Poems I Can Contemplate
by Alana K. Asby
What a surprising thing the author of Hebrews says about faith!
Kierkegaard would have us think that faith is what you use when there’s no evidence, no certainty, nothing to go on.
The holy apostle Paul, by contrast, would have us know that faith itself is proof—at least, to the person who possesses it.
“Faith . . . is the evidence of invisible things.” (Hebrews 11:1b.)
What can this mean?
Let’s back up and start with a review of the distinction between knowledge and belief.
Jesus meets Paul on the road to Damascus; teaches him in the desert; catches him up into the seventh heaven—and now Paul has knowledge. When we have direct experience of something, we know that thing.
The crowds on Pentecost see preachers speaking the tongues of many nations though they are unlearned—and now they have evidence that Jesus is more than just a man. And on the basis of the miracle of Pentecost, many people believe in Jesus and are baptized. When there is proof of something not known directly, the rational person believes in it even if he does not know it, and knows he does not know. (Mere opinion is yet a third category, which I won’t go into here.)
So knowing and believing are distinguished by their basis. For knowledge, we need direct experience. For belief, we only need evidence.
But where is faith in this scheme?
If faith is evidence, then it is not belief. (Belief is founded on evidence, and faith is evidence; a thing cannot be founded on itself.)
As evidence then, faith is something that makes belief possible. Faith is prior to belief.
Believing seems to be an action, then. “I believe, and I confess, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,” as the communion prayer says. How does one believe, how does one confess? On the evidence of faith. (That is, “by faith.”)
We are used to thinking about faith as if it were a lesser thing than knowledge, a thing to be later discarded when all is known. But if Paul had direct knowledge of Christ, then why did he still need faith? Why did he still need to believe? (“I know whom I have believed,” Paul famously writes, showing that in him knowledge and belief co-existed.)
Why did Paul not urge his experience on others as the evidence they should fasten on?
The reason must be—or so I think—that the evidence provided by faith is much stronger than the evidence provided by someone else’s experience . . . or even the evidence of one’s eyes. The steadfastness of martyrs would seem to argue this.
Listen, I want to get down to the poetry part of this essay quickly, so let’s get to the real point about faith. One might ask, isn’t all this just too counter-intuitive? Can we change our minds so much that, instead of seeing faith as believing, we see it as a sort of evidence or proof that makes belief rational and even possible? (Rational for faith’s possessor; a matter of wonder for those outside.)
How can all this be?
I now must reveal that I played this whole thing off like a detective fiction-writer. I hid the answer so that I could create the question—the question that I hope will have made you, Dear Reader, curious.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for . . .” (Hebrews 11:1a)
You can see what I mean about the surprise of it, right? Faith is a substance—a thing which has an existence and character of its own. It is real. It is actual “stuff.” (Not, as someone asked me to clarify during a discussion of this idea, physical or material stuff. But of course, the spiritual realm has a substantiality of its own, and faith must be a spiritual substance.)
We are sometimes told that faith is an action (or a condition or a choice;) but such assertions ignore the fact that in scripture it is more common to see faith acting and being acted upon, like a being rather than an action performed by a being. Faith is said to shine in our hearts, to save us, to justify us, and to be a gift of the Spirit.
I’ll leave it to the preachers to dig out all the theological and spiritual ramifications of this assertion. What is important now is that our question has been answered. The reason faith can function as evidence or proof of the World Invisible is that it is an actual thing—a being—a substance.
Faith is a thing brought from the invisible world, and thus to the person who possesses it, faith is a proper and rational evidence of that world’s existence. Just so, a moon rock can function as evidence that the moon is made of rock to anyone who sees the rock, or who believes the witness of others who have seen it. Faith is only different in that, when still young and small, it is primarily “seen” or witnessed only by the person in whose heart it has been planted. Only when the tree of faith is mature, when its miraculous fruit is showering on those around, does it begin to produce belief in the minds of external witnesses.
