RELIGION IS POETRY OR IT IS NOTHING!
Is religion really under threat in the contemporary world? Yes, I think it is, but not from the diatribes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their confreres. A much more serious threat comes from fundamentalism, from the reduction of faith to literalism, a besotted infatuation with absolute “truth.” Literalism drains all poetry, beauty, passion and desire out of the search for God and reduces the Transcendent to an object that can be contained by some dogmatic form of words.
Fundamentalism is a fear-filled form of faith, as Karen Armstrong says. It is an embattled religiosity engaged in a struggle with secularism. But, as Jim Wallis correctly comments, the best antidote to fundamentalism isn’t secularism, but good religion.
Genuine religious faith is a serene spirituality at peace with the world perhaps best exemplified someone like Saint Francis of Assisi.
Back in the 1990s I did three long interviews for the ABC with the great US Catholic historian-cosmologist – or “geologian” as he called himself – Thomas Berry, who died last June, aged 95.
Tom was very much at home in the world and at peace with his faith. I’ll never forget something he said in one interviews:
“Religion is poetry or it is nothing! How can a person be religious without being poetic? Certainly God is a poet; it is God who made rainbows, butterflies and flowers. It is the most absurd thing in the world to think of dealing with religion in any other way than poetry or music … Take Saint John of the Cross – all the great mystics have been poets. You cannot do it any other way.”
His passion as he spoke was palpable.
The real threat that religion faces in our world is that our imaginations will dry-up and atrophy. This is intimately linked to environmental destruction and population growth.
If present species extinction rates continue and environmental destruction is exacerbated by the pressure of more and more human beings, we will soon end-up in a kind of feed-lot world where everything is subsumed to human survival.
People in a world where all wildernesses have been destroyed, most species driven to extinction and nature driven out, would lose touch with the possibility of the development of culture, art, religion and spirituality. For there would be nothing beyond the self to stimulate, challenge and feed our imaginations.
Deprived of nature with its beauty, multiplicity, mystery, complexity and otherness, our imaginations would shrivel up, and we would lose our ability to perceive and experience the deeper feelings and intuitions that give real meaning to our lives.
For nature is the source of our origin and the context of our continuing evolution and spiritual development. Without imagination we would lose all sense of ourselves as human beings.
The result: the poetic, mystical core of our religion, spirituality, art and culture would atrophy for there would be nothing to renew and nurture it. Our imaginations need the inspiration of natural beauty, ecological diversity and the otherness of nature with its non-human species.
Without this diversity we would lose the ability to conjure up the new possibilities that drive us creatively forward. We would lose the essence of our humanity and descend into a hopeless, paranoid world in which we would self-destruct.
It is fundamentally our imagination that saves us from the delusional monism that is the essential core of insanity.
As Thomas Berry says, “If we lived on the moon our knowledge of God would reflect the lunar landscape, our imaginations would be as empty as the moon and our intellect would be completely thwarted.”
While this seems like an apocalyptic scenario, it remains a real threat because so much of our contemporary religious, political and economic thinking is so short-sighted and fundamentalist.
One who saw the natural world a sacrament or living symbol of God’s presence was Saint Thomas Aquinas. In theÂ Summa Theologiae he says unequivocally that “every creature … shows forth the personality of God the Father.”
Regularly he refers to God as theÂ artifex, the “artist” or “craftsperson” of the world. He says that the whole of the Godhead is involved in creation:
“Just as a craftsperson works through an idea conceived in the mind and from a love that applies the will to work, so God the Father made creatures through his Word which is the Son and through his love which is the Holy Spirit.”
But Thomas’s most extraordinary statement about creation is, “in all creatures you find representations of the Trinity.” Note Thomas says all creatures, not just human creatures.
To see the natural world as a theophany, a manifestation of divine presence is the antithesis of fundamentalism’s crass literalism. It is this sense that good religion has to recover if not only faith, but humanity itself is to survive.
Paul Collins is a church historian, broadcaster and commentator on Catholicism. His most recent book isÂ Judgment Day: The struggle for life on earth (UNSW Press), where he discusses these very issues in detail.