Theology as Prophetic Poeisis
Tim Noble responds to George Pattison’s paper on theology and poetic language with a paper on the prophetic role of theology.
Reading Prof. Pattison’s paper, two things kept coming to mind, concerned with what we might call poiesis. The first is to do with the relationship between poietic / poetic language and prophecy, and the second is linked to ideas first expressed by Marshall McLuhan over half a century ago, but which seem to me to be still relevant today.
Poetic language is the making of attached meaning out of what we have, the attempt to give sense to and speak the world as we experience it and to take us beyond the obvious to see new connections and possibilities. These are tasks proper at one level to every human being, but particularly to the poet, the philosopher and the theologian. If our language is to say anything, it must be iconic, recognising and even embracing its limits at the same time as it can only express itself within those limits. This is the antinomic encounter of the kataphatic and apophatic, where what can be heard and said comes up against what is beyond our hearing and beyond our saying, and yet even this demands to be heard and said.
The creative and impossible but necessary task of poetic language is also prophetic. The Old Testament prophets encourage us frequently to hear what the Lord has spoken. The word of speech must be heard in order to be repeated. And that word is a word of challenge – the challenge to change, to accept consolation, to acknowledge wrongdoing, to see new possibilities in the world. Wrestling with language changes us, and those who wrestle with language – the poets – demand of us that, however they express it, we heed the word of the Lord and respond to it.
This brings me to my second point. Marshall McLuhan famously defined media as the extension of the human, which is why he could helpfully see many different phenomena as media. They extend us, because they transform our way of interacting with the world, and thus change the way in which we perceive and operate within the world. The presence of media thus extends us, changes our participation in the world, and thus fundamentally changes our world.
But where are we being taken, and is it somewhere we really want to go? We can develop better medicines but also better – that is, more murderous – weapons, and these themselves are media that extend us, so that we can bring more healing or more death. One of the problems that we face with much modern technology is a move from “ought” implies “can” to “can” implies “ought” – the fact that we can send anonymous abusive messages to anyone with whom we disagree means that we ought to do. The medium extends but in a way that is not necessarily creative.
So perhaps in the end we come down to the debate between false and true prophets. Not all sounds, not all speech is prophetic. Parrots can mimic sounds, and we can listen to those sounds and be impressed, but parrots are not prophets, at least not for human beings. One of the fundamental insights of early communication theory was to do with the nature of noise, the interference in the signal between sender and receiver. How can the true prophet be heard, how do we find time to listen to what has been said, to engage with that which truly extends us towards the transcendent, rather than drags us down to the lowest common denominator?
This is not the place to respond to these questions. But one thing at least can be said. As theologians we are called also to be poets, allowing the Logos to transform us into poets of the Word, makers within language of prophetic speech that announces God to the world in a way that extends what it is to be human to include the transcendent.