I’ve been listening to Krista Tippett’s new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and I came across this excerpt from her interview with the theologian, Walter Brueggemann, in which he discusses the power of poetry.
WB: “… even in the more liberal theological tradition that I was raised, we only talked about the prophets as moral teachers and there was no attention to the artistic, aesthetic quality of how they did that. But it is the only way in which you can think outside of the box. Otherwise, even liberal passion for justice just becomes another ideology, and it does not have transformative power. That’s what’s extraordinary about the poetry, that it’s so elusive that it refuses to be reduced to a formula. I think that’s a great temptation among liberals who care about justice is to reduce it to a formula and then …
KT: “… to create another ism.”
WB: “That’s right. And then the poetry comes and breaks that open again.”
Poetry, then, opens us open to what is possible, but (as yet) unsayable, and in that space is the potential for transformation.
A couple of pages later, Tippett writes about ritual as the embodiment of poetry:
“For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration–such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry–condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import.”
One of my perennial concerns is why liberal and naturalistic religion often seems to lacks what Brueggemann calls “transformative power.” I think at least part of the reason naturalistic religion often lacks this power is because of it’s ambivalent attitude toward poetry and ritual. A lot of ritual in naturalistic religious traditions is discursive, rather than poetic. It can sometimes be verbose, and at worst didactic. Think of those rituals where the culmination is someone giving a sermon or homily. In these cases, the “ritual” takes the form of talking about an experience, rather than having an experience.
I think part of the excessive wordiness of ritual in liberal and naturalistic traditions comes from a distrust of symbolism. While many religious naturalists embrace ritual on some level, often this embrace is half-hearted — like the one-armed hugs that macho men give each other: close, but not too close. I have heard the complaint from some naturalists that we should just say what we mean and then symbolic language would be unnecessary.
But I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of symbolism. Most people would probably equate the symbolic language of poetry with metaphorical language, but symbols and metaphors are not the same thing. The meaning of a metaphor is known, like the meaning of a sign on a bathroom door. But a symbol carries with it what Paul Ricouer calls a “surplus of meaning,” which cannot be conveyed through explanation.
“The distinctive nature of religious meaning is not simply that one thing is seen to represent another conceptually. Meaning is not just decorative as a red light stands for ‘stop,’ or the image of a lily stands for purity. Much more specific to religion than cognitive representation is the participatory character of meanings and symbols. Religious symbols and words do not simply signify, they speak and perform—and in so doing they transform perception, punctuate the routine world with their own power, effect felt presences, and engage the participant. The purpose of religious language is not just to represent the world but to act one out. The sacred is enacted through words, stories, images, and the construction of secret space and time.”
— William Paden, Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion
Symbolic language is not representational language; it is expressive language. Poetry is evocative, rather than signifying. It’s not supposed to mean anything; it’s supposed to evoke an experience, a mood, an emotion, or a memory. As Archibold MacLeish writes, “A poem should not mean/But be.”
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. […]
(Archibold MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”)
And ritual, as Tippett suggests, is poetry in the flesh. Ritual uses symbolic words and actions to evoke this surplus of meaning. Ritual and poetry point to something that cannot be fully expressed in representational language, or rather, they invite us to experience something that cannot be fully expressed in representational language. They create a space where that experience can happen. The meaning of good poetry can never be exhausted by explanation for this reason. And the same is true of ritual. And if we want our rituals to be transformative, then I think they must be poetic — both in word and gesture.