God, Negative Capability, and the Too-Safe Christian

About a month ago, I finished reading The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but haven’t been sure what exactly I should write about.

The main premise of the book is that pastors should approach people the same way that poets approach poetry. Barnes relies heavily on the writings of Eliot and Pound as he draws connections between poetry, the Christian faith (including the character of God and the hear of poets found in the Bible), and relationships. A large chunk of this book is directed towards pastors as they prepare their sermons, and while interesting, doesn’t necessarily relate to my life. However, Barnes keys on two ideas that can be thought provoking for everyone, regardless of their faith.

Barnes presents Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Simply put, Negative Capability refers to the inherent mystery surround poetry–the idea that one doesn’t have to have all of the answers to a poem in order to enjoy it. In defining his own poetics, Joseph Hutchison writes,

Puzzlement is a puzzling quality. . . I especially enjoy being puzzled by my own work, but I detest the impulse I sometimes feel to “hide the treasure” somehow, as some kind of test for the reader. Mystery is the essence of life on our planet. . . The works of Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout seem to me full of mystery. . . .

Poets seem to have this knack for finding joy in the mysterious (or should anyways).  Barnes takes this idea of Negative Capability and it’s resulting joy and suggests that humans, in our post-Enlightenment/Age of Reason nature, can’t deal with not having the answers. My students get really frustrated when they can’t solve a poem–regardless of the musicality or images. American citizens get all hot-to-trot when we don’t know what our President is thinking/doing/deciding. We want and demand answers. Barnes believes that this demand for answers and clarity pervades the church as well. People seem discontent with the mystery of God–and many have decided God doesn’t even exist because of so many questions/mysteries/unknowns (What kind of God chooses some people and not others? What kind of God justifies eliminating an entire race/civilization? What kind of God would send somebody to hell for eternal damnation/suffering?).

I’ve realized over the past couple of years that I do not really truly understand the character of God. He is a mystery to me. How much of that mystery am I okay with? How much mystery do I despise, resulting in demands to have the answers? How much does my view/opinion/understanding of God depend on the relationships/influences of the people around me and my past?

This leads to the second point Barnes makes in his book. He thinks that relationships between people should be nurtured the same way a poet and a poem relate. As I have conversations with those around me, I hear time and again stories about people (pastors, Christian friends, Christian family) that have completely alienated those around them. Adam Fieled  posted a blog last spring with the following quote:

My two basic problems with Christianity: 1) that I have never seen or heard Jesus 2) that I have seen and heard a lot of Christians. They are, I think, mostly a lousy advertisement.

And again, more recently:

If anyone wants a good scare (quite as good as Carrie), go to Netflix and watch Jesus Camp. I had no idea that out of 320 million Americans, 80 million are Evangelical Christians. One in four. I’d say that there are probably 1 million Americans seriously involved in art. So there are 80 times more Evangelicals in America than there are artists. The center of much of the film’s action is Rev. Ted Haggard, who appears an hour into it. Haggard was later charged with picking up and having anal sex with a male prostitute. Now that’s leadership.

I don’t think the only way to experience God is through other people, but it seems that people are a major prism through which others will determine their point of view. Is it any wonder why people don’t see mystery in the character of God when those that follow Him don’t seem to live anything but hypocritical lives?

The poetry that seems most criticized in the poetry world is that which is too easy, too obvious, too old-school (some would say too quiet, but I won’t go there). But what if Christians got over their safe, homeschooling counter-culture and took the risk of accepting the mystery of people, and saw others as objects of love instead of something that needed to be fixed–actually being a part of the world instead of hiding from and criticizing it?

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4 thoughts on “God, Negative Capability, and the Too-Safe Christian

  1. This is a thoughtful post, Joel, and thought-provoking. It made me think about my central issue with religion—Christianity and every other. I think it boils down to the fact that the very nature of religion is against mystery, against “negative capability”—at least as I understand it. Religions assert an absolute truth and claim to have and provide exclusive access to it. Within the bounds of that absolutism there is a often a submission to “mystery,” which as a practical idea amounts to an avoidance of questioning.

    Here’s an example. A couple of years ago there was a news report about a family that was driving down an interstate, in Florida as I recall, when a truck swerved and sideswiped the family’s van, causing the side door to spring open and the child in the back seat to be thrown from the vehicle. Amazingly enough, the child flew over the guardrail on the elevated highway and landed in a thicket of some kind, which broke his fall; he not only survived, but as I remember was virtually unhurt. Now, the family praised God for saving their son but did not blame God for tossing the boy out of the van in the first place. This kind of “reaching after … reason” is about as far from negative capability as one can get, since surely the mystery includes the sudden eruption of chaos as well as the unexpected restoration of the normal order of things.

    The history of religions is a chastening thing to contemplate if one cares at all about the difference between rhetoric and behavior. I imagine someone at some point has bother to add up the number of people slaughtered by the religious since the collapse of paganism (the pagans of classical Greece and Rome cooked up many reasons for killing other people, but they didn’t have enough bad faith to pretend that their local god had to kill the adherents of somebody else’s local god because their own god was the only true god. (I suggest you read Gore Vidal’s novel Julian for the viewpoint of intelligent pagans at that point in history when Christianity was about to take over the machine of empire.) Scientists, of course, have sometimes conducted inhumane experiments and facilitated mass murder—so I don’t want to be seen as exempting the zealots of rationality from our bloody history on this planet.

    What I do want to suggest is that negative capability, as a habit of mind, makes it very difficult to kill for a belief—because every belief includes a “yes, but…” I prefer that kind of humility before mystery to the aggressive, absolutist use of “mystery” to excuse the heinous behavior of one’s particular group.

    Get stuff! Keep it comin’…!

  2. I wanted to add something related that I just came across today on a wonderful site called ted.com:

    Note this charming scientist’s final comments on the notion that “some parts of the scientific establishment are sort of morphing into a kind priesthood.”

  3. I agree with you on your point of religion–and I think that’s why Jesus was most critical of the religious: the pharisees and sadducees. In the example of the boy being tossed from the van, I would hope that the family would be thankful that their son was spared. The negative capability arises when considering the character of God and his desire to make himself known to people. The mystery lies in God either allowing that door to fling open or actually doing it Himself for the sake of revealing to that family what He is capable of doing. This is the point where many people say, “A God that purposefully puts people in danger is not a God of love, and therefore doesn’t deserve my reverence.” But if we zoom out (that’s a silly phrase…how about look at the big picture) a little bit, the idea of danger in itself becomes irrelevant because if God is in control of the situation, He’ll take care of it.

    I think many people will look at that argument and say that I’m refusing to question and that I’m living blindly. Either way, it boils down to who wants to be in control. Humans have been fighting for it forever (I use the term lightly…haha), thus creating tension/separation from God who want to be in control himself.

    I guess you could say that this is my humility towards the mystery! Hopefully, it doesn’t come across as aggressively absolutist!

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