Poetics of Theology

I came across this post by James K.A. Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. Some highlights of his post:

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.

I was actually on an email list for Christian writers several years ago, but grew tired of being rebuked for writing screenplays (my big kick at the time) because fictional stories were lies, and lying dishonored God. Now, I know that that viewpoint is an extreme minority, but it’s also senseless. And oh so…Baptist.

Frankly, how did the boring disquisitions of “systematic” theology emerge as the authoritative voice for a people who follow a story-teller like Jesus?

. . . [T]he 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.

At some point, logic always breaks down when discussing/considering God, but we often think that logic is the only way to “convince” people. This convincing is merely an attempt to build a fence around God. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus didn’t tell His followers to be great debaters, able to refute everything that comes their way. Instead, He says that we should love God and love those around us. Smith is right, an over-reliance on theology to prove faith/beliefs actually takes the heart out of it. This is why I’m not in seminary!

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?

(I wonder what Smith would say about the Imaginal.) Smith concludes with these questions:

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?

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? . . .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?


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