Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

varieties of secularism :: session two

Here are my notes (lightly edited) from the second session of the conference this weekend (why am I posting my notes?). Papers were given by Jon Butler and Colin Jager. A response was offered by Craig Calhoun. John Milbank asked a particularly provocative question. 


Historical vs. Philosophical. [A methodological quibble?] Butler is going to argue that history is primary to Taylor’s argument, even the philosophical parts.

The Philosophy problem:
The world is moved by ideas. Taylor seems to argue that ideas, and almost ideas alone seem to drive history. Taylor does a better job of doing history than merely doing intellectual history.

Historians (Butler included) will find the argument “too philosophical.”

Around 1500 the rupture occurred that will set “modernity” against everything that came before.

Belief and unbelief are “neat” philosophical terms that don’t always jive well with what happens on the ground in history.

Religion and History:

The distinguishing features of secularity is not unbelief but choice.

Taylor washes over too much differences in belief and unbelief. Who was calling who an “unbeliever?” And who was believing in which God, for what reasons, and to what end? Who is the “God” that is being believed in or disbelieved. Where did accusations of heresy come from?

Is the inconstancy of belief before 1500 as rare as Taylor seems to argue. In what way is the nature of the world’s medieval “enchantment” a slippery term? Does Taylor presume a total Christianization of Europe that history cannot bear?

Taylor’s argument against subtractive theories of secularization is valuable, but is perhaps correct only because subtraction implies a substance to begin with. Butler is not sure just how Christian the West ever was.

Butler thinks that Taylor over stresses the late modern, post-industrial age, and overstresses the role of ideas in moving Western society toward secularism. He understresses the role of environmental factors, social factors, economic factors. These economic changes had more to do with secularization than the ideas did. Taylor seems to argue for secularization without industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, etc.

The persistence of religious faith in America is a very significant event. What is new in our time is simple indifference toward religion.

** Colin Jager – English @ Rutgers – CHARLES TAYLOR’S ROMANTICISM

What would a non-transcendent enchantment of the world look like? What would it mean to experience the world that way? Secular spirituality.

Taylor’s method of telling the story of history is phenomenological. Taylor is really interested in a first-person perspective and moves periodically from first to third. Taylor’s method is Herderian, he is always trying to “feel his way in” to other ways of experiencing the world.

What is the place of literature in the argument about secularization. What is the changing role of literature? What happens when people are encouraged to read scriptures as “literature.”

A period in which “literature” replaces religion. (but telling the story this way, while partly helpful assumes “literature” as an already-formed object waiting for “religion” to get out of the way).

Taylor’s contribution is not to be found in the plot, but in the details. A Secular Age is a book which cannot be summarized, but must be read. It must be lived through. In that sense, his book is “literary.”

Relationship between Literature and the Secular: Reading the Bible as Literature


  • Primary Romantic figure. “Feel yourself into everything.”
  • Primary proponent of reading the bible as literature. Reading the bible as a literary text is a crucial aspect of the new understanding of literature in the late eighteenth century. Reading the OT as inspired poetry—by reading through a “feeling” hermeneutic, one can be united with the spirit in which it was written.
  • Hebrew poetry: Herder notes the centrality of Verbs
  • Lack of vowels: writing the inessential; omitting the essential (the breath, the spirit).

Spiritualization of literature and the expressivist turn.

Wasserman—the loss of a public poetry. The lack of a “background” that we all share out of which deeper metaphor and meaning can be drawn. On this count, the Romantic poets have to invent a new language in order to describe reality. In this “restructuring” a space is opened up that feels “neutral” or “free” in a way that foments disenchantment, even secularization. Seeing the world in one way and not another becomes a choice, something that one selects. The posture of selection is one of standing back at a distance, in open/neutral space. Romantic poetry starts, from a certain perspective, starts to look like trying to live without ontological commitments, something that starts looking more sinister more dubious to Taylor.

There is a tension between Taylor’s humanism and a genealogical imperative (to discover the roots, history, and context of all).

Nietzsche’s anti-humanism that feels the imperative for genealogy would be a very helpful point for Taylor to hang on to, while the Romantic humanism might actually undercut his position.

Literalism and Literature:

Wordsworth vs. Boyle: counter-accusations of idolatry.

