Every so often I post a different poem, with a brief reflection to help with your reading. For last week, see here. This week’s poem is Robert Browning’s haunting piece “Johannes Agricola in Meditation”.
Robert Browning (1812-1889) is one of the great poets of the Victorian Era. Together with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they form one of the more famous literary couples. Browning’s work is deeply metaphysical, and often religious and philosophical. Due to his uncanny ability to peer into the heart and the head, Browning remains a fascinating poet to study and explore. I had the unique privilege of studying some of his and Elizabeth’s work at the beautiful Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University (my alma mater), which houses the largest collection of original Browning material in the world. It is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Waco.
“Johannes Agricola in Meditation” is a dramatic monologue, a form of poetry that is written like a speech from a specific character. Browning is famous for his mastery of the dramatic monologue, seen in enduring works such as “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess“. Many, like “Johannes Agricola”, are based on actual historical figures. Browning’s father owned a sizable, impressive library of rare and unique books. It was due to the influence of this library that Browning was able, from an early age, to immerse himself in the life of the mind, and likely discover the thought of intriguing men and women like Johannes Agricola.
Johannes Agricola (1494 – 1566) was a contemporary of Martin Luther and the early reformers. He held to a robust Lutheran theology, with a high emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation. Browning’s portrayal of the German theologian does not pretend to be any different. At first glance, or taken out of context, many of Agricola’s statements in the poem seem pious, acceptable, orthodox, and sincere. After all, Agricola is simply trying to “get to God” (6), which in simple terms could be the pursuit of every Christian. He also acknowledges God’s providence, that God ordains “circumstances, every one/To the minutest” (17-18) as well as God’s eternal knowledge and sovereignty, since God acted to save Agricola “ere suns and moons could wax and wane (13)”.
Yet while Agricola himself does not see himself as in any theological error, he stumbles into dangerous territory in his “meditation”. Points out commentator George Wasserman, he describes his “fancied spiritual prospering”, rather satirically “as a tree-like growth toward heaven” when Agricola says that “God bade me grow, / Guiltless forever, like a tree”. The reason that Agricola’s false security of growth is ironic is because he condemns himself by contradicting his own language of growth. He describes his spiritual state as eternally static in regards to his actions. Statements like “I lie where I have always lain” (11) and “God smiles as he has always smiled” (12) do not point to forward motion or growth but to stagnant relationship.
In fact, Agricola seems to posses no aspiration towards actual Christian growth, at least in the normal sense. Agricola links aspiration to those condemned already, “whose life on earth aspired to be / One altar-smoke, so pure!” (47) but in the end “all their striving turned to sin” (50). Historically, Agricola’s indictment of the Catholic Church was the very same: that Catholics strive to use their own works as a “bargain” for their salvation, and that they measure their Christian growth by their God-honoring actions. Agricola attributes his growth not to Christian ethic or obedience, but rather to his “hideous sins”. If Agricola’s sins were blended together, his “nature will convert / the draught to blossoming gladness” (36). The only growth Agricola confesses to is growth not in Christian sanctification, but instead only an admittance that whatever his action, sin or virtue, “all go to swell his love for me” (27).
You may have guessed it, if you didn’t know already — Agricola is an antinomian. He struggled with the relationship between law and gospel all throughout his life, ultimately being shunned by Luther for promoting a doctrine of free living with no obligation to God’s moral law. While Browning certainly might have exaggerated Agricola’s views for literary effect, “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” is a fascinating look into the drastic effects of taking “justification by faith” into unbiblical territory. There is no personableness to Agricola’s prayer. Agricola is so enraptured by his unwavering status with God, he refuses to focus on anything else. God becomes one-dimensional.There is no mention in his prayer of Christ or the Holy Spirit, no mention of the church, the cross, of Christian community, or of any other central tenets of the Christian faith. Browning’s Agricola does not want a God to interact with, to plead with, ask and adore, rather he wants a god to look at and set his sinful mind at ease. Agricola wants a god who, no matter his own actions, is nice to gaze at. He wants to see Heaven, “to look right through it’s gorgeous roof” (2), but he does not want Heaven to look back. He wants to “have God’s warrant” (33) not to worry about his actions or his sins. But the comfort of this false god is false comfort. Browning’s Agricola looks continually inward, to the place where his god becomes an object and not a person. This object god exists in the same state as Agricola – actionless and stone-cold.
The picture that Browning paints in “Johannes Agricola” screams a universal statement: our theology cannot exist in a vacuum. What we think about God always has an effect on how we interact with God. As you read the poem, think about what it would mean to pray in this way. If you read it twice, read it aloud, and try to spot the errors in Agricola’s self centered meditation. Do you sometimes, unintentionally, make the same mistakes as Agricola? Is your picture of God one who turns a blind eye towards sin, just because he is merciful and kind, or is he a God who suffered and died to justly pay the penalty of sin in full?