Poetry and Theology, Sermon by Dr. Susan Gillingham, March 3rd 2013

Worcester College Chapel, Week 8 Hilary Term 2013


Poetry and Theology


This term we have had a rich feast in our sermon series on the ‘Poetry of Faith’.  The Chaplain introduced to us the poems of R.S. Thomas, and, later, to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and his links with Worcester College. We have considered the poetry of John Donne, of Philip Larkin, of Rainer Maria Rilke, and of Dante Alighieri.    One of the clearest appreciations of poetry  I remember came from a visiting preacher, a parish priest from a Worcester Living, who said ‘ I read poetry because it paints pictures in my mind; it makes me laugh, and think, and cry. I know not very much about poetry except I would say that poets put into words the deepest emotions and thoughts that any of us have.’

My task tonight is to try to bring this sermon series together.  Rather than doing so through one single poet, I am going to reflect on how  Poetry and Theology  relate to one another.  However,  before we even begin to think about poetry,  we need to consider, briefly, the other side of the equation:  theology.  At some point many of us have tried out skills at writing poetry,  but who can ‘do’ theology?  Just as anyone can be a poet, can anyone be a theologian?   Or is Theology to be reserved for the experts and the professionals, whether in the Church or the Academy?

Recently our Theology Faculty has been transforming its syllabus;  the  new name ‘Theology and Religion’, and the eighty or more papers which can be chosen over a student’s three years,  tell us something about how rich and diverse the subject of Theology can be.  It  encompasses  the study of philosophy, but also anthropology; of history,  yet also spirituality; of Christianity, but of Buddhism as well;  of the language and literature of the Bible and also  of the Koran .  ‘Theology’:   it comprises two words, and its etymology can be traced back through Middle English and Norman French to Latin and so to Greek:  theos, which means ‘God’,  and ‘logia’,  which means words.  Theology simply means words about God:  discourses about God; or, indeed,  a study of God.

‘Words about God’  not only crowd out our undergraduate and graduate syllabi;  they also fill thousands of shelves in our libraries and supply a vast  number of websites. It seems we cannot say enough about who God is and what he is not. To cite Hamlet’s response to Lord Polonius, all we read are ‘words, words, words’.  Yet, in my view, using words to describe God is only a small part of what ‘doing theology’ is really about:  most of you will agree that theology should be as much about action as discourse, as much about loving our neighbour as about erudite speech.   And even if we narrow theology down to being mainly ‘a study of God’,  it need not be only ‘talk about God’:  in a believing context, Theology is also about talking to God and listening to God speaking to us; furthermore,  at its most profound, it is not about using words at all, but about being silent and ‘mindful’ of the presence of God who is not only found through words but who is also known beyond the medium of speech alone.

Human relationships might offer a somewhat imperfect  analogy here.  We all know  that at the beginning of a friendship conversation and communication are vital if we are to discover mutual interests- and indeed, our differences.  But as a friendship  develops there is less need to talk as we start  to enjoy doing things together, although discussion and exchange of ideas are still important. Our companionship is complete when we are able to sit, unselfconsciously,  in silence, mindful of their company, but without the need to voice anything  in words.  There is a sense in which  Theology encompasses these three phases as well –  it is undoubtedly a discourse about God, but it is also possible that this can progress to a mutual conversation, in prayer;  another stage is silence,  when we realize that both the mind and the heart need to be quietened in the awesome presence of God.

So we cannot ‘do’ Theology without using words, but there is more to Theology than words alone.   This is where Poetry has such an important relationship with Theology,  because it enables us to move from an exercise  which entails a more rational, propositional discourse about God to a different practice which is as much about listening and imagining and intuiting as about speaking and reasoning and explaining.  Poetry can even help us to move on to the third and most profound of all,  where we are ‘lost for words’.

