Living in the time of Trump

Marco Grob.jpg

Photograph by Marco Grob

Since the 2016 presidential election, nothing has provoked more needful thought than the following essays on living in the time of Trump.

ABC: Religion & Ethics (March 31, 2017)
A Sanctuary Politics: Being the Church in the Time of Trump (PDF)
by Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran

Christians in America can no longer differentiate between America and God – something scripture calls idolatry, which is precisely what President Trump wants of Americans.

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
When Character No Longer Counts (PDF)
by Alan Jacobs

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 election was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians of a position they once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. But if character no longer counts, what criteria should matter to Christian voters assessing potential leaders?

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
A New Awakening (PDF)
by George Weigel

Since election day, Americans of all political persuasions have been asking themselves two questions: What happened? And now what? The answers will be found only if we dig into the subsoil from which our present discontents have emerged. The challenges we face are far more than economic or even political. To overcome our moral-cultural crisis, we will need a new Great Awakening.

Recommended colleges for traditional and religious students

As a secondary school teacher, I am helping my students make the first big transition of their lives from home to college. Few students, surprisingly, ever solicit my advice about which colleges I recommend, and even fewer apply to those colleges, let alone enroll. Year after year, I observe students, who have undergone classical Christian schooling, make decisions about higher education that strike me as inconsistent or contrary to their formation. Why? The major influencers in the decision-making are regional insularity, alumni bias, and, most disconcertingly, status anxiety. At secondary schools with less affluent families, I suspect economic security would factor heavily.

Because education is a formative project, I exhort my students to choose a college that will contribute to human flourishing (eudaimonia), mindful that institutions shape or misshape the person. Since my students already possess a consumerist mentality, which fixates on how a college develops “marketability” for the workforce, I encourage a different set of questions for their college search: What kind of human being is this college aiming for? How does this college cultivate humanity? What is the mission of this college, and are its stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, board, alumni) genuinely mission-focused? Put differently, start with the end (telos) of a college and then work backwards. At Wheaton College, for example, everything is done for the sake of making wise, loving, and faithful disciples in the kingdom of God. At Hillsdale College, by contrast, everything is done for the sake of making prudent, knowledgeable, and engaged citizens in the American republic. In the Middle Ages, when universities were first established, the end was piety. In the 19th century, the end was gentlemanliness. Nowadays, the end is economic advancement.

Traditional educators have a short list of praiseworthy colleges. For the undergraduate student, I favor a small liberal arts college with its teaching priority, core curriculum, and integrated community over a large public or private university with its research priority, specialized curriculum, and ghettoized community. Whereas the liberal arts college seeks to liberate the soul of a human being through habituation in various arts (or disciplines), the university strives to equip the the worker for a competitive market. It is the difference between a human enterprise and professional training. Admittedly, some universities have excellent liberal arts programs. Public universities, I am afraid, are at the whim of the state; political influence usually harms more than it helps.

My college recommendations are below with opinions about the respective advantages and drawbacks.

SECULAR (religious or traditional-friendly)

  • St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD & Santa Fe, NM). Advantages: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy. Drawbacks: secularism, substance abuse.
  • University of Chicago (Chicago, IL). Advantages: The Core, location. Disadvantages: left-of-center politics, secularism.
  • Columbia University – Columbia College (New York City, NY). Advantage: The Core Curriculum. Drawback: location.
  • Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI). Advantages: civic education, Western civilization curriculum. Drawbacks: location, ring-wing politics.
  • St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN). Advantage: The Great Conversation. Drawback: location.


  • Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Advantages: top Christian scholars, academic rigor and excellence, integration of faith & learning, location.
  • Baylor University – Honors College (Waco, TX). Advantages: top Christian scholars, University ScholarsGreat Texts. Drawback: location.
  • Biola University – Torrey Honors Institute (La Mirada, CA). Advantages: great books program, integration of faith & learning.
  • Samford University (Birmingham, AL). Advantage: University Fellows Program.
  • Eastern University – Templeton Honors College (St. Davids, PA). Advantage: great books program, seminary pedagogy, integration of faith & learning. Drawback: location.

