The Art of Religious Communication
Joseph Kupfer

The world is charged with the grandeur of God It will flame out, like shining from shook foil
        -Gerard Manley Hopkins (God's Grandeur)


I

The next time someone asks you why you believe in God, don't try to give a reason or provide an argument. Instead, play a song, perform a dance, or read a poem. You may perplex your questioner, but you won't be trying to do what cannot be done-justify belief in God.

Religious belief and interpretation of experience are better expressed artistically than argued for rationally. The aesthetic mode of communication contrasts sharply with the rational or discursive mode of argument. Where the rational tries to argue by giving reasons or evidence, the artistic reorients us with a vision. It reorients by displacing us from our usual stance in the world, shifting the way we interpret and value things. Unlike the rational, which strings thoughts together, the artistic communicates a way of seeing the world. As a result, we can see ourselves in a new light, see our undefined dissatisfactions or longings as spiritual dues. I shall begin by showing why rational justifications for God's existence must fail, then explain how and why the particular art of poetry can succeed in religious communication.

If religion were a matter of belief in the straightforward sense in which ordinary or scientific beliefs are true or false, then religious conviction might best be produced through rational argument. But if the question of divinity and belief in God is of a different nature, then arguments to justify such belief are not simply weak but are out of place. They are inappropriate because God's existence is unlike the existence of anything else. God is unlike anything else. This is why all rational arguments or proofs, including those yet to be thought up, must fail to establish God's existence.

What follows is an argument for the impossibility of a rational proof for God's existence. This "meta"-argument is itself rational. Offering a rational argument for why no rational argument can succeed in proving God's existence may seem paradoxical. It makes sense, however, because one of reason's tasks is to discover and clarify its own limits. The meta-argument concerns the limits of rational argument.

The existence of things is different from other aspects of them. It is more fundamental. The shape, weight, or color of something presupposes that it exists. Existence is not just one more quality that an entity may possess. For a thing to possess shape, weight, or color, it must exist. Existence is the fundamental fact upon which all others depend. This is what Kant means when he claims that existence is not a "predicate" or attribute. About our new dog, we might say, "By the way, it's a black dog." But we wouldn't say, "By the way, it exists" (unless perhaps we were in the habit of talking about imaginary dogs). Any particular predicate or quality of a thing, such as its color, is but one fact among many. But the thing must exist, must be, for it to possess any quality whatsoever. Whether a dog is black or yellow, it still exists. And unless it exists, it cannot be black or yellow.

Just as the existence of something is more basic than any of its particular features, so the existence of God is more basic than the existence of anything else. God is the "ground" of everything else. By the "ground" of everything, I mean that which is responsible for their existence. The existence of all things is made possible by this ground-God. Everything is His creation. What is most fundamental to all things, their existence, depends on God. Therefore, God's existence is the most fundamental "fact" in the world. How could we prove this fundamental fact through reason?

The only way we could try would be from knowledge or experience of the existence of these particular things. This would be to try to prove that the most fundamental, God, exists on the evidence provided by the less fundamental-the existence of particular things. But we cannot get to the ground of the existence of particular things, what is responsible for their coming-to-be, from reasoning about their existence.

We cannot proceed from parts of creation to its.foundation. The source of creation is both more than all the parts and different from them in nature. The standard arguments for the existence of God proceed from part to part in the hope of getting to the necessity or probability of God's existence. Thus, from effect to cause, until we arrive at God as the first cause; from the design of the world to God as creator of design; or, from the idea of God as perfect to God's perfect existence. Such linear movement can only get us to another part, God as another thing in the world. This is inadequate. As simply another thing in the world, God cannot be the ground of all particular things.

When we proceed rationally from part to part to God, we are forever confined to the parts and their particularity. Our understanding must remain partial. This won't do because God is the ground of the whole. God is more than all the particular things which depend upon Him for their existence. As responsible for their existence, God also must be different from particular things. God cannot be just another thing among those with which we are acquainted. Another particular thing could not call into existence all particular things-the whole world. Such a thing would be no more than another piece in the entire picture; it could not account for the existence of the whole picture.

