Thursday, July 08, 2010

Theology as Poetry

Here's an interesting little HuffPo piece by Jason Derr, that touches on a subject that has concerned us for many years, and introduces a theologian with whom we were previously unfamiliar.

We have long thought that, to oversimplify a bit, the word "theology" creates the false expectation of an exact science, comparable to, say, biology. To our amusement and chagrin, many theologians and pastors attempt to remedy the problem by speaking only of something called "God-talk." This is condescending and irrelevant, largely because it is not the word itself which creates the false expectation, so much as the heritage of the Latin and German theological traditions, with their commitment to hair-splitting and self-confidence.

Going after the same idea, Derr begins with some blather about Teilhard de Chardin, and makes it worse with a de rigeur appeal to 9/11 and a nonsensical claim that "When we make religions about absolute truths then we freeze them in the past instead of recognizing them as living traditions that grow and breathe in the present." This is well-intentioned, but misleading. Most religion, by its nature, is at least partially "about" ultimate, and therefore absolute, truths. What we believe that Derr means is something closer to: "When a religious movement devotes itself to the conservation and repristination of a particular dogmatic proposition, it loses the ability to connect with a changing intellectual and social environment."

(Even this proposition is debatable. Lutheranism, for example, is a species of Christianity which exists largely in order to promulgate one single proposition, that of justification by grace through faith. Yet Lutheranism has produced many theologians, from Kierkegaard to Bonhoeffer to Lindbeck, whose work is wrapped up in the attempt to connect ancient and modern thought.)

Fortunately, Derr moves quickly beyond this to something better. He mentions the Congregationalist minister and Harvard professor, Amos Niven Wilder (1895-1993), whom he describes as
a biblical scholar and theologian who wrote the book Theopoetics. Amos Niven Wilder argued that theology must be poetic, or articulated in the images, contexts, hungers, desires, questions, passions and concerns of the current age. Niven Wilder wanted a theology of the cross that spoke to the "believer, skeptic and secular mystic".
This is more interesting. It is also, incidentally, a fair description of Bonhoeffer's project. Derr goes on to talk about Jeremiah Wright, whose ill-fated, um, jeremiads are best described as a kind of poetry, reduced to mere prose by a hostile press. His concluding graf is quite good:
Poetry and metaphor are important as ways of doing theology. In a world so divided by absolute claims, using metaphor and poetry allows us to have room for flex. It allows congregations to "see-as" as they wrestle with the vagaries and uncertainties of life. To see-as theologically means to enter into [Jan] Zwicky's ideas on metaphor and create poetries that mark our progress on the way of Jesus. We seek less to tell the absolutes of what we must believe and more to articulate the poetries that express how we believe and which draw us deeper contemplation and discipleship.
This isn't bad. Derr is struggling too hard against the straw man of fundamentalism, and this struggle forces him to fuss about "flex" versus "absolute claims." Murky theology does nobody any favors; it allows weak minds to create monsters. And in fact, a sufficiently strong metaphor can serve as an absolute claim, far more effectively than a debatable proposition. An argument can be debated and adjusted, but the strongest metaphors destroy their alternatives. (Hence the "unacknowledged legislators of the world," and all that.)

But his bigger point, which is that there is a kind of theology which depends less upon the tools of logic than upon those of poetry, is well taken. We think, for example, of Efrem Syrus, who is not nearly as quotable as Tertullian, but may be far deeper. We think also of the most glowing compliment we have ever heard paid to a preacher, when after visiting a church one Sunday, Our Beloved Godfather described the pastor as "standing in the pulpit like a blind Homeric bard, neither reading nor reciting the sermon, but rather seeming to channel it from the depths of time and space." Or something like that.


mark said...

Marilyn Ascarza

Diane said...

I have long felt that there is, or should be, a connection between poetry and theology.

But then, I kind of wish that Christians had midrash, instead of JEPD.

I mean, we say it's the living word, don't we? Then why not have a conversation? talk back, like the rabbis do.