Peter Dula

The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 2 (Spring 2013)

In an age of shrinking English departments and decimated humanities programs, it seems to me that we humanists (by which I mean nothing more than students of the humanities) should stick together. It is in this spirit that I offer the following all-too-brief reflections on the relationship between theology and poetry. It may also mean that this essay is not really about “theopoetics.” Except for a few notable recent exceptions,[1] theopoetics, one discovers, isn’t a discourse about theology and poetry. It is a school of theology impatient with what it understands to be conventional or traditional theology. For better or worse, I am a professional theologian, and although that implies I am perhaps excessively interested in internal quarrels among theologians, I am wary of this one. So rather than contribute to theopoetics by joining that quarrel or to theo-logos by defending it, I hope to join those redirecting it towards a serious engagement with poetry, and then to make some remarks about how that might complicate the too easy dualism of theo-poetics and theo-logos.


I will make two claims about poetry here, both indebted to a fine essay by John Gibson called “The Question of Poetic Meaning.”[2] I realize this is a dangerous thing for a theologian to attempt before an audience of writers, many of whom are poets, so I welcome correction.

First, poetry opens up “a gap between understanding the language of a poem and understanding the poem itself.” That is, it is characteristic of a poem that you can immediately recognize and understand the language yet be baffled as to what it means. Everyone knows what April is and what cruelty is, but it can be very difficult to say how a month, especially the most beautiful month of spring, can be cruel. It is characteristic of poetry that it forces a pause between the immediate understanding of the five words in “April is the cruelest month” and the understanding of what it might mean (a slap at the romantics and an allusion to Good Friday, among other things). Examples are endless, but here are two more. When Adrienne Rich writes, “What kind of beast would turn its life into words,” that sounds like a simple, straightforward question.[3] No gap here. A poet is doubting her vocation and asking herself why she does what she does. But look closer, and it is the poet inverting another question, “What kind of God would turn word into flesh?” Gibson’s own example is Charles Simic’s “who put canned laughter/into my crucifixion scene?” Again, we all know what a sitcom’s laugh track sounds like and what a crucifixion is, but put them together and modify crucifixion with “my” and you have a problem. As Gibson puts it, “the meaning of a poem is standardly experienced as a kind of problem.”

Second (and this is not so much a general claim about poetry as about one tactic or mode of some poetry, perhaps especially modernist poetry), a poem tends to follow a path of what Gibson calls “semantic descent.” Semantic ascent was a term introduced by philosopher Willard van Orman Quine to describe the move from claims about objects to claims about the claims about objects;[4] for example, from “this panel is thrilling” to “the claim ‘this panel is thrilling’ is false.” Or from “Harrisonburg is a city in the Shenandoah Valley” to “‘Harrisonburg’ is a name given to a town in the Shenandoah Valley.” Each step in such an ascent moves further above the world of objects and above language about the objects toward language about the language. Semantic descent, then, is the exact opposite mode of explanation. It tries to direct us below the claim to the objects themselves. To cite one of Rich’s most famous poems—“I came to explore the wreck. . . /the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.”[5] Or Julia Kasdorf’s “When I think I can’t bear to trace one more sorrow back to its source I think of . . .” and then a series of remarkably vivid images: Lois climbing the windmill at sunset, Julie leaping from the moving swing, Mom flinging off clothes as she dances for flowerbeds.[6]


Now I realize that the above leaves out a great deal. Most important, I haven’t said anything about the sound of poetry. But taking this as just a place to start, how shall we place theology in relationship to it?  The most obvious answer, and the answer of the theopoets, is simply to say that theology does “semantic ascent” and let that be the end of the matter. To help start us down the path toward a more considered answer, I want to quickly but closely, with the help of some solidly representative and “conventional” theologians (the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict), read a short passage of scripture.  I want to read it as poetry in precisely the sense I have just laid out, as a kind of problem (the gap between language and meaning) and as an example of (something like a theological analogy to) semantic descent. I want to read it as a problem in order to notice the semantic descent.[7]

My example is from a passage many people may be reading in church on Easter morning: “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet” (John 20:11-12). By a process roughly analogous to semantic descent, an imaginative space is being invoked here. But a descent to what? As Rowan Williams and a few other commentators point out, the space is that of Exodus 25:17-22.[8] “Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold. You shall make two cherubim of gold . . . at the two ends of the mercy-seat. Make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other. . . . There I will meet you, and from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”

To say that the evangelist knows exactly what he is doing here is to say that the fourth gospel demands to be read as poetry. But then what do we make of the imaginative space to which he directs us, the empty space between the cherubim? What kind of descent goes beyond the descent to objects to an image of absence and then places that absence at the very heart of its message? (Williams might say: If you think the resurrection means now you have Jesus returned to you as your possession, think again. This is the incarnation of God, not just the incarnation of God.)

