The News from Poems – Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
When’s the last time you were convinced by a statistic?
Our news stories, policy debates and academic studies are as full of statistics as ever, but I’m not quite sure where all of these cold, hard facts have gotten us. We scoff at any mentions of “alternative facts” or “fake news,” and perhaps for good reason, but we also know how easy it is to pick and choose certain facts in order to bolster our own positions. Scientists, researchers, fact-finders and fact-checkers all do honorable, decent work, yet how often are the fruits of their labor misleadingly re-packaged to further an agenda they may not share? There’s also the reality that not everything worth knowing can be reduced to digestible facts. We need facts to understand the world and evaluate the problems we face, but our heavy reliance on facts has fostered a certain sort of fundamentalism in which nothing is true unless it can be objectively proved—unless it has a fact attached.
Consider, for a moment, recent discussions about climate change. Those who believe climate change is a serious problem usually enter into arguments armed with a fairly predictable collection of temperature projections, CO2 levels and sea heights, sure that by laying out the incontrovertible evidence they will convert others to their perspectives with efficiency. But the opponents of these eager altruists often have facts of their own, tidbits of perhaps dubious origin or veracity, yet things they believe to be facts nonetheless—proof that the climate is actually not changing or proof that the economy would suffer adversely if any attempt was made to protect the environment. There doesn’t seem to be much of a chance for positive resolution when two determined, fact-possessing parties are set against one another. Many appear to believe that simply by repeating facts over and over again at a louder volume they will somehow get through to others and miraculously change minds, but in most cases facts are met with other facts and the two sides of an argument never get beyond a stalemate.
When it comes to climate change, what adversarial discussions tend to lack is the kind of poetic, imaginative understanding of the Creation outlined in this morning’s reading from Genesis. Of course, the first chapter of Genesis has, over the years, been read as a sequence of facts, as if it were a particularly dull history or science textbook. But reading Genesis 1 as a diary of Creation-related events misses the point. Genesis 1 is no tedious log. Rather, it seeks to underscore just how mysterious and beautiful Creation is—from the deep dark of Night to the bright joy of Day, from the sweet taste of fruit to the peculiar squeak of birds, from the immensity of the great sea monsters to the wonder of our own human bodies. Genesis 1 proclaims that the entirety of creation is “very good”—that it is holy, the work of God himself. Genesis 1 challenges any human attempt to abuse the natural world or withhold from it the respect and honor it deserves—but it does so not by utilizing observational studies or the scientific method or statistical analysis. It does so by painting a picture, by engaging our imaginations, by telling a story.
Today, we not only read Genesis 1’s account of the Creation but also celebrate God’s existence as the Holy Trinity. The idea that God is Trinity—that God exists simultaneously as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—has roots in the Bible, but wasn’t formalized until several hundred years after Jesus’ death. Its establishment as Christian doctrine was the result of a long, painful process of subjecting God to extensive tests of logical reasoning. Philosophers and theologians endeavored to articulate an understanding of God that would be immune to intellectual challenge or questioning; they asked questions like “do the three persons of the Trinity share the same substance?” and wondered whether Christ was ever created by the Father or existed before even time began. When these thinkers couldn’t figure out the right answer or when they disagreed with one another, they were assisted by emerging political powers who were happy to settle their questions for them, whether they liked it or not.
The Trinity as an idea depends upon the assumption that God ultimately makes sense, that all the problems and inconsistencies and mysteries about God can and should eventually be smoothed and ironed out. It derived from and perpetuated a think-tank industry that prioritized deciphering the facts about God, certain that, once we determined the facts, all of the other necessities of the Christian life would soon follow. Notice, though, that Jesus displays little interest in correct dogma (in the facts). In his final words to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does tell them to teach others about his commands, but he does not tell them to teach others about himself or about God. Instead, Jesus directs them to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—not to convince others of the existence of the Trinity, but to immerse others in the Trinity’s very being. For Jesus, the Trinity is not a construct that one assents to; the Trinity is a reality one enters and lives into.
William Carlos Williams once wrote that “it is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” He was trying to combat our prevailing instincts by suggesting that there are things more important than facts, that arts like poetry should not take an automatic backseat to more “practical” matters that might fill the news—matters like politics, statecraft and current affairs. Facts, Williams knew, can be awfully alluring, particularly in times like these when everything around us feels so volatile and dangerous, when what is material seems so pressing and urgent, when getting the news from poems sounds like the most ridiculous suggestion of all. In the face of political unrest, international terrorism and economic uncertainty, it is tempting to think that facts can save us—that if only we armed ourselves with enough statistics and figures and hunkered down in the bunker of fact long enough we would survive. But, as Williams knew, poetry and stories and imagination give us a glimpse into a truth that facts aren’t even capable of perceiving. Perhaps the most urgent task in these most urgent of times is to let our imaginations run wild, to share stories, to read in poems the news we might not otherwise dare to believe.