The Death of Poetry?

I was recently sent a copy of the new book by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History. Harry Lee Poe (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson TN, Jimmy H. Davis (Ph.D. University of Illinois) is University Professor of Chemistry at Union University.

In God and the Cosmos Poe and Davis explore the interaction of God with his creation. There are two parts to their approach. Part One explores ideas about the kind of God who interacts with the world and the ways humans have considered this across cultures, religions, and time. Part Two turns this around and asks about the kind of world that allows God to interact.

Part One: What kind of God interacts with the world?

This section of the book does not address this question directly – but rather asks questions about the way humans have conceived of God and the way this impacts ideas concerning God’s action in the world. Poe and Davis begin with a survey of the way that God or divinity is understood in major world religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. This is an interesting survey – although the discussion of Judaism makes such a break with Christianity that it left me scratching my head at times.

How do we think about God?

How does this affect the way we think about God’s interaction with the world?

Turning primarily to the West and the development of science in Europe, Poe and Davis put forth a few ideas that drive much of the discussion in the rest of this section. The notion of a God who is rational combined with a break from the Platonic philosophical underpinning derived from Augustine gave rise to the reformation and the scientific revolution. Poe and Davis see the key developments and conflicts as more philosophical than theological. Thomas Aquinas set the stage by breaking with Augustine and his reliance on Plato, turning instead to Aristotle. This allowed a view of nature more conducive to the development of science. But even Aristotle had to fall. Philosophical underpinnings that found the ground of knowledge in rational thought without experimentation, not “the God Hypothesis,” had to fall before the scientific revolution could flower. The conflict over Galileo was not theological but philosophical – a rejection of Aristotle.

Question Authority. Poe and Davis also suggest that the reformation, including the cultural changes that preceded the reformation, led to the scientific revolution.

In the Reformation the principle issue at stake was one of authority.  … The University was a monastic community. All disciplines were subdisciplines of theology. Theology was the “queen of the sciences” and philosophy was her handmaiden. The Protestant reformation was not only a debate about authority in matters of religion but also authority in politics and all areas of scholarship, including what we now call science.

Scripture and tradition. The change of mind that we call the Reformation began to take place at least 150 years before Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses, and it would continue to unfold 150 years afterwards. … this way of conceiving authority had begun at least by the time of John Wycliffe (d. 1384) , long before the observations of Copernicus (d. 1543). (p. 60)

The revolution in the view of authority enabled the scientific revolution, which required something of an open view toward tradition and traditional authorities. This also led to a view of scripture as the authoritative foundation for faith.

Either-Or. According to Poe and Davis, with the publication of A Golden Chain (1590) William Perkins (1558-1602) set into motion a process that led to an either-or dichotomy describing God’s work in the world. A Golden chain is a text that popularized the theology of Calvin with a famous diagram that outlined the causes of salvation and damnation.

The idea of conceiving theology as a massive dichotomy represents a major innovation by Perkins to the earlier theology of Calvin.

Like Plato’s hierarchy or Aristotle’s chain of being, Perkins’s Golden Chain provides his audience with a way to conceive of God’s causal involvement in the world. God is the King who issues decrees, and from these decrees there issues forth an unbroken chain of cause and effect. (p. 79)

The problem with Perkins and the theology that followed Perkins is that it keeps the Holy Spirit safely in heaven or eternity. There is no real role for God or the Spirit in the day to day processes in the world. This either-or mode of thinking became the dominant assumption as men thought about the nature of God’s role in the world.

By the end of the eighteenth century, William Perkins’s model of reducing things to two alternatives had become the dominant way of thinking in the English-speaking world. … In the natural world observed by scientific investigation, scientists were faced by the two alternatives that their worldview allowed them: (1) phenomena occurred by the direct action of God, or (2) phenomena occurred as the result of the laws of nature. The idea that God could be active within nature was not an alternative allowed to them by their prevailing worldview. (pp. 87-88)

Poe and Davis trace this development through Newton, Boyle, Laplace and other early scientist to Darwin. In the thinking of Darwin, and in the way evolution has been thought of since Darwin, we see a full flowering of the idea. If there is a natural explanation then God was not at work. He is relegated to some deistic first cause or eliminated from the picture entirely.

The Death of Poetry. Poe and Davis see the loss of poetry as another major piece of the puzzle in understanding the modern conflict between science and the action of God.  In fact they put it rather bluntly: “Modern Western culture is unique in world history for having lost its poetry. All cultures, except modern Western culture, appreciate poetry.” (p. 96) This they see as a unique development of the 20th century … and it is not only poetry, but the arts as well that we have lost: painting, sculpure, opera, ballet, classical music. These no longer belong to the broad western culture. The loss of poetry goes hand-in-hand with a literalism that permeates our reading of scripture and our understanding of God. And this devastates the ability to understand God.

Because humans have no frame of reference for understanding God the language of the bible uses analogy, comparison, and poetry. Only by using creative license in the form of poetic language can we even begin to describe God and his action in the world.

Without a sense of poetry and the way analogies work, people lose the ability to use models, whether in theology or in science. The model, whether scientific or theological, is not the reality. A theological system is never more than a human constructed model of God. It may be useful for understanding an aspect of God that it affirms, but it is always woefully inadequate as a total understanding of God. (p. 100)

The last two chapters in Part One consider with process theology and God of the Gaps thinking.  These chapters delve more deeply into the question that frames this portion of the book – what kind of God interacts with the world – and how does he interact. I’ll turn to these two in the next post on this book – but today I would like to stop here and consider the scenario that Poe and Davis have outlined.

Do you think that Poe and Davis are right in the time-line they’ve sketched?

Does the either-or dichotomy represents the common view of the action of God in the world?

And perhaps most important of all:

Have we lost the ability to appreciate poetry and thus to think constructively about God?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit The Death of Poetry? at Jesus Creed.

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