Adam's Curse by Denis Donoghue Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The latest offering from the prolific scholar and professor of English Denis Donoghue is this series of eight lectures collected and published under the rubric Adam’s Curse. The lectures were originally delivered in 1999 at Notre Dame University as the inaugural installment of that university’s Erasmus series. The book takes its title from the first lecture, named for the poem by William Butler Yeats. The author’s interest is focused on the limits and potency of humanity, assuming an impaired human condition. He characterizes his lectures as “reflections on religion and literature.” Both topics attract him, he says. Religion expands one’s vision beyond the material, and literature transcends the concerns of economics, law, and rational discourse. His conversations on what he calls “deviations,” that is, religion and literature, combine to make a rigorous but worthwhile book. Religion deviates, he says, from the “material ways of the world” and literature “from the orders of economics, law, and rationality.” It is the author’s opportunity to place in dialogue a number of different disciplines and ideas and perhaps to hint at his own thinking on the issues addressed. Adam’s Curse could be characterized as the academic equivalent of the popular PBS program Meeting of the Minds (1976-1979) hosted by Steve Allen, which brought into rich and thought-provoking conversation persons disparate in discipline, era, and thinking.

The chapter headings are in fact themes which represent the central questions of Christian theology. The topics include the fall of humanity and the death of Satan, the person of Christ and the nature of God, the relationship of the church to the world, and the place of the moral and virtuous life in Christian living. Donoghue investigates some peculiarly contemporary theological concerns, including such ideas as the diminution of both the divine and the demonic in modern consciousness, and the turn to the existential exemplified in the work of twentieth century philosopher Martin Heiddeger and others.

Humanity is handicapped in its striving to achieve perfection, caught in the “curse” that accompanied Adam’s sin. Yet Donoghue gathers bits of hope in the material he chooses, in order to project optimistic possibilities for humanity as it exists after the Fall. He discusses, or rather he quotes the discussions of others on, the usefulness of language in this human project. Is language a redemptive gift (poet Robert Graves), the perpetrator of wrong ideas (philosopher John Locke), or a blunt instrument to urge humanity to be better (poet T. S. Eliot)? Perhaps it is the last answer that the author favors as he presents his analysis.

In the chapter “God Without Thunder,” speaking through the persona of poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, Donoghue calls for repositioning God on a divine pedestal. Ransom claims that the modern God has been humanized, even domesticated, to the point where the idea of God no longer evokes a healthy and filial fear—the appropriate reaction to the divine visage. Following from this displacement, the will of God (Donoghue quotes philosopher Paul Tillich) becomes a function of human will. What humanity desires is projected onto God, as if God first had the thought. Human descriptors—the only language available—cannot ever do justice to divinity. It is precisely inadequate human language which is fashioned into the metaphorical hammer used to destroy the sacred pedestal and to tumble divinity onto the trash heap of humanity. Nevertheless, the chapter calls for humanity to “restore the thunder,” to lift God to a properly godly place where the earth will tremble. One must let God remain God and not allow the divine to sink to a less than godly level.

In the third essay, “Church and World,” some assumptions are made regarding the intention of Jesus to found a church. Many scholars of early Christianity would dispute Donoghue’s assertion that Jesus intended an institutional format to his mission. That the church which followed the death of Jesus was born not from his plan but from that of those who came later is a more widely accepted...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)