You’ve heard of “theopoetics,” but “romantic theology…?” Isn’t that just a baptism of the worst forms of sentimentalism? Or worse, another take on the “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiment that many of us have had to endure..

But maybe we simply haven’t reached far enough back. Reading the work of Bernard of Clairvaux or William of St. Thierry, one is dipping in a different stream — one that is both deep and wide. Moreover, the monastic movement at its best, represented by people like Bernard or Francis or Benedict, or further west by people like Hildegard, Patrick or Columba, was never about contemplation divorced from life in this world, but as rooting and enabling life in this world. The love of learning and the desire for God converted men and women body and soul so that all other loves were relativized; or more precisely, all other loves were embraced for and through Christ and His passion.

These were some thoughts this morning in an attempt to pull together some threads from the week before. Last week I picked up a novel that has sat on my shelf nearly thirty years – Charles Williams “Shadows of Ecstasy.” A day or two later a copy of Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, arrived. As I browsed through the volume I came across Smith’s argument that the erotic is precisely the lever we must reconsider in spiritual formation, so carefully employed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. With our incipient dualism we have neglected this area and left the door wide open for more secular aims. Smith notes the romantic theology of Charles Williams. Then on Sunday evening we listened to Steve Bell in concert, telling the stories of his own growing passion for Christ and his kingdom, rooted in people like Francis and in the great liturgical and devotional traditions.

Steve performed a number of his oldest compositions, including “Why Do We Hunger for Beauty?” During the concert it struck me just how hungry for God “churched” people are: we are fed so much, but our hearts seem so dry. We dwell in the world of ideas, where the real is shadowed but not present. Appeals to the mind abound.. but appeals to the soul, and our ability to live in that place, seem tenuous at best. We rightly recognize and are attracted to the beauty we see around us, but it too often becomes an end in itself rather than a path to something enduring. But what if beauty.. and love.. are ikons of the true? I say “ikons” rather than shadows.. because shadow implies some lack of reality or something less than good. But beauty and love are not merely shadows or less than good, they are only less than God.

steve bell in kelownaAnd while leaders bemoan the lack of discipleship evident among us, how many of us are deeply converted — converted and passionate in mind, body and soul? I am convinced that some of the greatest preachers of the last century had it right — Martyn Lloyd Jones, AW Tozer, Oswald Chambers and others — without a vision of the surpassing beauty and glory of Christ, without that inner gaze constantly renewed by the Spirit, we are seduced by the things of this world — money, sex and power. Until we become lovers we are unconverted. Eros must order agape. This is Smith’s argument, and I think he is right.

So we end with theopoetics, because after all there is no way to use mere words to describe the transformative power of love, any more than mere words can describe the lover’s experience of the beloved. So we use word-pictures and rhyme and music, because poetry and music help words take flight, and the experience of love is both rooted and wild and words need wings to approximate it. We end up in the Song of Songs, or in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, or in a modern version of it as offered by Steve Bell (“Burning Ember“) or Bruce Cockburn,

I’ve been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains,
And cut by the love that flows like a fountain from God..
And I carry the scars, precious and rare..

Or as John of the Cross sings,

Your eyes in mine aglow
Printed their living image in my own…
Only look this way now
as once before: your gaze
leaves me with lovelier features where it plays.

We become what we worship. This is axiomatic in Christian circles. But perhaps it would be better stated, “We are what we worship.”

No, that isn’t quite right. Smith hits it when he says, “We become what we love.” Because “worship” in our Christian culture connotes bending the knee, but not always action in the world, and not always intimate connection. Smith has it right, but let me change the word to one that connotes worship but is less corrupt:

we become what we adore..

* * *
I am my beloveds,
And he is mine.
He feeds his flock among the lilies..

Song of Solomon 6:3 (Link “True Love”)
* * *
Lately I hear calls to morality in some of the circles I am in. To me this is deeply wrong-headed, another shadow of the “gospel of sin management” that is so deeply rooted in evangelical circles, a failure to appreciate that morality is nowhere near the heart of the gospel. We are “dead in sin,” and a dead man has no power to change or to do anything. Yet we constantly appeal to “dead men” to be better. As one sage put it, “Jesus did not come to make good men better, he came to give dead men life.” (Don Miller has a great chapter on morality in “Searching for God Knows What,” and his final chapter on Shakespeare and the Gospel is another appeal for “romantic theology.”) We are far better to invest our energy in helping those around us come to an experience of God rather than promoting righteousness by works. When someone falls in love, everything changes.

Finally, this all connects strongly to the need to recover a sacramental imagination. Some traditions never lost this (Orthodox, Catholic) while others are desperately in need of it. See this article by Robert Bellah. See also this note on aesthetics, and this post by David Fitch on beauty.

3 Comments on we are what we love.. romantic theology

  1. this really speaks deeply to my heart…something is stirring

  2. For those folks looking for information about theopoetics, and the power of language to shape our experience of the Divine, consider checking out Over and above that, I am also personally interested in this material and love to engage folks who are as well, so feel free to get in touch if you’d like.


    webmaster of THEOPOETICS(dot)NET

  3. len says:

    Thanks, I checked and I see an article by Phil Zylla..”What Language Can I Borrow?” Phil is a friend from my ACTS days and his parents live in my city.