Does it help to add that there are two descents at work here? The other is the end of the third chapter of Genesis—“at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” While the careful crafting of imagery in John 20: 12 clearly suggests the mercy seat of Exodus 25, the context suggests Genesis 3. No other gospel says anything about a garden. Where Matthew and Mark say that Jesus went to “a place called Gethsemane,” John says he went to “a place where there was a garden” (18:1). Where the synoptics don’t specify a location of the tomb, John says it twice in one sentence: “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified and in the garden there was a new tomb” (19:41). And when Mary first sees the risen Lord, she supposes him to be the gardener (20:15).  So now we have to ask not just about what it means to juxtapose the empty tomb and the mercy seat but also the Garden of Eden, as both swim before the eyes of weeping Mary. At one moment at the end of John’s gospel Jesus is an empty space, the inaccessibility of which is guarded by the cherubim. A moment later, looking not like an angel in shimmering white but a gardener in muddy overalls, he addresses Mary directly and calls her by name.[9]

We don’t have to choose between these two paths of descent. In fact, we dare not choose. Theology oscillates between presence and absence, proximity and remoteness, immanence and transcendence. It has done so from the very beginning. Moses said to the burning bush (Exodus 3), ‘“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”  Verse 13 is everybody’s question. Verse 14 is the bewildering philosophical answer—‘Being’—that convinced the church fathers that Plato had been reading the Old Testament. And verse 15 is the semantic descent: I am the one who has been with you all this time.  But then, finally, watch those verses and the dichotomy between them start to collapse into each other, not so much presence and absence as present absence and absent presence. The accessible present God of those stories is, well, the God of those stories. And the abstract God who is simply Being is not so as a concept but as a name, not a what but a who, one who is nameable, addressable, therefore part of a conversation.[10]



To think of theology as theopoetics in this sense is to do little more than insist on the theologian’s role as literary critic, cultivating a readiness to read theology’s texts, and especially scripture, as a kind of problem, poetry’s kind of problem. I am aware that such an approach has its issues: most obviously, John 20 and Exodus 3 are not poetry at all.[11] Nevertheless, the kinds of close reading practiced by great theologians often work because they choose to make the text a problem in ways helpfully illuminated by Gibson’s reflections on poetry. That in turn may serve as a reminder, in the face of theopoetics’ dismissal of “theology,” of just how imaginatively theologians have managed to perform their task.

I hope to have shown at least that the theologian reading closely generates readings (and therefore theology) that are artful, creative, and imaginative as well as logical, rational, and propositional. This might serve to cast suspicion on theopoetics’ foundational dualism.  Theopoetics, according to its theorists, is “reflection on poiesis, a formal thinking about the nature of the making of meaning, which subverts the -ology, the nature of the logic, of theology.”[12] Such claims pervade the discourse in one form or other.[13] Theo-poetics is doing theology in a way that recognizes the imaginative and constructive work of theologizing, as opposed to theologizing that views its task as logical systematizing of inherited doctrine or of theologians who fail to realize their work is “an inventive, intuitive, and imaginative act of composition performed by authors.”[14]

It is hard to know what it might mean to write theo-logic (or anything) devoid of any and all invention, intuition, or imagination. One can go for dozens of pages in the theopoetics literature and not find a single citation of, let alone serious engagement with, a theologian which would demonstrate what theopoets mean or any awareness that these dualisms might be precarious.  Take a fairly representative line from Scott Holland: “Theology in our postmodern condition might be best understood as a poetics, not a metaphysics, for in the rhythms of creation aesthetics precedes ethics.”[15] Leaving aside the question of what could be more “metaphysical” than “the rhythms of creation,[16] the rhetorical move in this one-sentence summary of theopoetics is to take some variously and complexly related and overlapping discourses—poetics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics—and present them as simple binaries.      

But they aren’t binaries at all, and it isn’t clear that they ever have been. The Bhagavad Gita is a profound ethical treatise, dependent upon a metaphysics only fully (if mysteriously) revealed with the extraordinary (aesthetic) theophany of Book XI. Plato’s Republic begins as a discussion of the nature of individual goodness, but it turns out this requires an account of politics that in turn demands a metaphysics presented simultaneously as an aesthetic vision. The first part of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s great trilogy is subtitled “A Theological Aesthetics” and the last is called Theo-Logic.  In between is the Theo-Drama. In each of these cases, whether ancient or modern, Eastern or Western, the good, the true, and the beautiful are treated in a complex, restless, and difficult unity. Those of us committed to reading such texts with care and affection can only experience the discourse of “theo-poetics” with bemusement.

The wiser course, I think, is to drop the dualism between theology and theopoetics. There is a lot to worry about in the texts of Pope Benedict,[17] but none of that has anything to do with a lack of imagination or artfulness. There is much to recommend in Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep, but none of that has anything to do with a lack of logic, rationality, or metaphysics. Kevin Hector’s Theology without Metaphysics is so meticulous it could be a textbook in a logic class. If anyone writing today deserves the name “theo-poet” it is Marilynne Robinson, a defender of Barth and Calvin, two thinkers well off the reading list of theopoetics. Most theology is both metaphysical and poetic, and some great poetry is metaphysical. Some theology privileges logic over mystery, but just as often it uses logic to preserve and deepen mystery.[18] Why, when we have inherited so many models of ways to hold these things together, do the theopoets demand that we drive them apart?

