Poetry and the Religious Imagination

The Power of the Word

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Francesca Bugliani Knox, David Lonsdale
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this volume, two colleagues at Heythorp College gather fourteen essays presented at a 2011 conference that aimed to generate a text-based discussion about how theology and literature might dialogue while retaining mutual autonomy. The editors view the common ground for what they hope will be a growing conversation, perhaps a new academic discipline, as what they term “religious imagination.” One essayist fathoms this elusive concept as the capture of various but converging insights from a range of writers whose work “suggests a movement toward mystery and…transformed sensibility, even when it is not written in a self-consciously religious vein” (3).

The editors do not synthesize the diverse postures of their multiple contributors. This permits the reader to explore closely these often profound, if divergent, standpoints. I adopt the lead of the editors and do not treat the essayists individually here but rather comment on key ideas regarding the book’s principal themes.

Because literal talk about God is impossible, humans require the figurative language of literature, with its symbols and metaphors, to open a space where imagination can explore the possibility of some transcendence that immanent poetic language intimates (126). It is our divine endowment of imagination then that, as Denise Levertov professes, “is the perceptive organ by which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God” (227).

Two initial essays review the history of the past two centuries in the West, with the dramatic shift from religious belief, to literature as the site for redemptive perception and hope. Nevertheless, a conversation between theology and literature must ensue because, as Tillich propounds with his notion of correlation (42), all culture is actualized religion. In every epoch, the problems facing a culture (situation) must be answered with the eternal verities (message) that only religion can deliver. The authoritative response, however, must be couched in the reigning philosophical language of the day in order to be fully comprehended.

The succeeding essay ponders the nature of “religious imagination” and how poetry might approach the divine mystery and not remain solely a garden of aesthetic delight where one is refreshed and then returns to ordinary life. Whether religious imagination concludes in merely meditation, or can affect everyday life, receives an answer from Santayana who alleges religion itself is a type of poetry that does not remain contemplative but “leads to new ways of behaving in the world” (129). If so, then perhaps poetry of this sort should be construed as an adjunct to Scripture and be read employing the methodology of lectio divina, that is, reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation (158).

The remainder of this volume then unfolds its paramount boon, namely a close examination of certain poems of some major literary figures: Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, St. Ignatius, Eliot, Stevens, Rilke, Levertov, and Henry Constable. The intent is to establish that these poets, explicitly or implicitly, evince a religious imagination, even touching on mysticism and devotional prayer on occasion.

A question arises whether sufficient distinction is drawn between religion as the primary, antecedent symbolic system and theology as the consequent intellectual reflection on the former. If one were to concentrate on theology then it might encounter literature not on a common ground of religious imagination, but rather by way of the philosophies of each, as Tillich contends analogously in regard to theology and science.

Further, a reader might reasonably expect the assistance of a generic explanation of imagination simpliciter, perhaps as undergirding human freedom, before venturing into its religious species. Although “religious” takes an adjectival form, it may better be construed adverbially as inaugurating a new perspective on all of life, rather than simply a particular exercise of what Kant deems our most mysterious faculty. Accompanying this is the unaddressed issue as to what extent a pre-existent or newly found faith might be necessary or desirable for writing or reading poems animated by religious imagination.

At first I expected that this book might serve as an introductory text for undergraduate study. However, the penetrating exegeses of the poems scrutinized impels me to conclude that this volume might better constitute a good portion of the framework for a graduate seminar in theology and literature, an academic discipline the editors are keen to foster. The insights this publication offers can only represent the beginnings for ongoing exploration of poetry that reveals a religious tenor flowing from a galaxy of human sensibilities.

Intentionally or not, except for one Barthian essayist, this work overall manifests a detectable Catholic mood. I count four priests as contributors and the overriding majority of poets examined are Catholic or Anglo-Catholic. Nevertheless, this denominational undertone does not invalidate or diminish the keen scholarship and inspirational enlightenment of this collection, so the editors merit praise for their astute choices of contributors. Additionally, I note the superbly appropriate painting whose reproduction graces the book’s cover. It is The Kiss of the Musefrom Paul Cezanne’s early Romantic period. Portrayed is a male poet leaning back from his desk gazing upward for inspiration as a female angel stands behind and gently kisses the poet’s forehead. This depiction splendidly foreshadows the rich and soul-stirring scholarship within.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an Indepedent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francesca Bugliani Knox graduated in 1976 from Pisa University is Research Associate at Heythrop College and Teaching Fellow at UCL. Her publications include translations into Italian as well as several books and articles on various aspects of English and Italian literature from the Renaissance to the present. Since early on her research interest has focused on the relationship between literature and Christian spirituality. Together with Luca Panieri she edited Poesia e comunicazione (Lint 2001).

David Lonsdale taught courses in Christian Spirituality and Pastoral Theology at postgraduate level at Heythrop College, University of London for more than 25 years before retiring in 2012. He was also joint editor of The Way, and The Way Supplement, international journals of Christian spirituality from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. His published books, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality (1990, revised edition 2000) and Dance to the Music of the Spirit (1992) have been much used in formation and education and translated into several languages.



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