Sunday, January 13, 2008

poetry and theology

recently I was opining on what sort of person is Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead), and here are two intervew questions (and responses) excerpted from a longer interview, which can be found here.

Q: John Ames, the Congregational minister in the book, is a very theological thinker, and you have mentioned your own interest in theology. If you had to explain it to someone, what is theology and what does it mean to think theologically?

A: It's a difficult thing to describe theology, what it means and how it disciplines thinking. Certainly, theology is the level at which the highest inquiry into meaning and ethics and beauty coincides with the largest-scale imagination of the nature of reality itself. Often, when I want to read something that is satisfying to me as theology, what I actually read is string theory, or something like that -- popularizations, inevitably, of scientific cosmologies -- because their description of the scale of things and the intrinsic, astonishing character of reality coincides very beautifully with the most ambitious theology. It is thinking at that scale, and it is thinking that is invested with meaning in a humanly evocative form. That's theology.

Q: Is there a connection to poetry, too? John Ames is also steeped in the religious poets, and he mentions John Donne and George Herbert throughout the novel.

A: I think the connection between poetry and theology, which is profound in Western tradition -- there is a great deal of wonderful religious poetry -- both poetry and theology push conventional definitions and explore perceptions that might be ignored or passed off as conventional, but when they are pressed yield much larger meanings, seem to be part of a much larger system of reality. The assumption behind any theology that I've ever been familiar with is that there is a profound beauty in being, simply in itself. Poetry, at least traditionally, has been an educing of the beauty of language, the beauty of experience, the beauty of the working of the mind, and so on. The pastor does, indeed, appreciate it. One of the things that is nice about these old pastors -- they were young at the time -- who went into the Middle West is that they were real humanists. They were often linguists, for example, and the schools that they established were then, as they are now, real liberal arts colleges where people studied the humanities in a very broad sense. I think that should be reflected in his mind; appropriately, it is.