Though its use as an English word goes back to the 1960s and the work of Stanley Hopper and Amos Wilder, the last decade has seen a substantial uptick in published conversation around theopoetics. In the past five years alone, work engaging the topic has been published in the fields of continental philosophy,1 homiletics,2 theology,3 biblical studies,4 and poetry.5 In response to this rising interest, The Association of Theopoetics Research and Exploration was formed to gather together resources, archive relevant theses and dissertations, offer working group sessions at the American Academy of Religion, make work available via the online journal THEOPOETICS, and—for the first time this March—host a day-long event in Boston. This all serves to raise the question, “What exactly is theopoetics?”
As ATRE uses the term, theopoetics is shorthand for “an emphasis, style, and positive concern for the intersection of theology with the imagination, aesthetics, and the arts, especially as it takes shape in ways that engender community affirming dialogue that is embodied in nature and transformative in consequence.” It is not an alternative to theology as such, but an orientation to the doing of theology that gives greater attention to form, genre, and the methods of theological reflection, particularly the ways in which certain theological voices are given authority and others are marginalized. Significant questions remain, however: Does “theopoetics” accomplish anything not already addressed in the discourses connected to “theological aesthetics” or “theology and art”? If so, what is it that it contributes? Isn’t the imagination always already a part of theological work? The essays in this symposium were composed with these questions in the foreground. Each of the contributors and respondents is a scholar and/or artist who decided they have use for theopoetics in their work. Here they offer their varying rationales and convictions.
Patrick Reyes reflects on the influence of Brazilian theologian and educator Rubem Alves and the resonances of theopoetics with lo cotidiano, the stuff of daily life and the ways that God is named there. He considers the utility of the theopoetics for his work with Chican@ communities that are dually informed by Catholic perspectives and the indigeneous gods likely to be spoken of in English, yes, but also Spanish, Nahuatl, Mixtec, and Triqui. Ashley Theuring considers the ways in which her work with survivors of domestic abuse is tied directly to her capacity to hope and imagine the future as other than the present. Affirming the work of Rebecca Chopp and Shelly Rambo, Theuring sees theopoetics as a way to challenge modern theology’s privileging of rational epistemologies, a vital part of any scholarship that intends to address the fractures that exist in the wake of trauma.
In an essay composed as a dialogue, poet Dave Harrity and I reflect on the ways in which form can shape both the content of theological reflection and the practice of contemporary poetry. We also reflect on how streams of liberation theology, critical pedagogy, and the importance of bodies all wend their way through our engagement with theopoetics. Kate Common also reflects the importance of bodies, marking her essay with a personal narrative relating the need to marry the poetic with the logical and the challenges of doing that in the theological academy. She tells a story of loss and grief and the ways in which the only way forward seemed to be ones that allowed her to blur the borders of rationality and creativity. This blur carries over into James Hill Jr.’s closing essay in which he asks why it is that the populist and cultural power of hip-hop is so rarely acknowledged as carrying theological authority. He too articulates a personal narrative, his view flowing into a vision of theopoetics that is decolonizing and emancipatory.
Taken together, this collection of essays serves as a kind of “State of the Conversation” for theopoetics scholarship. It certainly is not complete—for example, there is a significant absence of any of the theopoetic thinkers from an explicitly process-relational perspective—but it still manages to chart some of the contours of the contemporary conversation. Though it has been nearly fifty years since Hopper and Wilder began to extoll its meaning and value, theopoetics has once again begun to enter into theological conversation. Whether or not it will be around for another century is as yet unclear, but in the meantime there seem to be a rising number of people who find some solace or power in the argument that the form of theological reflection can shape its content, and that sometimes theology is done best in gasps and cries rather than academic prose.
John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, 2013; Gabriel Vahanian’s Theopoetics of the Word: A New Beginning of Word and World, 2014.↩
Paul Scott Wilson’s Preaching as Poetry: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in Every Sermon, 2014.↩
Roland Faber & Jeremy Fackenthal’s Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness, 2013; Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, 2014; L. Callid Keefe-Perry’s Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer, 2014.↩
Sandra Schneiders’s “Biblical Spirituality” in The Bible and Spirituality: Exploratory Essays in Reading Scripture Spiritually.↩
Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace, 2013.↩