Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Our Grass-Stained Wings: An Essay on Poetry and Theology

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Our Grass-Stained Wings: An Essay on Poetry and Theology

Article excerpt

The great kenosis hymn in Philippians, with its account of the one who took on "the form of a slave" only then to be "highly exalted" by God (2:6-11), forms what we might call the mythopoetic center of the Christian imagination. In these words the first Christians said what they wanted to say about their God in the only way that they could say it: through a lyrical narration that told of things beyond human words, and saw things beyond human vision.

This account, though, did not remain in the realm of hymnody alone, but also came to form the center of Christian dogma. Augustine is still writing in a mythopoetic register, but now appealing to this mythos as one holding doctrinal authority, when he writes, "For us he became a road or way in time by his humility, while being for us an eternal abode by his divinity."1 If orators and theologians began shortening this story to the more formulaic "Jesus is divine, Jesus is human," they never ceased to embed the drama within these formulae: Jesus is divine in that he descended in humility from his Fathers house and was subsequently glorified in that same house, human in that his humble journey culminated, radically, in an earthly manifestation.

Something of the poetic remains, then, in the depths of classical christological formulas, and in particular of the Nicene homoousian to patri, homoousian he men. If this claim is true, it suggests that Christian language is most poetic where it is most attuned to its dogmatic heritage. Theology, in that case, is a kind of poetry, and it is such because of the particular story that Christians are attempting to tell: a story that verbalizes what exceeds human language, and visualizes what exceeds human vision. Regardless of the form it takes, that is to say, theology will always be poetic in its content.

By contrast, if we conceive of theology and poetry in an opposition to one another we surrender the imperative on Christian language to grasp at these excessive limits. When asked whether theology was a kind of poetry, C. S. Lewis responded that he assumed the question was not "whether most theologians are masters of a 'simple, sensuous, and passionate' style," but rather "'does Theology offer us, at best, only that kind of truth which, according to some critics, poetry offers us?"'2 It does not, he says, offer only this kind of truth, and he begins to explain this answer by asking what else we might wish it to be - what theology could be if it were more than "mere poetry." Assuming that the answer is "factual," he then offers an exposition of "the Scientific Outlook," which we might assume to be the disciplinary home of the factual. This description of reality, he says, in brief a naturalistic narrative of existence from nondescript void to entropie death, is ultimately a poetic drama in four acts, with homo sapiens at center stage in the role of the hero who must struggle against all odds. In other words, what we call fact has all the look of theater, or "mere poetry."3

Theology, Lewis says, understood as "the systematic series of statements about God and about man's relation to Him which the believers of a religion make"4 does not make nearly such fine poetry. This is especially true as we work our way through the layers of the Old Testament toward the New, and the mythical, poetical, metaphorical, and legendary yields to the historical. "'God became Man,'" Lewis explains, "should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement 'Myth became Fact.' The essential meaning of all things came down from the 'heaven' of myth to the 'earth' of history."5 Thus theology is not poetry, but naturalistic science in fact is something very close to that.

Lewis's response is, characteristically, brilliant in its simplicity. Three-quarters of a century later there remain plenty of unimaginative public figures - Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens being the most prominent of recent years - who assume that the world can be divided between scientific facts on the one hand and a whole raft of pursuits on the other, from religious creeds to a child's cartoons, that can be summed up under the heading "make believe. …

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