Sunday, October 15, 2006


W. H. Auden, without doubt one of my favourite wordsmiths, famously observed that the true poet is a person unreservedly in love with language. That ought to be profoundly true of the theologian, too - one committed to the precious beauty of the fleshly Word. Of course there's an inherent paradox here. To speak of God, we need language which continually exceeds what can be said, in order to portray (but never capture) the truth that God is beyond all we can imagine, say, believe or disbelieve. On the other hand, the theologian is also there to point out that the radically new language is actually that which we surprisingly inherit - not just something we arbitrarily make-up. And, crucially, (s)he is there to help Christian speech to find ways of distinguishing between faith and fantasy, praise and pathology. To explore, in the helpful formulation of my friend Johan Maurer, "examples of people using Christian rhetoric either to seek or to avoid reality".

Both Auden and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom the following famous poem is dedicated, were involved in precisely such a vocation, in startlingly contrasting ways. Friday's Child is about the breathtaking implications of God's refusal of force. I consider the limitations of the male pronoun a necessary chastisement...

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought---
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alariming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

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