Chapter 7: Autobiography: The Unity of Life and Thought

Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology
by Sallie McFague

Chapter 7: Autobiography: The Unity of Life and Thought

An autobiography is a story, the story of a life, and the best autobiographies are written precisely as a story, that is, as an ordering of events around a central focus. Like a good story, a good autobiography deals with a great unfamiliar, the mystery of the self, in and through the familiar, a multitude of events and circumstances. If the autobiography is true, it points to the self elliptically through these events and circumstances; in other words, a successful autobiography is very similar to a parable. A religious autobiography or confession is similar, except that here the unfamiliar is not the "interesting" self but the self in relation to God. What shines through indirectly in a confession is God’s hand in the intricacies of an actual, historical life. The most parabolic of the confessions are not the mystical, self-absorbed ones -- the confessions of the medieval saints and the Puritans -- but the ones in which the self is vocationally integrated into the ambiguity and complexity of temporal life. The self’s participation in this public world becomes the setting for the parable of God’s dealing with a man or woman. To take as examples two modern Christian confessions, Sam Keen’s To a Dancing God is, on these terms, much less parabolic than is Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. Keen is mainly absorbed with his own person; Day, by her vocation in the world in relation to God.

The lives of the saints are in many instances such parables (often literally so, because of their legendary elements), which for centuries have provided intimations of the grace of God working in the ordinary, temporal circumstances of particular human lives. There may be little interest in the lives of the saints these days, and when these lives are understood primarily as imitations of the life of Jesus, as direct attempts to do what he did, there is ample reason for turning from them. But not all of the saints attempted direct imitation; many were struggling, public men and women who took the ordinary contemporaneous way and who made their "confession" in the world. Where they succeeded, their lives are paradigms of a primary form in Scripture, the parable.

The three levels we have been concerned with in this essay -- language, belief, and life-style -- are integrated in this third level, for language and belief are here hammered out in a life; the integrity of the new insights one has come to through language and belief are now painfully tested in one’s life. Throughout this essay we have not been talking about three things, of course, but about one -- about the parabolic form of language, belief, and life; but it is here, in life, in each one’s own life, that everything focuses. Matters are likely to get uncomfortable from now on. It is no longer only a question of poetry and novels, of language and of belief, but of the parabolic possibilities of my own life.

No one appears yet to have asked why autobiographies (and indeed all personal documents) are so interesting to read. The reason, in part, may be that the reader semiconsciously reflects on his own life as he reads about another’s, and his interest accordingly stems from his own self-love. 1.

We read autobiographies to find out about ourselves. The other is a medium, a metaphor, into that desert, myself. In autobiographies we see people in what could be called the "last lecture" stance.2. It is as if one had but an hour to say what is most important to the speaker -- the leisure and pseudo-objectivity are gone. Whatever is communicated must come with immediacy, intimacy, intensity, and involvement. In other words, in the midst of whatever other questions are raised, one always first and foremost raises the question of oneself.

One of the most interesting characteristics of our contemporary culture is its intense interest in the self, in autobiography, in life-styles. 2a. There are many levels of this fascination, from the interest of the general population in the TV documentary and the nonfiction novel (Capote’s In Cold Blood, Styron’s Nat Turner) to the dedication of many to communes and utopian societies in the search for their true selves. Sociology and psychology (Oscar Lewis, Studs Terkel, Robert Coles, Erik Erikson, Viktor Frankl, R. D. Laing) have adopted the experiential, documentary approach in a search for authenticity; Theodore Roszak mentions that "for most of the New Left, there has ultimately been no more worth or cogency in any ideology than a person lends it by virtue of his own action; personal commitments, not abstract ideas, are the stuff of politics."3. Bonhoeffer, Camus, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers have been our heroes -- people whose lives reflect, sometimes to the death, what they say.

It would appear, then, that the self is the place to begin. But who am I?

The self. . . . is infinitely difficult to get at, to encompass, to know how to deal with: it bears no definition; it squirts like mercury away from observation; it is not known except privately and intuitively; it is for each of us, only itself, unlike anything else experienced or experienceable.4.

Not only is the self elusive, but, to make the matter more complex, the self’s projections are the "world," our world. What we know are the metaphors or projections of the self, the worlds it creates. The relativity of knowledge demands such a perspective. Without assuming an idealistic perspective (the world out there is only what subjects say it is), a moderate Kantianism (and we are all, one way or another, Kantians) insists that in a sense, as James Olney says, all theology, philosophy, physics, and art is autobiography. 5. To put the question the other way, try to imagine the world without human beings -- a world that is unseen, uninterpreted, silent. What is it? We do not know quite how to answer that question. As Hopkins says in his Journal, "What you look hard at seems to look hard at you," but our looking comes first: the self has a priority. In a real sense, what the world is is what we say it is and we say it is what we are. The world, as Hopkins says, always has "the taste of me."

There is, then, from a number of points of view a priority to the self -- epistemologically, existentially, scientifically, artistically. It is hard to deny where modernity has landed us -- after Galileo toppled us from the center of the universe, human beings are, curiously, back there again, albeit in a somewhat different guise. In a sense we are "stuck" with our centrality: we cannot, finally, get outside of ourselves, we cannot jump out of our skins. But what many voices increasingly are saying -- from the existentialist tradition to the women’s movement -- is, "Why should we want to?" As Olney comments, what we all seek is not happiness or achievement but to be ourselves -- to realize the destiny that is me: to create, to recognize, to realize one’s own daimon. 6.

We are turned back again, then, as we have been several times during these comments, to the self. But when we start with the self, what do we start with? Ignorance, as Socrates reminds us. We know nothing about "the self," let alone our own selves. There has always been great suspicion about autobiography: people not only lie outrageously and cover up the "true" self, but even when they honestly try to uncover it they meet the old onion-peeling problem.

The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a "character" in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us. . . . The point is that the manifestation of the "who" comes to pass in the same manner as the notoriously unreliable manifestations of ancient oracles, which, according to Heraclitus, "neither reveal nor hide in words, but give manifest signs."7.

Yet, as Hannah Arendt insists, there is a solution to the enigma she poses in this quotation, for people do reveal who they are in their speech and action, and both are necessary, for without language action would be the movements of robots, and without action speech would disintegrate into abstract passivity.7a. But together, action and speech become the "sign," the metaphor, disclosing indirectly who one is. Hence, as Arendt points out, who somebody is is revealed only in action accompanied by speech, by, in other words, a story or drama. In Greek tragedy, for instance, the universal meanings are revealed by the chorus, "whereas the intangible identities of the agents in the story, since they escape all generalization and therefore all reification, can be conveyed only through an imitation of their acting."7b. 8. The way to the self, as Arendt suggests, goes through indirection, through the story of the self in speech and action as a metaphor or parable of the self. We cannot look at the self directly, for like mercury it squirts away from our sight; but we can evoke the self through a similitude of it, through the metaphor we call autobiography.

This is what autobiography is -- a likeness or metaphor of the self. It is an attempt to tell your story in such a way that the self, your essence or "master form," as Roy Pascal says, emerges. The reader as well as the writer of a good autobiography should be able to glimpse the self and say, "Aha! There it is!" When we write an autobiography we move from the known to the unknown; we attempt to grasp the unknown, the mystery of the self, through the known, the myriad details of the story of one’s own life. The details are not the self, but they ought to point to it, be a metaphor of it. No one’s life is complete chaos with no order at all; the details do contain a discernible pattern (though maybe not only one, and maybe not a very clear one). To become what I am not, I must start with what I am; but by seeing a pattern emerging in the tapestry I can weave it now more clearly, I can choose to become my emerging self (or perhaps radically change -- self-knowledge can lead to conversion as well as to emergence).

