Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Poetic Truth

One of the quirks of this modern age is the exaltation of scientific modes of thinking over all others, which are dismissed as imprecise, irrational, or otherwise lacking in the systematically logical mode of reasoning embraced by the scientific method. Truth, if it's to be had, must be obtained via the hard-nosed empirical rigor of the pioneer at a microscope.

It's been going on for a while. Back when the scientific method was first coming of age, a split emerged in philosophy between the highly rationalist thinker Rene Descartes and the more poetic vision of Blaise Pascal. Descartes, widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy, sought to empty himself of any preconceived notions he possessed of...well...anything, in order to engage in pure contemplation about reality, from which he developed a speculative, systematic way of viewing the world. Blaise Pascal, on the other hand, though by no means the stereotypical artsy poet (besides philosophy, he is widely known as a mathematician), retained a poetic vision of reality which supplemented his well-reasoned philosophy – “the heart has reasons that Reason cannot tell,” as he once wrote.

The Poetic Vision

Philosophy in the modern age has, unfortunately, largely gone the way of Descartes. Philosophy is full of texts which approach the problems of philosophy in a rigorous, analytic fashion, using copious amounts of modal logic and probability theory. “If we are to reach Truth,” their authors would say, “we must break it down to its smallest components, systematize it, and put it back together in a way that is rational and cognitive.” After all, isn't that how we put a man on the moon? Created computers? Made every scientific breakthrough ever?

Scripture, however, gives us a slightly different understanding of Truth. Instead of treating Truth simply as something that is propositional, testable, and rigidly verifiable, Scripture reveals to us a Truth that is fundamentally personal. “I am the Truth,” Christ says. Not “I know the Truth” or “I can teach you Truth,” but I AM the Truth. He is the Word, as John tells us, by whom and for whom all things are made, he upholds the universe by the word of his power, as the author of Hebrews tells us, he is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being, and we are his body, as Paul tells us. The complicated identities and relationships running through Scripture are too numerous to unpack here, but it is clear that Scripture portrays Truth as a person we are getting to know, in whose image we are being conformed, and who is being formed in us.

That said, Christians believe that Truth is a way of life – as Christ says, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. It is something that takes root in us, transforms us, and revolutionizes the way by which we view reality. It speaks to the totality of the person, not simply the cognitive, and we are meant to exemplify it in every aspect of our life. Truth, for Christians, is more than something propositional, it is something personal and revelatory.

Christianity is also good at giving us truths that don't work terribly well with our systematic and logical ways of viewing the world. God cannot die, and yet, on the cross, God died. The unmovable is moved by the sufferings of his creation. He who knew no sin became sin for us. We can construct systematic theologies to account for these paradoxes, and are right to do so, but the tensions resonate with something deeper. They strike on something true, though we cannot always explain why.

This is where the poet comes in. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens,” as G.K. Chesterton says. “It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” The poet speaks to dimensions of the human soul that analytic philosophy cannot breach because poetry is meant to evoke truth, not reason to it. There are sensibilities written deeply upon man's heart that cannot be drawn out by cold, hard logic. “The heart has reasons, that Reason cannot tell,” Pascal says. “He has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end,” the Teacher says.

It is this imaginative vision provides us our most foundational truths. Logic, after all, can only move from premise to premise. If one does not have good first principles to reason from, everything downstream will be corrupted. I suppose that's why so much of Scripture is poetry. Even Genesis uses the evocative imagery of myth, a myth rendered potent because it also happens to be fact.

Of course, this is not to say that God's revelation is irrational. Paul's defenses of the gospel throughout his epistles are very tightly argued and well-reasoned. But this is never to the deprecation of poetry. The author of Hebrews demonstrates a masterful integration of the rational and the poetic. It may be that something similar is needed for Christianity today.

Posted by Nick Barden

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