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Saturday, 12 November 2016


Recently I have been working with a lot of RE classes. The aim of these sessions is to engage students in the curriculum through the medium of writing and discussing poetry. Many of the classes are focused on the nature and attributes of God, which has led to me researching poems on these themes. This has been a journey of discovery for me: I specialised in the philosophy of religion at university, at the same time as being an amateur (and not very good) poet, but at no point did I think to combine these interests and view one through the lens of the other. 

My recent research has led to the discovery of some interesting poems. One of these poems is Langston Hughes’ short piece, ‘God’, which goes as follows:

I am God—
Without one friend,
Alone in my purity
World without end.

Below me young lovers
Tread the sweet ground—
But I am God—
I cannot come down.

Life is love!
Love is life only!
Better to be human
Than God—and lonely.

I used this poem as a springboard for discussion by focusing on the following three questions: (1) why might God be “without one friend”?; (2) why might God say “I cannot come down?”; and (3) is it “Better to be human/Than God – and lonely”? There are some fairly interesting philosophical objections to Hughes’ piece: if God is omniscient, then he would know everyone, and he wouldn’t be ‘without one friend’; if God is omnipotent then it wouldn’t be true that he couldn’t ‘come down’ if he so chooses; loneliness is a human emotion, and to attribute it to God would be to anthropomorphise Him. Perhaps to pick apart a poem through analytic philosophy is to commit a category error; nonetheless the poem sparked some interesting discussion.

Another poem I discovered was ‘The God Who Loves You’ by Carl Dennis. This poem is too long to reproduce on this blog, but it can be viewed here. I strongly urge you to check it out, as it is a wonderful poem. It uses colloquial, conversational language to paint a picture of a man driving home to his wife after work, and a 'loving god' who is "harassed by alternatives" regarding how the man's life might have turned out had he chosen different paths. In particular, this god is disturbed by the notion that, had the man made different choices, he might have had a life that was "thirty points above the life you're living/On any scale of satisfaction." We are into quite meaty philosophical territory here, and questions are raised that have to do with free will and God's omniscience. I drew solace from what I perceived to be the final, redemptive message of the poem - that instead of focusing on what we might have done differently, we, and perhaps God, are better served by embracing the actualities of a "life you can talk about/With a claim to authority." I found this comforting and empowering.

It seems, however, that my optimistic reading of the poem is not universally shared. I did a bit of casual Googling in order to ascertain how other people interpreted what, like all good poems, is somewhat ambiguous, and came across this blog, whose author interprets the message of the poem not as one of empowerment but of fear. She discusses "the great risk God took when he endowed us with free will. Not only do we have the power to succeed, we are equally as likely to fail." The author, evidently a religious person, goes on: "Dennis's poem scared me. I don't want to live like the man in the poem, and I don't want to abuse the free will God gave me."

I didn't interpret the man in the poem as committing such an 'abuse'. It is worth noting that, throughout the poem, 'god' is not capitalised. The 'god who loves you', the one who is "pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives you're spared by ignorance", may thus be viewed as just one of a litany of possible conceptions of 'god'. The power of the poem lies not with this god, but with the man, who has the capacity to "come to the rescue by imagining him [god]/No wiser than you are." It must be admitted that, if you have a prior belief in a god who conforms to certain religious traditions, you might not be at liberty to "come to the rescue" by simply imagining a different type of god into existence. Furthermore, this idea relies on what, in the jargon, is called 'doxastic voluntarism' - the idea that people can simply decide what to believe through a mere act of will. 

All this is murky and confusing. Was my initially optimistic, comforting reading of the poem wrong? Faced with the ambiguity within the poem, it became apparent that I was being offered exactly the sort of opportunity to practice the self-trust that, to my mind, the poem exhorted in the first place! I am the captain of my own ship. "For all you know", the poem states, "[this] is the life you've chosen." In other words, we do not and cannot have all the information, so the best we can do is just live our lives, the ones we can talk about "with a claim to authority". And how are we to do this? Well, let's go back to Langston Hughes' poem. In the final stanza, Hughes highlights the human capacity for love - "life is love!/Love is life only!", which he contrasts with God, who is "lonely" through lack of participation in this human love. Thus, to practice love is to love the life we have, "the life you've witnessed", as Dennis states. And the protagonist in Dennis' poem does seem to be a pretty good sort of bloke, the sort who "tries to withhold from [his] wife the day's disappointments/So she can save her empathy for this children." This man's imperfect, bumbling sort of love is good enough, provided he consents to "sit down tonight" and write to his "actual friend", a metaphor for accepting the reality of his life. This is what I took away from Dennis' poem. 

Why am I writing all this? I have had OCD for as long as I can remember. It hasn't always been particularly virulent, but the tendency has always been there. It has an unwelcome habit of flaring up at crucial junctures and transitions in my life, causing me endlessly to doubt myself and to navigate a mental labyrinth in which I question everything I thought I knew. It sometimes threatens to derail everything good in my life (of which there is much) by causing me to question whether it is good. It is a vicious and unproductive form of mental gymnastics, spurred in large part by a terror of going against what 'the god who loves me' might have chosen for me. (This is a metaphor - I am not religious.) In other words, it is a toxic form of the 'grass is always greener' syndrome.

The anxious brain, in its best-intentioned misguidedness, tries to protect us from the possibility of error. For me, the path to liberation lies in dispensing with the very notion of 'error' in the first place. Thus, what we have, instead of a choice between a right and a wrong path, is a choice between love and fear. As psychologist David Richo writes: "Love is a total yes. Fear is no. Love gives us access to the unconditional being that is our endless potential." And notice that, for the man in Dennis's poem, his past is foreclosed but his future is one of just such potential: he can either choose to write to his erstwhile friend, or keep him shut out; he can either embrace the actuality of his life, or live in the realm of unknown and unknowable (to him) possibilities. 

Richo goes on to state: "Fearlessness brings with it the conviction that everything in our lives is part of our destiny, exactly what we need in order to become who we really are. Not only is it all right to be myself, it is really alright to let events be themselves." The 'loving god' of Dennis's poem is not really loving at all, if love implies acceptance of what is as opposed to what might have been. At any rate, the words of poet Derek Walcott spring to mind: "Sit. Feast on your life."


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