Poetry and Religious Truth

Truth” in the west has been identified with “science” from well before the advent of modern times. The ancient Greeks sought a rational understanding of the world we live in; they called their quest philosophy, the love of wisdom, but they thought of it the way we think of science.

Theology was born in this context. At the dawn of western science there did not exist any clear separation between theology and physics as we have it today. For millennia, theology was not only considered a science, it was the science, the instrument that reached to the inner nature and operations of reality.

But science had to compete with poetry. That was a problem for the scientists. Socrates, you’ll remem­ber, had great difficulty with the poets because they could not use other words to explain what they wrote.[1] He considered them alien to the rational-scientific quest he was pursuing.

I believe Socrates was blinded to the value of poetry because of the solid possibilities that logic seemed to offer: clarity, precision, verifiability, therefore “truth.” Poetry seems to have none of that. Multi-layered, peppered with mixed imagery and allusions, full of intense personal feelings, poetry seemed entirely subjective. Socrates wanted to know “what the poets meant.” They answered by telling him to go back and re-read their poetry; apparently they felt their words had been very precisely chosen. There was no other way they could say it. Socrates could not understand that. His demand to “explain your poetry using other words,” was, as far as the poets were concerned, an attack on the jugular. What better way to tell a poet s/he’s failed? Perhaps there was an odist or two among those who voted for the hemlock.

One modern poet calls his own poetry a “raid on the inarticulate.”[2] He speaks of “shabby equipment,” words — the poor, worn implements of daily life — that were never meant to carry the weight of the realities that the poet imposes on them. So, because words are not quite adequate, the “metho­dology” of the poets is special. And it’s used to communicate a special truth, a truth that is in a class apart from the measure­able realities of the so-called exact sciences. The methodology is metaphor, and the special truth is “relational truth.” What do these terms mean?



Relational Truth

“Relationship” is a very specific feature of our lives as human beings. It is a complex and interior experience of inter-personal connectedness of which our own participation is an integral part. Our relation­ships are difficult enough to perceive accurately but even more difficult to communicate to others. How do I express the unique relationship that I have with some­one I love. I am aware that scientific descriptors, even from a science spe­ci­fically dedicated to human perceptions and emotions like psychology, are totally inadequate for this purpose. Enter the poet. Her task is to try to find that combination of metaphors — symbols and images that lie outside the range of ordinary speech — which may convey with greater human accuracy the multi-faceted dimensions of the relationship. “Human accuracy” here is “truth” and refers to the ability to evoke in another person, an experience as close as possible to the poet’s experience in its individuality, com­plexity, scope and depth of feeling. Solomon’s poet, for example, might say:

“You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.”

How is the poet’s “love” as “terrible as an army set in battle array”? You may “get it” or you may not. But if you connect with it, you will understand what experience the poet is trying to convey, and in that act of understanding you will provide a “third party verification” both for the experience and the accuracy of its articulation. Poetry is not (only) entertainment, an elective pastime for the literati. It’s the only instrument we have for communicating “truth” at this level, relational truth.

So, I believe Socrates was wrong. The poets labor with as much commitment to accuracy and clarity as any sincere scientist or philosopher. Their art is the attempt to find those precise phrases, that precise sequence of words, that evoke human relational experience. And religion is our human relationship with the source of our existence … whatever it may be.

My point is that “relational events” or “inter-personal events” differ as object from other objects and therefore are communicated by a different kind of discourse. These “relational realities,” which include the existential relationship — i.e., my relationship to the source of my existence — are experienced by the knower as objects that include his/her self. The resonating subject is the predominant component of the object known, making the object inaccessible to another subject except through a recognized similar experience. So communication in this area involves “construc­ting” (poiein in Greek) something that evokes the same experience in the hearer. The “constructor,” the poeta, tries to create external conditions (words, dramatic dialogue, paintings, music, dance, ritual, etc.), a symbolic “construct,” a poema that accomplishes that task. And metaphor is its instrument of choice because it uses words not as concepts that try to comprehend and define the object, but as symbols that refer to and evoke the object in the experience of others. Evocation invites the hearer to find the object within his/her own file-cabinet of experience and thus interpret, compare and verify its truth. There is no other way these com­plex, interiorly experienced realities can be communicated and verified except by speech that of its very nature can only evoke and not denote, describe and not define, invite and not impose.