While I am not a Catholic, I applaud the culture of learning at the colleges below.


  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, NH). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • University of Dallas (Irving, TX). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum. Drawback: campus, location.
  • Christendom College (Front Royal, VA). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum, integration of faith & learning.

If I failed to mention a college that you think meets my criteria, then please leave a comment with the suggestion.


  • Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL)
  • Loren Pope, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
  • Loren Pope, Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right For You
  • John Zmirak (editor), Choosing the Right College: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known InstitutionsAll-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith
  • Howard Greene & Matthew W. Greene, The Hidden Ives: 63 of America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities 
  • Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania


Visions of Higher Education

  • Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (written by a professor of humanities at Columbia University)
  • Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College
  • Todd C. Ream & Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University
  • John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Crisises in Higher Education

  • William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (written by a former Yale University professor)
  • Anthony T. Kronan, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (written by a professor of law and former Dean of the Law School at Yale University)
  • Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (written by a professor of computer science and former Dean of Harvard College)
  • Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
  • C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University
  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul
  • Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
  • Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
  • Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
  • Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Misusing the Bible

Here are some excerpts from a fascinating interview, “Stop Snacking on Scripture McNuggets,” in Christianity Today with Glenn R. Paauw of the Institute for Bible Reading and an author of Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well.

You write that a lot of people are disappointed by their experience with the Bible, which creates guilt. Why the disappointment?

We’re not honest with people about the Bible. There’s this fear that if we admit it’s a difficult and challenging book, we’ll scare people off. We want to tell people, especially new Christians, about all the great things that will happen to them by reading it.

Since we’re not honest about what kind of book the Bible is, and how it’s supposed to work, when people start reading for themselves, they encounter all kinds of crazy material that doesn’t fit the paradigm that we’ve given them. They find stuff from ancient cultures, from different parts of the world, and they don’t understand it immediately. And it’s hard for them to get something they can apply to their lives every single day from just reading through the Bible. So it leads to cherry-picking verses. Because there are these gems, these verses that seem to contain important spiritual truths.

So you get all these cherry-picked passages, but everything else gets neglected or completely ignored. Certain passages are essentially de-canonized. We end up with a partial Bible. So people get discouraged. They try again with a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, but they’re just not making it.

We need to start equipping people to understand the Bible on its own terms. We have to go back into the Bible’s world, rather than demanding it be immediately relevant to ours. We need to give them pathways from the ancient world into today’s world.

You urge people to pursue “big” readings of the Bible. What do you mean by that?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

That kind of reading requires a certain amount of education. Is there a danger of elitism?

The real danger is overemphasizing the Reformation ideal that every single person should read the Bible, and read it alone. That’s a very modern experience of the Bible. Within 100 years of the printing press, all these modern translations started coming out. Suddenly individuals are getting Bibles when they didn’t have them throughout church history.

In America, a place focused on individualism and democracy, we can all supposedly develop our own interpretation of the Bible. There’s even this idea that you’re not supposed to allow church history to influence you. It’s just you and God and the Bible. One of the big recoveries we need is to read the Bible in community. That allows community members who have done their homework and have a good grasp of the Bible to help guide others.

There’s a distrust of scholars in the evangelical church. But there are amazing, God-honoring scholars doing great work. We need more bridges between the great work they’re doing and regular Bible readers in the church. We need to be taught by those gifted to teach. That doesn’t rule out the Holy Spirit, working through the Word in your individual life. It’s just in a context that’s bigger and healthier.

You’re pretty hard on the Reformers, who gave us sola scriptura. Didn’t they put the emphasis back on Scripture?

I come from the Dutch Reformed tradition, so I know this tradition very well. I know its strengths. In many ways, the Reformation was a necessary correction in the life of the church. It was recovery of original core things: the role of faith, the role of Christ, and the role of Scripture, in a formal sense. But we shouldn’t pretend that there weren’t any unintended consequences, just because they were the Reformers.

