Touching the Divine through Poetry


Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Spiritual Sunday

I will be interviewed this coming week by Katy Giebenhain of the Seminary Ridge Review, published by the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.  To get my thoughts in order, I am using today’s post to think through some of the intersections between literature and religion.

Both attempt to find ways to express the inexpressible.  The divine is not something that can be pointed at.  Language can only suggest it, and literature, which is language used figuratively or symbolically, is language at its most suggestive.  Jesus resorts to figurative language, especially parables/allegories, to communicate his vision.  There are humorous moments when his disciples think that he’s speaking literally (my father’s house has many rooms, you will sit at my right hand), prompting Jesus to become evermore creative with his metaphors.

One sees language used creatively by one of my favorite mystics, Julian of Norwich, who revolutionized our understanding of Christianity through her vision that God is love.  To convey this insight, she resorted to startling images.  God is a suit of clothes that wraps us closely.  We are hazelnuts that God makes, loves, and cares for.  God is a loving mother.

When you think about it, all language used in religious rituals is metaphor, and a powerful preacher will unpack these metaphors and run with them.  This is necessary become some metaphors have become so commonplace that they have lost their power (Jesus as king, for instance).  Poets are needed (including poets in the pulpit) if language is again to approach the divine.

Among my problems with Christian fundamentalists is that they deny the Bible its metaphorical power.  They want to believe that its language points rather than suggests.  They want to pin God down, which I view as a fear-driven desire to have godly omniscience.  Many of them put themselves in God’s seat and judge others as they imagine God judging.

When fundamentalists take the early chapters of the Book of Genesis as a literal account of creation, they sap it of its power.  That remarkable story functions as a hymn, a poetic celebration, of the natural world. When the first morning breaks and God sees that it is good, we as readers enter into “the damn wonder of it” (to quote a Lucille Clifton poem*).  To then make the creationist case that there were brontosauri on Noah’s ark is to miss God’s poetry.  It is as though they are trying to put God in a box.

Back to my subject.  When I talk of our needing poets to reinvigorate religious language, Percy Shelley’s Defense of Poetry comes to mind.  Shelley goes back to the origins of language and talks about early poets being the ones who pushed it forward, discovering through metaphor “the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuat[ing] their apprehension, until the words which represent them, became, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts.” So far, so good.  But then, Shelley warns, “if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”

So think of religious visionaries as the early poets, those who have found ways to gesture towards (not encapsulate!) the divine.  Or as Shelley puts it, they are “the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. Hence all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory.”

We need poets to keep religious language from getting stale, need them to help us with this “partial apprehension.”  That’s what spiritual poetry does for me.  When I see, say, George Herbert finding God through the fog of his depression or Tennyson rediscovering God after grieving for Hallam, I find myself in touch with deep currents.  And because it is all too easy to slide back into the prosaic world of matter of fact, I must renew my search over and over.

The upshot is that I must keep reading spiritual poems.


*The Clifton poem is “there is a girl inside,” which you can find here.

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  1. Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Katy is a friend, and I think you will have an interesting discussion! Looking forward to hear what you talk about. The latest Seminary Ridge Review had several good interviews.

  2. Susan
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting quote from Mansfield Park, the current Jane Austen summer read.
    Fanny is looking into the night through a window and speaking to Edmund. “Here’s harmony!” said she, “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can atttempt to describe.”

    I was wondering why Austen considers poetry superior to painting and music. Here’s my theory. Music and painting both engage the senses, while poetry appeals to metaphor. As such, I think it goes beyond the senses to comprehend. The spiritual is in a different dimension than our senses. In fact, as you mention above, literal interpretations or understandings of God can get us in trouble, keep us wandering on the surface when the call is to seek the mysteries which can only be approached metaphorically.

    Poetry gives you enough of a direction to face, something to grab onto, without presuming to have specific knowledge. We see through a glass darkly, says St. Paul. But poetry is one of the best windows we have.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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