The Heart Breaks Open
Beckett said about Joyce: “His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” This is what I want to say about the power of poetry in theological reflection.
I write poetry myself, though it is not very good, and it is purely for my own satisfaction.Sometimes I write poetry because there is something I want to understand, especially something about God, and writing a poem seems the best way to approach it even though I know that it will in the end remain beyond my understanding.
I think this is because poetry, when it works, not only speaks truth about its subject matter but encapsulates it or re-presents it or manifests it. This is a hard thought, and I will try to explain it by appealing to an even harder text: Kant’s reflections in the third Critique on the nature of beauty. My take on this is my own, not the consensus of Kant scholarship.
In particular, Kant says, “Beauty is the symbol of morality.” (5: 351-54). The morality he has in mind is the morality that gives us the highest good as our end or goal, where the highest good is the union of happiness and virtue for everyone. But we human beings do not have the power to bring this about, and in order for the moral life to be rationally stable, we have to secure belief in the real possibility of this highest good by positing the existence of an Author of Nature who is also the Commander of the Moral Law, and who can hold these two things (happiness and virtue) together. Kant is here translating the biblical idea from Psalm 85 that Justice and Peace will kiss each other.
The beauty Kant has in mind is sensory beauty, where this allows the free play of our two faculties of imagination and understanding. Our imagination collects together all the sensory information provided by the beautiful object, and the understanding gives us the idea of a unity in it that expresses a rule that cannot be stated in words or concepts (and so is free), but nonetheless tells us that nothing is missing and nothing can be added without loss. When I say something is beautiful, I say that my two faculties are playing freely in this way, and that the object deserves to occasion this free play in everyone.
So what does it mean to say that this beauty is a symbol of this morality? Symbols are not merely arbitrarily associated in the way that Mark’s coat might be associated with Mark and bring Mark to my mind in his absence. Rather, there is a real similarity between the symbol and what it symbolizes. There is a unity in what Kant calls the “ethical commonwealth” in which we all live virtuously and happily together, and this unity is made possible by the union in God’s will of natural law and moral law. But there is also a unity in the beautiful object, and this unity too is beyond our understanding and control. Kant thinks the successful genius is someone who receives this unstateable rule, and by perseverance finds a way to manifest it in a painting, or a sonata, or a poem, even without knowing just how this is accomplished.
We are not merely rational beings but creatures of sense and creatures of need, and our intellects need our senses in order to have even meager access to the highest ideas. So we have sensory beauty as a vehicle for apprehending our final end.
This is how poetry, which Kant thought the highest of the arts, gives us something which is not so much about our human destination as it encapsulates or re-presents or manifests in a sensory vehicle what that destination is. So when I read
and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion
there is no way to state in prose what this means. I can gesture by saying “sacrifice” and “glory.” But really the only way to say it is the way Hopkins says it.*
What he is saying gives us a picture in sound and sense of what we are for, of the whole point of our lives as followers of Christ our Lord. The words’ beauty is in Kant’s term a symbol of the very thing that they bring so powerfully to our minds, the unstateable goodness of God who is Lord both of nature and of our will. The ember breaks open at the end of the fire and the heart breaks open in service to others. Not only do the words signify, but their beauty symbolizes. By saying these words and loving them we worship that God.
John E. Hare is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. His interests include ancient philosophy, Kant, Kierkegaard, contemporary ethics, the theory of the atonement, international relations, and aesthetics. He is also a published composer of church music. His books include God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life (InterVarsity, 2002).
* from “The Windover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins