Theology as poetry.
“The church could use more pastors who care about poetry,” Rita Dove said to me at a dinner for the University of Arizona Poetry House back in 2003. My response was that “our thinking about God could use more poetry and less prose.” It was one of those moments when I was articulate at the right moment, but as I began to really work out what that could mean over the last twelve years, I have begun to believe I should be writing about it. This should probably be in a book, but here goes.
Poetry as a word goes back to the Greek word ποίησις which means “to make.” It seems anathema to many in the field of theology that we might make theology. It is a received thing, right? Revelation is the only way to know God? As I have read online time and time again, the questions in theology have right and wrong answers, usually followed by a single verse or two almost always completely out of context. The problem with this is that theology is assumed to be this spreadsheet of data about God revealed in the Bible that we can check off like the bills I send in every month. Believe in Trinity as coequal and coeternal? Check. Traverse City Light and Power paid? Check.
Theology is always contextual and revealed. It is like the balance in poetry between content and form. Shakespeare is the master of the sonnet. Fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in one of two major patterns of rhyme scheme and meaning. The sonnet has particular rules which you can find almost anywhere, and which are so well known they actually still teach it in high school. (If they don’t I may lose faith in the Western World.) But Shakespeare is always pushing and pulling on those rules. He adds a different stress pattern in to emphasize different words or ideas, uses near rhyme and line breaks to pull the reader along. He presses the romantic ideal with struggles of constancy and betrayal. The content pushes on the form creating a dynamic tension. There is no pure sonnet that is really great that I can think of.
So what role does the form play in writing? It is the framework of meaning and expectation that guides the writer and also sets up the rules that the reader can expect and expect the writer to work within and against to create that dynamic tension. In theology the revelation can serve as our form, or some portion of Scripture. The writer then sets out to place content and revelation in a dynamic tension that results in something far more interesting than a book of forms.
The classical writers know this tension. It is why we still read Calvin even if we are not Calvinists. Calvin’s actual work, rather than the blather others have written about him, puts ideas and situations into a context that pushes against his accepted rules. Often he works himself into a blind corner, where the only thing to do is point to the cup-de-sac and say, Blessed be God, Amen. Read the Institutes of Religion as an adult and you will see poetry in the making. But like Shakespeare, Calvin often gets read too early and then later we skip Calvin and read commentaries.
The same thing is true of Aquinas and Richard Hooker. We read these great thinkers as they tinker and push and pull within accepted forms. Aquinas was working through theology with Aristotle as a base rather than Plato, which is fascinating to read as an adult thinker. How do you move the basic categories of thinking about accepted forms of faith and revelation without destroying those forms? It is like Billy Collins bringing his wry humor and relaxed, informal tone to the forms of poetry. Hooker was arguing for the ability to trust a redeemed reason against the more extreme Puritanical forces on the fringes of Anglicanism, who saw the total depravity as unredeemed and therefore untrustworthy. He argues from within an Anglican reformed tradition but pushes against the form to the extent that he created whole new spaces within our theology of church.
Poetry is about creating spaces or experiences. In the mid-1990’s I walked into a terrarium garden outside the public library in Glendale, Arizona. The area around the library was a busy suburban intersection with heavy traffic and multiple use playgrounds and ballfields nearby, but all of the chaos and noise of the area disappeared as I stepped down into a micro-environment that put me in the Sonoran Desert for maybe a dozen steps. It was a revelatory moment when I began to conceive of the job of communication as a poet as one of creating spaces to enter rather than simply telling an audience about something. The hope is to create a space to enter and explore.
A poetic theology is about creating the space to experience the presence of God and to explore what that may mean with a partner rather than simply to hear what God is like. It is generally accepted in theology that all of our understanding of God is analogical. We have to talk about what God is “like” because we cannot speak directly of God outside of sense experience, because God is Spirit. To understand that for a moment, it is not to say that God is only spiritually understood or non-existent, but rather that we only experience God through the tools we have. I would argue against modernity that we have spiritual understanding, but that spiritual understanding still has to be communicated in the experiential language, therefore language of analogy, our experience of God’s presence is like our experience of light or darkness.
I would go farther to say that most of us have the kind of direct experiences of God that we read and know in the Bible, but that we simply do not have the categories to experience them. But in any case the language we have ends up being analogical, metaphorical, and referential to experience. But it is a dull thing to simply be told about something in abstractions.
At the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, I once listened to a lecture on the Psalms with a friend by a professor who had co-written a book on the subject that was quite good. The lecture though was abysmal. It was a theology on tap event, like ones I had hosted in bars working with the Episcopal Diocese of California and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, so it was expected to be engaging and fun. It was painful though, and it was only after the first hour of lecture that I realized the lecturer was talking all about the Psalms without using any metaphors! When he got to the chapter of the book written by his co-writer, The Psalms a Mirror of the Soul, he added like, so it was only a simile in the end. I walked out at that point.
