Theopoetics and Social Change

By Guynn, Matt | Cross Currents, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Theopoetics and Social Change


Guynn, Matt, Cross Currents


  We open up the hungers and longings of our age. We enter into a
  conversation with the deepest places of our selves and our audience.
  To engage in the theopoetic is to tempt the radical nature of
  ourselves, it is to follow in the footsteps of the God-Speakers
  that could upset the republic, could speak from the margins of
  our hungers and unspeakable truths.
  Jason Derr, In Consideration of the Theopoetic (1)

What is the activity of a priestess of the social imagination? What focus shall a theopoetic social change agent take? How can we as social change organizers both "upset the republic," in Derr's language, and also awaken the hungers and strengths of the human heart, accessing the power and Presence of imagination and of God-Deity-Divinity-Mystery? This essay is a report from the field, an update about ways that theopoetic intent has informed one set of experiments in social change organizing.

The theopoet argues that, in many cases, like old soda pop, language has gone flat in our religious traditions. We use the same language again and again without examining and refreshing it, and often no one really wants to drink it any longer. Bound up with the flatness of language, our rituals become rote. Instead of actually interacting with Deity-Divinity-Essence-God, rituals and religious conversation become routinized. Rather than paths of power, we tread paths of habit. (2)

In Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination, Amos Wilder asserted that when language gets too encrusted, it fails to produce either new theophanies or Spirit-fed enactments of ancient truth. The conversation in which Wilder participated, with artists, musicians, mystics, and psychologists, was about the integration of soul into spirit, the re-introduction of ecstasy into religion, the renewed embrace of vision/hymn/poem as categories of God-talk. (3)

There is a risk that theopoetics will remain just a conversation corner in the academy: Yes, the writing may evoke more writing, but these rivers of words deserve to also flow into the sanctuary and toward the streets. If theopoetics is to keep growing toward its real promise of more powerful engagements with Mystery-Absence-God-Presence, then theopoetics will need to find life not only in the pages of journals, but also in worship services that midwife the new/ancient humanity, and in incarnate experiments of struggles for justice/peace. The latter is the focus of this essay.

Theopoetics as a stance promises to deepen and develop social change organizing, by enriching issue-based organizing with a search for an empowerment rooted in Presence and Power. The theopoetic activist wants not just words--but enfleshed initiative. The theopoet change-maker seeks new re-engagements of faith stories. Not only community change, but individual regeneration. And not only individual salvations, but full-bodied wholeness, for the person, the faith community, the neighborhood. The theopoet leader is a change agent who speaks not just in slogan and catchphrase, but from the currents of a deeper Life.

I am concerned that many times, those of us in spiritual social change leadership fall short of the mark. Too often, it is possible to fall into the kinds of patterns that theopoetics train us to be skeptical about--for example, to fall into the rhetorical trap of using the same tired constructions of Us vs. Them, instead of seeking new framings that catalyze the imagination and spirit in the direction of hopeful action. And it is far too easy for faith-based leaders to retell scripture stories only to make moral points about justice or peace, but not to dwell in them with their people, to access power in new/ancient ways. Far too easy to continue to plan the same old vigil, the same kinds of rote civil disobedience, which become themselves a kind of tired and flat language that no one hears anymore.

I have at times taken these easier roads. …

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