On 3 Kinds of Theopoetry: A Response to Callid Keefe-Perry and Anne Michelle Carpenter

David Russell Mosley


The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Wipf & Stock Publishers, the people who will be publishing my novel, have recently started interviewing authors and putting the videos up online. They range from just a few minutes to half hour segments. In one of these interviews, the people at Wipf & Stock sit down Callid Keefe-Perry.

Callid is, in many ways, the man who has brought a certain strain of theopoetics back into the limelight. In this interview, he is being asked, in many ways, to explain what he means by theopoetics and what relationship it has to theology and the academy. For Friend Callid (he is a Quaker, after all), theopoetics is concerned with new way of “making” God. He qualifies this by saying that theopoetics is interested in how the things we make effect the way we think about God. At one point in the interview he says that theopoetics is concerned with the aesthetics, the form that theology or religious language, takes as much as, if not more so than with the content. Why is there a text and not a dance and what does that say about us and about God. The key, for Callid, so it would seem, is that our discussions about God not be limited to the traditional, but that we branch out, hear new voices. With the possible exception of saying that the form might be more important than the content, I am quite open to these aspects of this strain of theopoetics. Imagination, beauty, art, in a sense culture in general all have a place in our inquiries into the divine. The problem I have is that this kind of theopoetics is not simply about taking seriously the role of imagination and the arts in theology.

Callid is candid that at a certain point even he himself, along with others, have seen theopoetics as going against theology. Theopoetics turns away from “reason” (logos) and toward making (poiesis). At the start of the interview, as Callid is giving us the history of theopoetics, he briefly mentions that the new wave of theopoetics is connected with process theology, the notion that in some way God is changeable (not perhaps in his goodness or eternality) by temporal events, namely us. The connection to process theology is problematic in and of itself for me. That aside, however, (actually I do think these things related, but this is a letter, not a journal article) my major issue with the current wave of theopoetics is that it is almost a-traditional, that is it seems to act as if it has no tradition, or a limited one––going back to Whitehead. In an essay in the boo Theopoetic Folds, Callid notes that a speech by Stanley Hopper “is the first piece of scholarship to make direct use of the term theopoiesis” (Faber and Fackenthal, 149). This is problematic because of course theopoiesis is not an English word, but a Greek one that means deification (the two words actually share etymology in the sense that both are made up of the parts God and to make). The current form of this theopoetics seems either to ignore or be unaware that it has a link back to second century (if not earlier) understandings of the goal or telos of the human person in light of who God is as Creator, our being created in the imago dei, and what the Incarnation means for this. It is, of course, possible that I have not read enough from these theopoetic thinkers and I am happy to be proven wrong.

Moving on, there is another kind of theopoetics with which I have much more sympathy. That is the theopoetics of Anne Michelle Carpenter which she expounds in her excellent book on Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theopoetics. Anne starkly disassociates herself from the kind of theopoetics being done by those like Friend Callid (Carpenter, 3). She does so on the basis of the “agnostic overtures of the “theo-poetic” movement,” (Ibid.). Carpenters approach is, in many ways, similar to that of this other theopoetic movement. By that, I mean that her interest is to categorize, particularly Balthasar’s aesthetics, as a theo-poetic, a theological poetics. In this sense, unlike that of Callid, or at least others within the theopoetics movement, theopoetics is neither antithetical to theology nor is it a corrective that moves alongside theology. It is inherently part of theology, especially any theology that has a place of importance for the poetic, for the creative.

Finally, there is the way I use theopoetics. Since my thesis was written after the new wave of theopoetics but before Anne’s book was published, I decided not to give it its original title Being Deified: Poetry and Theo-poetry. Actually, to be honest, I thought I was doing something quite original creating theo-poetry (and theo-poet, theo-poem, etc.) out of theopoiesis. Sadly, I was quite wrong. In any event, I use this word directly as related to theopoiesis or deification. Playing off a line from Vladimir Lossky (and not A.N. Whitehead), I wanted to describe God as Poet (rather than Creator). God poetised creation, or the poem, out of his trinitarian gratuity. But God is not just Poet, he is Theo-Poet, deifier. Therefore we are not only his poem (creation) but his theo-poems (the deified), or at least we will be. From this play with language I moved forward to discuss the importance of human creativity for our deification. I focused on fantasy and poetry as genre but noted and still note that this extends to all kinds of human creativity (David Jones is someone I turn to here). The point I try to make is that our poiesis, our making/creating, is wrapped up in our participation in the one who is Creator, even Poet, by nature, not by participation.

There is much with which I can agree in the first two uses of theopoetics. Callid and company’s commitment to human creativity, to the body in many ways, in light of certain strains of theology which have sidelined these aspects is one with which I can certainly agree. It is the turn to process, the turn to theopoetics as a project that is simply a response to recent trends in recent strains of theology with which I disagree. With Anne I am in almost full agreement with the exception that her use of theopoetics does not include theopoiesis, deification. I do not claim that my own view is by any means complete or without flaw. There is much I have learned from both of them (and from others). Nevertheless, I think we cannot come to a full understanding of what theopoetics is or can be if we fail to recognize the importance of deification, the end for which we are made, as we engage in it. I am, however, quite glad to be in such good company that wants to discuss the importance of poetry and creativity in theology. Regardless of our disagreements, this is a good time to do theology that has an emphasis on the Beautiful as well as the Good and the True.


2 comments on “On 3 Kinds of Theopoetry: A Response to Callid Keefe-Perry and Anne Michelle Carpenter

  1. […] Moseley’s recent post, responding to Callid Keefe-Perry’s interview with Wipf & Stock and to Anne Michelle Carpenter’s book Theo-Poetics, differentiates between theopoetics as against theology and theopoetics as an inherent part of theology, siding with the later and taking issue with the former.  Process theopoetics, the form of theopoetics out of which I (mostly) work, is often characterized as anti-theological because it does indeed take issue with the logos portion of theo-logy.  Just as Raimon Panikkar reminds us, theological language cannot be made clear and precise, because such language always misses part of that which it attempts to disclose.  For this reason, process theopoetics seeks to supplement the logos of theology with the poiesis of theopoiesis to denote a continual “making” or creating of the world and the divine-world relation, instead of claiming clear and distinct statements about God as final and complete.  To be sure, the goal is not to get rid of the logos as the ordering function of theology, but to call attention to the fact that something always escapes our theological and philosophical statements about the divine. […]

  2. Damon says:

    As someone who is new to this term and this extension of aesthetic theology, this post is very helpful for describing theopoetics’ unifying themes and its various directions.

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