Our speech about God is always analogical, so it becomes necessary to speak in metaphors, and every metaphor is wrong. By definition a metaphor is always using an unalike thing to show what another thing is like. Love is an oven. Of course, love is not an oven, so the metaphor is useful and beautiful and interesting and also a lie. This is what makes it work. And our theology is always like that. Our metaphors for God and our experience of God is always a lie, but can our lies also be truthful and interesting and beautiful? And can we speak about God honestly admitting along the way that we are always not speaking directly? There is a wonderful book by the Islamic scholar Michael Sells called Mystical Languages of Unsaying that I bought just for the title and only later got the wisdom of how wonderful it is.
Our language can never give someone a direct understanding of our experience of God. Perhaps this explains the prohibition against graven images. It is always easy to take the explanation for the important thing. Modern theology made this mistake again and again, saying that acceptance of beliefs, by which we meant statements about God, was salvific. We still make this mistake today when we ask someone if they believe some particular thing, usually a statement. The problem is that there are beliefs that define us as Christians as opposed to Unitarians or Muslims. There are statements that sort of set the rails against which we insist you not lean too much because of the implications of false interpretations. Love may be compared to an oven, but it is not rape or murder.
So we again run into forms and content. There is a point, say fifteen lines, when you are no longer writing a sonnet. It may still be a poem, but it isn’t a sonnet. This is important in our theological making. We have to recognize that if we are to make something that is truly Christian, there are rules to the making. This is hard for Baby Boomer to accept. We have whole generations who just want to make up whatever rules they want and have the rest of us just agree because you “believe” in those rules. The source of authority becomes the self, and the self as we have seen is fickle. There is no orthodoxy except human rights, civil rights, and the autonomy of the individual.
Poetry has rules to each form. They define the game, and if you want to be a part of that particular game, you have to play by those rules. The interesting question is what makes Christian thought Christian? Can I reject substitutionary atonement and still be a Christian?
What is the form that defines Christianity?
Psalms are Hebrew poetry, and they are written within a framework of Hebrew thought that is deeply analogical, describing the world and emotion in beautiful images from the natural world. They make meaning by repetition and change. We looked at Psalm 96 recently in a class at Grace, and as we followed the writer through the repetitions new meanings began to unfold. The writer feels unstable because of assaults by enemies who have almost overcome him or her, but the writer trusts that God is stable, secure, like a fortress on a rock. But the writer seems when you follow the poem to be tempted to reach out for stability by stealing or robbery, but knows that God is just and this would violate that justice, so he encourages his soul to trust God and not money for security. I had not caught any of that just reading the poem in prayer and worship for these last forty years. But there it was beautifully born out in repetition and change line to line, verse to verse.
That repetition defines Hebrew poetry and thought. If you want to understand Hebrew thought and poetry you have to follow out those repetitions. I am constantly surprised that people do not know the basics of theology or how they work. So many Christian writers make fundamental mistakes that violate the one rule that would seem to be agreeable to all of our tens of thousands of denominations: Jesus of Nazareth reveals and exegetes God for us. If Jesus says something about God then that would seem to be unquestionable to Christian writers, yet I have read time and time again as I have gone looking for basic books on theology for my congregation that emphasize the wrath of God against all humanity, and even God’s unforgiveness without sacrifice. These statements come from derivative theology, thoughts about God derived from other thoughts about the Bible. They are not really supportable from Scripture when you begin with Jesus.
But again we have walked into a bind. We use the Bible as a whole to understand Jesus, but like Calvin we end up reading about Jesus rather than reading Jesus. Jesus speaks analogically often. He uses metaphor, parable, and analogy so much so that it defines his teachings. If we are unwilling to experience and explore his teachings like rooms we enter rather than direct statements, we will completely miss the experience he is offering us of his Abba.
This analogy is my favorite, so much that I probably overdo the comparison because of my enthusiasm for my own experience of being both son and father. But Jesus is not using the analogy of Abba for God indiscriminately; he emphasizes God’s rule and compassion, desire for his children and to provide for them. Yet often I have used and heard this analogy used to talk about God’s wrath and limits. To follow Jesus on this is to follow his repetitions around the image of God as Abba. Jesus tells us repeatedly to be like God, mature, complete in our compassion, as God is.
We are also to be like God in our creativity. We are makers in creation. We get to make new things. As we engage theology as poetry we get to make new connections and new analogies, new rooms of meaning in the mansions of the church’s thoughts. Explore and experience the newness of God in this moment amidst the chaos and noise of this moment.
*A final note on the analogy of Abba. To say that Jesus is abba, or to address God as Daddy is a metaphor. God is not a biological father because being a father requires a mother to procreate. God is the source of life as we understand the creation as Biblical Christians. So Abba is necessarily a metaphor, so why call it an analogy? Because it cascades meaning and metaphors down into a complex web of meanings and implications, it becomes more than a one-to-one meaning association. It really is a analogy as used in the Gospels.