To ground the existence of -all particular things, God must transcend them. He must be greater than them, beyond them in scope. The ground of the existence of all particular things cannot be another thing. As another particular thing, God could not possess a unique attribute necessary for Him to account for the existence of everything else. He would be on the same level, possessing the same status as all other particular things.

Finding an analogy for this notion is difficult. Any example from everyday life will involve some particular thing whose existence will be due to some other particular thing. But perhaps the following example will roughly suggest the relation of a transcendent ground to what it makes possible. Civilization or culture might be thought of as the ground of any individual's thoughts or achievements. Culture makes such thought or achievement possible but transcends it. Culture is a different kind of thing than any individual's achievement and exists independent of it. The difference between culture and God as ground, however, is that without all the particular thoughts and achievements taken together, there is no culture. Yet without His creation, God abides.

Because God transcends all the particular things whose existence He grounds, He is beyond our understanding. Rational arguments or justifications for God's existence endeavor to take us from what we understand to God, which cannot be understood. This is like trying to understand living things from knowledge of inanimate objects. Rational proof for God's existence built on what we understand of the world must fail.


II

To say that God is transcendent means that He cannot be comprehended: literally, held together in mind by means of a concept or definition. We use concepts to organize our ideas and sense qualities. The concept of "triangle" organizes the ideas of angle, line, three, and plane figure. The concept of "apple" organizes the sense qualities of spherical, red, juicy, and sweet. But whatever ideas we associate with God cannot themselves be put under and held together by some more inclusive concept. However we describe or refer to God, our descriptions cannot organize his attributes to make His nature comprehendible.

Art is suited to religious communication because it partakes of the transcendent. It lends itself to awareness and expression of transcendence by presenting sense qualities as organized but without a concept. Usually when we organize sensuous experience-colors, shapes, sounds, odors-we bring the experience under concepts to yield the perception of such objects as apples, houses, and automobiles. The sense qualities which belong together are related to each other and separated from those which aren't relevant by means of these organizing concepts. Concepts or definitions group sensuous experiences together as objects.

In art, the sense qualities form a unity but without a concept to do the unifying work. True, we may have concepts to describe items within a painting or poem, such as an apple, a tree, an automobile. But no concept covers the whole, organizing all the elements of the painting or poem. Think of the difference between arranging several pieces of colored paper into an image of an object, such as a tree, and arranging them simply into a pleasing pattern or design. In the first case, we are organizing the colored shapes according to a concept, a working definition of a tree. In the second case, we are organizing the colored shapes according to our sense of beauty or 'harmony, with no concept to direct us.

In this way, art transcends our rational understanding. This is why art moves us, enchants us, even changes how we see the world, but cannot be captured in a definition. This is also why we cannot adequately translate a poem into a prose paraphrase or explain its full meaning in discursive language. We can use language to indicate features of the poem which make it good. For example, we can note how the rhymes or images work together, contributing to the poem's unity. But this isn't the same as providing a concept by which to organize the poem's parts.

When we call something beautiful, we indicate that we have grasped a collection of sense qualities as a unified whole, but not as this or that thing, not as a tree or car. Our role in this organizing process is crucial. We don't automatically see the unity of a painting or hear musical notes integrated into a whole. Unless the artwork is simple, our effort is needed. To grasp the sensible qualities as a unity usually takes energy and imagination. When successful, we experience our own power to form shapes or colors, sounds or meanings into a unified whole without the aid of an organizing concept. We experience ourselves as having a transcendent dimension.

This ability which art calls forth transcends our understanding of the objects which make up our ordinary lives. The sensible material of which ordinary objects are made is transformed into something beyond the circumference imposed by concepts. The experience of art, and ourselves in the forming activity necessary to appreciate it, transcends our everyday way of perceiving objects by means of concepts.