Traditional western theology has historically been considered an exact science in the rationalist sense. Realities that we know in and through our own experience, and whose inner workings apart from us we can only adumbrate, we in the west have historically claimed to know with quasi-mathe­ma­tical precision. All our religious discourse, doctrine, creed, dogma, even ritual formulae, have been infected with this rationalist contagion. Religion has been subsumed under the heading of “truth,” and “truth” in the west is prejudicially the result of rational inquiry.

But what gets lost in our scientistic scenario is that “true” religious speech is indeed critical to our lives but in a way that antecedes and bypasses logic. Religious discourse, — ritual, creed, doctrine — is not science; it is poetry and as such it provides evocative descriptions of our relationship to realities whose inner mechanical workings are irrelevant to the relationship whether I do or even could come to know them or not.

For example, the perception in which I relate to my wife does not include knowledge of the vegetative functions of her organism or the neurological operations of her brain. And yet I claim to have an accurate grasp of “who she is.” I may call her a butterfly today and a soaring eagle tomorrow, but even though literally she is neither, I know exactly what I’m talking about, and so does the reader. The ruling element that gives those words meaning is relational experience.

Now, in the case of “God,” the relationship stands on its own: I understand myself to exist and that I am not self-originating. I immediately understand — from my side — the relationship I bear to the existential source of existenceeven if I don’t know what that source is. Religion is the reflective description of my experience in the form of “doctrine,” which is symbol, metaphor, poetry. I say “’God’ is my Creator.” Literally, scientifically, I know neither “God” nor what it means to create. All I know for a fact is that I am not self-origina­ting; but that is sufficient to establish the relationship. Both “God” and “creation” are metaphors for what I do not know but to which I bear a constant and inescapable relationship. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip had no knowledge of his anonymous benefactor, and his conjectures were upended in mid-stream, but his awareness of what he had received and his sense of loyal gratitude was the same regardless.

Doctrine’s interpretative tool, theology, comes next. It is simply a kind of literary criticism that evaluates religious poetry in the light of the “facts” and how well the words chosen convey the indicated experience. At no point in the process does the presumption of claiming to know the object — “God” — apart from the relational experience of it, intrude.

All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating.




… an implicit comparison between two unlike entities … The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make a new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought anteceding or bypassing logic.[4]

Metaphor is a symbol. As a symbol it does not conceptualize its object, it “refers to” it … or, as Wittgenstein might say, it “points to it.” Metaphor is a linguistic device that applies words to realities they were not meant to define. Metaphor is a word adequate for one reality which is used “improperly” to stand for another which has no adequate word, or whose usual word has been judged inadequate. Metaphor does not define, it rather evokes and suggests; it “points to.” But the metaphor’s very “impropriety” accounts for its evocative quality, for it throws the listener back onto his own experience for under­standing. It contributes a new, fresh and vital element that other­wise would be absent. “The winter wind with its long fingernails tore the canvas to shreds.” The wind does not have hands and fingernails, but the imagery evokes the destructive action of the wind. “Long fingernails” are symbols. They do not define any “scientific” reality; they rather describe how the wind’s action makes us feel ― and therefore how we relate to it.

Poetic metaphor is a most appropriate instrument for speaking about our relationship to “God.” For, besides more accurately communicating the experience, its symbolic character guarantees and protects apo­phasis: “God” remains ineffable, undefinable, unknowable. Metaphor is conceptually empty. Metaphor makes no pretense at grasping and comprehending its object. The believer using a metaphor is consum­mately aware that its employment is improper, therefore temporary, provisional, and compelling only in the personal sense. No one is compelled to assent unless their own experience verifies it.

If we say that the concept “God” is itself derived only from human experience, it means that the “objective” element in our knowledge of “God” includes the experiencing subject. I am not using the word “objective” to mean “the thing in itself apart from its being the object of a knowing subject;” there is no such thing. In the case under consideration here — knowledge of “God” — there is nothing known outside of the insepar­ably subjective feature of experiencing “God” in the intimate realization of our own “non self-origination.”

Does this mean that “God” is not real? … only on the gratuitous assumption that what can’t be verified independently of experiencing subjects is non-existent. But no one would say that. The most that even a scientist would claim is that you cannot compel assent to the existence or character of things that are not independently verifiable. That in itself does not prove that they do not exist, nor does it establish their character, i.e., what they are like. Unfortunately, the word “truth” has been arrogated by the over-enthusiastic scientism of our times to refer exclusively to “know­ledge” that has been subjected to the kind of probity demanded by science. Relationship — the intentional valence between conscious organisms — may be accessible to scientific measurement as far as its emotional resonance or other observable by-products are concerned, but no one would say that those things were themselves constitutive of the relationship. The emotions of elation that accompany a realization, for example, might be measurable, but they do not constitute the realization. Religion is not about what things are, but how we relate to them. I relate to the source of my existence as to “God,” and the nature of that relationship is determined by the nature of my existence and how I experience it, not by what I have been led to think “God” is. I articulate the nature of my existence, i.e., that it is not self-originating, and celebrate it in poetry. That is religion.