And the stories of others help also, for what we want from other autobiographies is finally self-knowledge. Not only from my own story do I learn who I am, but also from the stories of others. "What one seeks in reading autobiography is not a date, a name, or a place, but a characteristic way of perceiving, of organizing, and of understanding, an individual way of feeling and expressing that one can somehow be related to oneself." 9. Thus we have answered the question why we read autobiographies -- they help us to reflect on ourselves. This is, I believe, at the heart of the perennial fascination with the story of Jesus (not the theology of his person and work but the story in the synoptic gospels): there is, often even among agnostics, the suspicion that if I knew his story better, I would somehow come to know myself better. Or, as John Dunne says, we "pass over" to the story of Jesus and to the stories of others and then pass back to ourselves in the quest for self-knowledge.’10. In reading an autobiography, the finger finally points to the reader -- and what about you? Autobiographers attempt to tell effective stories. Martin Buber writes in the Preface to his collection of Hasidic tales about the difference between telling and being a story.

A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, was asked to tell a story. "A story," he said, "must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself." And he told: "My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!" 11.

Like parables and the parable that is Jesus, religious autobiographies should be effective stories that constitute help in themselves. The finger points as it does in the parabolic form to the reader but in a way that helps to move the reader to begin to integrate his or her own thought and life. 

The Art of Autobiography

The reason why an autobiography can be an effective story is that it is not merely a series of personal jottings and reminiscences but a work of art of a peculiar sort. Like a parable, an autobiography tells a particular kind of story, a metaphorical story. That is, the autobiography is intended to be a metaphor of the self; the story has a purpose but that purpose, the revelation of the self, is realized only in and through the details of an actual, historical life. As Roy Pascal says, the main point to an autobiography is the manifestation of "who" someone is and this occurs only as the reader identifies with the process, the voyage of discovery. 

The truly autobiographical impulse is to recapture the past, to see one’s life as a whole, to find within its vagaries one rapture and one indivisible personality. . . . The life is represented in autobiography not as something established but as a process; it is not simply the narrative of the voyage, but also the voyage itself. . . . This is the decisive achievement of the art of autobiography: to give us events that are symbolic or the personality as an entity unfolding not solely according to its own laws, but also in response to the world it lives in. Through them both the writers and readers know life. It is not necessarily or primarily an intellectual or scientific knowledge, but a knowing through the imagination, a sudden grasp of reality through reliving it in the imagination, an understanding of the feel of life, the feel of living.12.

The main components of the art of autobiography are all included in this passage: the concern with the self, the importance of a dominant point of view, the harmony between outward events and inward growth, and the similarity between the kind of "knowing" we call aesthetic and that which comes from the writing and the reading of autobiography. Let us look at each of these in turn very briefly.


The concern with the self. If we understand the term "self" to be a modern version of "soul," which I think it is, then we can see a continuity through confessions and autobiographies ranging all the way from Paul through Augustine up to Sam Keen. There are various degrees of this concern, but throughout it is true to say that genuine autobiographies can be written only by men and women pledged to their innermost selves. It is, of course, this same impulse, this dedication to the innermost self, that lies behind Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death. One must appropriate the self, become what one is; it is a process of creation, of becoming, of drawing being out of nothingness. "By relating itself to its own self, and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which posited it."13. It is evident, by the way, that autobiography is a form peculiarly appropriate for the mature: young people may write autobiographical novels, as they often do (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, James Agee’s A Death in the Family), but it is somewhat presumptious and inappropriate for a young person to write an autobiography, unless, as in the case of Malcolm X, his or her life is part of a larger struggle and he sees that life drawing to a close, as Malcolm X surely did.

Dominant point of view. Along with a concern with the self, there must be a dominant vision of that self, and this is perhaps the single most important factor in an autobiography.13a. George Fox’s autobiography lacks this quality despite the courageous quality of his actual life; it is composed of sentences and incidents strung together by a series of "ands" with no dominant unity.14. Likewise John Stuart Mill fails to create an image of his emotive self; the force or forces that made him what he was, the emotive driving force never takes individual shape. Each incident in a good autobiography should be seen as part of a process, an unfolding; disparate incidents should be bound together from a particular point of view and given thereby "sense," "meaning." Montaigne called this dominant motif a person’s "master form."

Harmony between outward events and inward growth. The above comments on point of view or dominant motif move us immediately into the third prerequisite of a good autobiography, the harmony between outward events and inward growth. Many autobiographies fail because they do not create a significant meeting place between the individual and the outer world; they do not rise to the level of symbolic event in which world and character are embodied. For instance, the confessions of too many medieval mystics take place entirely within their own heads and their own feelings -- there is no contact with the outer world; conversely, many hastily written autobiographies by movie personalities and "interesting" people simply recount events in which they were involved without meshing those events with their own growth. The master form must be seen not merely as an ideal (though it is partly that), but as the actual determining factor that in the myriad details of the person’s life, his or her action and reaction in particular circumstances, has molded the individual. If an autobiographer has failed to pull that off, we can say that the autobiography is not "true," that is, the author has not shown us what really makes him or her tick, though he or she might have told us a number of interesting things. We must be brought to feel that we have seen the person, be able to say, "Yes, here she is, what she claims as the driving force of her life really has been so, in this instance and in that." Pascal feels that Augustine accomplishes this meshing of the dominant motif (the inner) with the outward circumstances magnificently. If one says that the dominant passion of Augustine is his vision of the grace of God, then this must be shown in the actual events of his life, and this Augustine did. It is this integration of the inner and the outer, of the overriding passion and the "insignificant" details that is the heart of great autobiography, and constitutes what I have called its parabolic quality.

Aesthetic and autobiographical knowing. We have been brought naturally to our final prerequisite for autobiographical writing -- autobiography as an art form -- by way of the above comments on the patterned or integrated personality revealed through the process of meshing the inner and the outer. For the process in an autobiography, the unfolding of the personality, is very similar to the novel form; in fact the autobiographical form, the introspective story of a person searching for and showing his or her master form, greatly influenced the history of the novel. The novel is a late genre, appearing in its modem form only in the eighteenth century, and the psychological complexity of the modern novel owes much to the confessional and autobiographical tradition.15 There are other similarities as well: both are stories, dependent primarily on process, on historical, dramatic movement to reveal personality; in both, human life is understood not as a state of being but as a process of development. A person can be known only in the story of his or her life -- discovery is crucial. The novel concerns the innocent in search of an identity, while the autobiography is the backward glance over a life from the point of view of that identity, but the novel and the autobiography have the same tension and meshing of the inner and outer; "meaning" in both is understood in terms of a pattern incarnated in details and concrete events, both arising from them and interpreting them. 15a. And this, of course, is but another way of saying that the events are parabolic or metaphorical -- they have extensions beyond themselves, they are richly complex images embodying the secret of a person’s life, as, for instance, the moment in the garden is a metaphor of Augustine’s life.

The "knowing," then, that takes place both for the writer and the reader of autobiography is not unlike the "knowing" that takes place in relation to aesthetic objects. I understand aesthetic knowing as wisdom, or getting in on the feel of life; it is not conceptual or scientific knowing but a grasping of the feel of life through the imagination. If this is so, what, then, is the "truth" or "value" of such knowing? Roy Pascal says that autobiographical and aesthetic truth is the truth not of knowing but of being, for it has to do primarily not with knowing something but with living life. 16.

Let us approach this question of the truth and value of autobiography in a somewhat oppositional fashion by contrasting biography and autobiography. Many have said that autobiography cannot be trusted because a person looking back over his or her life distorts facts, omits material, remembers incidents erroneously. The biographer is concerned with the "facts," with getting things straight, and historians often suspect the perspective of the autobiographer. But of course the crucial difference between the biographer and the autobiographer is that the one presents an external history and the other an internal history. 16a. Both have their rights, and there is no final way to adjudicate between them. Both are "true," though in different senses. The one form is close to the photograph, the other to the self-portrait, though that analogy fails to bring in the dynamic process which is the heart of autobiography and the clue to its truth and value. For I would want to say that an autobiography is "true," regardless of errors of fact or omissions, if the dominant motif or the self is revealed through interaction with the world by way of dramatic process. The inside view is a true one and hence valuable if the persona, the mask, the plan, the ideal is indeed the consistent ruling theme of the self that emerges and if we have been shown that it is. The truth of an autobiography is not the imitation of details or external facts but the consistency of the ordering pattern or master form in relation to the person’s encounters with the world. As with a novel, it is not the flashes of insight that count but the total cumulative effect, and this is an achievement of a high aesthetic and interpretive order. Some things count against it, such as overwriting, blurring of the past, embellishment, triviality, and vanity. Its success is a literary as well as a moral accomplishment, for the embellishment and the triviality, when they occur, are a literary as well as a moral failure. In order for the reader to be able to say, "Yes, here’s the person;" the accomplishment must have integrity both as an art object (it must be unified and patterned in an aesthetically satisfying way) and as a moral reality (the imagery must be evocative in such a way that the reader is brought to "feel" that the autobiographer’s interpretation is true; it is, in other words, his or her master form).