Individualism grew out of the Reformation. So did the Protestant tendency toward schism: Not only should you read the Bible by yourself, but whenever you differ from somebody else, your duty is to start another church. The proliferation of denominations under Protestantism is a scandal, frankly. I love the recoveries of the Reformation, but we should be honest about some of the other destructive things that came from it as well. This individual reading experience is one of those things.

It was also the Reformation that gave us a modernist form of the Bible. I believe form and content have to work together. If we don’t think form matters, it will affect us in ways we’re not attuned to. The very first chapter-and-verse Bible in the 16th century, a Reformation Bible, set every single verse as a separate paragraph, and you couldn’t tell the difference between song lyrics, stories, and letters anymore. It all looked numbingly the same, just two columns down the page, a collection of individual spiritual statements. So that’s how we started reading the Bible, because the form told us to read it that way. We’re still living with the consequences.

We shouldn’t think of translations as just a word thing. We need to think in terms of literary form and genre, so people who don’t know ancient literary forms can immediately see it when they look at the page.


You propose several different “Bibles,” meaning different approaches to Scripture. Can you briefly describe them?

First off, we need to see the Bible differently. We need to have elegantly designed Bibles. We need to see Bibles that aren’t nearly so complicated, so the experience of reading the Bible becomes pleasant.

Once people see the Bible differently, they can begin to feast on it rather than snack on it. We’ve been trying to live off of what Philip Yancey calls “Scripture McNuggets.” But we’ve got to start feasting on the whole Word of God.

Then we need to get serious about the role of history. The Bible is rooted in history. We need to understand that the ancient world wasn’t like our world. That rootedness is what makes it a human story, so we need not be afraid of that. Part of the fundamentalist, modernist legacy is that the more we talk about the humanity of the Bible, the more nervous we get. We’re afraid that makes it less of a divine book.

We also need to read the Bible as a story. The Bible is not a flat document, where everything is the same. Knowing the story is going someplace, that Jesus is at the center—that’s the way to read the Bible.

Then we need to know that the Bible is an earthly book. We need to lose this semi-pagan vision of leaving this earth and recover a vision of the restoration of all things. We need to start talking about the renewal of the cosmos the way the New Testament does.

Reading in community is also essential. The yous in the New Testament are overwhelmingly plural. We need to start thinking about what it means for a community to be transformed and not just individual lives.

Then, finally, let’s bring beauty back. Beauty was one of the casualties of modernity. The Reformers are partly to blame, with their emphasis on plain churches and plain preaching. We shunned beauty, but beauty and truth are meant to go together in God’s world. Beauty is a clue that something is right. And we should recover that in our Bible-reading experience.


What can churches do to encourage deeper engagement with Scripture?

Simply facilitate a more communal Bible reading experience. It’s amazing what happens when people get together, and instead of studying right away, they just experience the Bible in big readings and shared readings—going around the room, or listening to someone skilled in reading a big portion of it. But we just don’t hear it much anymore. The Bible was born in an oral culture. It was something people would have heard, not seen.

Then it’s important to allow for discussion of Scripture. The analogy I use is of the synagogue. In Scripture you have these stories of what happens when Jesus or Paul go into the synagogue. You can tell from those stories that the settings were interactive. It wasn’t just the rabbi or leader delivering a monologue and everyone leaving. There was interaction, and everyone was expected to take part. With Paul, even when people aren’t liking what he’s saying, he’s invited back the next week to do it again.

We’ve lost the ability to process the Bible in community. We always think that someone has to be right. And that if someone is wrong, they have to be silenced or we have to leave. We just don’t have a high tolerance for a diversity of opinions. In the New Testament, there were strong opinions, and in many cases they turned into deal-breakers. But we start there. We need more open, healthy discussions. We need to get away from this idea of just me and my Bible and my private opinions, and have more open, communal discussions of Scripture.

How might a bigger reading of the Bible change the way we preach?

The practice of jumping around a lot in a sermon and using references, just the chapter and verse, tells the congregation that this is what the Bible is and that’s the way it is supposed to be used. A colleague of mine, Christopher Smith, says, “What if instead of always quoting the chapter and verse, we always referred to the Bible by context and content?” So instead of saying “John 4,” we say, “The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman that came after he turned water into wine.” That would allow people to pick up context every time we reference a Bible story.