The experience of art shares this transcendent dimension with God. Aesthetic transcendence can be further associated with God by the content of the work of art. Poetry, such as "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, can portray God as underlying the transcendence we experience when appreciating art. The poetic image can unite our felt transcendence with God's by penetrating our imaginative activity. We locate the source of our imaginative power outside ourselves, in God. The glimpse of transcendence gained through our organizing activity is joined to God's transcendence by means of the poetic presentation of God's grounding power.

PIED BEAUTY

Glory be to God for dappled things

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh firecoal chestnut falls; finches' wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who know how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change; Praise him.'

                                                                  *Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner (Baltimore: Penguin, 1953)

In this poem, Hopkins seizes upon the sensuous beauty of spotted things, and more broadly, things studded by contrasts, such as brightness and dimness. He portrays this sensible beauty as saturated with and dependent on God. The poem reveals nature's beauty by means of its own aesthetic strength. Images are vivid: trout, farmland, sky. Alliteration, repeating sounds, is heaped upon alliteration-just as God's creation is so abundant its variations must multiply into opposites. The dappling Hopkins describes is echoed in the alteration between consonance, repetition of consonant sounds, and assonance, repetition of vowel sounds. The consonance of couple-colour cow; fickle, freckled; is punctuated by the assonance of stipple, swim; rose-moles.

Hopkins even uses consonance to unite opposites-swift,. slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. This exemplifies the divine which underlies and unifies the opposites of nature. All foreground requires background, swift depends on slow, brilliance on dimness. God is of it all, all reflecting His grandeur.

Two rhymes join the stanzas: cow, plough, how; and swim, trim, dim, him. These rhymes are broken up, and "spotted" by the different rhymes within each stanza- things and wings, strange and change. In addition, the speckling of which the poem sings is echoed in the choppiness of the sounds and their arrangement: fold, fallow, and plough; fresh-fuecoal chestnut-falls. We feel and hear the pied beauty in the look and sound of the words reinforcing the images they evoke. The result is poetic richness and intensity similar to God's generosity in creating nature. Hopkins lavishes his alliteration, rhymes, and imagery in intimation of the inexhaustibility of God's creative energy. As Hopkins says in another poem, for all its excessive display, "Nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things" (God's Grandeur). The aesthetic plenitude of the poem is wed to the endlessly mottled beauty of the world as an expression of God's ceaseless creating.

Where reason tries to convince us that the visible world depends upon God (as designer or cause, for instance), poems such as this portray the world as divine. here argument would change our minds by cognitive connection, the beauty of poetry moves us sensuously, emotionally, imaginatively, and then cognitively. Hopkins suffuses our perception or imagined perception of the world with the presence of God. He does this by presenting the beauty of the world as divinely generated. This includes the beauty of his own poetic creation.

A logical reconstruction of how this poem could reorient the way we see and feel the world might go something like this. The beauty of this poem enlivens us to the beauty of the natural world. The beauty of the natural world is presented as wrought by God. The beauty of Hopkins' poetry is fused to a vision of the world as a beautiful manifestation of God. The conclusion of this aesthetic process is the reader seeing the beauty of the world as God's perceptible presence. The conclusion is not a statement.

Rational argument would seek to establish a statement such as: The beauty of the world is the work of God. An argument would try to show how such a conclusion followed logically from premises. The poem, however, tries to alter the reader's perception by means of aesthetic experience. Poetry has an advantage over rational argument in its ability to embody the beauty about which it speaks. The reader's perception of the beauty of the world as the manifestation of God is reinforced and colored by the beauty of Hopkins' own poetic creation. The result is that the beauty of the poem's construction carries over into the subject of the poem. The reader is led to see God as the foundation for the beauty, grace, depth, and enrichment not only of the natural, created world, but of Hopkins' own poetic creation. In this way, the poem lends its poetic beauty to its subject-God and His physical expression. The consequence is that the poem itself comes to be seen as another beautiful manifestation of God's generative force. The poetic speaker is heard as an exhibition of divine grace. The poem is eventually seen as falling within the scope of its own subject matter. The aesthetic strength of the poem (just as dappled things, pied and stippled) is God's beauty made manifest.


