Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry and the End of Theology

Theology is not usually home to imagination and creativity. Indeed, the sober vocation of the theologian looks on creativity as a temptation, the lure of novelty as a dangerous seduction. The fuel of theology is not the imagination but the intellect. It traffics not in metaphors but propositions, those terse building blocks of arguments and outlines and doctrines. The republic of theology, like Plato’s city, is built on the exile of the poets whose “fictions” are a dangerous distraction.

But how did a discourse so uncreative become the deputized voice of the Creator? How did a genre so flat and sober and unimaginative become the official mouthpiece of a God who created platypuses and larkspur? Frankly, how did the boring disquisitions of “systematic” theology emerge as the authoritative voice for a people who follow a story-teller like Jesus?

Well, there’s a story to be told here. To make it short: theology picked up some very bad habits in modernity. In particular, and most disastrously, theology somehow became enamored with a rather Cartesian picture of human persons that reduced us to brains-on-a-stick—to cognitive processors temporarily (and regrettably) housed in bodies. On this account, we are essentially “thinking things”—and “systematic” theology bought such thinking-thing-ism hook, line, and thinker. The result was that the story of God’s wonder-working was boiled down and reduced to “beliefs” that could be formulated in propositions, lodged in syllogisms, and linked together in learned treatises. What’s worse, preaching became captive to the same thinking-thing-ism with the sermon reduced to a lecture for cognitive machines.

But what if we are not essentially “thinking things?” What if we are the sorts of animals who love before we think? What if we imagine the world before we perceive it? What if we are not just minds regrettably housed in these meaty frames but rather embodied creatures who make our way in the world through the gift of the senses?

Then wouldn’t images and metaphors be our most natural way of making sense of the world? Wouldn’t story be our first and most natural language—and the language of propositions and syllogisms an acquired, artificial habit? Indeed, wouldn’t fiction and poetry be closer to the truth?

These are the sorts of questions that haunt me as a philosopher and theologian—as someone who makes his living in a world where propositions are the coin of the realm. What if poetry is the end of theology? That is, what if poetry is the telos of theology—its goal and aim? What if the so-called truths of theology are just dimmed-down intimations of the rich truth that can be embodied in the imaginative worlds of poetry and fiction? Then wouldn’t Graham Greene and Franz Wright be more faithful good-news-tellers than most of our theologians? Wouldn’t the short story be our most faithful genre? Wouldn’t the novel be our most powerful explication of the human condition? Wouldn’t poetry be our most intense site of revelation? Could we imagine theology otherwise?