One of my favourite poems by Ursula Askham Fanthorpe  (U.A. Fanthorpe)  is Rising Damp,  which starts by describing about the ‘little fervent underground Rivers of London’.  It’s not an overtly theological poem: but it moves from the observations of these innocent underground streams which ‘chew(ed) the clay to the basin that London nestles in’;  which, having once  ‘chiselled the city, (that) washed the clothes and turned the mills, where children drank and salmon swam’  disappear underground into the depths of London:   ‘Boxed, like the magician’s assistant. Buried alive in the earth. Forgotten, like the dead.’  But, after heavy rains,  they  burst through again, to ‘deluge cellars, detonate manholes, plant effluent on our faces, Sink the city.’  What starts as an innocent image ends as a chaotic one.    The poem’s final verse,  however, is particularly interesting:

‘It is the other rivers that lie

Lower, that touch us only in dreams

That never surface.  We feel their tug

As a dowser’s rod bends to the surface below’.


The skill of a poet is to create an effect whereby an image both reaches the depths of our consciousness  (where words are often hard to find) but also emerges at the surface where we are able to articulate what we read or hear.      I once wrote a book on reading the Old Testament and gave it the title The Image, the Depths and the Surface: I  took the idea from Fanthorpe, and its cover has an image of a stone being thrown into the water where refraction on the surface prevents us seeing where it has gone but the ripples on the water reveal its continuing effects.  I’m fairly sure most of my colleagues had no clue what I was  on about:  but I was trying to say something about the power of words, in theology as in poetry,  both  to reveal and conceal what we really mean.  Those well-known lines from Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam V’,  put it better:

‘For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.’


This means that poetry, like theology,  can be appreciated, even when it is imperfectly understood.  This is encouraging, because the Bible actually  has a huge amount of poetry,  particularly in the Old Testament, and it is often very difficult to comprehend it.  It is not only found in the Psalms and the Prophets, but in many narrative  parts as well.  The reading  from Genesis 1, which we heard tonight, which of course is a translation of the Hebrew, could easily be set in poetic form in its description of God as Creator,  with the poet playing  on the idea of ‘the word’ which brings hidden things to birth.   So God addresses the watery chaos and deep darkness: ‘ “Let there be light”.  And there was light’.  He then addresses the heavens: ‘ “Let there be a firmament.. to separate the waters”.  And it was so’.   Seven times this ‘word from God’  is pronounced,  and each time it brings order out of chaos – light out of darkness, land out of the waters, vegetation out of  the earth, and so on.  It is a dramatic illustration of an ancient poet using  words about God to describe God using words to bring mysterious hidden things to birth.

The New Testament reading from John 1, which is a translation of the Greek, could also be set in poetic form, as another writer plays with the idea of ‘the Word’  to show the Creator’s greatest ‘fiat’  was the Word which was made flesh – Christ, His only Son who dwells among us.  There are so many echoes here of Genesis 1: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  The light shines out of darkness;  order is brought of out chaos.  This is another dramatic illustration of  a poet using  words about God to describe God calling out ‘the Word-made-flesh’ to live and work among us. There are many places in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles where the writers adapt a poetic medium as they seek to use words  to capture the indescribable. Poetry is a vital medium in the biblical tradition to speak of the mystery of God working the world.

But can we really classify Genesis chapter 1 as Poetry?  It is certainly not poetry as we might traditionally understand it.    In Hebrew,  ‘Poetry’  is not so much about the sound (it has little metre, rhythm, and rhyme, for example) as about the balance of  sense, whereby the same idea is repeated in two successive lines.  A good example is in Psalm 33,  which was sung  for us earlier:  again,  we may note the psalmist’s use of words to describe the  ‘Word of the Lord’  which is again a creative act.  (I quote from Psalm 33 verses 4 and 6 – do feel free to look at it  on pages 175-6 in your  green prayer books)

‘For the word of the Lord is true:

And all his works are faithful…


By the word of the Lord were the heavens made:

And all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth’


In the first verse above, the ‘word of the Lord’ is parallel with  ‘his works’; and the word ‘true’ corresponds with ‘faithful’.   In the second verse,  the ‘word of the Lord’ is parallel with ‘the breath of his mouth’, and ‘the heavens’ in the first line corresponds with ‘the hosts of them’ in the second. (It is common in Hebrew poetry to omit a verb in the second line.)  The translation by Coverdale, which the choir used, had a colon after each of these ideas to make the parallelism clear, and they sung the chant by pausing between the two parts of each verse. This is Hebrew poetry:  by repetition it is able ‘paint several similar pictures in our mind’.


