attention to the poetry, and none of the participants limits herself or himself to theological and historical argument. Rowan Williams attends to the poem’s Eucharistic poetics. Arabella (fille) and John (père) Milbank contribute an article-length response (thanks to Syndicate for running it in full) in which they make formal arguments in order to lend support to their theological contentions. Sheryl Overmyer finds Langland’s personification allegories to be the perfect figure by which to see how, in Thomas Aquinas’s terms, infused and acquired virtues blend to produce gradations of virtue. Steven Justice, the sole professional literary scholar, takes up the concept of the classic to challenge theology’s own disciplinary understanding of the term. Each of these responses, then, practices some mode of inquiry more common to literary studies than to theology, intellectual history, and church history in order to address first-order theological questions.
“Why,” Hauerwas asks, “are poems like Piers Plowman not included in the canon of texts any one pretending to be a theologian must know?” One answer is simply that theologians typically are not trained to read such works. David Aers’s Beyond Reformation?, in many ways the culmination of a life’s work, is an excellent example of how to join “literary” texts in their theological inquiries. And the lively responses in this symposium point especially to the fruits of grappling with the question of theological genre. For despite the concerns they share with many recent genealogies of modernity, neither Piers Plowman nor Beyond Reformation? takes the form of a grand narrative. Aers is emphatic that Langland’s ecclesiology is one adapted to the exigencies of a particular moment. The same could be said of Aers’s brief, dialectical book. At a time when some in the humanities are returning to the big questions with big answers, Piers Plowman emerges as a pertinent guide to some of the most important questions, one that proffers definite but localized answers. Aers has written a critique of a specific ecclesial modernity, modeling a critical mode that does not rest its authority on genealogy but rather on dialectical engagement with a master text that speaks with striking intimacy to our present age.
Beyond Reformation? would make an excellent companion for theologically inclined readers who want to encounter Piers Plowman for themselves. George Economou’s translation of the C-text (the latest version of the poem) is readily available, and is the version Aers uses for translations. Readers of the translation will also appreciate the excellent annotations in Derek Pearsall’s edition, from which Aers cites the Middle English. An outline of the poem’s plot, such as it is, can be a great help while reading. The poem roughly corresponds to the liturgical calendar, making it good Lenten reading, as detailed in this study guide by a former student of Aers and Hauerwas.