So my advice to preachers: stop jumping around so much. Realize that the main thing is for people to understand the story of Scripture—and that their lives are a continuation of that story. I’m big on narrative preaching. I think the central thing the Bible is trying to do is invite us into its story and teach us to live out that story today.

Are we too obsessed with application?

We are. I cringe every time I hear the instructions we give to new Christians. Apply your Bible reading every single day. Pray about how you can apply it. That’s just not true. I can read long stretches of the Bible without finding an obvious application. It’s a model that leads to frustration, because people can’t find the application. So let it go. Just read the Bible and try to understand it, and the implications will come soon enough.


“The Word’s ability to rise again from chronic, homiletic burial”

Reflecting on the transfiguration of our Lord, Scott Cairns, a contemporary Eastern Orthodox poet, offers some provocations about “God talk”:

What might we make of this apparent “change” in the Christ we speak of as being one of the Holy Trinity? What does it mean to say that God appears to change? 

By and large, the Orthodox Church — in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of its Lord — is relatively comfortable with theological speculation, and somewhat less comfortable with — acutely less tolerant of — scholastic, theological nit-picking and definitive theological certainties. The Eastern Church even has a word for the more provisional, interpretive activity; it is theologoumena (Θεολογούμενα), which is to say, simply, “to speak of God.”

To speak of God is, of course, not a thing one should do — ever — with anything like certainty. It is always a practice to be approached modestly, humbly, and fully aware of the inadequacy of language to “set terms” to the One Who Exceeds All Terms. Our “God talk” must be understood always to be an interpretation, and no interpretation should occasion idolatry — which is what happens when we allow our terms to eclipse the Mystery we hope to serve.

Like the rabbis leaning into their texts to puzzle out a likely midrashim, we do well to preface our every utterance with something approaching “And another interpretation might be.”

I like very much how Chrysostomos, the Archbishop of Etna, defines theologoumena; he calls it the “privately-held, though possibly accurate, views held by some Fathers.” He also makes clear that setting a firm line between dogma and theologoumena is a Western disposition, and that the Orthodox view favors “a thorough, careful search of the Fathers and … an existential immersion into their spirit — to something that ultimately rises above the useful tools of research that we have borrowed largely from Western theological schemata.”

This probably comes as a surprise to many Americans, including most American Christians, largely because most have had no real opportunity to know of the prior, Eastern tradition — which, I dare say, happens also to be their own early tradition, their own, due inheritance. Oy.

As I say, then, when confronted with a mystery, speculative interpretation is to be expected, as is humility.

For this mystery, this Feast Day of the Transfiguration, I would focus on one remarkable and exhilarating bit of theologoumenon offered by Saint Maximos the Confessor, a “Father” who was pleased during his lifetime (circa 580-662) to pore over the Transfiguration at great length, to witness the radiance of the Lord on Mount Tabor as the Uncreated Light of God, and to speak of human apprehension of His Light as an endless development — passing, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa would say, “from Glory to Glory.”

In his Centuries of Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation, the Saint Maximos writes:

[T]he Lord does not always appear in glory to all who stand before Him. To beginners He appears in the form of a servant; to those able to follow Him as He climbs the high mountain of His Transfiguration He appears in the form of God, the form in which He existed before the world came to be. It is therefore possible for the same Lord not to appear in the same way to all who stand before Him, but to appear to some in one way and to others in another way, according to the measure of each person’s faith.

To this provocative speculation, I would add my own, provisional glimpse.

As We See

The transfiguration of our Lord — that is, the radiance in which
he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor — did not manifest
a change in Him, but a change in those who saw Him.
—Isaac the Least

Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill-equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
dividing what is seen and what is here.

The Book there on the stand proves arduous
to open, entombed as it is in layers
of accretion, layers of gloss applied
to varied purposes, hardly any of them
laudable, so many, guarded ploys
to keep the terms quite still, predictable.