I call metaphor a tool of poetry and that poetry reaches “truth” — but not a scientific truth that is verifiable independent of the experience of the subject, demanding acknowledgement without concurrent experience. This “poetic truth” that I speak of, however, is also truth, it is objective and it is verifiable. It’s the communi­ca­tion and sharing of experience; as such it cannot be communicated without being verified. You verify it with your own experience, however, not some independent measuring device or a logical syllogism.

Religion tries to turn the experience of “God” into words. Poetry is our almost exclusive tool for com­muni­cating truth in these interpersonal regions. But I want to emphasize, it’s aim is truth: what is real and really there — the relationship.   We are not talking about fabrications of the imagination.[5] I am objectively related to the source of my existence — in which I live and move and have my being, whether I scientifically “know” what it is or not — and I express that relationship in religious poetry. Poetry uses metaphor, symbol, fables and allegory, to express relational truth that cannot be expressed in any other way. The very nature of the realities we’ve been talking about, realities whose existence is knowable only as interpersonal relational events, must necessarily use metaphor for their expression.

This is true of all relationships. Who would ever deny that the relationships between spouses, or friends, or siblings, or parents and children were real, even though there is no physical or chemical or laboratory test that could verify their existence?


The root of religious speech is human experience which is historically and culturally conditioned. Speech about “God” that was forged at a particular time and place bears the stamp of that particularity and will need constant translation and renewal if it is to correspond to what is experienced by other people at other times and under other circumstances. The words of one age do not necessarily communicate in another. “Original sin,” for example, may have captured a Greco-Roman’s intuition that something was radically wrong with life under the Empire, but a modern South Asian may find such an idea unthinkable and an insult to the goodness of God. “In our countries,” says Sri-Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balusuría, “the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.”[6] Metaphor preserves the relativity of local expressions.

Moreover, the uniqueness of metaphorical projection introduces a fragrance and intensity to religious communication that more adequately corresponds to the nature of the human experience in question here, mystical experience. The mystics speak of “the cloud of unknowing,” for example, a haunting image to describe the ineffability of “God.” If this evocative quality should be lost, religious truth, as we are defining it, would not be adequately transmitted; metaphor is critically important in this respect.

Again, in this same connection, while metaphor communicates, and communicates well, it also retains the quality of indefinability, a fundamental characteristic of all interpersonal encounter. It evokes, it does not define. The “doctrinal terms” are temporary because of their evocative function. Once they cease to evoke, they no longer communicate. The experience to which they refer, how­ever, remains always what it was. New conditions may require new metaphors. This is most relevant to our reflection. For it means that metaphor preserves inviolate the apophatic principle of Christian tradition, that is, the radical unknowability of God. For metaphor is essentially empty.

Theologians must analyze, weigh and judge all these terms used to define elements of religious experience. It hardly needs saying that much of what is most sordid and shame­ful in the history of humankind is directly trace­able to the unwarranted ascription of literal scientific objectivity to locally conditioned religious experience and the metaphors used to evoke them. The conviction that one has the absolute truth about “God” and how one should live has provoked and excused wars, pogroms, conquests, slavery, persecutions and xenophobic hatred of all kinds. What’s at stake, as we’ve unfortunately come to realize in these times, is nothing less than genocide carried out in the name of “God.”


[1]Plato, The Apology in The Works of Plato, tr.Jowett, Tudor, NY, vol.III, p.107.

[2]T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” V

[3]Song of Solomon 6:4

[4]Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Mic VI, p.831

[5] H. and H.A. Frankfort, “Myth and Reality,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, U of Chicago Press, 1946 & 1977 p.7; and also “The Logic of Mythopoetic Thought,” pp. 10-11

 [6]Sri Lankan Catholic theologian, Rev.Tissa Balasuriya on original sin, quoted by Celestine Bohlen, NYT article 1/15/97


6 comments on “Poetry and Religious Truth

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    Good vibes from this post. I think of Roger Haight’s book, Jesus Symbol of God, and the earlier Chalcedon’s “Jesus is God”, with Juan Luis Segundo’s comment that God is the empty term; as in a logic of learning, the experience of Jesus of Nazareth fills the empty term “God” of the proposition without relinquishing human experience. A sound understanding of the communication of idioms leaves intact the apophatic. Or again, as highlighted by Robert Bellah, we advance humanly via episodes of action, of mimesis and of narrative. Science, theorising, speculation have their place, but action in the spirit of Jesus has primacy, building homeostatic circuits of relating human centres in an evolving world. In the Christian tradition, at least.