Then faith is not an action (though belief, which is founded on faith, can be an action and a habit.) Faith is a real substance that we can possess. And when we possess it, we have evidence of the things we have been hoping for—evidence that God is good and real and loves us and has made a place for us—evidence that all shall be well.
What, then, is doubt? And what is uncertainty? I will simply assert here the common-sense answer: that uncertainty is a natural state. It is a childhood of sorts. It is simply the lack of knowledge. It is something we ought to own up to when we have occasion to be honest and authentic with one another (as we may wish to do in some poems, depending on our purpose in that poem.)
So uncertainty is opposed to knowledge, and not vicious or wrongful, except where knowledge is available but uncertainty is preferred.
But if faith is a substance brought from another and Heavenly world, then mere uncertainty could not oppose it. In the face of evidence, uncertainty sits down in a mild and gentlemanlike manner.
Doubt, then, is opposed to faith; and where faith is a virtue, doubt is a vice.
Doubt must be something like a cancer—a disorder of spirit that opposes the nature of faith—a corruption that tries to eat faith away. Under its influence, people grow irrational, unable to attend to the evidence within them . . . or worse yet, unable to feel its influence, unsure it is there at all anymore, or ever was. The doubting man is frequently haunted by the conviction that every believer around him is really pretending, irrational, saying things on the basis of no evidence at all. People in whose hearts faith is still shining can only look at such a man in mild surprise and amusement, and try to be patient.
It is not the death of God that afflicts us in the postmodern world. It is misidentification of the death of faith as the death of God. The father of spiritual disease opens all gates to his multitudinous offspring-errors in the night, and his name is Doubt.
For a while now, I’ve been taking a stand in opposition to the contemporary assertion that poetry and art in general ought to disturb people and shake them up. This partly has to do with my private spiritual journey, on which I learned the hard way that spiritual danger agitates the heart and confuses the mind, and that God’s Spirit by contrast makes still and clear the heart, and unifies the mind.
Because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, scripture also has this unifying and clarifying action on the receptive heart.
And just as Christ is the archetype of all men, so in my eyes scripture is the archetype of all literature. For decades, even unbelievers grasped that scripture was something of the sort. I once read an article of writing advice from a secular writer to the effect that the only three books a writer needs in his log-cabin retreat or writer’s study are the Dictionary, the complete works of Shakespeare, and the King James Bible.
Understandably, this tells me something about what good literature should be like. How can we say that all good literature should disturb, when we know the Holy Scriptures tend firmly to the opposite action?
But my resistance to the idea that art should disturb is also due to my understanding of what art is and how it operates on the human soul. Craft (which is a prerequisite of art) presents us with a ‘poiema’—a made thing. It had no being of any sort, until a Man formed it from the potential of matter, giving it an individual existence. The Greeks who coined the term “poiema” viewed this making as a human participation in divinity, and that is the idea built into the word ‘poem.’
The natural human response to being shown something another human being has made is to gaze on it. This becomes clearer when we imagine ourselves in a natural or rural environment, not so choked with ugly mass-produced objects as a modern city or shopping center.
Now, if the made thing is interesting, we gaze on it with curiosity and attentiveness.
If the made thing is also beautiful and skillfully done—that is, if it is craft—we gaze on it in enjoyment and admiration. Craft skillfully arranges the parts and qualities of material nature to make an object of attention beautiful. A good craftsman can make anything beautiful, and is expected to do so—a spoon, a chair, an automobile, a flower-pot, a bed-frame, or a verse. Verse is the craft which goes into the making of poetry. The physical parts and qualities which it arranges are the sounds of speech. Verse skillfully and beautifully arranges the sounds found in speech in a manner evocative of music. Thus, it brings feeling into speech, because music is the representation of human feeling.
If in addition to being craft, the made thing is useful and beneficial, we appreciate and use it. Literature, the craft of skillful truth-telling, falls into this sub-category.