Which is why I’m drawn to — why I love — the way
the rabbis teach. I love the way they read — opening
The Book with reverence for what
they’ve found before, joy for what lies waiting.
I love the Word’s ability to rise again
from chronic, homiletic burial.

Say the One is not so hidden as we
are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,
puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say
the meek, the poor, the merciful all
suspect His hand despite the evidence.
As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?
Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.

Rowan Williams on theological aesthetics


David Jones, “The Artist” (1927)

In 2005, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge University. For anyone interested in theological aesthetics, these lectures are worth pondering. They were published in a book entitled, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. 

Grace, Necessity, and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist

  • Lecture 1: Modernism and the Scholastic Revival (PDF)
  • Lecture 2: David Jones (PDF). David Jones (1895-1974) was a Welsh Catholic painter, engraver, and modernist poet. T. S. Eliot called him “one of the most distinguished writers of my generation.” W. H. Auden praised his poem In Parenthesis as “the greatest book [ever] about the Great War” and The Anathemata as one of the “truly great poems in Western Literature.”
  • Lecture 3: Flannery O’Connor (PDF). Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was an American Catholic novelist and regarded as one of the greatest writers of short fiction.
  • Lecture 4: God and the Artist (PDF)

Reviews of Grace and Necessity

Sacramental poetics

Readers of Bensonian will know that I am passionate about recovering a sacramental vision. Inspired by his Eastern Orthodox tradition, the distinguished contemporary poet Scott Cairns has been developing what he once called “sacramental poetics” and he now calls “mystical poetics.” Here are his remarks from an essay delivered at Calvin College in 2001, “Elemental Metonymy: Poems, Icons, Holy Mysteries.”

Lately (the past decade or so), I’ve suspected a relationship between my sense of poetic practice and my sense of religious practice. This is not such a new idea, of course; in fact, my thinking has been assisted to a great degree by some relatively old ideas (Coleridge’s natura naturans, etc.) and by certain ideas that are, frankly, ancient (the mystical theology of the Eastern Church).

Throughout Christendom, both historically and at present, the Church’s central sacramental rite, communion, has been and continues to be variously apprehended—by those who celebrate it as well as by those who do not. And while I am quite confident that this rite is of a species of phenomena (that is, Mystery) never to be actually understood, I might offer two examples of how it is discussed, trusting that by these examples I might better indicate my sense of what I mean by the poetic, and what I mean when I say that I sense a connection between Sacrament and the poetic. If, as may happen, such a comparison occasions a glimpse of sacrament that some of us had not previously appreciated, then all the better.

When I was a child attending Temple Baptist Church in Tacoma, Washington, we spoke of the matter, rather simply and, as it were, King James Biblically, as “The Lord’s Supper.” Along with this gesture, we rather pointedly characterized communion as a solemn meal shared, and, I think, deliberately emphasized its primarily retrospective, its commemorative activity. My own understanding of that communion service was roughly this: once a month, we shared grape juice, which reminded us of Christ’s shed blood, and we chewed and swallowed tiny squares of hard cracker, which reminded us of Christ’s broken body.

Neither the juice nor the cracker was, of itself, mysterious, though both may have served as signs directing the mind to a very great Mystery. These days, most “poems” I come across in a given week seem to work that way, too. Their words point to an event, or to a stilled moment, or to a sentiment, which, mysterious as it may have been, remains an occasion distinct from the “poem” and its language. In most cases, then, the poem serves as the cracker, prepared so as to be ingested in order that the mind might be thereby directed to another, more real event, an event whose import and whose agency are always, necessarily, fixed in the past.

The poetic, however, is something else: it is an occasion of immediate and observed—which is to say, present—presence; it is an occasion of ongoing, generative agency. And this strikes me as a condition that is far more suggestive of Eucharistic communion as it is understood and performed in the Eastern Church and in those elements of the Western Church that embrace a sacramental theology. The wine becomes the mystical blood of Jesus Christ and the bread becomes His mystical body. One might be satisfied to say that the elements symbolize those realities, if only one could recover that word’s ancient sense of mutual participation, if only our word symbol hadn’t been diminished over the centuries to serving as a synonym for sign. At any rate, as we partake of those Mysteries, we are in the present presence of Very God of Very God dipped into our mouths on a spoon, and we partake, locally, in His Entire and Indivisible Being, which is boundless.

