Amazing Grace

Yesterday I quoted the poet Kathleen Norris.  As I think about writers who have impacted my faith, Norris is one of them.  Her books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Cloister Walk especially.  Another is Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

In this beautifully written book, Norris dwells on particular theological words—from eschatology to wickedness, from antichrist to trinity—seeking to reclaim ‘the vocabulary of faith’ as response rather than prescription.  This is no dictionary!

As I understand theology, it originated as just that, a response to God—an effort to understand a particular community’s experience of faith.  Somewhere along the line it became a precursor to the experience, an increasingly detailed set of propositions to which we must assent in order to have faith. The more precise the propositions, the more the boundaries of acceptable experience were drawn. As Margaret Miles has written, ‘The history of Western Christianity is littered with the silent figures of Christians who found themselves excluded by each increment in verbal theological precision.’

Norris understands the language of theology quiet differently. ‘As a poet I am devoted to imprecision,’ she says. ‘That is, while I try to use words accurately, I do not seek the precision of the philosopher or theologian, who tend to proceed by excluding any other definitions but their own. A well-realized poem will evoke many meanings, and as many responses as there are readers. Like a ritual, a poem is meant to be an experience, and only as it becomes incarnated as experience does it reverberate with more meaning than intellectual categories could convey. This is what keeps both poetry and ritual alive.’

For nearly 20 years I’ve been teaching spirituality.  It is an elusive thing, difficult enough to grasp let alone define.  From a Christian perspective, spirituality has to do with our experience of God in Christ.  It is more about encounter than creed.  Norris’ great gift to me has been a deeper appreciation of spirituality as the poetry of faith.  That it, it’s less about the search for prescribed meanings and more about listening for the truth of God in any and every aspect of life.  It’s what keeps faith alive!

4 Comments

  1. Loved Dakota: A Spiritual Geography in which the spiritual is earthed in the landscape, poetic use of language even in the prose.

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  2. The problem with your beautiful stories, Simon, is that they engender a story response. Sorry this is a longish one.
    Over the past summer, on our beach mission team, I would find myself hemmed around at the lunch table by a posse of keen young theologians, who had conspired to buttonhole me on a particular topic, usually something sparked from the morning bible study. Invariably they would cast a “word” down, like a gauntlet, and wait for a response. “Predestination” for example. Most times, I would say, “I’m sorry, but I’m a biblical studies major, and that word isn’t even in the Bible. Let’s talk about the Bible…” It made them scramble to their commentaries, to discover, that indeed, predestination (as a nouny-thing) isn’t a ‘bible’ word. Ok, so I was being cheeky and messing with their heads, but i was trying to subvert the ‘authority’ that certain theological words over over (supposedly lesser) theological words. I like how Norris doesn’t negate the words of faith but liberates them, but I also really like how you practice a kind of theological lexical democracy. ‘Table’ and ‘Work’ are equal with ‘Trinity’ and ‘Incarnation’.

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