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Theology and Poetry

Posted on: November 13, 2016

Category: Theology

Theology and Poetry

This past Monday at the age of 82, Leonard Cohen, an iconic Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet, and a member of the Order of Canada, peacefully died at his home in Los Angeles. The Magazine RollingStone stated that "only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence on his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet." On his 1992 album entitled The Future, Cohen penned these haunting words in his song, Democracy: "From the wars against disorder / From the sirens night and day / From the fires of the homeless / From the ashes of the gay / Democracy is coming to the USA."

The song is often described as both cynical and hopeful, and in many ways, that was Leonard Cohen: a cynic-sage and a recorder of human despair mixed with love. The song came from the context of the fall of the Berlin wall when so much rhetoric concerned democracy coming to the former Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union. Cohen reversed the direction in his song, proclaiming that democracy would eventually arrive in the U.S.A. A great poet, like a great parable teller, captures irony in the midst of common assumptions.

A theologian can only do so many things in a systematic way, and then, in the end, must give the task of theology over to the poets, to the Leonard Cohens of the world, who are able to take our emotional selves and ours fear to the other side, to the place where dreams mix with reality to form our hopes. The poetic world, in theology, is the world of the parable, a world half real and half promise. The half that is the promise lies on the other side of a nightmare called reality. Theologically speaking, it is never possible to be only a realist. Our humanity may live in what is real, but it lies in what is dreamed.

Against the backdrop of the U.S. election and the despair many feel over the way bigotted triumphalism could appeal to a vast number of voters, the theological task is not to offer an explanation nor to predict possible future outcomes. The theological task is to confront our humanity with the task of courage that is found in a dream called the parable. In the political world, courage is about brave acts that conquer the enemy. The enemy is the "other," a fictional character who might be our neighbour (with a different or no religion), who a politician can use to stir our frightened support by offering assurances of control. Theology works in the opposite direction. Theology is not about fear and control but trust and letting go. Theology makes for poor politics, which is why it must turn to the parable.

The world of the parable is like "a merchant in search of fine pearls, and when he found one of great value, he sold all that he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:45-46). He "sold all he had": his family, his servants, his house, his business: everything he had is liquidated in the act of acquiring. There is nothing left. The only way back is to start all over again by selling the pearl he sold everything to get.

The political promise is the promise of how great it will be to acquire what we really want. The theological promise is of a different order. It is the promise that life begins in the act of giving up and letting go because a "soul" cannot be acquired; a soul can only be. In his song "Sisters of Mercy," Cohen recorded, "You must leave everything you cannot control; it begins with your family and it ends with your soul."

We must ask, what use then has theology on the political spectrum? The answer has always been something like this: only the theologian-poets have enough courage to change the world because only the theologian-poets do not seek to control it. In my life, this insight has come to me through many voices, and Leonard Cohen was one such voice. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.

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