Why is  all this important?  Because it shows us  that although Hebrew poetry  is unfamiliar to us, because it conforms to  such different ancient conventions, it still has a capacity to stir our imagination  with things which are  both familiar and unknown.  We are back to the ‘tug of the dowser’s rod’ as it ‘bends to the surface below’.   The very fact we still use the psalms and gain something from reading and even praying  them is testimony to this.    Marianne Moore expresses this rather more sardonically in her  poem ‘The Past is the Present’ when she considers the mysteries of the Hebrew poetry of the prophet Habakkuk:


If external action is effete

and rhyme is outmoded,

I shall revert to you,

Habakkuk, as when in a Bible class

the teacher was speaking of unrhymed verse.

He said – and I think I repeat his exact words,

“Hebrew poetry is prose

With a sort of heightened consciousness.”   Ecstasy affords

the occasion and expediency determines the form.



So a good deal of poetry,  whether translated from the ancient Hebrew or Greek  or contemporised in English,  throws light on both the possibilities and limitations of what ‘doing’ theology is all about.   The image does touch the surface as well as plumb the depths;  the concealed is also revealed.   But, conversely, the image also remains in the  depths; and the revealed is also concealed.


I was much struck by this paradox when, for the Chaplain’s sermon some three weeks ago,  I read  in Chapel some of East Coker Part V.  Here  we find a similar struggle in T.S. Eliot’s  poetry, for he is


‘trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate…’



It is this ‘raid on the inarticulate’ which I have been trying to emphasise this evening, for it is at this point that both the poet and  the theologian face a similar challenge and encounter a similar paradox.   Each is constrained by words, and tries  to articulate that which, in words, is a most inadequate expression of what they actually wish to say.


I began with offering insights into the etymology of the word ‘Theology’:  I end with an attempt to define, similarly, the word ‘Poetry’.   ‘Poetry’  also  traces its roots  through  the Middle English word ‘poetrie’ to the Latin ‘poētria’ and so to the Greek ‘poetica’,  where the verb  poiein means to create’  or ‘to make’.   So the poet is one who ‘creates’ with words:  the best term might be ‘wordsmith’.   The theologian, as we have seen, is the one who also has to use words in seeking  to understand God:  sometimes she or he might also be called a ‘wordsmith’.  I say  ‘sometimes’:   whereas the poet can only  use words, the theologian has to learn from the limitation of words that theology has a point of reference which, although initially dependent upon words, is also more than this.    Thank God for expressions of Theology in music and the arts!  For these remind us that our encounter with the numinous, and our encounter with God-in-Christ, is more than being good ‘wordsmiths’.  That encounter cannot be contained in volumes of theological tomes,  nor constrained by statements set as creeds and articles of faith; it cannot even  be encapsulated in a compendium of prayers  – even the prayers of the psalms.  It is  undoubtedly greater than all the words and the translated words  preserved in our sacred books. Theology needs words, as poetry needs words: but theology, perhaps at its most profound,  moves from an articulation using  words to speechless   ‘mindfulness’ which is about resting in the presence of God in complete silence.    Our Benedictine forebears understood this so clearly in accepting the vows of silence, according to Chapter 6 of their Rule. ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence’ (Ps. 62.1,5).


This sermon may contain  a subconscious word-weariness –  a reaction to having written and read  and spoken far too much throughout this Hilary Term.  Nevertheless,  I would propose that a good Lenten discipline might be the  occasional quest for silence as well as the pursuit of ‘words, words, words’.  For if we can discover God in silence this Lent,  we will certainly appreciate even more our rediscovery of Him in the rich articulation of our Easter faith.



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