Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer
A few years ago I signed up for a class in seminary on theopoetics. I had absolutely no idea what that word meant, but it sounded fascinating. During my time in that course, I felt that I was finally discovering my theological home. The ways of conceiving of the Divine and experiencing the world with equal measures of both uncertainty and hope that come from a theopoetic sensibility resonated with me. Yes, labels can be superfluous, but in theopoetics I found a name for a way of participating, reflecting, and exploring faith that was life affirming.
Yet, theopoetics is little known in the faith world that all too often clings to dogmatic systems and traditions in order to preserve the status quos of theology, church hierarchy, and worship practices. And while the theopoetic is an idea best lived in practice, grasping what it embodies is a helpful necessity for those who spend their time thinking about the ways faith looks in our world. To that end, I was very excited to be offered free for review purposes from Wipf & Stock a copy of Callid Keefe-Perry’s new book, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer.
Callid has probably done more than anyone to spread awareness of theopoetics and to spark both academic and practical discussions about what it encompasses. His book serves as a resource providing a brief yet thorough introduction to theopoetics. He provides an academic overview of the history of theopoetics and offers a summary of the main thinkers and writers in the movement. He then turns to an exploration of what an integration of theopoetics in worship, sermons, pastoral care, and church outreach might look like. Then, after acknowledging the fault in talking about theopoetics instead of doing theopoetics, he concludes the book with a series of meditations that express the idea of theopoetics through story and metaphor. This offering is a valuable resource that I hope will help expand the conversation about theopoetics and allow it to integrate more into our everyday approaches to and conceptions of faith.
At the core of theopoetics is the idea that how we articulate our experiences of the Divine can alter our experience of the Divine. While provocative in the idea that we in some way make God (theo=God, poesis=making), theopoetics simply acknowledges the common sense idea that how we choose to encounter things determines what things we encounter. It is a given that we can never speak with certainty about God (to know God with absolute certainty would make us God). But instead of assuming that uncertainty and doubt destroy faith, theopoetics embraces the uncertainty of how we speak of and understand God never being sufficient, and suggests why we might still talk about God anyway. As Callid writes, the defining mark of theopoetics is “an acceptance of a cognitive uncertainty regarding the Divine, an unwillingness to attempt to unduly banish that uncertainty, and an emphasis on action and creative articulation in spite of it all” (111).
Theopoetics instead opens space to discover the myriad of ways God might be encountered and felt in the world, even if that encounter is simply with the rumor or hope of the Divine. It is not a rejection of all that has come before, but does insist that “God is not so insignificant as to be invisible except in that which has come before” (7). Even beyond opening up the avenues in which we accept that the Divine can be encountered, theopoetics clears space for perspectives that have been ignored in the past. As Callid comments, while “formalized and institutionally centered doctrinal certainty tends to support status quo systems of social power, and thus, to the extent that current systems and structures appear to be in collusion with unjust forces, attempts at challenging the mode of discourse might allow for the encouragement of voices that might not otherwise be given space” (117) Theopoetics is not a new theology or a mere application of the poetic to theology, it is an invitation to encounter the vast array of metaphorical, incarnational, and experiential aspects of faith. It is an engage with the embodied world and the possibilities it holds.
Where I most resonate with theopoetics as a movement is in the ways in which it creates space to hear our truths spoken to us in our everyday lives. From the beauty of the world, to the pain of illness, to the stories of our favorite films and books, to the rich conversations we hold as we break bread and drink wine with friends—we are surrounded with theopoetic articulations of the Divine. There is no sacred secular divide here, nor an outdated mind body dualism. All is accepted as icon that draws us in, engages us, and transforms us. To be the church is to encounter these stories, name continually anew the ways the divine is moving in the world, and be moved to action to love, serve, and realize the potential of all.
Our stories, our bodies, our conversations, our pains are charged with meaning. Theopoetics grants us space to find the Divine already there.