Poetry & Truth


Words and Faith #2


I’ve just finished reading “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren, which is hugely readable and thoughtful book about the Christian faith. It describes different traditions in faith, different styles of church, and the benefits of maintaining an open and inquisitive, and accepting, mind. One of the chapters, particularly, struck a chord with me. In it, McLaren describes how he perceives himself as a mystic/poet, and he makes an impassioned case for why he thinks that poets have an essential role within modern theology and philosophy, despite having been gently escorted away from the mainstream over the past century or so. He references Brueggemann in asserting that the world has enough accountant theologians, technician theologians and scientist theologians who can cost, measure and analyse faith, and then dispense it in packages that are carefully calibrated for the discerning consumer.

I agree. Once philosophy started using language as mathematical constants, then we moved into the world of systematic thinking and I believe that it then became too easy to neglect the poetic voice as imprecise and, therefore, unimportant. This word, defined thus, implies this, and leads logically to this conclusion. The Socratic Method evolved such that the answer has become the sole aim; rather than an occasional, and welcome, but not essential, accompaniment to the conversation.

Contrast the wild intellectual abandon of Descartes, for example, with the calculations of Alfred Ayer. Over the last hundred years, the world has generally become more rational, more logical and more determined to squash experience and understanding into neat, well labelled boxes. I think this has gone too far. Scientific rigour has it’s place, I agree, but I maintain there are times when the abstraction of poetry, the imagination, the lack of strict form and definition are more fundamental steps on the essential human journey. Even in a technological and knowledge based age, the thoughts and feelings of the artist have plenty to offer in explaining who and what we are. Perhaps because we live such in a technological and knowledge based age, poet has an urgent and important voice. This is particularly true, I believe, in our churches as they work with their ideas of self, and faith, and truth and in discerning how faith should be continuing to transform itself in a world that doesn’t stay still for a moment.

I’ve noticed this with my own preaching. My prayers are pretty much spoken word poetry, my sermons are generally emotive in tone, and are heavily based on experience, tradition and interpretation, and less so on long lists of scripture, carefully formed into a supporting framework. In my internal mirror, my poetry and preaching are closely aligned, and support one another. This does conflict with one of my previous lives, though – namely my engineering PhD. That part of my head wants to properly reference every statement that I make in my preaching, and then the poet resists, and tells me to keep it fuzzy and messy and imprecise but authentic, and heartfelt. I don’t want to argue my audience into a particular view of faith, beating them over the head with AND, OR, NOT, NAND statements; I’d rather try and inspire them into thinking for themselves. Underneath all of this, as an added complication, is my desire to be a better poet, and a better preacher. I sometimes get this confused with being more systematic and – uh, this is a concept – accurate. Poetry and preaching are not always truth. I don’t offer “The One Absolute Answer” with either; merely questions and suggestions.

In summary, I believe rationalism and systematic thinking have led us to a world of increasingly sharp definitions and bold demarcations of light and darks. What I want to try and achieve as a poet, and as a preacher, is to tease some of the shadows back out into the light and hold glimpses of them within my words. Love might be quantifiable doses of dopamine and oxytocin, but the experience of love is the source of an infinite outpouring of words and emotions. The improbable and unfathomable truths of faith will always be richer for the improbable but heartfelt expressions of the artists and the poets and the ones who feel, rather than the ones who know.

Gosh, one small rattle opened a big can of worms in my head here.




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