Moreover, we are by that agency changed, made more like Him, bearing—as we now do—His creative and re-creative energies in our sanctified persons. This is appalling, and it serves to exemplify what I would call the poetic: the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space.

Whether a literary work occurs in prose or verse, whether it is also characterized as fiction, as nonfiction, or as drama, whether or not it may also support additional, extra-textual narratives or propositions, it is poetic to the extent that it occasions further generation—to the extent, in other words, that it bears fruit.

One can hardly read a passage of Virgil or of Dante (or certain poems of Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, or Bishop, etc.) without experiencing a responsive flight of the imagination; if the reader is also a poet, that flight may well result in a responsive (or, as George Steiner might say, a therefore critically responsible) poem; if the reader is also a scholar, that flight may well result in a similarly co-creative reading that provides for rich and enriching readings thereafter.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, poems—if they are truly poems—have agency, bear energy, are concerned more with making something with and of the observer than they are concerned with referring her to a past event, to a proposition, or to any previously discovered, previously circumscribed matter.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, the poetic is involved with communication—not, however, in the sense that that word has become misunderstood as the uni-directional distribution of information, rather, in the sense that something of each communicant is imparted to the other, and necessarily in the sense that new creation is the result.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, the poetic is utterly involved with presence, not merely its history, but also its currency, and its continuing, life-giving current, its influence. To the extent that its activity moves at all along the temporal plane, that activity will be more accurately understood as moving forward than as moving back.

In a 2016 interview for Image, Cairns revised his original terminology:

Image: You wrote in Image some time ago about “sacramental poetics.” What is sacramental poetics, and in the decade since you wrote that piece, has that notion changed or evolved for you?

SC: Well, my thinking has changed a bit; for one, I’m less pleased with the word sacrament (a legal term coined for a mostly unfortunate western theology by Tertullian, after all) and prefer the more likely mysterion, or mystery. So, I suppose for now I’ll roll with “mystical poetics,” though even that is too susceptible to all kinds of goofiness.

Now, as to what I’m after with any of these gestures: So long as we understand our literary texts to be merely tokens referring to our prior ideas, we are denying the efficacious power and presence occasioned by our words. On the other hand, when we come to appreciate that our words have power, presence, and agency to shape our persons (including but not confined to our person’s ideas), we get a glimpse of the inexhaustible One in whom we live and move and have our being.

A mystical poetics, then, carries the premise that the stuff of language, duly engaged by the worker in language, can be a source of revelation. There are, of course, all kinds of preconditions for language doing that in any reliable way; for starters, the worker should be working on what we in the business call purification, thereafter, illumination, and, God-willing, theosis.

For all the yammering host of self-identified “theologians” we suffer, there is no such thing as a theologian who has not undergone purification, illumination, and has tasted theosis. To presume to write theology, depending upon scholarship and speculation, without having lived this sanctifying process, is to guarantee heresy—not to put too fine a point on the matter.


Poetry is a pilgrim’s journey

In Short Trip to the Edge: Where Heaven Meets Earth—A Pilgrimage, Eastern Orthodox poet Scott Cairns writes:

Among my students—among even the brightest of them—many start out by supposing that poetry is a species of denotative art, a laboriously embroidered species of that genus perhaps, but a primarily expressive, referential understanding. Most imagine that the role of the poet is to express her unique feelings, or to share his comprehensive and world-correcting understandings. Some few still imagine that their job is to seek out vivid experiences that they can then document.

My sense of actual poetry is that, before it can so much as begin, it must be recognized as a way by which we concurrently construct and discern experience; it is not a means by which we transmit ideas or narrative events we think we already understand, but a way we might discover more sustaining versions of them. 

Like most endeavors of the spirit, poetry itself is a pilgrim’s journey. We gather our gear, and we start out—alert to where the path will lead.