The False East-West Dichotomy and Poetic Theology

Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630)

I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.

I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.

No, it was just very beautiful.

I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.

Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.

In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.

But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.

Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.

So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.

And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.

This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.

A bit of a sawdusty, Victorian translation of the final book of St Augustine’s On the Trinity has some beauty to it. St. Augustine’s own mystical vision ends in the beatific vision — yet the light is too dazzling for mortal eye:

Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)

Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.

In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.

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5 thoughts on “The False East-West Dichotomy and Poetic Theology

  1. Wonderful! Thank you for this. A colleague of mine recently made much the same remark as your student, whereupon another colleague (a former literature prof.) said that, in fact, we do have a wealth of poetic theology in the West, we simply don’t read it. Thank you for sharing, and spreading the word.

    • Rob, you’re welcome thanks for the supportive words! I think the comment from your colleague that ‘we simply don’t read it,’ is spot on and due for rectification!

    • Ambrose is a delight. I’ve only read one of his works of theology, but it was clearly written by a man of poetic impulse. It is, indeed, very sad that these texts have fallen into obscurity.

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