If the work furthermore presents an imitation of something either in nature or in human life—that is, if it is art—we gaze on it in the delight of recognition, our idea of the imitated original having now been refreshingly transformed. This is the step by which we ascend from craft to art.
If the made thing is, in addition to all this, a work of imagination—if the maker has abstracted the parts and qualities of real things, and rearranged them into new objects which have only hypothetical reality—then we gaze with wonder. We understand reality better for having seen it rearranged in this manner. This is the step by which we ascend from mere literary art to fiction and poetry, which are the literary art of imagination. In imaginative art, the “imitated” or depicted things are hypothetical. This is Poesy, the summit of literary endeavor.
But unlike the craftsman or artist who works in clay or marble or paint, the poet’s material is speech—which is intelligible by its very nature. Thus at every step—making, craft, art, and poetry—the made thing has meaning. Or rather, it communicates meaning to the reader. Thus, in addition to the interest, appreciation, delight, and wonder with which we meet a good poem, we also seek understanding there.
With the invitation to all these mental activities, the poem offers an inducement to contemplation—it offers keys to the doors of deep understanding. I do not refer to the approximate understanding that is too often the only result of argumentative, dichotomous discourse; but to the understanding of the heart, which knows by achieving unities with what is known.
What is contemplation? I believe, based on inner experience (which is the only witness available to me) that contemplation is a special kind of gaze. It is a looking with more than eyes. In contemplation, the heart itself turns its attentive notice and opens itself to the object of contemplation, like a sunflower turning noiselessly and unobservably on its stalk, to drink in the sun. Contemplation is the gaze which naturally ends in knowledge by unities. It involves the heart uniting itself (through the invisible mediation of ideas) to a knowable object in order to grasp and understand it.
Without contemplation, then, it is impossible to complete the secret transaction between poet and reader which poetry by its very nature involves. Because art invites attention, curiosity, delight, wonder, and understanding, we may say that its special function is to elicit contemplation. This is especially true in the case of poetry, since its nature is dual. It is both a physical form, whose beauty is the beauty of sound, and an intellectual craft and art, whose interest is in its meaning.
Let us suppose that a poem is skillful, comely, truthful, imitative, imaginative, and meaningful—and that we are contemplating it, gazing on it with heart and eyes. Because all the streams of our soul flow from our heart—from the core and spring of being that runs through body, soul, and spirit—the poem, if it reaches the heart, is going to come out again in some manner. We will have formed an image of the poem within our hearts, to keep it there. But every image we keep in our heart informs our thoughts and feelings and speaking and acting. The images within change how we see what stands without, and how we behave toward and speak of what we see.
When the heart contemplates God, or scripture, or nature, there is little danger in the looking. It is only an expansion of being that we seek, with but the possibility of misunderstanding through ignorance.
But when the heart contemplates a ‘poiema’—a manmade ‘hypostasis’—a work of art that compels with its beauty and means with its speaking and opens possibilities with its hypothesizing—oh, then there is the possibility of great good and great evil. Then there is both hope and danger. For fallenness comes in, beside the image of God.
Why should the heart open itself to a thing made by another Man? Isn’t it because that other Man, that little maker, has put his own heart’s streams into his work? Isn’t poetry one of the utmost issues and streams from the core of being? Isn’t art and literature and poetry a matter of heart speaking to heart?
Now that we have laid this careful foundation, it should be easy to see what we ought to say about poetry and its relation to faith, belief, doubt, knowledge, and uncertainty.
Belief is an action, and as such it can be imitated in poetry. You can write about a man believing—even if that fictionalized man is more or less a representation of yourself, as in lyrical poetry. This is up to the poet—a matter of choice, a matter for the making of meaning.
However, it means nothing for belief to be put into poetry. A poem cannot believe. It can only contain the depiction of confession or discussion or depiction of belief.
Knowledge can be represented in a poem, in a similar way to belief.
Uncertainty (a mere natural condition in the absence of knowledge) might also be represented in a poem.
But faith! Faith is a thing that we are sure must live in the heart (for where else could it live, being a substance from the world of things invisible?) So can faith be put into a poem?
