A theopoetics of unity: In search of conversational and confessional space

By Frank Ramirez

Scott Holland, Slabaugh Professor of Theology and Culture at Bethany Theological Seminary, expressed an amused surprise that some objected when he lumped disparate Brethren groups such as the Covenant Brethren Church, On Earth Peace, and the Brethren Mennonite Council for LBGT Interests together in the description of his insight session. The session was called “A Theopoetics of Unity Beyond the Theo-logics of Church Divisions, Culture Wars, and Doctrinal Disputes?” But as he noted, “What all the groups listed…do have in common is that we all use ‘God Talk’ to promote our spiritual and social values.”

However, Holland noted, this “God Talk” can result in many different outcomes: conflict, terror, transformation, human flourishing, or human cruelty. So, he wondered, “Can theopoetics lead to more artful discourse? Can our hearts grow roomier and our lives become more radiant?”

To illustrate this he read aloud two short poems written by individuals from different faith traditions, eras, and languages: the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) and the 13th century Islamic mystic Rumi. Amichai contrasts “The Place Where We Are Right” where “flowers will never grow in the spring” with the “doubts and loves (that) dig up the world like a mole, a plow.” Rumi invites us to go “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing” where “there is a field. I’ll meet you there,” to find a place where “even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

Scott Holland, shown here in the chapel at Bethany Seminary in Richmond, Ind., teaches a wide variety of courses in Theology and Culture and Peace Studies. He has worked on developing Bethany’s Certificate in Theopoetics and Theological Imagination, tracing through interdisciplinary scholarship the spiritual poetics of mystery, metaphor and meaning-making. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

“Two short poems, two faith traditions, two eras, but wonder creates a space without violence,” Holland commented. “We see others as part of ourselves. Empathy is possible. Apprehending the humanity of these others make them part of ourselves.”

An awakening to mystery, to wonder, to God is necessary because “God is a mystery and as a mystery our God is a God of many names.” Referencing Brian Wren’s hymn “God of Many Names” (HYMNAL 77) Holland added, “We don’t pause and declare which metaphor is the correct one. We recognize and we believe all of these rich images…these poetic images together express and reveal the awesome mystery of God.”

Metaphor is crucial. “If we must rely on the rule of metaphor to navigate our way through the ordinaries of life, ordinary things of life like tables and chairs, how much more do we need to use the rule of metaphor when we think about things transcendent, when we attempt to name things divine?” For example, he said, in Psalm 23, “We are in the realm of metaphor.”

What has all this to do with the conflict among Brethren?

“The creative use of metaphor provides us with many names for the God we name,” he said. “In my experience in conflict transformation…I have found that if we enter a community of great plurality or a community in which there are tensions and conflicts, if one stands and presents a straight up bald, final ideologic or propositional declaration, it’s likely to provoke a fiery counterargument or perhaps it will shut down further conversation and communication.

“However, if one instead offers a poem, a parable, a story, or a song as a way to open up some genuine conversation, it would be unusual for one to protest and reply, ‘I really disagree with that poem’–though it can happen. But more likely one might say, ‘That poem doesn’t really speak to me,’ or ‘I don’t get it,’ or maybe even ‘I think I would a different poem or a different story or a different song. Can I share that?’”

That sort of conversation, he said, “has the possibility of opening of space that is not as argumentative but space that is much more conversational and confessional.”

— Frank Ramirez pastors Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind.

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