Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World, Part 4
This is the fourth in a series of posts taken from Mark Sprinkle's scholarly essay "Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World", which will be made available in our Scholarly Essays section at the conclusion of the series. The first post can be found here.
The call to think differently about the faith/science intersection that I’ve been laying out over the past few weeks is not rooted in a Romantic notion of the power of art on its own, as if finding new, beautiful images for ideas that some find confusing or even offensive (such as common descent) will magically eliminate conflict over their truthfulness. Rather, this call comes directly from looking at how Jesus himself chose to discuss and portray the Gospel message that the Kingdom of God really was finally at hand, coming and already fulfilled. In debates between leading religious and secular leaders that are eerily similar in tone to what we hear around the issues of evolution and the Bible today, Jesus time and time again confounded both the learned and the simple by describing the Kingdom in natural and social imagery, nearly always by using pictures that were outrageous and likewise offensive to his hearers as often as they were merely strange, or surprising, or beautiful. More than that, he described the Kingdom using many jarringly incongruous images together, giving his original hearers (and us) only flashes and glimpses while expecting them (and us) to start noticing the subtle relationships and piecing together the larger pattern.
Surely a central reason for his use of parables in this way was that many first-century Jews had grown so accustomed to being Jewish—following Torah with one degree of zealousness or another—that they forgot the world-changing spiritual reasons behind their practices. Jesus certainly makes this case by so often accusing religious leaders and trained teachers of the Law of following its letter while ignoring its heart, so part of the role of his creative re-statements (such as the parable of the Samaritan) was to make new the old responsibilities of God’s people to care for the orphans and widows, to love the stranger as well as the Israelite, etc., by putting the principle in strange and surprising new narrative contexts.
As Eugene Peterson puts it, “A parable is not usually used to tell us something new, but to get us to notice something that has been right there before us for years. Or it is used to get us to take seriously something we have dismissed as unimportant because we have never seen the point of it. Before we know it, we are involved.”4 In the same way, it may be that some of the “new” scientific stories being told about natural and human physical origins are serving not to contradict all older stories of human identity, but in strange concert with them, to re-focus our attention on those aspects of being human and being the people of God that have the most to do with bringing the kingdom to bear for others, right now. In any case, Jesus’ recombinant image-making practices are echoed not just by artists looking for new ways to tell stories, but are even written into the natural world, itself.
Aside from this very practical and concrete use of parables and images to re-new what was there from the beginning, Jesus also seems to have had a more essential message to convey about the nature of revelation, the on-rushing Kingdom, and how we know what we do about each of them through the gift of the Bible. Richard Farrar Capon describes it as follows:
[T]he Bible is about the mystery of the kingdom—a mystery that, by definition, is something well hidden and not at all likely to be grasped by plausibility-loving minds. . . The mystery of the kingdom, it seems, is a radical mystery: even when you tell people about it in so many words, it remains permanently intractable to all their attempts to make sense of it. . . With Jesus, . . . the device of the parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.5
In other words, the purpose of Jesus’ “art” was to give verbal, visual, and dramatic forms to those complicated and confounding relationships and symmetries and harmonies between Himself (and the Father and Spirit) and the world, ourselves included in the latter. Such creative expressions did and do not make everything clear, but rather resist simple clarity, forcing their hearers to come at the whole complicated, opaque truth from a position of intellectual and spiritual humility. Indeed, the fact that the church (and those outside it) still argue, discuss and wrestle with the stories and images Jesus used is not just evidence of their power in the first century, it continues to be their power now: to keep individuals and communities engaging with each other and the Holy Spirit as they have for two thousand years, opening them always to the way the Lord is renewing minds and hearts. Therefore, following Jesus’ lead means learning to hold in tension ideas and essences that don’t just seem to be paradoxical or incompatible, but actually are in the normal course of human thinking and experience—even those mysteries that we as moderns have done everything in our imaginative (or rather unimaginative) power to dispel, explain and normalize.
More than just highlighting the intractability of mystery in the created world by transcribing its ineffable qualities, creative and interpretive practices like spoken parables have a central place in our thinking about the relationship between faith and science because they call scientists and theologians and ordinary believers both to themselves and to each other as human beings. Individually we may be reminded by objective argument that our impressions of the world and others are subjective and prone to errors in perspective and habit, but given the same message in a poetic image of ourselves flitting senselessly through caves of our own devising, in words that sing and enter our hearts as well as our ears, we are far less likely to respond with “Well, that’s a very interesting argument,” and more likely to ask, “How is this true of me?” “Where am I merely avoiding the obstacles to my “perfect courses” through darkness, and not being open to new leadings of the Spirit?” While we hold arguments at arm’s length, art enables us to live into ideas that are complicated and challenging—that challenge our ways of living, of being, of thinking, of loving.
But beyond this individual level of humility, art should also help us realize that the kind of collaborative and social subjectivity that is at the core of both scientific and spiritual inquiry is not something to be denied but recognized as integral to the pursuits that make us most human. Image and story help not to “explain” truth, but to experience and know it together in a profoundly human way that includes both subjective and objective elements and is, therefore, truer to the dual character of what we haltingly call “human nature” and our imago dei than an approach that attempts to address only the rational rather than the relational. After all, we do not love the Lord principally by agreeing to creeds, even beautifully correct ones; we love the Lord by walking with His Son through the Holy Spirit, and by caring for those whom He loves—namely, those whom we are otherwise least likely to love: namely, those whom we are fairly certain hold ideas about the Bible or Nature with which we deeply disagree.
Next week, the final installment of the series.
1. Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008: p. 19.
2. Richard Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002: pp. 4-5.