The way that ATRE uses the term* has four main components: Theopoetics is (1) an emphasis, style, and positive concern for the intersection of theology and spirituality with the imagination, aesthetics, and the arts, especially as (2) it takes shape in ways that engender community-affirming dialogue that is (3) transformative in effect and (4) explicit about embodiment’s importance.
It is not an alternative to theology as such, but an orientation to the doing of theology that gives greater attention to form, genre, and the methods of theological reflection.
Classic Greek has the noun poema and the verb poiein; “a created thing” and “to make,” respectively. Theo is Greek for God. Theopoetics then, is the theory and practice of making God known, particularly through language and other made-things. It presumes that how we express our experiences of the Divine may change our experiences of the Divine: the how of theological reflection affects the what of it. Containers can change contents. Bodies mark belief.
Theopoetics suggests that we are best served when we make room in our worldview for the beauty and mystery of life as an integral part of faith: our intelligent, rational minds certainly have a place in faithful living, but they are not sufficient without the tension provided by awe and unknowing.
In my language, saber – to know, and sabor – taste.
Eating and knowing have the same origin.
To know something is to feel its taste, what it does to my body.”
—Rubem Alves, The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet
Theopoetics isn’t just about verse. When a text is acting theopoetically, it functions in opposing directions, simultaneously pulling the reader further into the world of the text and pushing the reader into a reconsideration of, and reconnection to, life in the world beyond it.
Samuel Johnson claimed that “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”
Percy Shelley added, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.”
Audre Lorde wrote, “As we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.”
Theopoetics encourages us to recognize our numbness and to act and communicate in ways that lift veils and make things new.
*In the Greek form, theopoiesis, theopoetics as a word for divinization or deification was used as early as Clement of Alexandria (b. 150 CE). While there is a significant resonance between this Early Church, Catholic, and Orthodox understanding of theopoetics as divinization, those rich traditions are not to be conflated with the framing that ATRE uses. For further detail as to what it is that theopoetics is about from our perspective, see the Definitions section.