III

Because we are also part of nature, poetic rendering of the created world as divine should include the human. In the next poem by Hopkins, he portrays human beings as part of the natural order but also different from it. Humans alone can appreciate nature as a reflection of God. We alone can praise God and write a poem that illustrates the duality of imminent sensibility and divine transcendence.

 

AS KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves-goes itself, myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.


I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is

Christ-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces.

                                                                                             *Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner (Baltimore: Penguin, 1953)

In the first of Hopkins' poems, God is shown imminent in the world's beauty. In this poem, Christ is presented in human guise. A humanizing shift occurs when God-made-flesh is portrayed as dwelling within all of us. We are like the rest of creation, asserting our mortal place and prerogative. But we are also more. We are capable of morality (justice), divine inspiration (grace), and worship. We can know our special relation to God, including as spirit within us. We can see Hopkins' own poetic creation as a form of divine play-a feature of the face he offers God. By including the human in his poem and suggesting his own role, Hopkins moves closer to personalizing his poetic voice. However, that voice does not quite speak to us as coming from someone's private experience. We don't feel a subjective response to our possible needs or quests.

An important difference between poetic and argumentative speech is the respective role of the speaker in each. The poetic speaker should not be confused with the author. The author is a real person who creates the poetic speaker. This speaker, or narrative persona, has an identity which is completely determined by the words the author gives him or her to speak. All we could ever know about the poetic speaker's life or personality can be determined only from what we read in the poem. In many poems, attention to the speaker implicit in the poem enhances its aesthetic impact. The sense we get of his or her life colors the poem's content. In most arguments, the reverse is true; little is gained by thinking of the arguer implicit in the argument. The goal is usually to eliminate personality and individuality from the argument. It is supposed to stand on its own-as "reason's" speech to anyone. The argument is from anyone or no one in particular and to anyone, abstracted from context and individual experience.

The speaker in the poem, however, can address us as an individual situated in the world in a particular way. Because the narrator's voice can be personal, it may not speak to everyone, or to everyone in the same way. We are invited to respond subjectively to the speaker's personality and voice. In the next poem, by Anne Sexton, the narrator's personal testimony seems intended to help us develop our relationship to God.


SMALL WIRE

My faith

is a great weight

hung on a small wire,

as doth the spider

hang her baby on a thin web,

as doth the vine,

twiggy and wooden,

hold up grapes

like eyeballs,

as many angels

dance on the head of a pin.

God does not need

too much wire to keep Him there,

just a thin vein,

with blood pushing back and forth in it,

and some love.

As it has been said:

Love and a cough cannot be concealed.

Even a small cough.

Even a small love.

So if you have only a thin wire,

God does not mind.

He will enter your hands as easily

as ten cents used to bring forth a Coke.

The poetic speaker's concern over her own fragile faith turns into friendly support when she directly addresses us as "you." Her confessed weakness is offered to give us strength. We are encouraged to take heart from our own small steps toward God. Faith doesn't have to be rock solid to connect us with God. The narrator's testimony is an impetus for us to introspect. The need and doubt and final reassurance come from an individual who shares her inward gaze. As with Hopkins, Sexton appeals to the delicate strength of nature, reminding us that faith is rooted in our sensible human nature. We shouldn't expect or demand too much from it, but it will do. We just need to trust our openness to God, however small; we just need to have faith in ourselves.

When we pray or speak to God, our relation to ourselves is mediated. The thought of God enables us to "divide" ourselves into speaker and listener as we raise questions about ourselves and our lives. But this process, in which God provides a perspective on ourselves, also enables us to bridge the division which the self-examining instigates. For with self-understanding the self becomes one again. Rather than simple, uncritical unity, however, it is a unity achieved through the mediating activity of prayer or dialogue.

Similarly, Sexton's poem itself can mediate our relation to ourselves by introducing a divine element into our everyday thinking. By showing us how the poetic speaker's self-reflection involves God, we are provided the occasion for calling ourselves into question. Sexton's poem suggests a particular way of calling ourselves into question. We are offered a mode of self address by which to perceive ourselves as naturally weak but whole individuals.

