theology and poetry :: truth and beauty

by Eric Daryl Meyer

I thought I’d start this thing off with a journal entry from June :: a particularly good day…

This afternoon, I found a truth worth starving for. It sometimes happens like that – in an afternoon. Driving along, I was hijacked by the announcement of a trailhead off the side of the highway – a path leading into the woods, across streams and up into mountains. Being a rare and fortuitous “day off,” I allowed myself to be suckered into a u-turn, drove back over my thirty seconds of deliberation, and parked my rig. I abandoned the “mineral drops that explode to drive my ton of car” for the propulsive power contained in my own two legs. For all that, I’ve had nearly a perfect day.

Theology that has lost its connection with poetry has lost its connection with truth. The simplicity and depth contained within that a priori aphorism could fuel a lifetime’s thought and teaching. Poetry is the art of condensed meaning. Words contain whole worlds of reference. They sit in place on a page, but point to a thousand things beyond themselves. To enter a poem means to follow one of its manifold paths into the world it describes. A poem knows more that what appears on its page because a poem is a question, and we are all unique answerers. Theology that has lost its connection to poetry inhabits a world where truth can be divorced from beauty. This is not our world.

It is the peculiar excellence of scripture that it communicates truth about God poetically – largely through narrative. In fact, I don’t know of a text held sacred which is not written poetically. It is this element that allows scripture to communicate to so many people in so many places and cultures for so many thousands of years. Scripture refuses unequivocal exactitude because it acknowledges its particularity, it’s historical roots. Perhaps the inspiration of scripture does not consist in its susceptibility to extraction, extrapolation, and manipulation into a fully mechanized “ordo salutis” – but in its ability to inspire the same intense devotion to the God who occasioned its writing. Scripture refuses unequivocal exactitude and embraces poetic beauty instead. This is a necessary, (but not sufficient) element of truth.

Grace, a fundamental category of my Christian roots, might be poetically described as an utterly unexpected encounter with good. My hike today, and the clarity of this thought worthy of my starvation, approached me as a grace. If I’m honest, I have to speak about these things in the passive voice. I may have walked into them, and I may have made the space in my schedule and my mind for the unexpected to happen, but in the end, it happened to me. I didn’t create this any more that I created the trees and rocks and streams that I was privileged to walk among. That is not a claim of inspiration, or even that this is good thinking or writing – I only mean that, if you press me, even the words I pen represent the “beyond” to me. From this middle, the local “here” where I sit, I look at the ever-shifting horizons, the unknown behind me, the unexpected ahead, and I suppose that there is grace hidden in all of it.

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