  2. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for your insightful comments. A deep respect for symbol allows for the acknowledgement of universalism as the only authentic premise for the religious quest even as we know our point of departure has to be some local form.


  3. Joe Gibbons says:

    It’s Saturday evening when I should lay me down to sleep. But I won’t sleep until I give these insights a perusal.. Thanks again Tony for your challenges. Not easy reading but well worth effort.

  4. Ian Fraser says:

    An excellent and highly readable account of the major challenge to religious organisations which wish to proselytize in this modern world of science and technology. It is no surprise that the “new atheism” (that of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, et al) is based on the inability to prove or even to corroborate religious teachings by scientific investigation.

    And, as the language of religious belief recedes from common parlance, simply through less use as individuals, families, communities, walk away from churches and synagogues, the metaphors used to propagate or even just to sustain traditional religions, will increasingly fall on deaf ears. Happily, as many people who leave the church or the synagogue identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, other metaphors which express concepts of the Divine, the infinite, sentient life in the universe, metaphors with meaning for individuals, not organisations, will continue to resonate.

  5. jorisheise says:

    I love your postings. I always feel a need to share both what they provoke in me in terms of my own life-experience, and offer a kind of modulation or counterpoint melody.

    Dostoyevsky once pointed out how everybody is a “certain set of contradictions”–and that little aphorism has (like Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief) always been applicable in many dimensions. Science versus religion. Science versus metaphor. Dogma/doctrine versus Scripture, Atheist versus believer. All religions as Shivta,the destroyer-creator.

    In my old age, I have come to see so much of our life as our need to hold the contradictions together–as the obverse and reverse of a coin–to have value. We need the Big Bang AND Genesis. We need the poetry of the Hubble telescope and the awesome qualities of quantum mechanics. We need the Dawkins to challenge faith, and the Pope Francis to show it–but we do need both. We need all those lovely paradoxes Jesus seems to have liked and which the Gospels (even the Gospel of Thomas) capture as one of his habits.

    And I believe, as I have often said, that our Contradictions/paradoxes are particularly strong these days, as our world-wide culture (over a course of several centuries) undergoes its transformation of religion in the warring cocoons of the Vatican hallways, ISIL’s brutality, “extreme conservatives” here in the states, and interesting developments of “spirituality” versus religion. I do not know the outcome of this “Karen Armstrong-ish” transformation, but I see it happening. And, a person of faith, I beieve that it is of God–not the god of a particular religion, but “God.”

  6. jorisheise says:

    Oh, and to share the origin of this comment, I offer you the blog for tomorrow’s Gospel in the Catholic schema: The good news for the day June 19
    Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (96)

    To His students, Jesus says: “The Human must suffer terribly, be spurned by civil leaders, religious ministries, and smart people—and be killed—and on the third day be raised.”
    To the public Jesus says: “If people want to follow me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Everybody wishing to salvage their own life will lose it, but everybody losing their life for my sake will rescue it.” (Luke 9)

    A constant complication in our lives—is that you and I have to live contradictions. Adults know this truth—of contradictions—accept it, and use it. You have to be maturely thoughtful—as well as childlike and instinctive; you need to believe wholeheartedly—and you also need to keep reviewing your faith—even to doubt parts of it. You need to love your kids—and “act mean” in a firm way. Like Job, you need to challenge God about your misery; faithful Abraham was called on to sacrifice the son God had promised. Jesus’s death leads to life…and on and on.

    Carrying the cross is a basic complication you have. You believe that the cross leads to Life; you believe that suffering—your own, the suffering of people you love, the suffering of innocent people throughout the world—is part of God’s will. But sometimes the contradiction is hard to take.

    If you lose your “life,” you “save” it. What this may mean to you may be quite different from what it means to me. Certainly, it calls you to humility—to accept that the growth of your “life” comes from criticism—people opposing the life you have been living. It calls you to find and confront your faults—to repent. It calls you to find the greater life others offer you—in your helping them, in your open-heartedness, your respect and caring. It is faith—an ever-growing faith—that surprises you with how alive you become, how different! John’s Gospel says His Crucifixion is His Glorification; so is yours! That is our faith. Dying to self is Living!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s