Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is Theology Merely Poetic?

“Is theology merely poetry? Does theology offer us, at best, only that kind of truth which, according to some critics, poetry offers us?” (C.S. Lewis, 1944).

The quotes come from “Is Theology Poetry,” which is one of a number of short works in a fine collection of C.S. Lewis’ essays titled The Weight of Glory. Lewis claims, among other things, that in comparison to the inspired literature of the ancient classical world, northern European mythology, or the 20th century scientific tradition, that Christian poetics comes up poorly by way of comparison on a purely aesthetic dimension. However, as Lewis astutely observes once one has embraced and is embraced by the core vision of God reconciling the world through Christ a poetics of the Holy Spirit is unleashed in the believer in which all other ways of knowing and representing the world pale in significance. To be sure, this is an acquired taste; one nourished by a thorough engagement with the story in the desire to embody the full scope of its narrative power as if one’s very life depended upon it, which according to its precepts, is precisely the case.

Such direct impact on personal illumination is, of course essential in any adherence of faith as a living reality in which, in theological terms, it is the work principally of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. A full bodied faith, however, requires as well the work of the Father, in his ultimate grounding before the foundation of the world, and in the meditational role of the Son in his incarnational presence through his life, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

To put this is in philosophical terms there are ontological claims about the very nature of reality as well as epistemological claims that go to the lesser important, but ever significant issue of how we know and can come to know that which we claim as true to the extent that is humanly possible, which in theological terms is “through a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Once the poetics of the Christian revelation are opened up and linked directly to its core truth claims it yields an aesthetics sensibility the sublime reaches of which extend to a transcendent power in which, perforce, a merely naturalistic artistic vision, whether of poetry or science simply cannot attain.

The theme Lewis tackles has been a pivotal one in grappling with 20th century theology on whether “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has had appeal because of its aesthetic sensibility or because of the viability of its inherent truth claims in which once revealed has an aesthetic draw that cannot be comprehended from a third person perspective. The matter is compounded in the current period when contrasted to Lewis’ initial readership in the 1940s when Christianity had greater cultural currency than in the contemporary era. Yet, the core claim stands on the truth content of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, notwithstanding the increasing cultural marginalization of the faith since Lewis’ time. It is, one might argue, the very ludicrousness of the orthodox faith stance in light of the multiplicity of metanarratives that dot the contemporary cultural landscape and the rejection of any notion of foundational truth which places its insistent claims even in starker relief in our era than in Lewis’ time.

Even in, or more radically put, especially because of our marginal location in this contemporary cultural milieu we are called to tell our story, to the best that we can while acknowledging and resting in the reality that persuasion is ultimately the work of God. This task is part of our individual calling in our every day encounters as well as our common calling as the body of Christ in directly engaging the narrative paradigms of the broader culture since our faith is ultimately about powers and principalities and not merely about flesh and blood to which we are called to give a defense.

How to engage that work is beyond what I can address at this point, though in his many writings Lewis provides many clues, especially in the merger of the faith’s core truth claims with its transcendent elegance. To be sure,this convergence between sublime poetics and the insistent, yet humbly stated truth claims of orthodox Christianity that so propelled Lewis needs to be recalibrated based on the exigencies of our considerably different era in which in any event a faith that purports to be evangelical needs to hold both of these elements as foundational. While the longer term intent of such an apologetics is meant to address the culture at large, the church itself, where much confusion over these issues resides, is as good a place to start as any; a location where where many of the formative precepts of the culture are consciously and unconsciously embodied.

If today we hear his voice let us not harden our hearts, but give even greater heed so that we do not drift away in the least and if we do let us seek the faith in grace "to draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance...having our hearts sprinked to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews, 10:22).

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