How Do You Listen to God?
“A theopoetic approach to faith is diverse and communal. How you listen to God may differ from how I listen to God—because we’re different people with different experiences.”
Poets know that some things—the most intimate and the most vast—outrun our ability to name them.
Take love. To his beloved, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote, “I would like to do with you what spring does with cherry trees.”
Or consider the cosmos. Walt Whitman became “tired and sick” during an astronomer’s scientific lecture—until he slipped outside and “looked up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Try to pin some things down with words, and they squiggle away. But that does not mean poets give up speaking. Instead, they edge toward the cliff of mystery, describe its crumbly edges, and point into the luminous darkness that lies beyond. If they’re good, they don’t have to directly say what comes next, because you sense it.
You, too, could jump.
Theopoetics is an emerging field that takes a similar approach to God: how we talk about, experience, and live in response to ultimate mystery. A mid-20th century movement that’s experiencing a revival, theopoetics does not oppose theology. It does, however, move differently than theo-logics.
Rather than building logical systems to understand God, Truth, and God’s will for human life, theopoetics assumes that we experience God in ways that explode the limits of rationality. We know God with our bodies, with our emotions, and with our entire beings.
If that’s true, theopoets suggest, then an adequate language for God goes beyond creeds and catechisms. Like scripture itself, it embraces poetry and metaphor, story and song. At the same time, this language has endless dialects; people also speak it in the particular ways they move through the world in response to the vastness we name as God.
But it’s not about celebrating individual genius. In celebrating diverse ways of knowing the divine, the theopoetics movement also seeks to build just and inclusive forms of spiritual community. The reason is straightforward. If what we know isn’t limited to what we know rationally, neither is our experience limited to what we think: no one exists a mind floating in the ether, separated from the jumble of life. Instead, we bring our histories and our bodies, our race and our gender, our desires and our disciplines to all our experience—including our encounters with God.
That means that a theopoetic approach to faith is diverse and communal. How you listen to God may differ from how I listen to God—because we’re different people with different experiences. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we respond to our encounters with God differently. Instead, we lean in and listen. We swap stories and verses. We feel the a living God move among us.
The mystery of God, in the end, refuses to be pinned down. Theopoets know we still need the wisdom of religious tradition. We need Walt Whitman’s “learn’d astronomer,” just as we need the precision of traditional theology. It’s just that we also need song and dance, artists and writers, the power that opens springtime flowers and that leaves us staring, silent, at the stars.
For more information about Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Arts: Theopoetics & Writing program, visit https://esr.earlham.edu/academic-programs/MATW, email [email protected] or call 765-983-1523.
Earlham School of Religion offers a Quaker-rooted seminary education with online and in-person options, located in Richmond, Indiana. Rooted in the Christian Quaker tradition of contemplation that inspires action, Earlham School of Religion prepares theologically diverse students for a pluralistic world. Our curriculum unites spiritual formation, academic study, social engagement, and vital ministry.
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