What is Theopoetics?
(In this section of my paper, “Metaphoring Manifold: The Plurality of Theopoetics” (check out the introduction here), I discuss possible definitions of theopoetics, what birth it, and its organization history.)
Theopoetics: A Primer
Defining theopoetics is as elusive as language (and the God of which it speaks) itself. Theopoetics is the kind of thing to which you can attest, “why yes, this is theopoetics!” when you hear it, see it, feel it, taste it, smell it. But defining it, that proves to be much more difficult–if not outright impossible. J. Denny Weaver, while not defining the term, suggests an important consideration when attempting to grasp theopoetics–that it is not simply a conglomerate of poetry and theology. He goes further:
“A non-poet’s definition of theopoetics might be that it is a hybrid of poetry and theology. But to call it that misses the mark. It is an entire way of thinking. From the side of poetry, it shows that ideas are more than abstractions. They have form—verbal, visual, sensual—and are thus experienced as least as much as they are thought. . . . What one learns from the theology side of theopoetics has at least as much importance. One observes that theology is more than an abstraction. It is a way of thinking, visualizing, and sensing images of God. And at that juncture, theologians should become aware that traditional theology . . . is a way to think about the divine but is only one of multiple ways to consider God. Thus for theologians, theopoetics will underscore their (sometimes reluctant) admission that theology is one form of truth but ought not be confused with TRUTH itself.”
In addition, Catherine Keller does not define theopoetics but gives it four “oscillations or themes.” Regardless, it was Stanley Hopper, in the 1970s, that coined the term, “theopoetic.” According to Hopper, if theology were to remain worthwhile, the theologian must “reclaim the power of myth and imagination.” Instead of ceding theology to the theo-logical approach that removes myth and reduces "mysteries to knowledge,” Hopper places as primacy the fluidity of language in theological discourse–“he wants to remember that aesthetics and experience play a role in how we understand God.” It is here that we do not have a definition of theopoetics but a birth for its possibility. In fact, theopoetics may just be that–a birth of possibility. Scott Holland suggests “theopoetics is a kind of writing that invites more writing. Its narratives lead to other narratives, its metaphors encourage new metaphors, its confessions invoke more confessions, and its conversations invite more conversations.” Theopoetics is never-ending invocation–engendering theology to birth of possibility.
It’s a Poiesis!
If Hopper was the mother that birthed the possibility of theopoetics, it was Amos Wilder and Rubem Alves who midwifed it in its first moments of life. In reaction to the rationalistic and prosaic language of modern theology, Wilder longed not for theopoetics to be merely “a call for a fresh coat of paint on a rotting wall” but “the essential dynamics of the heart and soul.” In a theopoetics grounded in “the essential dynamics of the heart and soul,” Wilder suggested “an authentic renewal of Christian discourse would engender a social movement that would eschew moral complacency in favor of a liberating ethic of action with social ramifications that would have paralleled shifts in theological language.” It is Wilder’s hope that theopoetics would rouse a “liberating ethic of action with social ramifications” where Rubem Alves enters the picture. While Wilder emphasized social ramifications as the consequence and not the source of theopoetics and Alves emphasized the former as the source of the later, both agreed that, in order for theopoetics to have any meaning in our world, it would necessarily have social impact. It is here that theopoetics was brought to three theological homes, liberation, process, and radical, to be raised…