This all comes finally to saying that truth in autobiography is never final, for the very process of writing the work changes the author -- Montaigne says, "I have not made my book more than my book has made me" -- and the reader of a good autobiography might also say that it has, in some sense, "made" him or her also.

It is evident that what the reader gets from autobiography is a form of practical wisdom. Roy Pascal says of autobiography:

"What it can do is to show how men, at grips with powerful forces within themselves, and in their circumstances, can come to some sort of terms with them."17. If art gives, as Susanne Langer says, "intuitive knowledge of some unique experience," it is certainly also true of autobiography that it gives knowledge that is quite as true as any other sort as far as the job of living is concerned. Autobiographies give practical wisdom because they are the story of the engagement of a personality in a task, not of the task alone. It is this peculiar meshing of life and thought that is the heart of the matter with autobiographies and which is, I believe, their importance for religious reflection.

Religious Autobiographies

The autobiography altogether is not an appropriate means to urge the objective truth of a doctrine -- though it may reveal more profound and general truths of life which the doctrine only partially formulates.’18.  

Here we see the connections with both the parabolic form -- indirect communication -- and the Pauline method of doing theology where there is no separation between theology and life. To say that life and thought are one means that truth equals commitment; it is to say that the master form must be dramatized in the stuff of an individual’s existence; it must be lived out. As in Paul’s or Augustine’s case, one does theology and one theologizes life. In this perspective, theology becomes a story, a very personal story, as personal as lyric poetry -- and as revealing. It is on a continuum with the parable -- a dominant decision that binds the inner and outer world, a master form that allows us to say of the Prodigal Son and of Augustine, "Yes, here is the man." The lines in a parable and in Augustine’s Confessions are not blurred and fuzzy; each presents, either in capsule form or in an extended metaphor, the overriding passion and decision that make a person what he or she is. Parables are for bringing people to commitment, and while the goal is less direct in autobiographies, the possibility of commitment is still there for the reader. It is a parabolic or Socratic possibility; that is, not "do as I do," but "see what I am" and then enter into your own soul and discover your prime direction, your master form, your center and focus. It is existential theology with a vengeance; it is the living of belief, not the talking about it or the systematizing of it.

The theologian-autobiographer becomes not the vessel of an idea or belief (a spatial metaphor), but a map of the movement of a belief in a human life (a linear metaphor). Autobiographies are paradigms, as parables are; they are contemplative possibilities which can have an indirect effect on others; they give no rules and recite no doctrines but present us with some possibilities for living out.

We will look briefly at some confessional statements -- those of Paul, Augustine, John Woolman, Sam Keen, and Teilhard de Chardin -- to see in what ways they are on a continuum with that basic genre. One of the things we note at the outset is that only one of the above is actually an autobiography -- Augustine’s Confessions (and even it is set within the genre of prayer) -- while the rest are mixed genres. Given the propensity of the genre of autobiography to self-absorption, it is important to note the ways in which our authors have avoided too much concern with the self, or, to phrase it otherwise, have understood the self vocationally. The letter, the prayer, the journal have served as ways of diverting attention from the self.

Paul. We start with Paul, for his epistles display many of the characteristics of Christian confessions of the mixed genre. Robert Funk makes a crucial point concerning the relation of the parable to Paul’s language and to all subsequent Christian language.

If the parable is that mode of language which founds a world, and that particular world under the domain of God’s grace, all other language in the Christian tradition is derivative in relation to it. It is out of this "poetic" medium that the tradition springs, however far in fact it may subsequently wander from it. Paul’s language, as well as other languages in the New Testament and early church, presupposes such a foundational language tradition.19.

Funk goes on to say that discursive theology inevitably moves away from parabolic or foundational language and Paul’s case, like all others, must be tested to see "whether derivative language preserves the intentionality of foundational language."20 He believes that Paul’s language does indeed pass muster, for it "intends the world established by the parable."21. More precisely, Paul does not consider God and human beings as entities -- his is not a theoretical theology -- but he throws the hearer back upon the world of the parable where God, person, and world are held in solution.22. This is, I believe, a crucial statement concerning Paul’s way of doing theology. Some have maintained (that is, Bultmann and his followers) that Paul’s and the early church’s way of presenting the gospel is didactic -- an open, message-oriented way -- but Funk’s position is that Paul’s "theological method" is on a continuum with the hidden, worldly way of the parables.

The literary form Paul uses, the letter, is, in contrast to, say, the essay, sermon, or vision, on a continuum with the parable. The letter is close to oral speech -- the dialogue, accusation, defense, and exclamations of Paul’s letters challenge the hearer to listen and behold. 22a. The letter, at least Paul’s letters, is also an intermediary form between the parable and the confession. Not only does it keep God, person, and the world in solution as does the parable, but it is wrought out of Paul’s own experience and utilizes that experience theologically, as does the confession. It is necessary to be as precise as possible on this point, for the centrality of Paul in his letters, most notably his claims to apostolic authority and his plea to the recipients of his letters to "imitate" him, ought not to be understood as mere self-absorption. Paul is not at any point in the letters writing an autobiography a la Petrarch and Rousseau; he is not in love with himself; he does not find himself "interesting." His interest in himself is a vocational interest, and the vocational interest in the self is, I believe, one of the central marks of a genuine Christian confession.22b.  

Paul’s vocational interest in himself means that throughout his letters he tells his story in order to drive home a point -- to illustrate what it means to have confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:4 -- 17), to refrain from eating or drinking if it deters a brother from salvation (I Cor. 10:31 -- 11:1), to boast in weakness (II Cor. 11:22 -- 33), to authenticate his ministry (I Cor. 15:8 -- 10; Gal. 1:11 -- 2:21).

Paul apparently found his own story extremely useful for his vocation, but his way of thinking theologically implies more than just the usefulness of personal experience as illustrative material. He not only uses himself, but he thinks in and through himself: he takes himself as the human metaphor. He thinks, as has been said of the metaphysical poets, with the blood; he is there in the midst of his own thought. It matters terribly to him to work through the problems of law and grace, faith and works, life in the body and the resurrected life, because these were the concrete, existential issues which he had faced in his own life and which those committed to his charge were facing. The law-grace issue was not a theological conundrum to him but a personal crisis; it calls to mind the agony and immediacy with which contemporary Jewish writers such as Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, and Emil Fackenheim are attempting to work through the issues of the presence of God and the identity of the Jewish people after Auschwitz.

But for Paul, as for Wiesel, Rubenstein, and Fackenheim, the crisis which precipitates such passionate, immediate, and existential theologizing is by no means narrowly personal or self-absorbed. Not only was Paul there in the midst of his thought; his charges -- in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi -- were there too, and it is the centrality of their presence which keeps his theologizing always vocationally oriented. One of our outstanding impressions of Paul’s letters is of his deep concern for the recipients of his letters. He writes to the wayward, recalcitrant Corinthians almost apologetically: "I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband" (II Cor. 11:1 -- 2).

It seems as if Paul’s theological concern derives principally from his vocational drive; that is, he attempts to think as precisely as possible about relations between God and human beings in order to bring his brothers and sisters to a genuine and permanent commitment. The method and the concern parallel the parables very closely because what Paul’s theologizing consists of is metaphor after metaphor attempting to evoke indirectly the graciousness of God for the purpose of winning commitment to him. It is difficult to read Paul’s theology as metaphorical because his metaphors have become "steno-language," dead clichés, accepted dogma for us. But his was a fantastically fertile imagination, using anything at hand -- tents, bodies, buildings, kernels, homes, flesh. Metaphors spill from him -- slaves and sons, flesh and spirit, Adam and Christ, body and members, home and away from home -- with the ingenuity of a man who was himself living the thing he was attempting to convey. His metaphors are so good, they work so well, because they are not off the top of his head but are hammered out both through the agony and passion of his own life and through his commitment to the lives of his charges. Many of them came out of a world-view already at hand, of course, but Paul renews them by setting them in the context of God’s radical love, the unfamiliar that provides a new context for the familiar so that it is seen anew.