What the theopoets really resent is not theology at all. They resent doctrine. So the easiest way to get what theopoetics is all about is to realize that here “poetics” functions the same way that “ethics” did for 19th-century Protestant liberals or the way “spirituality” occasionally functions for pietists—as an excuse to shrug off any theology that seems too beholden to creedal or doctrinal orthodoxy.  There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with that. It is part of the inheritance of theology that orthodoxy often threatens to overwhelm orthopraxis, that theology can get in the way of an intimate relationship with God, that doctrine is continually threatening to overwhelm story and sometimes succeeds in doing so. But it is also true that doctrine can often help us understand why we should imitate this first-century Jew, or why this God is capable of or interested in relationship with us, or why this story deserves to be privileged. Negotiating the tension here, finding the appropriate balance for a particular time and audience, is what it means to do theology.         


Peter Dula is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

[1] CrossCurrents 60, no. 1 (2010), an issue devoted to theopoetics, has a couple of essays that suggest a turn in this direction.

[2] Both drawn from John Gibson, “The Question of Poetic Meaning,” Accessed March 10, 2012.

[3] “Love Poem VII” in “Twenty-One Love Poems,” in The Fact of a Doorframe (New York: Norton, 1984), 239.

[4] Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), 277f.

[5] “Diving into the Wreck,” in The Fact of a Doorframe, 162-64.

[6] Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Thinking of Certain Mennonite Women,” in Eve’s Striptease (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).

[7] Such an approach is full of potential landmines. Texts create lots of problems, and great texts, like the many gathered in the Christian Bible, demand and create forms of criticism appropriate to the particular problems they raise. They need not be shoehorned into external theories. That is, one doesn’t need an account of poetic meaning, even one as finely done as Gibson’s, to read scripture well. (What I will here somewhat willfully describe as “semantic descent” has long been known as “typology.”)  

[8] See Rowan Williams, “Between the Cherubim,” in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 183-196.

[9] Not only is Jesus-as-gardener a clear identification with Adam, Jesus’s response to Mary is a clear contrast. Recall that Adam’s first words (“This at last is bone of my bones…”), while prompted by the creation of Eve, never address her. He speaks of her entirely in the third person.  Moreover, Adam’s speech is one of ownership, identification, and sameness; Jesus’ is of separation (“Do not hold on to me…. But go…”). See Leon Kass’s remarkable reading of Genesis 2:23 in The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), 77-80, 102.

[10] I am deeply indebted to Joseph Ratzinger’s reading of this passage. See his Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), 116-36.

[11] And biblical poetry is not modernist poetry. See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

[12] David Miller, “Theopoetry or Theopoetics,” CrossCurrents 60, no. 1 (2010): 8.

[13] Jeff Gundy usually contrasts theology and poetry, not theology and theopoetics, but the dogmatism of his version of the dualism is still breathtaking. For example:  poetry “is open to psychological and existential depths and mysteries, while standard theology is fixated on logic and reason” (26); “theology seeks closure and clarity. Poetry resists them” (28); “Theologians and church authorities—especially since the Reformation—have often sought to keep imagination and desire out of the church because their church is built on Reason and authority, neither of which can survive imagination and desire” (31). “Notes toward the Heretical Sublime,” CrossCurrents 60, no. 1 (2010): 24-44. 

[14] Scott Holland, “Editorial,” CrossCurrents 60, no. 1 (2010): 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Metaphysics” is a notoriously slippery term. In a comment posted to the Running Heads blog ( on December 19, 2012, Kevin Hector identified at least four different meanings: “(1) a set of claims about the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics as ontology); (2) a set of claims about that which transcends the physical realm (metaphysics as supernaturalism); (3) a set of claims commonly associated with “classical” or Greek metaphysicians (metaphysics as substance metaphysics); or (4) an assumption or mindset according to which the fundamental reality of objects corresponds to our predetermined ideas about them (metaphysics as ‘correspondentism’).”  I would add a fifth use, which means something like “all philosophy before me.” So Heidegger (Hector’s #4) could trace the metaphysical from Plato to Descartes to Nietzsche. So Kant, in ruling out rational psychology, cosmology, and theology (what he understood as the topics of metaphysics) in the first Critique’s Transcendental Dialectic, had in view the entire history of philosophy. The relevant point here is not that theopoets should be more precise but that none of these definitions of metaphysics is helpfully or coherently placed in opposition to poetics.

[17] The text I rely on here, Introduction to Christianity, is from 1968, when Ratzinger was mentioned in the same breath as Küng as one of the younger reforming scholars.

[18] Think of the account of God in the opening questions of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.