This thing that we can loosely call theopoetics may not have one narrow definition, but that does not mean that we can’t describe it, both in concept and (more importantly) as a practice. As part of my own personal exploration, I have been gathering some of this material together and here is some of it, hopefully organised in a way that makes sense.
The bits and pieces here have been gathered from the web, both fixed pages, podcasts and videos. There are a few books out there which i have not read yet, and probably never will, because I am much more interested in theopoetics as a way to understand and shape practice, rather than as an intellectual exercise.
This is a paraphrase of the definition provided by ARC, whose webite is here.
Theopoetics is what happens when art/form/style/forms and intersection with spirituality, with a focus on community, change and embodiment.
It is about seeking to make the practice of poesis – the meaning making – one of the central parts of life.
It is not new. It is not ‘another way of doing god-stuff’ – rather it points to things that have always happened and always been part of religious practice.
Theopoetics requires that we have space in which to make our own spiritualities, which might be understood as a rejection of ‘monorthodoxy’, and the deliberate decision to allow a generous concept of orthdoxy, in which it is not true to say that there is ‘no such thing as rightness’, but rather that this is much broader than our prejudices might have led us to believe. This is not the same as saying ‘everything goes’, but it would suggest that our adventures are not just limited to one denomination, one tradition or even one faith.
Like many theological movements, it perhaps started in reaction to a concern about how we have place some forms of theology on pedestals, particularly seeing it as an intellectual journey. In this way of doing theology, art, if used at all, is merely metaphor through which we encounter intellectual truth. This kind of theology tends to be white, male and controled within the acedemy.
BUT, within theopoetics, the act of creating art is itself an epistemology (which is another way os saying that it becomes a different kind of knowing. Or perhaps a way of understanding the limits of our own knowing.
Perhaps we can also say that the process is as important (if not more important) than the product, or the object that is created. The act of making resonates with memories/hopes/hurts/loves that we feel within our bodies as much as we name them consciously.
It might be about helping us engage with our present or about letting go of our past, letting the spirit connect with the Spirit…
We are describing art here as a spiritual discipline, in which we make things out of our community and our shared experience as well as individually. In this we consciously value both creativity and co-creation.
Art might also been seen as prayer…
…or as a way to be hopefully consciously engaged with our own culture, our own location.
I have heard this word used for some time now, and have at times felt threatened by it. Perhaps this is because I have never been particularly comfortable with my own body. As a young man, my religion taught be to hate my physicality, particularly my sexuality, which was almost always to be supressed and was a source of shame. I was always taller than those around me, and often overweight, which, when combined with a crippling lack of self consciousness meant that my escape was into my head – to the worlds I could create, or have created there by others. Like many of us, I learned in a deep subconcious way that my body was not to be trusted, that it was ugly and that the best parts of life were lived externally, intellectually and even excarnately, via the on-line world that increasingly characterised my being. Add ot that, my body is older now, with all the changes that brings.
To hear the word ’embodyment’ being used as a spiritual practice is in stark contrast to the religion I inherited, but that is not to say that there were no embodyed experiences. I grew into a relgion that was charasmatic, with ecstatic ‘moves of the spirit’. People were ‘slain’ or shaken from head to foot. People danced. People shouted. As I reflect on that from a safe intellectual distance, it is interesting to me that in order to move beyond the intellectual straighjackets, the mostly middle-class white English people I grew up amongst needed some kind of holy-spirit madness to give them permission to engage their bodies with mystical experience. My memory of much of this is that I watched from the outside, playing musical instruments, disturbed and slightly embarrassed by much of what I was seeing, desperate to look like I belonged. Other people were fully caught up in these experiences. I thought there was something wrong with me because I was not.
So what does embodyment look like to me now? I think it has to start with small things. I have to first stop trying to force an experience that years of conditioning (and my introverted personality type) have taught me to avoid. There are many practices such as exercise, meditation, centring, etc that might be able to help me, but the one that I have found most useful is… art.
As I create (for example as I begin to contruct a poem) a lot of the work takes place within my head. My chosen medium is after all the written word. However, increasingly I seek to go beyond the bounds of my understanding and to attend to what is happening within my body. For me this often begins with my emotions. As I write it is not at all uncommon for me to weep or to discover that I my heart is racing and my teeth are clenched.
In writing poetry, I am also seeking to connect. This is really hard to describe, but anyone who writes as much as I do will know that there are times when you are not writing the poem, rather it feels as though you are recieving it. These moments are not intellectual so much as mystical. They are a bodily response to something that feels beyond my body. I would always resist describing this experience as being ‘given to me by god’, because who am I to say where inspiration comes from? Rather I am happy to say that I sought connection to the deeper parts of my body which are themselves part of the great becoming.
Poetics as radical engagement
To throw in another buzz-word, we might also say that poetics is concerned with Intersectionality – theopoetics as a way towards a new place. Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. It is perhaps not suprise that theology made on the margins through art would have this as part of its DNA.
Perhaps we might also see embodyment itself as a radical practice, in that the body has long been a place of suppression. Power and prejudice is aimed at, and felt by, the body. To deliberately reject these powers and say that this is MY body, inside of which MY art matters, and MY understandings of the living god matter- this is itself a political statement.
This also resonates powerfully with the idea of ‘pre political spaces’ in which change is dreamed and rehearsed, and in which ideas about change start to form and find cultural momentum. I wrote about this here.
It would seem appropriate to finish with a poem. Unsurprisingly, my last book has gathered much of my poesis, or my theopoetic journey. More than this, it has also hugely benefitted from Si Smith’s poesis, as in the image above.
This poem is my truth for today;
I choose goodness
I caught a glimpse today
Of my capacity for goodness
I thought it gone away
But there it lay
Like a laughing flapping fish
With its mouth wide open
For despite being the epicentre of my own unfolding event
I still know what it means to love
Despite all my callow grasping
I know what it means to give
Despite my tendency to measure myself and find you wanting
There is joy to be found in your victory
I am a man full of holes
But it did not all leak away
I am broken
But I am not destroyed
Today, I choose goodness.
And I call it love