The following passage is typical of Paul’s use of metaphor to convey the unconveyable, in this instance, the nature of the future life.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

(II Cor. 5:1-8)

It is no coincidence, I believe, that Paul’s theology is, in genre as well as in method, parabolic or metaphorical. That is, the genre of his theology, the letter, and his method, metaphorical, go together. The passionate, immediate, existential challenge which he poses in his letters demanded radical theologizing, the creation of new metaphors which would renew the perception and stimulate the commitment of his hearers. A letter is an implied dialogue and it incites the writer to question any staleness and irrelevancy in his address. In his letters Paul has given us a form of theology which in varying ways has been the model for many in the church who have realized that the desperate maneuver of the parabolic way, the hidden way, both in language and in life, may be the only maneuver possible.

Augustine. There are many ways to read the Confessions, and so much interpretation and praise have been heaped upon it that one hesitates to do anything other than read the book and wonder at the accomplishment. Roy Pascal notes that it is the first real autobiography and in many ways the greatest. Augustine is the first modern man, the first one to toil in the "heavy soil" of his own memory in order to recollect his own spiritual evolution, not in terms of a portrait but in terms of a movement in perspective.

It is easy enough to praise the Confessions as a great autobiography; it is harder to specify why it is in the tradition of parabolic or metaphorical theology. As all know, Augustine was in some sense or other both a Neoplatonist and a mystic; the Confessions is in the form of a prayer to God; the perspective seems self-absorbed rather than vocationally-oriented. But Augustine seems to have something other than his own salvation in mind: 

But to whom am I telling this? Not to Thee, 0 my God, but in Thy presence I am telling it to my own kind, to the race of men or rather to that small part of the human race that may come upon these writings. And to what purpose do I tell it? Simply that I and any other who may read may realize out of what depths we must cry to Thee. For nothing is more surely heard by Thee than a heart that confesses Thee and a life in Thy faith. 23

This is surely part of what he has in mind -- his life as a paradigm for others -- but there is another and deeper concern, the unification of his thought with his life, the stages of his own spiritual evolution, not, I believe, simply as a self-authenticating project, but as a vocationally necessary act. That is, knowing and doing, belief and act, had to come together, be seen together, in his own life for him to be the kind of theologian he felt called to be.

And this Your word to me would be a lesser thing if it merely commanded me by word and did not go before me in the doing. Thus I do it, in deed and in word, I do it under Your wings and subject to You, and my infirmity known to You.24

In the Confessions Augustine formulates the crucial dictum of the existentialists -- knowing is becoming.25. Praising God cannot be merely an intellectual thing but must become a living fact in his own life. As David Burrell says, "As bishop and as theologian, he must speak of God and the things of God. But where does he himself stand? How can he responsibly speak of such things, as distinguished from analytically or defensively?"26.

The answer lay in the autobiographical form, for only by this means can he speak of God in a way that is not merely off the top of his head. As Burrell notes, if Augustine’s crucial theological insight is the assertion that "to be" is "to be related to God the Creator," then he must undertake "to trace his way to God, the manner in which the relatedness of every creature to the Creator was exhibited in his case. . . . Metaphysical schemes become dramatized when the context is the history of human subjectivity."27

Augustine was an intellectual and a theologian of a high order -- a metaphysician like unto few others who have existed; he was concerned with fundamental and highly complex theological assertions throughout the whole of life. So it is even more remarkable that his most metaphysical assertions always backtrack upon himself. Throughout the Confessions the pattern of theological assertion and existential appropriation is followed: those assertions about being related to the creator are set in the context of his own relatedness and unrelatedness to the creator. Or, in many instances, the theological assertions arise out of personal reflection, as in the reflections on the boyhood incident of the stolen pears which move naturally into a discussion of all evil as the perversion of good. The fact that the entire work is addressed to God -- arguments as well as prayers -- means that there are no impersonal assertions about God, only personal witnesses to the meaning of God-talk. As Burrell puts it, "The rules of inference which govern a particular language must become the rules of one’s life if he is to use that language with confidence and alacrity. . . . Language is a way of life, and a confident use of language demands a consonant way of living." 28.

This is so crucial a point that it is hard to overemphasize it, for it is, I think, at the heart of doing theology rightly. It is the hidden way of parabolic theology, the indirection of incarnation. The thing about using Christian language, in contrast to using Neoplatonic language, as Augustine saw, is directly related to the one thing that Christianity had and Neoplatonism lacked: the embodied word. Neoplatonism had the "insight," the awareness that all things are related to God (it even understood that they can be symbolic), but it lacked the word made flesh, the discipline of relating that word to each and every human life and event, including one’s own life and events.29.

When this finally came home to Augustine, he was in a position to become a Christian, and becoming a Christian meant for him undertaking the discipline of making the language he used his way of life. For Augustine, then, the incarnation means something quite definite for the Christian: it means that understanding certain things, things which bear upon his or her own existence, cannot be understood unless he or she is prepared to embody them. 30. The task of becoming a Christian, and particularly of becoming a theologian, one who speaks about God, one who dares to break the silence, is therefore a long process, a dialectic of insight from God and a concomitant struggle on his or her side to incarnate that insight into his or her own life. "Before we can possess what we have glimpsed, we must undertake a style of life which embodies some of the syntax of the new language adumbrated in the original insight." 31.

What Augustine does in the Confessions is to show us the movement of that process of insight and appropriation, of grace and of the struggle to incarnate it. He gives us a rare model of a theological style which I believe is commensurate with the gospel -- God with us -- and which ought to serve as a corrective to theological styles where knowing is not becoming but simply knowing. His is a parabolic theology, the embodiment of Christian language in a way of life. He does not tell us what to do or how to speak theologically, but by showing us how God is related to all creatures through the story of his own experience of coming to belief, he provides us with a rare model of metaphorical theology. 

John Woolman. John Woolman, an eighteenth-century American Quaker, is solidly within the tradition of great "parabolic" autobiographers, though his Journal is not really an autobiography in the purest sense, for he avoids heavy concentration on himself.32. But I have suggested that interest in the self as "the medium of the message" is one of the marks of genuine Christian confession, and Woolman’s Journal meets this criterion with rare excellence. It is astonishing that this should be the case, for the Puritan spiritual autobiography was a self-absorbed genre, dedicated to convincing the elders that grace was manifest in the writer’s experience.33. The medieval-Petrarchan-Rousseauvian pattern of self-oriented autobiography was one pattern; the vocationally oriented autobiography is quite another, and Woolman’s Journal is definitely of the latter sort. This second pattern, I have been maintaining, is the distinctively Christian or parabolic one, and it is one that obviates self-absorption through the use of genres such as the journal, the letter, and prayer related to but less directly concerned with the self than autobiography.

Yet the interesting feature of Christian confession that avoids concentration on the self is a self-portrait more compelling than the self-exalting variety. Surely one reason for this apparent contradiction is that the mystery of the self, like all mystery, is visible only indirectly, through the encounters of the self with the world. It is the vocationally-oriented autobiographies, those that point away from a direct, inward perception of the self to what drives the self, drives it concretely in the world, which are the most revealing of the self. The writings of Frederick Douglass, Bonhoeffer, and Malcolm X illustrate the point, while Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings gives us only a vague image of an inner man who might have been "any" man, so that we must constantly remind ourselves as we read that the writer is the same as the very public Hammarskjöld of the United Nations. There is no "outer" to define and let us glimpse the "inner"; it is not parabolic.

But Woolman’s Journal is a parabolic book both in literary method and content. The overall form of the Journal is a recounting of his journeys as an itinerant Quaker missionary: the book itself is a journey, as he saw his life to be. He writes,

I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up, and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place, in which there are stones here and there, safe to step on; but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.34.

