“Poetry is essentially a really sophisticated way of experiencing the world.”V.V. Raman, Krista Tippett’s Einstein’s God
Krista Tippett interviews Hindu physicist V.V. Raman in the chapter called “The Heart’s Reason,” in her book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. The pair discuss the relationship between science and religion from a Hindu perspective, which happens to allow for a cohesion between the two often competing disciplines. Raman explains the concept of mythopoesis, “parts of all the great religions of the world. The poetic aspect is extremely important to me, because poetry is what gives meaning to existence.” This resonates with me, as a regular student of literature and a person who esteems the ideals of religion, because I have undergone significant inner turmoil over whether to address my spirituality by applying literal or symbolic interpretations to religious texts.
As I have said in earlier posts, I hail from a conservative Christian background. Before my birth, my parents were steeped in the Catholic traditions of southeastern Louisiana. However, when I was but an infant, both of my parents experienced a religious conversion to a “spirit filled” faith via the Assembly of God revivalist movement. Within a short time, their beloved pastor and leader became embroiled in scandal, crushing the budding revelation of my parents. My family abandoned church altogether, until I was in elementary school and a close family friend aggressively invited us to her Methodist Church. My father, still deeply wounded by the traumatic experience at the Assembly of God church, rarely accompanied my mother, brother and myself to the Methodist services. Nevertheless, my parents tried to raise my brother and myself according to scripture. But what does that even mean, to raise children “according to scripture”?
In high school, I blossomed in English Literature class, and I identified with the school of Existential thinkers–embracing my brokenness, longing to live according to my intuitive nature. I think, had I not become entangled in conservative Christian youth organizations following my abusive high school romantic relationship, I likely would have gravitated to the more philosophical worldview. Nevertheless, I did become entangled in conservative Christian youth organizations, and it was during this time that I embraced this idea of “God breathed” scripture. The Bible is the inerrant word of God to be taken literally at all costs. This led to agonizing and intense Bible study, as I attempted to reconcile all of the contradictions present in this inerrant, literal text.
I have journeyed long and far since then. Now, I wonder to myself, why could I not embrace a symbolic reading of religious texts? I know the answer. It is because I was told such practice was heretical, and a disavowal of the literal meant a lack of faith–a movement towards deception. But, I ask, why? Why must that be?
I agree with Raman, that poetry gives meaning to existence. What is poetry? Often times, it is distinguished by the mathematical attributes–rhyme, meter, rhythm. Those are defining qualities, yet in order to meet those standards, one must creatively identify–with precision–appropriate words to convey meaning within the poetic construct. Thus, a poet employs other devices–symbols, metaphor, allegory–and these details breathe life into an otherwise latent text. By extension, then, a prose writer applies the very same vivification to his/her writing. Symbols, analogies, paradox–these are tools writers use to transform the particular into the universal, and thereby, the transcendent. To ignore such devices–to discount their use within a text–is to disregard the whole of the iceberg, secure beneath the surface of the deep. Such treatment of a text–religious or otherwise–is irresponsible.
To close, I contend that the religious conservatives of our generation are sorely misguided. Strict adherence to arbitrary literalism leads to discrimination and injustice. If we wish to bring depth to spirituality, we must embrace the symbolic nature of religion!