What we call religion is the co-existing and cooperation of our various feelings of God as we bring them together. What is important to note is that what we are calling religion is not an expression of just your feelings nor of mine, but, rather, what is common in the feelings of both of us.
Whereas, when human feelings manifest as religion, they produce a culture of interaction and interdependence which is always in flux, when they manifest as theology something more concrete is brought into being, something which can be named as our attempts to describe the feelings we had as a result of our experience of God. These descriptions we create serve as a call to others (of sorts), a way of making known what it was we encountered so that we can gather with others who have experienced something similar. (Landon Whitsitt)
Our twin babies are almost a year old, and we are in the throes of intense personality and language development. As to be expected they are incredibly unique – “D” is “all-boy,” as many fondly describe with his grunts and periodic roaring, while “A” is mostly dainty and feminine, but can hit the register of an operatic 1st soprano when she is unhappy. Feelings, too, are interesting to navigate as they try to express them through sounds and actions. While their feelings may not be as sophisticated as say a full-grown human being, I’m discovering that no matter what the age, feelings in general are difficult to apprehend and convey to others. Sometimes, even for the one is who is feeling whatever emotion, it is a mystery.
That’s why I’m always so fascinated by language. Any communication is difficult within the same language, but in another language? What a challenge but an accomplishment when communication actually provides connection, and then community. When those connections happen – for instance, during the typical mission trip to a foreign country – my strong pneumatology is affirmed. I have no doubt the Holy Spirit is necessary and thankfully present whenever we travel to the Dominican Republic as non-Spanish speakers to work with Spanish-speaking communities, and have only one translator/interpreter for 30 of us. It is a veritable miracle that we are able to not only work together, but worship and love each other. Ironically, there are no words that adequately describe this experience.
David James Duncan says, “When experience flies into realms that language cannot touch, honesty demands beyond-language.” To me, that beyond-language is poetry, and poetry is necessarily pneumatological. It isn’t only the words that speak, but the spaces, the gaps and silences, the pauses, and the imagination that makes room for the Holy Spirit to connect speaker/writer to hearer/reader. Likewise, beyond-language is religious. But, to systematize theology or religion, and especially experience, as we are taught in seminary in Systematic Theology I and II in many ways confines what we are experiencing individually and in community. Granted, it was a good starting point for me, and certainly, I was blessed by the prolific theological exploration and articulation by Barth, Calvin, and Tillich, and continue to be by contemporary theologians like Serene Jones, James Cone, and Kwok Pui-Lan, and so many more. They are wonderful conversation partners, and no doubt artists and poets in their own right. But, to limit the body of work – the vast experience of feeling – to this specific genre limits the Holy Spirit’s potential to speak and transform in infinite ways.
But, there’s nothing abstract or inaccessible about it. In contrast, though it may be a challenge to put to words, it is rooted in flesh and blood. I love Kathleen Norris, also a poet-theologian that writes about “God-talk” in these terms:
When God-talk is speech that is not of this world, it is a false language. In a religion that celebrates the Incarnation – the joining together of the human and the divine – a spiritualized jargon that does not ground itself in the five senses should be anathema. But the human tendency to disincarnate language is a strong one…I’ve learned that if these words are to remain viable, I must find ways to incarnate them, so as to make them accessible to believer and non-believer alike.
If we seek a God we can handle, that will be exactly what we will get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy we’ve cut down to size.”
Theology is not meant to be experienced in the ivory white tower or in the stratosphere of religious experience because it is not only about God, it is about God and humanity. It opens the doors to connecting more deeply with one’s experience, and more importantly, with each other’s experiences. Landon echoes this sentiment in a way: “Art, according to Langer, is also symbolic. Its purpose is not to define, lock down, or restrict. Rather, art wants to suggest, set free, and expand. While precision may have a role to play, ultimately, art wants something more not less. Art wants abundance, not scarcity.” Art, and specifically poetry, has the wideness to allow us to experience God more fully.
Mary Karr comes to mind as I continue to ponder the beauty of poetry as theology, a theology that is rooted in a pneumatology that is undeniably incarnate. In Lit she includes a quote by Wallace Stevens from a letter, in which he says: “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.” I’m drawn to the simplicity and quiet power of poetry, and its ability to speak to and connect even those as innocent as children.
 Duncan, David James. God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (214).
 Norris, Kathleen. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (211-12, 214).
 Karr, Mary. Lit (47).