The simile of a journey, a timeful, difficult journey points to Woolman’s belief that the perception and articulation of truth is never a direct business. One cannot, he believed, convince others through logic of the validity of a position, convince them, that is, so that they will live the position -- they must be brought along the same path he himself had gone, so they can see for themselves. Reasons do not convince, for reasons can always be given on both sides. Through painful experiences Woolman had been brought to an astounding clarity of vision concerning the oppressed state of the blacks and the American Indians; his understanding of and sympathy for the poor and downtrodden had resulted in an uncompromising attitude toward the indulgence of the wealthy, indulgence which fanned out into a network of oppression. He refused to wear dyed clothing because the dyes were transported on slave-manned ships from the West Indies, and he refused to use the mails because of the treatment of the slave boys who attended the post horses.

These acts of protest, which in another person might have been merely idiosyncratic gestures, or in our day might be calculated as political protest, were in Woolman directly related to his gradual perception of God’s universal love, his love for all people equally. Woolman’s theology is painfully simple -- God created all, redeemed all, owns all -- and from these tenets it is obvious that slavery, excessive wealth, the oppression of any person by another are absolutely unfounded. This is the true situation, as Woolman saw it; but selfish greed clouds our vision so that in innumerable small ways we are able to keep ourselves from seeing it clearly. The crude economic basis of the enslavement of our brothers and sisters must be made visible, but Woolman knew from talking with slaveholders and people of great wealth that the direct approach, the approach by argument, did not work. 34a.

The journey on which the Journal takes the reader is the sort that reflects Woolman’s remark, "Conduct is more convincing than language." He maintains a low profile throughout in both conduct and language, for what he does is to describe in simple but highly effective prose -- the plain style of the Quaker -- his own journey to the truth of the universal love of God. The actual route contains very few eulogies on God’s love; rather it concerns itself with unbiased descriptions of nights spent in the homes of wealthy slaveholders, life in the steerage on a transAtlantic crossing, meetings in Indian villages. The route, in other words, is devious. The clear perception of the Indian’s life and the sense of the universal dimensions of his suffering in the following passage are typical of Woolman’s style of pointing to God’s love for all people only in connection with concrete occurrences.

Near our tent, on the sides of large trees peeled for that purpose, were various representations of men going to and returning from the wars, and of some being killed in battle. This was a path heretofore used by warriors, and as I walked about viewing those Indian histories, which were painted mostly in red or black, and thinking on the innumerable afflictions which the proud, fierce spirit produceth in the world, also on the toils and fatigues of warriors in travelling over mountains and deserts; on the miseries and distresses when far from home and wounded by their enemies; of their bruises and great weariness in chasing one another over the rocks and mountains; of the restless, unquiet state of mind of those who live in this spirit, and of the hatred which mutually grows up in the minds of their children, -- the desire to cherish the spirit of love and peace among these people arose very fresh in me.35.

It is impossible to separate the content from the structure of the Journal, apart, that is, from rather commonplace paraphrases. Woolman’s theology is Paul’s and Augustine’s -- all things belong to God -- and like Paul and Augustine, Woolman’s impressive achievement is his persistence in carrying this theology through in his life with unrelenting integrity. That is the content and structure of the Journal and the reason why the Journal is parabolic or metaphorical. It is a successful attempt to render the graciousness of God, his love for all people, in the concrete details of an actual life, for the purpose not of encouraging others to follow the author but of helping them to perceive what is so difficult to perceive -- the presence of the gracious God in the complex ambiguity of economic and social life.

The degree to which Woolman achieved his vocation, his service to the God of universal love, is indicated in a vision he reports in his Journal, a vision in which he imagined he was dead and had forgotten his own name.

Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be, and live, and that I was mixed with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being.36.

He reports that he perceived that the meaning of the angel’s words in his vision, "John Woolman is dead," meant "the death of my own will." Only a Christian confession, not a Petrarchan-Rousseauvian autobiography, could come out at the point of finding the self mixed up with a dull gloomy mass of human beings. But it is the same point at which Paul and Augustine arrived, and Woolman at this juncture in his narrative quotes Gal. 2:20 ("I have been crucified with Christ . . ."). The peculiarity of the Christian confession is the denial of the self, its hiddenness in and for the vocation, the calling to allow the story of the self to be used as an indirect route to insight for others. It eventuates, however, in a vivid self-portrayal, in an individuality that is not that of an "interesting personality" but of someone molded by God, similar to the great figures of the Old Testament as Erich Auerbach writes of them.

God chose and formed these men to the end of embodying his essence and will yet choice and formation do not coincide, for the latter proceeds gradually, historically, during the earthly life of him upon whom the choice has fallen. . . . Fraught with their development, sometimes even aged to the verge of dissolution, they show a distinct stamp of individuality entirely foreign to the Homeric heroes. Time can touch the latter only outwardly, and even that change is brought to our observation as little as possible; whereas the stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.37.

A Christian writing a confession of God’s dealings in his or her life for the purpose of enlightening others indirectly emerges with this sort of individuality, a timeful individuality heavy with the discipline of a heart and will being formed in God’s service.

Sam Keen. The choice of Sam Keen is perhaps arbitrary and unfair; after all, we are skipping over Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Frederick Douglass, Leo Tolstoy, and Albert Schweitzer. But Keen’s To a Dancing God is, to my mind, such an excellent example of a nonparabolic confession that it is irresistible. It is of mixed genre, not an autobiography, but it comes close to the form of autobiography in its intense concentration on the self. In the five meditations or reflections loosely organized around crucial incidents and experiences in his life, Keen’s absorption with the self is everywhere and always evident. His central question appears to be, "How may I live gracefully in time?" 38. and this question can be answered, he believes, by meditating on his own story. "I have found it necessary to search for the foundations of my identity and dignity in the intimate, sensuous, idiosyncratic elements of my own experience . . . . " 39. He ceases to ask the question What must I do? and concentrates on Who am I? The search for the answer must be conducted inwardly, for any story or history outside his, such as the story of Israel or of the church, is meaningless. The "prodigal," as he says, reaches home not by appropriating an event in the past -- the life, death, and resurrection of Christ -- but through "the realization that gracefulness requires nothing but the individual’s becoming fully incarnate in his own body and historical situation. Grace is the natural mark of a fully human life." 40.

Augustine also concentrated on the self, more centrally and agonizingly than any but a few others ever have, and yet his Confessions is, I believe, parabolic. The difference lies in the purpose of the focus. Augustine looked at his own life in order to see the presence of God in it and hence to give existential validity, personal integrity, to his theology of the radical dependence of all creatures on God. Keen, living after "the death of God," has nothing left but the self, and a romantic self at that. That is, he does not see the self in terms of a vocation of any sort -- he is not a man with a cause, some notion of the public good to serve beyond himself -- but seeks the self for its own sake, its own "gracefulness" and peace. The Christian church has always had a place for the righteous agnostics, the unconscious believers, those great humanitarians who have worked in labor unions, grape fields, native hospitals, and black ghettoes to fight oppression; who have written, sculpted, and painted in ways which have helped men and women perceive the dimensions of human existence; who have invented ways to produce food, control populations, vaccinate against disease so that human life might be more livable. The company of uncanonized saints surely stretches far into the ranks of the "unbelievers." But does it include those for whom the personal religious question is the primary one -- How can I give my life meaning, dignity, purpose?

The direct search for personal satisfaction is, I suspect, a mystical, elitist, private approach which in its opposition to the public, vulnerable, concerned way, is contrary to what I have described as parabolic. It is also a false way, in the first instance, because it fails to achieve its goal, a coherent sense of self. At least this is my judgment on the achievement of Keen’s book; whether he has achieved something more, apart from the book, is another matter. For the self that comes through the book is one with blurred edges -- who is he, indeed? He has told us about himself, given dictums about the personal ("If education neglects the intimate, the proximate, the sensuous, the autobiographical, the personal, it fails in its creative task"), 41. laid out a curriculum of courses for heightening the sense of self ("On Becoming a Lover," "Introduction to Carnality"), but he himself nowhere emerges as an individual.