Wordsworth wants to pen a “philosophic song” – tell the story of the world wrought with meaning. Describe the world in such a way as to bring life and depth to what seems, superficially, dead.

Boyle thinks that attributing anthropocentric qualities to inanimate objects (i.e. meaning!) is the source of idolatry.

Jager argues that Taylor is trying to fill the world with meaning—to write a philosophic song.

** Craig Calhoun – President SSRC

Taylor’s book performs what it speaks about. By placing opposing views in juxtaposition he often undermines their claim to objectivity; he subjects them to “secularizing” forces (in the sense of a surfeit of options).

Taylor’s way of doing philosophy depends on a narrative. This is neither a history of philosophy, nor a history (as such).

Critique: Along with Butler, Calhoun thinks that Taylor is too much reliant on a top-down model and places too great a weight on ideas as the prime movers of history. Butler’s main point is that “variety” cannot do the work that Taylor’s ascribes to it because there has been variety of belief-patterns all along (therefore variety itself is not inherently secularizing).

Taylor’s historical narrative hinges on providential Deism and the notion of an impersonal order. By impersonal, we might understand purposeless.

Reform movements encourage a sharpening of positions and a policing of boundaries, as well as an emphasis on the internal integrity and coherence of a movement.

Putting our story within a narrative.

** John Milbank:

Why did Christianity largely back mechanism against vitalism? Something like Boyle’s argument—that “meanings” had accreted to inanimate objects that was something like idolatry. In this Christianity is attempting to purge itself of its own ineluctable pagan parts (and feeding secularization in the process). 

Li-Young Lee :: of death and more than death

Two stanzas from a poet who has become, in the years since those wonderful Santa Barbara evenings my friends called “Tuesdays with Ed,” one of my very favorite poets. Thanks indeed, are due to Ed for introducing Li-Young Lee to me. This from a long poem entitled “furious versions”:

But I own a human story,
whose very telling
remarks loss.
The characters survive through the telling,
the teller survives
by his telling; by his voice
brinking silence does he survive.
But, no one
can tell without cease
our human
story, and so we
lose, lose.

Yet, behind the sound
of trees is another
sound. Sometimes, lying
awake, or standing
like this in the yard, I hear it. It
ties our human telling
to its course
by momentum, and ours
is merely part
of its unbroken
stream, the human
and otherwise simultaneously
told. The past
doesn’t fall away, the past
joins the greater
telling, and is.

a poem for the first snow

The Temperature of Memory

The first snow fell,
and in the morning
hangs its hints on
summer half-dressed.
The concealed
allows what lies visible
to capture us more
completely in her beauty.

Deep in,
the rocks remember
months of sunshine,
alone they shake off snow;
everything else,
having forgotten, wears winter,
permitting his heavy touch.
Rocks are too hard to hear,
but trees and grasses know
that the wind warns; soon all
will be buried,

Not in somber state,
but as kids or cats under the press
of too many blankets -bodies waiting
to spring.

driving tired

A place to go, in this dark
and a time, at the end of the highway
when I must
be there.
I combat silent and slow
the overcoming blankets
of sleep folding around my eyes.

Odd. Gravity’s physical force
loads such slumberous heaviness in sockets
yet is appeased by only one burnt offering
(wholly devoted as any flesh to flame)
hours of my consciousness,
given, altared, and set to blaze in leaps of dream.

If I withhold such time
to claim its control for my own ends,
my subtlety and daring to cheat
the tariff of bodily being–
that very consciousness dims
groans under the burden
of an offering kept in the fold,
until I consent, concede, or am conquered by
Darkness Beyond me.

If my life is sustained; held firm
on the knife’s edge of sanity
by lapses of control,
then by what white-knuckled illusions
do I haunt my own daylight?

Seven Stanzas at Easter :: John Updike

Resurrected Christ
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

[Written for a religious arts festival sponsored by the Clifton Lutheran Church, of Marblehead, Mass.]

herds more words

I’d like to draw your attention to a little feature I just added here. As I talk with people, occasionally they ask for a copy of some of the papers that I write. I’m not sure whether people actually read them, but I get asked frequently enough that I thought I’d make a few of my better academic efforts available here. You’ll notice a link on the left to a page called “essays and papers” (clever, eh?).

