"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Poetic Theology and Wonder

As part of my dissertation research, I just started reading Poetic Theology by William A. Dyrness.

This quotation has thus far stood out to me, though I imagine there will be quite a few others as I go through this text:

"...aesthetic experience, broadly conceived, and the rituals and created objects that express this, are fundamental to the shaping and expressing of human identity. That is to say, they are not optional extras, but fundamental to the growth and flourishing of persons...aesthetic and symbolic projects are also spiritual sites where the affections, the goods of the world, and religious longings meet and interact....symbolic practices of this kind can also be 'theological' in the broad sense of the word. That is, they are places where, because of God's continuing presence in creation and God's redemptive work in Christ and by the Spirit, God is also active, nurturing, calling, and drawing persons--and indeed, all creation--toward the perfection God intends for them" (6).

In the introduction to this same book, Dyrness says this:

“These symbolic constructions express Augustine’s fundamental insight that people are defined not simply by what they know but by what (and who) they love. Second, these targets of desire coalesce into various objects and practices whose figure and texture evoke praise, even wonder—or at least are intended to do so….As Philip Sidney put this in his sixteenth-century defense of poetry, the poet ‘ever sets virtue out in her best colors…that one must be enamored of her.’”

Put together these both reminded me of perhaps my favorite passage (among many) within Walker Percy's novel,  The Moviegoer, which I finished reading about a month ago. Percy says this through the voice of his protagonist, Binx Bolling:

"And there I have lived ever since, solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder....As for me, I stay home with Mrs. Schexnaydre and turn on the TV. Not that I like TV so much, but it doesn't distract me from the wonder. That is why I can't go to the trouble they go to. It is distracting, and not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder."

So all of these together have got me thinking about the connection between spiritual experiences, beauty, and wonder. As someone who is in love with science as much as I am in love with art, I find that the point of connection between the two is beauty and wonder. So much catches my eye or my ear or my heart. I've recently also been reading Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon, a book, if you can believe it, about how cool the periodic table is, and along side it William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a book so poetically astonishing I can't even find words yet to describe it, finishing it only this morning on a train ride back to DC from Baltimore where I had to keep myself from tapping strangers on the shoulder in order to read passages aloud to them. But what I feel as I read the description of the Easter church service at the end of that book and what I read about the element mercury evoke a similar emotional, and yes, even spiritual, response in me: awe. Wonder. And gratitude. 

So what is this wonder that Percy's Moviegoer can't let go of for even five minutes, this wonder at a galaxy or an atom or an ameoba or a turn of phrase or a painting, this wonder that also leaves an ache, like all beauty, somewhere deep inside of ours souls? Dyrness says it is theological in the broadest sense of that word, that such moments of wonder are places where God's continuing presence in creation breaks into our consciousness...and perhaps moments when we recognize our own longing for an unending beauty, which some theologians would call "God". And it might be true. This sense of wonder is the root of any spiritual experience I have ever had, be it in a specifically religious context or not.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle sees wonder as the root of philosophy:

"For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe."

But I think wonder is also the root of all theology. The wonder that Aristotle describes is to ask questions and search out the answers. It is the wonder of all scientific investigation. But the wonder that exists in the face of beauty is a different kind of wonder, not unrelated to that which asks questions. It is a wonder in the face of mystery. It is a gratitude and a recognition. And it is also a gift. Also the wonder that prompts making, which was Aristotle's large definition of poetry, prompts art, prompts what Dyrness refers to as "a more general human inclination to make beautiful things."

And so I find that as I think of this more and more, I echo the words of Percy's Binx Bolling, the moviegoer, and decide that I, too, will not for five minutes be distracted from the wonder.


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