I find several reasons for his failure to achieve authentic self-hood. First, Keen’s position is intrinsically elitist and therefore basically satisfied.

Moonlight parties and early love on beaches a continent and a generation away and dreams of a cabin on the evergreen shore of Swan’s Island wash together and swirl around with California sand. I am at home in my times: satisfied to be in this place; grateful to have known the wilderness of Tennessee mountains and the ordered calm of Harvard Yard; and -- yes -- the desert of Palestine which at times flows with milk and honey; pleasantly awaiting the ripening of dreams and the birth of surprises. 42.

As he says elsewhere, his has been a serendipitous life, a life in which nice things happen. The problem of letting the reality or presence of God depend on graceful experiences is that the privileged have most of the nice experiences. Among the once-born, formation of the sort Auerbach talks about in the Old Testament heroes, and which Paul, Augustine, and Woolman exemplify, does not occur. Individuality, after all, is the product not of "graceful living" but of "dis-ease."

Second, and more serious, Keen’s search for the self is private, turned inward. Although he makes some cryptic remarks about the relation of attitudes towards one’s body to political and social questions ("If ... my dominant conviction is that my body and my feelings can be trusted, the likelihood is that I will adopt a more liberal view of both political and ultimate reality" 43. ) he does not expand these potentially interesting ideas. The public world never seems to impinge on him nor he on it. We never see him in action; what he says he is is never tested in the outer world so that we can see, as Roy Pascal says, the shape that is "the outcome of the interpenetration and collusion of inner and outer life, of the person and society." 44. We are not able to say of Keen through reading his book, "Ah, here’s the man!" as we can say of Paul, Augustine, and Woolman, who never focus as directly on the self but use the story of the self to point to something else, the hand of God in human affairs.

Finally, Keen’s failure to achieve authentic selfhood seems in large part due to what William Lynch calls a basic lack of trust that the finite, temporal order will get "anywhere." Keen, like many today, seems to expect too much, to regard religious certitude on "the bolt from the blue" pattern, rather than on the venture into the familiar that we have been calling parabolic or metaphorical. Has faith in God in any age ever been anything but a trust in the unseen through its intimations in the concrete and familiar? Has there ever been a direct, open message? Has not the "message" always been available only by deciphering the hieroglyphics of ordinary, public, historical life? If the parable of Jesus is our guide, we must take very seriously the familiar, ordinary world, working hard with it to discover those dislocations within the familiar which suggest intimations of the gracious unfamiliar. And Keen’s way is decidedly not the way of the parable.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My comments on Teilhard will be brief, not because his letters and occasional autobiographical essays do not merit extensive treatment, but because the point I wish to make in relation to him is a limited one. The point: a mystic can be parabolic.45. My criticisms of Sam Keen may have suggested that intense concern with the self and its relation "to what is experienced as holy and sacred" (Keen) is anti-Christian or at least nonparabolic. But that is by no means always the case, as Paul, Augustine, and Woolman amply illustrate. Teilhard illustrates it also -- contemporaneously, scientifically, magnificently, and eloquently.

No one, I think, will understand the great mystics -- St. Francis, and Blessed Angela, and the others -- unless he understands the full depth of the truth that Jesus must be loved as a world.

Then is it really true, Lord? By helping on the spread of science and freedom, I can increase the density of the divine atmosphere, in itself as well as for me: that atmosphere in which it is always my one desire to be immersed. By laying hold of the Earth I enable myself to cling closely to you. What joy then possesses my mind, with what joy my heart expands!46.

An intense love for the world and an intense love of God united in one’s worldly vocation, whatever that might be, is Teilhard’s mystical vision and he never tires of saying it over and over in different ways: "Great love of God normally presupposes the maintenance of a strong natural passion."47. "I feel that the more I devote myself in some way to the interests of the earth in its highest form, the more I belong to God."48. "I want these pages to be instinct with my love of matter and life, and to reconcile it, if possible, with the unique adoration of the only absolute and definitive Godhead."49.

The basic parabolic impulse, the perception of the extraordinary in the ordinary, is at dead center of Teilhard’s mysticism:

"beneath the ordinariness of our most familiar experiences, we realize, with a religious horror, that what is emerging in us is the great cosmos." 50. This magnificent vision is no steady state of being but a process, a becoming, a physical and spiritual evolution in which all must participate to bring it about. Teilhard’s concern with himself is a vocational concern: the world must be loved more than the self if the vision of the evolution of the world into God is to become a reality. The imagery Teilhard uses constantly is that of struggle, journeying, climbing, building.

If he is to act in conformity with his new ideal, the man who has determined to admit love of the world and its cares into his interior life finds that he has to accept a supreme renunciation. He has sworn to seek for himself, in other words to love the world better than himself. He will now have to realize what this noble ambition will cost him. In the first place he must, in any case, work to drive things, and his own being, up the steep slope of liberation and purification, he must discipline or conquer the hostile forces of matter, of the forest and of the heart -- he must bring about the victory of duty over attraction, of the spiritual over the sense, of good over evil. . . . The multitude of the dead cry out to him not to weaken, and from the depths of the future those who are waiting for their turn to be born stretch out their arms to him and beg him to build for them a loftier nest, warmer and brighter. 51.

The individual self, Teilhard’s sense of his own person, is a microcosm of that struggle to help the great cosmos emerge from the ordinary: "what fascinates me in life is being able to collaborate in a task, a reality, more durable than myself." 52. That task as he sees it is nothing less than making himself and the world more and more "transparent to the Will of God with which nature is charged and impregnated through and through." 53 Teilhard’s is a rare form of the parabolic -- the "familiar" is nothing less than the cosmos itself. The mystical ecstasy is held, however, at all times in the tight grip of the lowly and the hidden, for the penetration of the familiar by God is understood in terms of the heavy historicity of biological evolution and, at the peak of evolution, in terms of the human being’s conscious, disciplined, individual cooperation toward completing the evolution of the world into God. As high and as far as Teilhard’s hope reaches, it is rooted in his sense for the earth, and its first and already complete expression, in the writings from the trenches, takes the form of a personal and highly imaginative vision seeking fuller conceptualization.


What would theology be like were it to turn to religious autobiography as one of its sources? A certain kind of theology is suggested by the confessions we have looked at, a theology which runs as it writes, tests its tenets in life, finds its materials in the story of life in the world. It would not be afraid to be personal, though it would search for the self and its master form in order to create from it a metaphor or parable of God’s way of working in the world. It would realize, with Hannah Arendt, that "who" the Christian is can never finally be conveyed in generalizations, but only in this and that particular human story. Thus it would realize that belief and language must be dramatized concretely in order for the "who" to emerge. Moreover, it would insist that who a Christian is is never only a question of the self in isolation, for, first of all, the story of each and every Christian is formed by the story of another, Jesus of Nazareth. The story of each and every Christian is always in the service of that prior story -- a Christian autobiography is always vocational. There is another sense in which who a Christian is is never only a private discovery, for that discovery takes place not only through encounter with the story of Jesus but also through encounter with the stories of many others. Language and belief are hammered out in action; they arise from and must return to the social and political worlds in which we find ourselves. 53a. This is true of the search for all real identity, but it is particularly true of Christian identity which is formed in response to the story of one whose life was a parable of God’s love for all men and women. There can be no such thing as a private Christian autobiography; Christian autobiographies are ineradicably public and that means social and political, as the autobiographies of Paul, Augustine, Wool-man, and Teilhard amply testify.

Such parabolic or intermediary theology would realize that theological reflection is always embodied thinking, thought which cannot finally abstract from the person who is doing the thinking. The question always doubles back on the self, for in this kind of reflection there is no way to bracket the self. A Paul or an Augustine understand their lives in some sense as metaphors of their theology and their theology as metaphors of their lives. Life and thought mutually illuminate each other: I come to understand what I believe and the language I use only as I live it, and I am able to live my belief and the language 1 use only as I come to understand them more clearly. Who am I? The answer is a story, an intricate tale of action and insight, details and emerging order; a tale for the Christian not just of the self, but of the self in the hands of the living God. The pattern that forms in the tapestry -- the "me" that emerges -- is not solely of my own doing; it is from, in, and toward God. That is the mystery that the autobiographical theologian deals with. We see into such a glass darkly and know little of ourselves, but some day we shall know who we are even as we are now known.

