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The Role of Poetry in Religious Knowledge

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"I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world."
-Teilhard de Chardin, "Mass on the World" collected in Hymn of the Universe

In the Translators Note from the 1971 edition, the translator apologizes to the reader for the poetic and mystical style of writing. Theology, he says, should be a scientific language to provide precise and detailed accounts about reality. Mystical and poetic language is used only to communicate reality through imagery, evocation, tone and ambiguity of paradox and symbol.

The problem was that de Chardin did not just write a poem or a short story or short non-academic essay. What de Chardin did was even more terrific: he wrote a Mass. While in the Chinese wilderness, de Chardin found himself cut off from his usual means of spiritual nourishment, the Eucharist. After a while the notion came to him that as a priest in the world, what he had to offer God was to find the presence of Christ in all the day's living, all the day's work and the bounty of creation. From this revelation he wrote his "Mass on the World," collected in his short book Hymn of the Universe.

It is hard to believe the translator, but for him, the Mass -- the worship experience of the community -- is unfit for consideration as theological reflection due to its being poetry. As poetry the Mass only communicates reality. Theology is supposed to play a more scientific role of delivering absolutes truths to us.

Living in a world after 9/11, we have all been confronted by the actions of absolutists, be they fundamentalists Muslims who blew up the towers or the fundamentalist Christians who started wars and illegal prisons over the destroyed towers. 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.

In Thorton Wilder's Our Town the Stage Manager is asked who understands the nature of death and eternity. He responds, "None but the saints and poets." Wilder's brother was 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".

During the last US election controversy erupted around Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, and his comments. What we were seeing was a Black Liberation Theology that was rooted in the lived and true experience of the African-American community. What he was doing was constructing a theology that was poetry -- reflecting on Christian images in light of the African American experience.

In her book Wisdom and Metaphor poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky argues for a poetic form of doing philosophy, one rooted in an understanding of metaphor. As she sees it, metaphor teaches us to see "X (as Y) and at the same time X is not Y." In her introduction she says we are not wise in a vacuum but are wise about things: people, situations and contexts. People who think metaphorically think truly, as their thinking follows the shape of the world.

Zwicky says that metaphor, as a philosophical device, is a form of seeing-as. Out in the Chinese wilderness de Chardin may have agreed. The poem -- in de Chardin's case his "Mass" -- opens up our longing and asks us to hold together a variety of images in their contradictions and similarities. Theologically it means that the theological task is less scientific-philosophical but more an act of seeing-as. The Mass de Chardin performed did not challenge Catholic liturgical authority, reform the church or introduce sweeping panentheist theological directions. But as a poem it drew its readers into a form of seeing-as that allowed a reimagining of the relationship between God and creation, and a meditation on the real presence of Christ in the elements as the story of God's relationship with all of material creation.

Too often we hear clergy complain about the pulpit-pew gap when it comes to theology. We do a good job of educating our clergy but are unusually poor when it comes to educating our laity on various theological methods. Most laity get the majority of their theology from worship -- hymns, liturgies, praise songs -- than any other source. In this de Chardin's "Mass" is not a deviation from theology but a true expression of it. It does theology with the congregation and not against the grain of it.

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 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.