. . . let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
-- Ann Sexton, "Welcome Morning"*
I have the answer.
What was the question?
The question is not whether God exists, or what God would be like if God existed, or whether God is one or three or both, or whether God is love or justice, or whether God wants us to rest on Saturday or on Sunday, or whether God would have us immerse ourselves in the world or detach from it, or whether the wine actually becomes the blood of Christ or only sort of, or whether God is omniscient, or omnipotent, or omnibenevolent, or whether God is one of us or totaliter aliter. None of these are the question I know the answer to.
The question I'm talking about is: how should we ask questions whose answer might include the word "God"? I have the right answer to that question.
Most people don't agree with my answer, and many who think they agree with it don't understand it. There are even people who would kill me for saying it (strange, because my answer does not require me to kill any of those people). Nevertheless I am right. My answer is very simple. It's so simple that it's hard to understand.
We should ask such questions very humbly. But that's not my answer, though my answer would bring about more humility.
Questions whose answers might include the word "God" should be poetic. Yes, God-talk should be poetic. It should be poetic because it actually is poetic, and God-talk that pretends to be something other than poetic is false.
Theology, which is to say organized God-talk, is poetry. More specifically, every statement of theology is or relies on a metaphor. A metaphor makes two different things into one thing: a ship of state, a sea of troubles, a brief candle of life. A metaphor does not name a fact, for if taken factually it is incorrect. A metaphor is not a deduction, for if taken logically it is a contradiction. A candle is not a life, two sticks nailed together do not prevent death, and my love is not a red red rose. So why do we say such things? We say such things because by saying them we accomplish what cannot be accomplished by fact or logic.
Books are full of fact and logic. We go to school to fill our minds with fact and logic -- and a good thing too -- but life is not based on fact and logic. Life is based on the daily papering over of a contradiction. We're here but know we soon won't be. So we have to act as if our action matters, while the long facts say it matters not. Forrest Church said that religion is "our human response to being alive and having to die."** The paper that hides the contradiction, the water we walk over the drowning wave, is faith. But faith is not knowledge. What we know needs no faith to declare.
We take our first step over the chasm every morning without looking down, singing a song to ourselves for distraction. The song may be one of joy or of duty, of laughter or of grief, of gratitude or of protest. "Let me paint a thank-you on my palm," said one poet. "I thank you god for most this amazing day," sang another. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me -- " "I have a dream." "Some day my prince will come." "My country will thank me." "My child is special." "I'm going to get rich." "I'm going to kiss that girl (or boy)." "I'm going to sing at Carnegie Hall." Every day we sing a new song, or we sing an old song made new in singing. If you lose the skill for more than a day or two, you're in trouble. Depression kills.
"O grave, where is thy victory?" wrote the apostle, but it's pretty obvious where the victory is. Death wins on the facts. And yet we're not willing to leave it there. Not even an atheist will leave it there: the statement cries out however. Where life is concerned we're not content to rest with facts. So to withhold the victory from death we eschew the facts. The Soul by definition cannot be a fact. The Soul is incorporeal, cannot be measured or weighed, so there are no facts about it. The Soul is a metaphor. It is as if the disorganized remains were still somehow an ensemble. We carry on as if two unlike things were like: we declare the remains to be an ensemble. What do we accomplish by that? to ask is to ask the purpose of poetry.
There are false poems, but this is the truth of poetry. Poetry seduces us to walk on water. I say my love is like a red red rose, so I can love her in a way that I could not love her if I had not said it. The prophet declares his dream, so we can achieve wonders we could not otherwise achieve if he did not declare it. The poet says death shall have no dominion, so we can live with a fullness we are unable to sustain if he does not say it.
Theology is poetry, and faith is a poem. If only everyone agreed with me, two good things would happen. Theology, including atheistic theology, would be more humble. And everyone would be freer to say different things about God, without fear of torture, murder, rapine, liquidation, pillage or enslavement.
And yet if I say that theology is poetry and faith is a poem, many religious people, including many Christians not only fundamentalist but high critical as well, will be outraged or alarmed. "How can you say that theology is mere poetry?" they ask as their eyebrows meet.
But they misquoted me. I didn't say that theology is mere poetry. I said that theology is poetry. The mere is what they added, out of their own prejudice. They think poetry is mere. They think poetry is low.
But I think poetry is high. And I am raising theology to its level. I am theology's best friend.
Faith recovers life from deadly facts. Faith is a poem, with all the truth of poetry. "He is risen." That's all you need to say.
*The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
**Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), p. 64.
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