Remembering Robert Kirk: David Bentley Hart on The Secret Commonwealth and Contemplative Rationality

Remembering Robert Kirk: David Bentley Hart on The Secret Commonwealth and Contemplative Rationality August 28, 2016

David Russell Mosley

Description English: The Minister's Pine According to local legend, the spirit of the Reverend Robert Kirk who is said to have had contact with the faerie world is trapped within the tree. To this day people still tie pieces of material or "clooties" to the branches of the tree in the hope of having their wishes granted. Date 21 December 2008 Source From geograph.org.uk Author Kay Lennox (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Description
English: The Minister’s Pine According to local legend, the spirit of the Reverend Robert Kirk who is said to have had contact with the faerie world is trapped within the tree. To this day people still tie pieces of material or “clooties” to the branches of the tree in the hope of having their wishes granted.
Date 21 December 2008
Source From geograph.org.uk
Author Kay Lennox
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ordinary Time
St. Augustine’s Day
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Readers,

Today, as my children napped, my wife and mother-in-law watched a little television, and my father-in-law, was running errands, I sat outside with my pipe and did some work and some reading. After my work and spiritual reading were done for the moment I turned to David Bentley Hart’s new collection of essays, A Splendid Wickedness. There I read, for the second time, his essay “The Secret Commonwealth.” Hart initially wrote this essay for First Things Magazine on October 20 in 2009.

The essay is broadly about a book by Robert Kirk, a seventeenth century Presbyterian minister, entitled The Secret Commonwealth. I’ve actually written about Hart’s essay briefly in this, what is ostensibly my first ever letter on Faeriean Metaphysics. I will return to the same point I made there by the end of this letter. However, I want to take some time to look closely at Hart’s essay.

So again, Hart’s essay is broadly about the book written by the Scottish Presbyterian, Robert Kirk though one might say it is really about Kirk himself, or the way Kirk viewed the world. Hart tells us that there are two competing legends concerning the death of Robert Kirk (aside from the “official” story which says that Kirk is simply dead). In one version, Kirk is the captive of unseen folk, the faeries, and in fact asked his cousin to rescue him from them at the baptism of his son. Sadly, if this version of the story be true, Kirk’s cousin was so stupefied by the ghostly presence of his departed cousin, that he could not do what was necessary to rescue him. In the second version, however, not entirely unlike the titular character of the children’s books The Spiderwick Chronicles, Kirk was taken for knowing too much, but is not a prisoner, but “an ambassador, able to convey messages between the two realms that over the years have become increasingly estranged from one another” (Hart, 23).

Hart writes that:

These beings are, says Kirk, nothing but those elemental guardians of the nations who, according to the New Testament, have been appointed as wardens in the earth, but who frequently forget their roles and resist the sway of God. They are dangerous, but not evil; they are, rather, morally neutral, like the forces of material nature (Hart, 25).

I am again reminded of the works of Lewis and Tolkien when I read this passage. Part of Tolkien’s project, at least early on, was to discern, through story, how it is we have tales concerning mischievous and capricious creatures who crudely dairy, tie your hair in knots, or seek to lead you to your doom whether by wailing in bogs or appearing as lights to lost travelers; and yet that we have other stories which see these creatures as being benevolent and have given us names in the germanic and nordic languages such as Alfred (counselled by elves), Alvin/Elwin (elf friend), and other such names that seem to indicate a positive relationship between man and elves. Part of Tolkien’s project included the dark elves, those elves who never crossed the sea and saw the light of the two trees in Valinor. These elves were often far more leery of men in Tolkien’s stories. Or again, there are the words of Cecil Dimble in That Hideous Strength which suggest that once, perhaps in Merlin’s day, there were creatures who were neither angels nor men but beings neutral as regarded us, if not neutral (or not capable of remaining neutral) as regards God.

For Kirk, these beings, at least when they are behaving, or at least the realm in which they live, is what was often seen by or perhaps better seen through by the prophets. Kirk goes so far as to suggest that those gifted with second-sight––the ability to see into Faërie––”are of the same family as the prophets of ancient Israel, and of all prophets in all lands and among all peoples” (Hart, 25).

Hart argues, though perhaps that is too strong a word here as makes no references, that

though Christian tradition came soon to abominate all the lesser spirits venerated or feared in pre-Christian culture as just so many demons, this was not the view taken of them in the Pauline corpus; there they appear as perhaps mutinous deputies of God, part of the compromised cosmic hierarchy of powers and principalities, whom Christ by his resurrection has subdued, but not necessarily as servants of evil; Colossians 1:20 even speaks of them as being not only conquered by Christ, but reconciled with God (Hart, 26).

This is, of course, not easy to square with Christian theology which normally, thanks in large part to Denys the Areopagite, views the Virtues, Powers, and Principalities as angelic orders. Though Hart’s reading of Colossians 1:20 is nevertheless interesting for Paul does write, “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Whatever we may take Paul to mean here, we ought to take seriously his claim that things in heaven have also been reconciled to God, not damned, notice, but reconciled through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Still, all of this aside, it is Hart’s conclusion about Kirk that I find not only moving, but essential. He writes:

One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion––but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition (Hart 26-27).

Again one may come up against a place where much of what Hart is at least potentially ascribing to faeries is often, in Christian theology, ascribed to angels. However, here in particular that is of little importance because what is of importance is that there are deeper realities behind and even upholding what we see every day. That there are guiding and vital intelligences, logoi, ideas, forms, that direct and uphold the various creatures in creation. Whether these are elves or angels is of little consequence so long as we understand them coming from, and answerable to, the Holy Trinity.


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