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The Poetry of Secular Science and Christian Theology

The Poetry of Secular Science and Christian Theology

Christopher A. Perrin, M.Div., Ph.D.

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All worldviews yield poetry to those who believe them by the mere fact of being believed.  And nearly all have certain poetical merits whether you believe them or not.  This is what we should expect.  Man is a poetical animal and touches nothing which he does not adorn.

–C. S. Lewis

In his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” C. S. Lewis compared theology with poetry and concluded that while theology is not technically poetry, it does have poetic element.  Indeed any worldview will have poetic elements simply because people inevitably describe their most cherished believes in poetic terms.  Even the worldview of naturalistic science—what Lewis calls The Scientific Outlook—is deeply poetic.  It just doesn’t happen to be true.

In fact, Lewis thought that The Scientific Outlook was even more poetic than theology.  Lewis describes the drama of the naturalistic scientific worldview as one containing a prelude of an infinite void, then the incomprehensible chance (by the “millionth millionth chance”) beginning of life, life that is threatened on all sides but somehow makes it through.  Then this life survives infinite sufferings and insuperable obstacles and “it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself, from the amoeba up to the plant, up to the reptile, up to the mammal.”  Then man enters the stage like the younger son or the ugly duckling:  “As the weak, tiny spark of life began amidst the huge hostilities of the inanimate, so now again, amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little naked, shivering, cowering creature, shuffling, not yet erect, promising nothing, the product of another millionth millionth chance. “  Lewis continues describing the drama until there evolves the True Man against impossible odds.

Is Christian theology nearly as dramatic?  Lewis doesn’t think so.  However, Lewis believes Christian theology is true…and this injects it with another kind of great, imaginative satisfaction.  God truly did create the earth. Jesus actually did become man.  The Spirit really does live within the church—and me.  Imaginative? Yes. True? Also yes.

Myths are in one important sense poetical and imaginatively satisfying because we don’t believe them.  “Fairies are popular in England because we don’t believe they exist,” Lewis writes.  But actually believing an idea yields another kind of poetic satisfaction, a “kind of poetry that is the result, not the cause of belief” and which rings true with the Christian who has found that believing the gospel created its own wonder, awe, imagination and poetry.  We find that the “dogma is the drama” (as Dorothy Sayers claimed) and all the more because the dogma was true.   There is great pleasure in hearing fairy tales.  There is an even greater pleasure in coming to know the tale is true.

To explore these themes further, see C. S. Lewis’s essay “Is Theology Poetry?” in the collection of essays published The Weight of Glory, by Touchstone.

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