Finally, then, the question doubles back not only on the writer of a religious autobiography, but on the reader as well. As in a parable, so with a religious autobiography, the question is always, "And who are you?" How is your language and belief integrated with your style of life, your action in the real world? A theology that takes its bearings from religious autobiographies ought always to pose this question, for it is the hermeneutical question. It is the primary task of theology to serve the hearing and acceptance of the word of God and it is precisely the implied question of all good religious autobiographies. In many ways, then, religious autobiographies are a parabolic form, for in their personal and existential thrust oriented to the integration of language, belief, and life in the real world of social and political action they are metaphors, new contexts which deform the old story of God’s graciousness to us and help us to come to the point where we might say "Yes" to that extraordinary graciousness. 53b.

We have been looking at the poem, the novel, and the autobiography as parabolic genres -- genres which unite the ordinary and the extraordinary, the unsurprising and the surprising, not openly or miraculously but in and through the everyday and the common. I have suggested further that these genres are key resources for a kind of theological reflection which has been a strong undercurrent in the history of Western theology, a history, however, that has been dominated by a more abstract, systematic genre.

Intermediary theology, however, is not one kind of theology; that is, there is no one style to which it must conform. To be sure, as a second-order level of reflection upon the parabolic forms of the poem, novel, and autobiography, various attempts at it will have imagistic, narrative, and existential notes, but these attempts will manifest the notes in a variety of ways and emphases. It is, then, impossible to say precisely what parabolic theology is or will be. A few things can be said, however, in addition to the scenarios set forth in my attempts to spell out the general relations between poem, novel, autobiography, and theology.

First, if theologians accorded the same long-term and sophisticated study to the primary literary genres of the Christian tradition as they have to philosophical concepts, we might hope for a level of excellence with regard to this kind of reflection comparable to the level of excellence in systematic theology. Too often the only kind of theology available to the layperson is journalistic and second-rate. There is little between primary religious reflection (the parable and its accompanying genres) and academic theology that is first-rate reflection. A handful of names come to mind, perhaps, but it simply is the case that theologians have not, for the most part, attended to the parabolic resources with the same rigor, passion, and commitment that they have attended to the resources from philosophy. The first thing to be said, then, is that these resources demand such attention, and were it given, first-rate reflection, of varying styles and emphases, could and ought to result.

The last comment leads to a second point. Parabolic or intermediary theology will, of necessity, be of many sorts. This is so for two reasons. First, its task is hermeneutical, and this means that what it attempts is not just a translation or formulation in contemporary terms of old symbols and images but a deformation, a recontextualization, of the tradition. It aims for metaphorical transformation so that the old can be heard and seen anew and hence accepted. The goal is the "Yes" to the word of God. Something new must always be one partner in a metaphor and it is this necessity for new contexts which militates against one style of intermediary theology. Secondly, in parabolic theology the figurer is always ingredient in the figure; that is, parabolic theology is always autobiographical and finally individual. Unlike Kierkegaard’s "professor" who could systematize existence but himself never exist as an individual in passion and inwardness, the intermediary theologian has no such escape. Such theology will always carry, as Hopkins says, "the taste of me." Hence such theology is necessarily openended; systematic thought may be closed and finished, but reflection in which one’s life is figured into the thought must remain open, hesitant, and unfinished.

The younger Richard Niebuhr is a parabolic or intermediary theologian when he writes of the ordinary experiences of fear and gladness as basic material for theology:

We do not as a rule look to such everyday experiences as manifestations having an import for human destiny. And yet in disdaining to place a theological or a religious interpretation upon the ordinary we commit an error. For it is just in this doubleness of experience that we meet and can trace, if you will, the geneses of some of the most influential beliefs of the church -- and what is of more importance -- can also win a greater understanding of the life in faithful experience that may appropriately call itself Christian.54.

He goes on to say that Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith, for example, is "not an esoteric piece of Christian gnosis" but is grounded in experiences of both powerlessness and surprising joy and freedom in Luther’s own life.

In a similar vein, William Lynch is a parabolic theologian when he says in a recent book that faith is the ability to see the relationship between the promise and the seemingly contrary form in which the promise is realized.

. . . .faith no more than Sophocles treats us as children; it demands active imagining; it is always asking us to put the expected (of the promises of God) together with the historical forms of the unexpected. 55. .

Thus Abraham who had been told his "descendants shall be as the sands of the sea" had to "educate" his faith to the point where he could put that promise alongside the command to slay Isaac, his only son. "For faith knows that the promises will be kept, but in what form it does not know." 56. This is metaphorical thinking of a radical sort, moving from the old to the new, perceiving the old promises in new contexts. As Lynch says so perceptively, "the true dreamer, or the recomposer of reality, is one who dares to forge a new hypothesis and slowly match it to possibility."57. Such is the substance of the capacity to believe in parabolic terms.

"Being religious" or "reflecting theologically" in the parabolic mode means reading the ordinary events of one’s life and times as a parable, that is, seeing those events within a surprising and new context, the context provided by the gracious God. It means starting with where one is and what one has at hand to move beyond that place. The possibility of such movement is implied in the death of Hopkins’ nun, the awareness that that graciousness does lie ahead, not in the unknown, "religious" sphere, but as the culmination of all the intimations of grace -- that is, the joy and hope and gifts -- already known throughout the commonness of individual and social life. "The profession that God governs the course of human affairs for good is a judgment," says Richard Niebuhr, "which puts together the hazards and fortuitous moments of life in the street, life constantly intensified and stretched out in surprising and dismaying events, and affirms that this whole experience -- incomplete, asymmetrical, and often dissonant -- is good."58. Being religious or reflecting theologically in the parabolic mode does not mean being "a giant of the faith" or having "religious experiences." A different orientation to life is assumed by those who take their cues from parables rather than from dogmas or pious sayings. They realize that being secular and skeptical not only is all right, it is necessary; that life is risky and openended; and that surprising things happen in it.

To start with the ordinary and the everyday, with personal life, with corporate stories, with "our times" in their political and social agony, is the bold business of theology. But it is exactly where Jesus’ parables start. Daniel Berrigan insists that few if any will be able to understand Jesus’ parables until they become skilled at reading the text of the events of their own lives -- and ordering their lives accordingly;59. Augustine knew he would not fully understand the language of Christian faith until he could read it in the familiar events of his own life -- and attempt to embody it there anew. Life and thought -- personal and social existence and "being religious" or "thinking theologically" -- are so intricately related, so symbiotic, that, difficult as it is, and prone to ambiguity and sentimentality as it can become, there is no escape from the task of thinking with the blood, of being, humbling as it is, "a body that thinks," the human metaphor. A theology that takes its cues from the parables has no other course than to accept what may appear to be severe limitations -- limitations imposed by never leaving behind the ordinary, the physical, and the historical. But these limitations are the glory of parabolic, metaphoric movement, for they declare that human life in all its complex everydayness will not be discarded but that it is precisely the familiar world we love and despair of saving that is on the way to being redeemed. The central Christian affirmation, the belief that somehow or other God was in and with Jesus of Nazareth, is the ground of our hope that the ordinary is the way to the extraordinary, the unsurprising is the surprising place.

A theology that takes its cues from the parables never reaches its object, but in language, belief, and life as metaphor, story, and living engagement we are sent off in its direction. It is a theology for skeptics and for our time. We make the leap not with our minds alone but with our total selves -- our words, our stories, and our life engagement -- and wager that we are on the way, that the metaphor sees in a glass darkly what we do not see and cannot know.



1. Gordon W. Allport, The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1942), p. 78.

2. Donald Capps and Walter Capps, eds., The Religious Personality (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 1-2.

