Faith, Science, and Poetry: The Poetic Echo

Analyzing flowers with mathematics. by Leonardo DaVinci

Analyzing flowers with mathematics. by Leonardo DaVinci

I enjoy reading, dare I say it, secular science and poetry. I hunger for the mind-expanding preciseness of science. I relish the way poetry creates random associations in my mind. And, if I am completely honest, I love the intellectual pats-on-the-back I get from saying that these things interest me.

I never quite understood why these enriched my faith so much. I never understood why it made the darkness within less humiliating or the light within less ego-inflating. I just knew that, for some reason, my faith grew when I spent time with them. It wasn’t until I mulled over an answer to a long-pondered question that it became clear and informed my whole perception of existence.

I was about to discover that there is a subtle divine narrative underpinning everything. It’s what Paul spoke of in Romans 1 when he pointed out that God speaks through unexpected channels echoing throughout his entire creation. Rather than screaming at me through a week- long camp or other transfiguration-style experience, God was presenting himself in the subtleties of poetic verse; he was making himself known in the particulars of scientific theory.

Parallel Poetry

The illuminating question I had long-pondered was simply, “Why is it that the poetry in the Bible does not seem to rhyme and beat in the same way that English poetry does?” I always assumed that it was because I did not read it in the original language, but I found out in seminary that even in its original language it seems to be something totally different than the creations of Shakespeare and Angelou. The questioned remained: what is so different?

It was in reading the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivini that I discovered the answer. Bivin explains that English poetry focuses on using the sounds and rhythms of the words through rhyme and meter to express meaning, but these elements are far from the core of Hebrew poetry. In fact, they are almost totally absent. Hebrew poetry uses a palette of acrostics, sentence structure and repetition to articulate its concepts, but the hallmark of Semitic poetry, the aspect that rises above the rest, is repetition of meaning.

Psalm 149

Psalm 149

This practice of playing with ideas by using varying patterns of repetition brings life to the subject. Where an English poet might repeat the long “a” sound, a Hebrew poet might repeat the idea of God guiding us and say, “Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths.” (Ps 25:4) What this all means is that the reason Hebrew poetry feels different is because it employs a creative palette that incorporates different set of shades and hues than English poetry. As Bivin explains, Hebrew poetry is “not like English poetry. It is not rhyming the ends of verses of the poem. It is not a repetition of the same sound, but a repetition or echoing of the same thought.”ii

The technical term for this repetition of meaning is parallelism, but thinking of it as echoes of meanings makes more sense to me. Reading the poetic scripture this way can bring a whole new depth and power to its words. Just as hearing an artist speak of the methods and philosophy underlying their work, parallelism reveals brilliant insight and creativity that can be overlooked by those unaware.

Sometimes the echoes repeat the same ideas as in the example above. Other times the meanings are antithetical. In Proverbs 11:3, we are told that “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” Using this antithetical structure, the author highlights the disparity between the upright and the unfaithful by accenting the core difference in the area of integrity.

Sometimes, the parallel segments build on each other like legos with their meanings intertwining for support as in Isaiah 1:4: “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” Here, “sinful nation” is vivified by each subsequent phrase creating a rich depth of meaning around this simple concept. Within those phrases there is a sub-parallelism that expands on the concept “forsaken the Lord.”

With each echo of meaning the poet reveals another facet of his subject and makes new connections between ideas. It is in these connections, in between these ideas, that the poet speaks. It is in this quiet tension that he clarifies and critiques. Like a chef creating a good baklava, the poet continues to add layer after subtle layer creating a rich and complex message full of insight and implication.

This is how I experience life. God doesn’t audibly call out to me from a cloud, nor does he instruct me on how to turn sticks into snakes. It’s far more subtle than that, but it is no less beautiful. One might say it is like a “still, small voice” that speaks through echoes of meanings and calls out in the space between two ideas held in tension.

These subtle echoes communicate in many ways. Sometimes they are more antithetical, sometimes more repetitive, but they always bring another layer of understanding.

An echo might bring focus to a theological concept that has been exceedingly difficult for me to grasp. It is not necessarily the case that the concepts are unable to be understood; rather, I often make spiritual things far more difficult to understand because I feel that their non-physical nature makes them less accessible. When God reveals an echo between one of these fuzzy concepts and something more tangible, it pulls back the veil and allows me to see more clearly.

Similarly, echoes can make seemingly distant events more accessible. I don’t know why, but it seems that the longer ago something occurred, the more difficult comprehension seems to be. For some reason, the battle for Jehrico seems far less real and available than Normandy or the Bay of Pigs invasion. In answer to this problem an echo will often take an event that seemed un- knowable because of its distance from my Twenty-first century existence and make a firm connection to something I more easily understand because it is closer to me in time. As a result, I have much more access and understanding of the Biblical event.

What I find is that the more diversity of ideas I am exposed to, the more echoes of meaning I have the potential to hear. Every time I open my mind to a new concept and venture out beyond my intellectual frontier, I expose myself to the possibility that I might find an as yet undiscovered parallel meaning, an echo, that will reveal new depth of understanding. The ways in which these echoes work for me are as seemingly limitless as they are subtle.

The Echo in Science

It is quite possible that Trinity has less correlation to my everyday existence than any other theological concept. Every being I encounter is a discrete individual, which means that I have no

reference for an individual that simultaneously exists as three persons and one. Translation: this is one of the most difficult theological concepts for me to understand.

