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Negative Capability: A Pastoral Virtue

By John Bauerschmidt

In December 1817, in the course of a letter to his two brothers, the poet John Keats coined the term “negative capability”:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… (Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats, Douglas Bush, ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 261).

Keats’s “negative capability” is sometimes glossed with this observation from a letter of the following year: “the poetical Character itself … is every thing and nothing … A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity — he is continually in for — and filling some other Body” (Keats, 279).

In this insight, Keats was influenced by the essayist and critic William Hazlitt, who said in a lecture also delivered in 1818:

The striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another … He was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they would become (Selected Writings, Jon Cook, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 324).

Whatever the influence, the phrase “negative capability” is Keats’s own.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson makes an interesting move in applying the idea of negative capability to pastoral ministry. Quoting Keats’s two letters, Peterson notes that an understanding of work as “self-expression” is inadequate. “Real workers, skilled workers, practice negative capability — the suppression of self so that the work can take place on its own” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, 101). In pastoral ministry, we must keep to the contour of the work itself without letting our own selves intrude. Peterson mentions John the Baptist, who points away from himself toward Jesus, and cites Phil. 2:7 (“he emptied himself”): both examples from our theological tradition of negative capability.

Peterson’s insight on the relevance of this capacity to pastoral ministry is inspired, though I think he did not go far enough. The kenotic, self-emptying insight is helpful, of course. The servants of the Gospel are called to follow the example of the Master, and not to strike out on their own. “My ministry” is never really that, but rather a gift received for a time for the sake of others. To the extent that we ourselves are able to disappear, and Jesus emerge, we will have fulfilled our ministries (2 Tim. 4:5). As members of the church, we are already in persona Christi, and embarked on this course.

The self-emptying emphasis in Peterson’s understanding of negative capability, however, must be balanced with a fuller treatment of the sympathetic insight that made Shakespeare a great playwright; a sympathetic insight that is also central to the pastoral endeavor. This insight into others is a key part of negative capability, which is not the simple denial of self but also a positive entering into the stance, the view, and the entire world of others, to the extent that we can. As pastors and as Christians, we must cultivate the “universe of thought and feeling” that is within us, because it fleshes out reality, and saves us from a solipsistic centering on self. In spiritual direction, in liturgy and preaching, and in pastoral visitation, we seek connection with others, rather than the articulation of ourselves. In the course of our ministries, we will be exercising our own imaginations and experiences, for sure, but not through our own power or on our own behalf.

Here is the rub: cultivation of this capacity requires us to practice distance from some forms of passionate commitment. This is difficult to do, since in these days of social media and political polarization the articulation of passionate commitment has become the default drive of social discourse. Yet negative capability requires this distance. Like the novelist who is able to generate believable, free-standing characters that are not simple reproductions of the self, or even those that naturally engage the author’s sympathies or reflect the author’s views, pastors set aside their advocacy for the sake of a larger reality that encompasses other points of view.

In literary terms, moralism, the reduction of characters to mere examples of right and wrong, is the enemy of negative capability. Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, faulted the author precisely for a certain amoral quality in his sympathetic depiction of despicable characters. Both Keats and Hazlitt grasp this nettle firmly by insisting (contra Johnson) that the depiction of both the evil and the good in fully realized and believable ways is intrinsic to good art; an instance of the eschewing of moralism for the sake of a deeper sympathy.

Some have wondered at the tension between a writer or artist’s commitments to beliefs or causes and the cultivation of negative capability. The tension is real, not just for them but for pastors as well. The danger in both cases is that these commitments will undercut the work, destroying its credibility and turning it into tedious moral instruction. But does not the eschewing of passionate commitment reveal insufficient zeal for the cause? Art, of course, cannot be reduced to a political or ideological cause, at least not without losing its soul. Here, Soviet “socialist realism,” or Hitler’s anti-modernism, stand as cases in point.

Pastoral ministry is as undercut by moralism as any work of literature or art. We live in a morally censorious time, thinly disguised by its moral laxity. At times it seems that we regard others as one dimensional, not fully realized evil characters who we cannot begin to understand. This quality of disinterest in others, and the denunciation that follows, infects our political discourse, and increasingly our social discourse. To the extent that our ministries become infected with this quality, our negative capability will be lost and our ministries undermined.

There is a certain critical distance involved in negative capability that can look like disengagement, but really is not. Political scientist Mark Lilla remarks that “the more charmed we have become with our individual psyches, the less adept we have become at understanding the psychology of nations, peoples, religions, and political movements” (The Shipwrecked Mind. New York: New York Review Books, 2016, xxi.). What is called for, by contrast, is a willingness to place to one side our proclivities, even to suspend judgment and embrace uncertainty (in Keats’s term), in the exercise of ministry.

In carrying out our pastoral charge, we are engaged in the lively presentation of the truth about Jesus Christ in a way that invites others to find their place. Here the traditional term parson, which posits the cleric as “the person” of the parish, is relevant. The pastoral ministry of the ordained is exercised in an “everyman” mode, accessible to high and low, rich and poor, and saint and sinner as well. As St. Paul put it, “I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). Our negative capability is called upon, as the pastor engages with others, no matter what their backgrounds or their sympathies.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.


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