2a. Fascination with the self is not a twentieth-century phenomenon. The Romantic poets, and particularly a poet such as G. M. Hopkins, were consumed by it. In his Devotional Writings Hopkins says, "I find myself both as man and as myself something most determined and distinctive, at pitch, more distinctive and higher pitched than anything else I see; I find myself with my pleasures and pains, my powers and my experiences, my deserts and guilt, my shame and sense of beauty, my dangers, hopes, fears, and all my fate, more important to myself than anything I see" (as quoted in Olney, Metaphors of Self, p. 24).

3. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1969), p. 57.

4. James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 5.

6. Ibid., p. 49.

7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 181-182.

7a. The relation of action to identity, the necessity of specifying the agent of action, is illustrated in the following comment by Arendt: "Action without a name, a ‘who’ attached to it, is meaningless. . . . The monuments to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ after World War I bear testimony to the then still existing need for glorification, for finding a ‘who,’ an identifiable somebody whom four years of mass slaughter should have revealed" (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958], pp. 181-182). Likewise, I would suggest ‘who" a Christian is is known only in action -- belief and language must be shown in action, in life.

7b. Hans Frei makes very much the same point in regard to "who" Jesus was, for Jesus was known only in his action, notably in the Passion Story. ‘Here he was most of all himself. He was this transpiring of circumstances in action. It is equally right to say of his resurrection that here his identity is most fully manifest. . . . The two forms [the crucifixion and the resurrection], in their dramatic transition, constitute a unity. In both one may say, ‘here he was most of all himself’ and mean by this expression not a mythological figure but the specific man named Jesus of Nazareth" (Hans Frei, "Theological Reflections on the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection," The Christian Scholar, 49 [Winter 1966], pp. 291-292). Again, we must raise the question of "who" a Christian is and how we see that our action must he a response to his action, for who we are as Christians is formed by his story.

8. Ibid., pp. 187-188.

9. Olney, Metaphors of Self, p. 37.

10. John S. Dunne, A Search for God in Time and Memory: An Exploration Traced in the Lives of Individuals from Augustine to Sartre and Camus (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 7.

11. As quoted in Richard A. Underwood, "Ecological and Psychedelic Approaches to Theology," Soundings, 52 (Winter 1969), 367.

12. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 24, 182, 185. I am indebted to this excellent book for much of the following material on the nature of autobiography.

13. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 19.

14. Johi N. Morris, Versions of the Self: Studies in English Autobiography from John Bunyan to John Stuart Mill (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1966), pp. 117, 118.

15. Pascal, Autobiography, pp. 52-53, 187.188.

15a. "Autobiography is another form which merges with the novel by a series of insensible gradations. Most autobiographies are inspired by a creative, and therefore fictional, impulse to select only those events and experiences in the writer’s life that go to build up an integrated pattern. This pattern may be something larger than himself with which he has come to identify himself, or simply the coherence of his character and attitudes. We may call this very important form of prose fiction the confession form, following St. Augustine, who appears to have invented it, and Rousseau, who established a modern type of it" (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 307).

16. Ibid., p. 98.

16a. H. Richard Niebuhr’s statement on this point is very helpful. "It is one thing to perceive from a safe distance the occurrences in a stranger’s life and quite a different thing to ponder the path of one’s own destiny, to deal with the why and whence and whither of one’s own existence. Of a man who has been blind and who has come to see, two histories can be written. A scientific case history will describe what happened to his optic nerve or to the crystalline lens, what technique the surgeon used or by what medicines a physician wrought the cure, through what stages of recovery the patient passed. An autobiography, on the other hand, may barely mention these things but it will tell what happened to a self that had lived in darkness and now saw again trees and sunrise, children’s faces and the eyes of a friend. Which of these histories can be a parable of revelation, the outer history or the inner one, the story of what happened to the cells of a body or the story of what happened to a self?" (The Meaning of Revelation [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1955], pp. 59-60).

17. Ibid., p. 178.

18. Ibid., p. 182.

18a. "Nearly always some theoretical and intellectual interest in religion, politics, or art plays a leading role in the confession. It is his success in integrating his mind on such subjects that makes the author of a confession feel that his life is worth writing about" (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays [New York: Atheneum, 1968], p. 308).

19. Funk, Language, p. 244.

20. Ibid., p. 245.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., pp. 239-240.

22a. "The letter, consequently, is an appropriate substitute for oral word -- it is as near oral speech as possible -- yet it provides a certain distance on the proclamation as event. If the parable is a gesture pointing the way into the kingdom of God, the letter is only one step removed: it wonders why the gesture has been missed" (Funk, Language, p. 248),

22b. As Amos Wilder puts it, Paul was not an individual letter writer but "an apostle under mandate." "Paul, as he himself says, is only a minister of the word and not a rhetorician. Thus even the signed personal letters of Paul also illustrate the new speech-phenomenon whose feature is, if not anonymity, at least a corporate transcendence of the self through the Spirit. This does not mean what we call ‘personality’ or ‘individuality’ are denied in the new faith, but they are found in a new context according to which they are both humbled and exalted" (Language of Gospel, p. 42).

23. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 2.3.

24. Ibid., Bk. 10.4.

25. I am indebted to David Burrell’s excellent article, "Reading The Confessions of Augustine: An Exercise in Theological Understanding," Journal of Religion, 50 (October 1970), 327-351, for the analysis which follows.

26. Ibid., p. 331.

27. Ibid., p. 332.

28. Ibid., p. 339.

29. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. ‘7.9.

30. Burrell, op. cit., p. 337.

31. Ibid.

32. The Journal of John Woolman (New York: Corinth Books, 1961).

33. Daniel B. Shea, Jr., Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 91.

34. "Concerning the Ministry," quoted by Shea, ibid., p. 73.

34a. As Daniel Shea remarks on Woolman’s method, "it would be necessary in some way to bring readers of the Journal to the same conclusions he had reached by the same path he had followed. He had not been argued into the positions he maintained: he had been brought to see, with absolute clarity of vision in the Light, that the forces contending for supremacy in the world were divine Love, selfless and expansive, and self-love, a counterfeit of the other, a disease that lives but gave no life and that nourished and extended itself by absorbing what there was of life around it. What Woolman wanted, even more than notional agreement with his arguments, was the reader’s attainment of an equal clarity of vision. He hoped that the purity of Truth, once clearly seen, would dissolve opposition, and that from the ardor of man’s embrace of Truth would follow compliance with its demands" (Daniel B. Shea, Jr., Spiritual Autobiography in Early America [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968], p. 64).

35. Woolman, Journal, pp. 140-141.

36. Ibid., p. 214.

37. Auerbach, Mimesis, pp. 14, 15.

38. Keen, To a Dancing God, p. 6.

39. Ibid., p. 2.

40. Ibid., p. 23.

41. Ibid., p. 41.

42. Ibid., pp. 36-37.

43. Ibid., p. 155.

44. Pascal, Autobiography, p. 185.

45. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, trans. Réne Hague (New York: Harpers, 1965); The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919, trans. Réne Hague (London: Collins, 1965).

46. Teilhard, War, pp. 148, 138.

47. Ibid., p. 83.

48. Ibid., p. 57.

49. Ibid., p. 14.

50. Ibid., p. 27.

51. Ibid., p. 66.

52. Teilhard, Letters, p. 144.

53. Teilhard, War, p. 62

.53a. Hannah Arendt says that the revelatory quality of speech and action comes about in "sheer human togetherness." Neither the doer of good deeds who must remain anonymous nor the criminal who must hide from others can reveal their identity. "Because of its inherent tendency to disclose the agent together with the act, action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm" (The Human Condition, p. 180).

53b. It is obvious, given our stress on the form that good or true autobiography should take, that many non-Christian autobiographies can be sources for theological reflection. Autobiographies such as that of Malcolm X, or autobiographical novels such as Elie Wiesel’s Night, display many of the characteristics we have noted in good Christian autobiographies. The "vocation" may be different, but the form is in many instances the same, if only because, as many have pointed out, the autobiography is a Western Christian genre, begun by Augustine and forever bearing his mark.

54. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion, pp. 104-105.

55. Lynch, Images of Faith, p. 22.

56. Ibid., p. 155.

57. Ibid., pp. 119-120.

58. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion, p. 71.

59. Daniel Berrigan, The Dark Night of Resistance (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1971), p. 70.