Let us picture a man writing a poem. Let us try to see him with angel’s eyes for a moment. His eyes are dreaming and his heart is opening. And now the streams of his heart are pouring forth—treasure from an inner casket—all coming out to be shaped into a poem—helped, perhaps, by a guardian and Heavenly spirit who guides poets. Look now into his heart, revealed by the opening of the chamber door. There, among the things living in that heart, glows faith—a visitor from a far land. Perhaps it is a torch, radiating light to the whole heart. Or perhaps it is perhaps a precious spice in the treasure-chest there, exuding rare fragrance. Perhaps a sapling, putting forth leaves as well as blossoms that will one day be fruit.
Shall that precious spice be prevented from giving forth its own fragrance among the other streams of the heart? Shall it be prevented by violence from radiating its own light, its own Meaning, into the poem?
Can a man who does violence to his heart in this way ever be an honest and faithful poet?
And if he does no violence to his heart, will not faith often glow in the poem, even where belief is not depicted? Will not the reader’s heart become more still and clear, his mind more unified, who reads such a poem?
For faith, we read, is not created anew for each believer; rather, it is passed from man to man. Our faith is not only in Christ—it is “the faith of Jesus”—the faith that Jesus, as Man, had in his Heavenly Father. From him it passed to his apostles and from them to others. And even now we say with the apostle, “How can they believe . . . without a preacher?”
And let’s look now in mind’s eye at another man, a poet in whose heart the dark alien visitor Doubt is trying hard to banish faith and choke belief. What will become of him when his heart opens and the streams come forth? What poems will he make?
And what excuses will he generate for the darkness the reader finds, for the agitation of mind and disruption of heart which he feels when he reads that poem?
Will that poet perhaps make it a law for all time that art should disturb?
Defensively, will he not say that no poem is good which does not contain Doubt?
Nothing disturbs the heart but the contemplation of evil.
Then poets, give me poems I can contemplate!
If truth is a knife’s edge, then across the blade from every error is another error, of a completely opposite kind.
Glorifying doubt and forbidding faith in poetry is one error, and it is the one which the faithless or the weak in faith will more naturally fall into.
But the opposite error is the one practiced chiefly by faithful Christians, and mistaken for a virtue. (Isn’t that always the way? We Christians know that we shouldn’t use force with others, but we catch ourselves using force on our own spirits, squeezing out of our unwilling or unready hearts the ungainly and lifeless approximation of some virtue we are certain God wants from us.)
In this case, the false virtue is to subvert the purpose of poetry, discarding the knowledge by unity (given to the heart) and substituting the sermon-in-verse (addressed to the discursive understanding.)
I do not mean that sermons in verse are wrong or necessarily ugly. Verse is craft; it can justifiably be applied to many levels of literary work besides poetry. But if these crafts and arts utterly replace poetry, on the view that genuine poetry is too useless and lovely and sweet and sensitive for God’s hard purposes, then we are ignoring the truth that God made us both for understanding and delight. In Creation, God gives forth both Reason and Beauty, both Logos and Love. God himself in his Holy Trinity is both Distinction and Oneness, and we are made like him. We will necessarily become unbalanced in our virtues if we spend all our time making distinctions, and never approach the art of the unities.
In another essay, I would like to explore the ways in which faithful Christian poets can let poetry be poetry and art be art, while still expressing the faith of Jesus growing and shining in their hearts.
Alana K. Asby is a wife of 16 years, a mother of three, a homeschooling autodidact who also did hard time in Bible college, and an avid and devoted amateur philosopher of the language arts. She is also the founder and Head of Vulgaris Media, a populist publishing company for traditional readers and writers, as well as its non-profit arm, The Academy of Inventive Literature, an informal consortium of writers pursuing fine literature along traditional lines. She also runs free writing challenges with available critiques at her personal blog, Slow Literature.
Artwork: Andreas Achenbach (1815-1910), Bringing in the Catch