This difficulty has not stopped me from trying. In my head are bits and pieces of ideas cobbled together from my brief lifetime of pondering this mystery, but it all feels like fumbling in the dark looking for a key while holding a squirming toddler. Whenever I mention my struggle with the subject to another person, they usually offer me one of the many metaphors that seem to cheapen the mystery of the Godhead. From cherry pie to states of matter, they all seem to make the divine too simple and destroy the mystery.

Results from the double-slit electron experiment showing wave interference pattern.  Wave and particle?

Results from the double-slit electron experiment showing wave interference pattern.  Wave and particle?

Then I read a passage by Brian Greene on the mystery of the electron.iii He explained that the electron is a particle (kind of like an incredibly small grain of sand); however, a closer examination reveals that it is something far more mysterious.

Picture the experiment. The scientists will shoot electrons, one at a time, at a television screen. In between the electron gun and the screen the scientists place a metal plate with a single slit in it. When they shoot electrons through the single slit in the metal plate at the television screen it produces dot after dot as each electron hits the screen, which is the expected result. However, when a second slit is opened, the electrons produce a very different result.

Once the second slit is opened in the metal plate, the scientists begin to see a pattern of light bands fading to dark and then back again on the television screen. This is the same result that is produced by sending a wave rather than a particle through the plate. To accomplish this, the electron has to go through both slits at the same time and interfere with itself on the other side. It has to be in two places at once. You might say, “That is impossible,” and you would be right. This is a severe contradiction because like a grain of sand and a wave in the ocean, a particle and a wave are fundamentally different types of substances. This leaves us with a mysterious answer: an electron is both a wave and a particle.

It was in considering this amazing discovery that I heard the echo. Similar to the Trinity, there was one substance (the electron) that existed as more than one totally unique and contradictory type of substance (particle and wave). I was stunned. There in the fabric of matter was an echo of the Trinity. The universe truly reflected the nature of its creator. Just as mysterious, just as illogical, just as beautifully complex.

The Echo in Modern Poetry

I had a similar experience while reading “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. In this poem, Angelou expresses the resilience and beauty of the African American woman. Women who have been oppressed, enslaved, and humiliated. Angelou says,

"Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise." iv

It was those three words, Still I’ll Rise, that allowed me to hear the echo that I had been missing. Yes, this poem was about African American women, but it was also about the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt and persecuted throughout history. It was an Exodus account.

Now I had an emotional and mental anchor point for the Biblical story in my world. All of a sudden I became much more aware and understanding of what was going on in the Biblical narrative. The oppressed, be it the Jews or otherwise, rise on the updrafts created by a loving God; they get up again and again. As Angelou echoes, “Still, I rise.”

There’s nothing special about science or poetry; echoes are everywhere. When we open our minds to the idea of finding parallel meanings in our world we will see them in math, gardening, sculpture, and plumbing. It begins with being open. That means removing the artificial barriers in our mind that keep our thoughts on faith and ministry separate from thoughts on cooking and history. Once break down the barriers and begin living more holistic intellectual lives, we must venture out and expose ourselves to many different areas of creative and intellectual stimulation. With each echo we identify, we gain a clearer understanding of who we are, who God is, and our place in His story.

Ministry in Echo:

East window of St Martin's in the Fields

East window of St Martin's in the Fields

“You know what’s great about this Camp/Retreat/Conference?” We ask our members. “It’s going to be a mountaintop experience.” “It is a ‘thin place’ where it seems that there is not as much that separates you from God.” I’ve used all of the above often pulling out the passage in Matthew 17 and Mark 9 where Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured and get to hang out with Moses and Elijah for a bit.

Though it is a compelling argument, my words betrayed a huge barrier I had created and was unintentionally passing on. I was communicating that God’s voice was loud and clear and could only be heard on special, rare occasions. I was missing the beauty of the constant echo.

It was a long time before I realized this was an error, but I eventually recognized that for every otherworldly experience like the transfiguration, there are hundreds or thousands of moments where we are studying for a test or reading a magazine. If we open ourselves up to God speaking to us through everything at every time, if we cultivate an appreciation for the beautiful subtlety of His voice in our every day, we no longer have to wait for that moment when he chooses to shout; rather, we can access the depth and perspective that only His voice brings in the classroom as well as on the mountain.

That is what ministry should be about. It should be training to live in the awareness that we cannot escape the presence of God. No matter how many mountains we climb or how deep we plunge into the sea, He is still with us! Yet, how often do we live immersed in the presence of the Almighty, surrounded by divine echo without taking note of it? The goal, then, is to train and be trained to live with our eyes and ears open to hearing and seeing the echoes of God. When we do that we come to realize that echoes are everywhere.

The Echo is in Inception: we all struggle with deep, fundamental questions that can only be resolved in Jesus.

The Echo is in Texting: we like to limit our exposure to pain by keeping things shallow, and imagine we can hide parts of who we are from our creator.

The Echo is in Marriage: like salvation, it is both a moment and a beautifully stretching partnership

The Echo is... everywhere. God is calling out to all humanity through all that has been made. The question is, will I open myself up to the full life that comes from constant conversation with God, or will I refuse to notice and hear like so many before. It is my hope that more and more I will choose conversation over silence.

 >>>Read More: Why Science Causes People to Leave the Church (And How To Fix It)

------- 

i Bivin, David. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebrew Perspective. Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984. An incdredibly short and illuminating read on Jesus’ sayings that looks at parallels between greek and Hebrew to find the original meaning.

ii Bivin, David. Understanding, 89.

iii Greene, Brian The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.

Vintage: 2005. 84-88.

iv Angelou, Maya. Still I Rise. Random House, 2001.

 

This article first appeared in Immerse Journal (M/J 2011)