It’s about time I came out about Robert Farrar Capon.
I am now reading my 6th book written by the skinny priest. It has given me enough of a taste of him to make some reasonably grounded observations about his thought and style. He first came to my attention when my good buddy Ron Jung sent me a copy of Capon’s book “An Offering of Uncles”. At first the odd title set me off, and the first chapter seemed a little wooly, but I stuck with it, mostly out of some strange fascination. Reading that book seemed rather disconcertingly like taking communion and ducking into the tent to see JoJo the dogfaced boy at the same time. That may seem like an odd simile, but Capon’s writing style has a taste of the roller coaster about it. In one paragraph he will both delving into deep spiritual truth, and send linguistic and metaphoric fireworks into the sky over your head. As with a good meal, the crunchy, the smooth, the savory, the sweet, the cold, the hot, the bitter, the dry and the wet are presented in quick succession (or even on the same plate) so that one course may offset and highlight the qualities of the next. Much of his writing is creamy and heavy and full of the most delicious fat. Other sections are remarkably clear and light. The sudden switch-ups, and the rather transparent devices he employs to make his points might put some off, but I have enjoyed them. He definitely keeps the reader hopping and skipping to keep up, but with such a firmly grounded sense of playfulness that it is hard not to join in the play with a gladhearted smile. This, even as he turns your sense of what you thought you understood on it’s ear.
In that sense, the writing style very much reflects his subject matter, which falls along two basic lines. Capon writes to illustrate and illumine the sacramental view of life, and to proclaim and explain the radical and outrageous grace that is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What does this mean, the sacramental view of life? We might better call it living in a sacramental manner. What is a sacrament? Let’s go with the definition given in the Common Book of Prayer. It is a visible outward sign of an inward and invisible grace. To take it a step further, a sacrament is present where an object or action becomes a physical and material manifestation of the presence and work of God. It might be thought of as a symbol that carries the power of the higher reality it represents. The most common sacraments in the Christian religion are baptism (a sacrament of membership in Christ’s Body) and the Eucharist (a sacrament of Christ’s presence and forgiveness).
As I have read more of Capon’s work, however, I have begun to see that God the Father has built sacrament into the warp and weft of his creation. This hinges on the idea that none of this was necessary – the entire created order did not HAVE to exist, but rather is an expression of the delight and playfulness of YHWH. Properly understood then, we see that our use of creation, is ultimately our offering up of our own creation back to God. We have the power to make everything a sacrament – driving a car, enjoying a meal, walking the dog, or making love. God made it to enjoy it, and so that we might enjoy it. When we do enjoy it, we offer it back to him.
No matter that many (most?…all?) of our offerings are defective, often in the extreme. That’s what Grace is for.
The most startling assertion Capon makes about sacramentalism is when he states that the crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection is the sacrament of the forgiveness of God that was built into the universe from before the beginning of time. While Capon starts with what might be called Total Depravity, from there he moves in a very different direction than my typical understanding. In my days as a Calvinist dabbler, I saw God’s salvation in Christ as actually accruing only to a few. Capon holds rather than Grace is not the end game, but is rather the starting point. That while everyone starts out dead in sin, everyone also starts out forgiven. Everyone – yes EVERYONE -- is invited to the party. He does not deny the scripture that clearly indicates that some people will apparently be such party poopers that they refuse to join in. In other words, the Bible makes it clear that there is a Hell and it is not a desirable state. Yet, Hell is not the starting point.
I won’t go into his arguments in detail here. I will just say that they seem to me to be based on scripture, and to have at least as much validity as other viewpoints. If you are looking, however, for a classical prepositional exposition with proof texts, you may be disappointed. Capon tends to do his theology with pictures. Not with crayons scrawled in the margins, but with words images and stories. He is, in this, purposely consonant with the methodology of Jesus himself, who taught mainly through stories and images. Capon references the parables often, and in fact, I hope to read his commentaries on the parables of Jesus next.
Well…this probably raised many more questions that it answered. If you want answers, you will likely have to go to Capon’s writing yourself. I don’t feel qualified, nor do I really desire to defend Capon as such. I would love to discuss him, because I am still exploring the meaning of what he is saying. I just don’t care to have to absorb arrows aimed at him just yet.
Suffice it to say, however, that reading his work as dramatically reshaped my spiritual landscape. Early in my writings on this blog, I complained about how Buddhism seemed to have a corner on the practice of contentment, of learning to deal with the vicissitudes of real life. I have had very little experience of knowledge of how to explain or handle suffering and worry and stress through Christian models of thought and practice, beyond being urged to pray more.
I suspect that God heard my complaint, and sent me a book by Robert Farrar Capon to provide me with some guidance and answers. A new and broader view of Grace, and a deeper and more powerful way of seeing God’s work in me through His creation has begun to unfold a new depth in my heart. I can point to 3 other times in my life where I experienced a spiritual revolution. This seems to be the fourth, and Capon has been the catalyst.