The poem can be heard as a testament to a particular way of seeing the world, the traces of religious experience. We can read it as a religious celebration: a renewal of one's relation with and vision of the divine. When we read responsively, we participate in the creation of the poetic-divine image the poet has begun. The text then mediates between the poet's aesthetic-religious experience and our own. By co-creating that image with and through the poet, we complete the mediation the text provides.

In the conclusion of "The Wall," the poetic speaker urges the reader to make the effort to overcome the limitations of the body to reach God.

For all you who are going.
and there are many who are climbing their pain,
many who will be painted out with a black ink
suddenly and before it is time,
for those many I say,
awkwardly, clumsily,
take off your life like trousers,
your shoes, your underwear,
then take off your flesh,
unpick the lock of your bones.
In other words
take off the wall
that separates you from God.

The poem is more than the expression of faith the previous one was. The poetic persona directly exhorts us to make the effort to reach God. She tells us that it will require detaching ourselves from the physical, sensible qualities with which we identify. With this poem, we come full circle: from appreciating the beauty of the sensible world as the expression of God, through our relationship to God as both natural and divine, to our physical natures as keeping us from God. Taking these together, the suggestion is that we must journey to God through the physical, sensible realm, until we experience pure transcendence. Union with God is ultimately spiritual. After appreciating the world and ourselves as physical manifestations of God, we must go beyond the sensible.

At the beginning of this discussion, I suggested that art, and poetry in particular, was suited to reorient us in the world. It can change how we see the world and ourselves in it. But the reorientation may not endure as the poetic spell fades. We can lapse into our former perspective, no longer seeing the world "charged with the grandeur of God." Even after an inspirational, transforming poem, even after we have entered into the poetic speaker's experience, effort is needed to sustain the re-vision. A commitment is required to make the effort to see ourselves in the world as related to God. The commitment, I think, is unending. We don't just have the reorientationonce and for all. Neither can we hold onto it with ease. Instead, we must renew our viewpoint which is renewing our faith. We never fully arrive.

We can think of this effort as maintaining ourselves in our journey to God. The thirteenth-century philosopher-monk St. Bonaventure spoke of the spirit's journey to God as faith seeking understanding-each depending on the other. Because we can never completely understand God by bringing Him under a concept, we must have faith. Because our faith is but a small wire, it needs the support of understanding what we can of God's presence in our lives. Neither our faith nor our understanding are secure possessions, which means that we can become disoriented and lose our way. Our struggle is without resolution in the sense of completion and rest. Resolution should instead be understood as the resolve to continue the journey, to maintain the hold on our re-vision of the world.

The conclusion of Anne Sexton's poem "Rowing" is about this journey. By illuminating our struggle, it adds the dimension of effort to our divine reorientation toward life. We experience the poetic speaker's labor to find God, which on my interpretation includes seeing His presence in the world and ourselves. Access to this poetically created effort can round out our reorientation in the world by adding the element of resolve. Faith is not some blind belief, but the commitment to work to maintain our vision. The poem sheds light on our struggle not to be disheartened by doubt or the difficulty of the task. It intimates that the effort to reach God fill us with awe, of God and of the strength we borrow from Him to keep rowing.

 

and now, in my middle age,

about nineteen in the head I'd say,

I am rowing, I am rowing

though the oarlocks stick and are rusty

and the sea blinks and rolls

like a worried eyeball,

but I am rowing, I am rowing,

though the wind pushes me back

and I know that that island will not be perfect,

it will have the flaws of life,

the absurdities of the dinner table,

but there will be a door and I will open it and

I will get rid of the rat inside of me,

the gnawing pestilential rat.

God will take it with his two hands

and embrace it.


As the African says:

This is my tale which I have told, If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,

take somewhere else and let some return to me.

This story ends with me still rowing.

                                                                                                   *Ann Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975).