Theopoetics: exploring new theology (part 1)…

My contention is that ideas matter. Consider how our current UK government has taken inspiration from certain ‘think tanks’ to apply a philosphy of extreme liberal economics. Ideas, when operationalised, can change the world.

Theological ideas have a particular kind of power as they have god (or gods) on their side. Even whilst we are witnessing the decline of religious participation in the western world, theology remains a powerful force for good or ill, dominating the discourse at the heart of the politics of the most powerful nation on earth and forming the fracture lines of many a hostile border.

On an individual level, many of my friends have been going through a period of deconstruction, when they have questioned much of the theological underpinnings of the faith they inherited. My own deconstruction journey into this territory is writ large across the whole timeline of this blog. But deconstruction is only ever part of the process. A friend said it like this recently in an e-mail;

I am certainly in the time of that journey where I am looking for those trustworthy guides … I know that deconstruction does not fill me up with anything, it only warns me against what I know I do not want to become. So, finding meaning is what I hope for.

Trevor Williams

Where do we start then? Whom do we trust to lead us? Where are the apostles, the prophets, the authors we need to read, the preachers that we need to listen to?

Perhaps more importantly though, can we trust our own hearts to lead us? This takes courage, but it also takes a certain kind of self-compassion, accepting that we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to get it all ‘right’. The measure here (as in the beginning of it all in Genesis chapter 1) is not purity, but goodness; goodness that embraces the inevitability of failure as well as the hope that we can do better.

In previous post (which I cannot find, but I’m sure I talked about it somewhere before) I confessed to applying these three things to my own search for meaning.

  1. I acknowledge those whose teaching/writing/leadership has inspired me, consciously holding on to those things I inherited that is ‘good’. These act like signposts or filters or channels through which I measure and encounter the new
  2. What sings in my soul? I have decided to trust my own embodied reaction as a guide for accepting and adventuring. If I read something or encounter something and it lights me up emotionally/physically/spirituality (even intelluctually) then I will pay attention.
  3. What is useful? By which I mean the degree to which ideas contribute towards my understanding of peace love and justice. If they do not seem immediately useful in this regard, I am not necessarily rejecting them as ‘wrong’, rather I am far less interested.

I am quite aware that this list is contentious. I have spoken about it to a number of friends, and some of them have been troubled by it. It may also be incomplete – for example, Trevor, in the e-mail I quoted from earlier, suggested adding ‘beauty’ to the list, something which was interesting because it resonated with a new (to me) idea I have been adventuring with called theopoetics (more on this later.)

After all, a quote from Jean Vanier has stayed with me for years about how we encounter god in all that is beautiful and all that is broken so I have no doubt that a certain kind of beauty opens me up inside… perhaps this is indeed a reliable way to encounter the divine.However, this seems more than contained within my number 2 because beauty often sings in my soul. It might be a different song to yours, but it sings loudest for me when mixed with brokenness, because there I think we find god. This is why encountering Steve Broadway’s portraits of steet sleepers was so powerful at this event;

I mentioned this word theopoetics. I confess, my initial interest was because I assumed this to be describing some kind of mash-up between spirituaity and poetry, something which sounded right down my street – after all, this has been a well trodden path for centuries so such a word seemed potentially useful. However, it turns out this was wide of the mark. I needed to think bigger, much bigger.

Lets start with the etymology of the word;

Theo; meaning ‘of god or deities’.

Poetics from poiesis, meaning ‘the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before’ or more simply, ‘to make’.

So what we seem to be describing here is the process of making god.

To many of you this might sound like heresy. After all, this might mean that we are describing ‘making up’ god. Dreaming him/her in to being. Creating our own creator. Well, perhaps this is exactly what we are indeed describing.

Before you become too outraged, consider this; all our concepts of god have come from somewhere. Within the Christian tradition I come from, we base (almost) all of these on propositional truths extracted selectively from the bible. The way we read this bible becomes the primary, and some would say only, way to understand who god is, what he wants us to do and what the future holds for all of us.

But we only do this because people have previously decided that this was the best way to do things. This was the god they made for us, in the form of his written words. I don’t say this to dismiss the god we have inherited, just to point out that everything we think we know about him or her has been imagined by someone, sometime.

Kind of reminds me of Pete Rollins’ work, which I talk about here.

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

But back to this word, theopoetics. As far as I am able to understand, those who have been exploring this as a concept are comfortable with the idea of making god, but more than this, they are less concerned with the ‘what’ questions of faith (i.e., all those propositional truths wrapped up into doctrine) and more concened with the ‘how’, by which I think they mean the process by which we encounter god in the midst of our lived experience, in the mess of what we are becoming. The idea is to focus on the aesthetics of this experience, and allow this to shape us.

In other words, rather than getting too worked up about defining what is ‘right’ perhaps we should just explore it together using whatever activities and tools that will be most helpful to bring us closer to the divine and hopefully to turn us towards acts of love and compassion.

Particularly, art and creativity, because these seem the most helpful of all, as they allow us to be fully embodied and present in the moment of encounter. Of course, there are other ways (including the study of the bible for example!) but theopoetics encourages us towards full body encounters with creative, immersive artistic expression.

As a poet, this sings in my soul and opened a window for me, which I intend to explore further on this blog. It also resonates with the three ‘tests’ I applied above;

  1. It has grown from a tradition I recognise, and is anchored to principles I find compelling, not least a concern for social justice and a concern to give a place for mystical experience through art and creative engagement
  2. It excites me, by opening up some new posibilities inside. Something is singing in my soul
  3. It might yet prove to be a useful way to think about how spirituality might shape the world towards good.

More to come…

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