At present, there’s one paper that wrestles with the theological meaning of creatures dying on our planet long before humans were around to sin. What does it mean that God seemed to have created a universe in which death plays a role? Secondly, there’s a paper on the poet G.M. Hopkins. Without being a mystic, he seems to see Jesus everywhere. Jesus appears in his poetry in really unexpected places. The paper explores his understanding of God’s presence in the world, especially in light of the incarnation. It deals with one of Hopkins’ main influences (a really great medieval monk) John Duns Scotus

theology and power :: what’s the use?

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation that I thought others might want in on – feel free to add your two bits, eh?:

I’m going to throw a few words back; you said:

    “I’m really trying to figure things out – especially the power of nations against nations…especially “doing” theology while comfortably existing in a nation – I mean really – how does this work. Maybe they are right – in order for our ‘lil theology centers to keep tick’n out happy theology that “cares for the poor” we better keep piling money into our military piggy bank…because ALL nations will do this, so we better be the best at it.”

If theology is a detached “merely academic” enterprise, then you are right; theologians are the worst of the bourgeoisie – lazy, overfed men (and women) peddling metaphysical delicacies to those with the capital to buy a few years of listening leisure. Continue reading “theology and power :: what’s the use?”

of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
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 Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—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.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

I admit that I would leave this poem to stand alone on its own merit, or the hope that someone might be enticed to get acquainted with Hopkins (I can hardly recommend this strongly enough!). But I’m inclined to add a few words of my own to Hopkins’, if nothing else, to set this poem in the context of his thought as a whole.

Hopkins, a 19th century British convert to Catholicism and a member of the Jesuit order, was convinced that God’s assumption of human nature in Jesus Christ was profoundly good news. He recognized the significance of God-become-human in far deeper ways than most of us ever encounter. He thought (I’ll attempt a paraphrase – and hope not to embarrass him), “If God shows up in a manger in Bethlehem, why, he might show up anywhere!” Hopkins expected to see, and saw, Jesus show up through lots of particulars in his forty-four short years of life (see the poems: “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “The blessed virgin as compared to the air we breathe,” and his lengthy masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland“).

Hopkins saw that if God valued a particular moment, a particular body, a particular place enough to plant himself there – then all moment, bodies, and places must be tremendously valuable. God must be quite excited about all the particularities, intricacies, and anomalies that he has spun out into the world. This is the main theme of “Kingfishers”; each created thing has its own existence as a gift, be it a bell, piano string (“tucked” to make its own particular tone), or stone dropped to “plunk” uniquely in a well. Each is uniquely valued in God’s eyes. Each flame and flower announces to the world, “Here I am! I am here to be what God has made me for.” Far from being a faceless speck – only one anonymous bit of carbon amongst a vast sea of faceless “others,” the good news of God’s becoming human is that he plays in ten thousand places. That means that all of those ten thousand places (or ten million) are wonderfully dignified.

I’ve been told that Christians are the people who ignore the realities of this present world, preferring instead to stare off into the clouds and sing pretty hallelujahs. There may be some empirical truth behind the accusation. But if Hopkins is right about the meaning of the events by which we recognized God-among-us, Christians are the ones looking to find Jesus wherever he might be found today (see the poem Ribblesdale). Continue reading “of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell”

theology and poetry :: truth and beauty

I thought I’d start this thing off with a journal entry from June :: a particularly good day…

This afternoon, I found a truth worth starving for. It sometimes happens like that – in an afternoon. Driving along, I was hijacked by the announcement of a trailhead off the side of the highway – a path leading into the woods, across streams and up into mountains. Being a rare and fortuitous “day off,” I allowed myself to be suckered into a u-turn, drove back over my thirty seconds of deliberation, and parked my rig. I abandoned the “mineral drops that explode to drive my ton of car” for the propulsive power contained in my own two legs. For all that, I’ve had nearly a perfect day.

Theology that has lost its connection with poetry has lost its connection with truth. The simplicity and depth contained within that a priori aphorism could fuel a lifetime’s thought and teaching. Poetry is the art of condensed meaning. Words contain whole worlds of reference. They sit in place on a page, but point to a thousand things beyond themselves. To enter a poem means to follow one of its manifold paths into the world it describes. A poem knows more that what appears on its page because a poem is a question, and we are all unique answerers. Theology that has lost its connection to poetry inhabits a world where truth can be divorced from beauty. This is not our world. Continue reading “theology and poetry :: truth and beauty”