Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Metaphysical Poetry as an Expression of Religious Experience and Foundation of Religious Faith

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Metaphysical Poetry as an Expression of Religious Experience and Foundation of Religious Faith

Article excerpt

Introduction: That metaphysical poetry can be an expression of religious faith might well seem to be a bold, interesting and, yet, ill-advised thesis. That is because in the seventeenth century poetry was viewed by many as a medium better suited to excite feelings of love and to arouse images of beauty than to set forth arguments that "sparkle" with recondite wit. Wit is one thing; faith another. (1) Thanks largely to T.S. Eliot, the twentieth century took a broader, more charitable view of earlier metaphysical poetry, arguing that the great seventeenth century metaphysical poets managed to weave the emotional and intellectual into one unified work. Indeed, following Eliot, that is the view that I shall take not only of the great seventeenth century metaphysical poets but also of Eliot himself and of much other literature. The primary aim of the paper is to show how metaphysical poetry is related to religious belief, sometimes as an expression of religious belief and other times as a basis for religious belief. Secondary aims are to study the connections of metaphysical poetry to other artistic forms and to metaphysics viewed as a sub-discipline of philosophy.

Metaphysical Poetry and Religious Faith: Most of the world's great religions look beyond nature for their inspiration and are therefore metaphysical. If poetry can express experience that is essentially metaphysical, then it can be an expression of religious experience that inspires faith. Religious experience arouses emotions like wonder, awe, consolation dread, hope, and love; all feelings that turn our minds to beauty, goodness or the sublime. The present analysis of religious experience will locate religious emotions principally among the "sublime." Sublimation evokes an image of the physical drifting imperceptibly into metaphysical and possibly to the divine. Yet, Kant had a different take on the sublime. For him the sublime is the fruit of human reason, of its great triumphs, especially in mathematics and physics. The feeling of the sublime is a response to the superior, distinctively human capacity to comprehend the apparently unfathomable. Granted: It was natural at the end of the Enlightenment for philosophers like Kant, d'Holbach and Laplace to celebrate the successes of empirical science and therefore to think of our own theories and even of our own minds as subline. (Kant/Bernard, 1951/orig. 1790, p. 89) Yet there is another way to conceive the progress of science, which invokes Spinozistic metaphysics. Contrary to Kant, when we conceive nature as a whole (viz. sub specie aeternitatis), we come as close as we possibly can to experiencing God. (2) Not all great scientific minds have taken the Kantian view of the sublimity of nature. In particular, Einstein argues that what is remarkable is not that we have unraveled the mysteries of nature, but rather that nature is constituted so that it yields its mysteries to the rational mind. When we stand in awe of nature we do not stand in awe of our own reasoning power but rather in awe of the "passive power" of nature that welcomes human understanding and its methods. To be sure, Einstein inveighs against anthropomorphism, but he also claims that scientific reasoning inspires feeling that is religious "in the highest sense of the word."

If it is one of the goals of religion to liberate
mankind as far as possible from the
bondage of egocentric cravings, desires and fears,
scientific reasoning can aid
religion in yet another sense ...
whoever has undergone the intense experience of
successful advances made in this domain
[of scientific reasoning--my insertion],
is moved by a profound reverence for the
rationality made manifest in existence.

By way of understanding he achieves
a far-reaching emancipation from the
shackles of personal hopes and desires,
and thereby attains that humble attitude
of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in experience,
and which, at its
profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. … 
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