THE Church needs poetry, and the disciplines of poetry. Without
it, a dimension of spiritual life has evaporated.
I am irritated by hearing that Christians are dull and
unimaginative from people who never go to church. I am, however,
even more irritated because there is a kind of truth in it. The
mythology now available for 21st-century humans, the "psychic
atmosphere" that we breathe, is exciting. Almost every day,
scientists impose new dimensions on our imaginations.
So we need poetry and its disciplines to marry Christian dogma
to this, our 21st-century psychic atmosphere. We possess richer
images than our predecessors; so let us use them.
In his history of the Authorised Version, The Book of
Books (Hodder, 2011), Melvyn Bragg ends by describing how
Christian doctrine is, for him, "a poetic way of attempting to
understand what may be for ever incomprehensible". I find this very
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is
adequate only for a pre-scientific age. The universe began 13.5
billion years ago. We cannot say what came before that, because
there was no "before"; we cannot verbalise that ineffable.
Then, a microsecond after the initial explosion, but not in the
initial explosion itself, the universe became "what it is, and not
something else" (in a popular phrase). This is a wonderful,
This is our mythology as 21st-century humans, a "psychic
atmosphere" that is thrilling and perpetually challenging. But this
mythology - of genes, neutrinos, and black holes - is claimed by
atheists, and generally abandoned by Christians as having little
bearing on Christianity.
In contrast, this is the psychic atmosphere we encounter in
church: "Life-imparting heavenly Manna, Stricken Rock with
More than 100 years ago, these words by G. H. Bourne inspired
George Martin to write a magnificent tune, St Helen. In a
sense, this is still a thrilling eucharistic hymn. But the psychic
atmosphere that it invokes, with its oblique allusions to an
ancient Hebrew story that has no meaning for normal 21st-century
people, has no imaginative relevance for us. We sing the hymn as
though the words were in a foreign language.
The Church's poetic failure is far greater than this. Sometimes,
contemporary liturgy, for example, reveals a total incapacity to
imagine, and thus drives imaginative people away.
In the modern baptism service, for example, the prayer to
consecrate the water still includes the sentence "the Spirit of God
moved over the waters." When I hear this, disciplined as I am by
poetry to sense words physically, I see a Holy Spirit cormorant
flying low in search of fish.
It is comically grotesque; it is nonsense; it has nothing to do
with what we know about the universe's beginning; it is inferior as
poetry or science to the phrase about the universe becoming "what
it is, and not something else".
THE argument with atheism is an argument over ancient history,
which demands that 21st-century Christians show Christianity at the
centre of our 21st-century psychic atmosphere. This forms a
challenge to poets, and a challenge to church congregations.
Yet The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, is a shoddy
book. The truth or falsity of Christianity rests on the history of
two weeks in about AD 30. Professor Dawkins, not being a historian,
let alone an ancient historian, reveals his abject failure to
confront the evidence.
He has, however, driven many people away from the Church by
ridiculing its faded-cassock poetry. He preaches atheism by
reiterating ad nauseam how Genesis is fable, not science - an
unoriginal proposition with which only deep-south Creationists
Meanwhile, astronomers are rapidly discovering "Goldilocks"
planets - neither too hot nor too cold - which appear capable of
supporting life. Current estimates suggest that there are at least
500 million such planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way; and billions
in the whole universe. Such planets challenge anthropomorphic,
earth-centred doctrines of the creation and the incarnation.
Goldilocks planets are just one example of how our psychic
atmosphere has changed irrevocably. Genome mapping is another: 50
per cent of human genes are also found in bananas. We humans share
genetic material with chimpanzees, axolotls, starfish, bacteria,
and many others.
Astronomers are fond of the sentence "We are stardust." This
thrilling image emphasises the one-ness of everything in the
universe. Everything - stars, planets, bacteria, human beings -
contains hydrogen atoms; every material element is manufactured in
stars through the fusion of hydrogen atoms. We are manufactured
from stardust by nuclear fusion, like our siblings: the
chimpanzees, axolotls, starfish, and bacteria.
Here emerges a miracle. St John's Gospel (John 1.14) does not
say: "The word [logos] became human." It says "the
logos became flesh" ("sarx" in Greek). Human like
us, Jesus Christ, in his humanity, possesses the sarx that
an orang-utan or flea does.
Evolutionary biology neither proves nor disproves this verse.
But what awe-inspiring extra dimensions it gives those four words,
once we properly appreciate the oneness of all creatures.
Christian preaching has taught the incarnation as the Son of
God's becoming man. But that is not what John said. Sarx
is slightly more specialised than stardust, but only slightly.
Sarx includes orangutans and fleas. Dare I suggest that
this sarx might include the sarx of creatures
found on Gliese 581g, the most earthlike Goldilocks planet as yet
ST ALDHELM, a seventh-century English poet, was a fine
naturalist. His poetry, celebrating the oneness of all living
things, cohering well with the science of his time, also coheres
with modern genetic biology. His mythology, his psychic atmosphere,
is much more relevant to us than Moses' finding manna in the
Aldhelm celebrates the science of his day for revealing God and
Christ. We need a fresh poetry to celebrate our more complicated
science. The task imposed on poets requires much more energy, and
much more support from church congregations.
Every Christmas, I am expected to write a poem, which is sent
out as a Christmas card. Last year, I was given a wonderful image.
On Christmas Eve, in my local church, dedicated, as it happens, to
St Aldhelm, the crib was in place, but the Christ-child figure was
not yet there. Instead, in the Christ-child's place, we found a
baby bat, asleep. What a profound, minuscule image of the word made
flesh - "flesh" not "man"; a momentary opportunity to link genetic
biology with theology.
The Christmas before that, in 2011, CERN announced the possible
discovery of the Higgs boson, hypothesised in 1964. That was the
obvious challenge for the 2011 Christmas poem. Since the late 20th
century, physicists have been seeking Grand Unified Theory, an
equation - they refer to an equation "one inch long" - that sums up
the whole of physics known so far, in the same way that
E=mc² sums up relativity. The discovery of the Higgs, now
confirmed, is, we are told, the last piece of the pattern.
Like the shared genetic material of all living things, the Higgs
does not contradict the doctrine of the incarnation, or prove it.
But it unquestionably gives further body to the bare statement of
the incarnation: "the word [logos] became flesh."
When physicists discover the one-inch-long equation, the Greek
for "the equation" will be "logos". John's opening
sentence will be acknowledged as a reasonable poetic paraphrase of
the mathematics that underlies the cosmos; John's psychic
atmosphere coheres with modern physics.
POETRY is more than words; it is a discipline practised seven
days a week, 24 hours a day - particularly the latter, since good
work is so often done while asleep. It requires a way of sensing
the world in individual detail, and noticing oddities. But it is
also a matter of listening to the counterpoint of words.
"Logos", for example, is full of counter-melodies, and it
is exciting to sense "equation" as one of them.
Furthermore, we, more than ever, need to dissociate ourselves
from an anthropomorphic, gender-specific, notion of God. The Zulu
word for "God" is Nkhulunkhulu, "vast mighty one". Zulu
has neither definite nor indefinite articles; its third person,
he/she, does not possess gender. Nkhulunkhulu lacks the
human associations of "God".
Nkhulunkhulu is therefore a better word to use than
"God". Quirks of language offer another opportunity for poetry to
help theology, thus forming another challenge for the Church to
request poetry's assistance.
Our challenge as poets is to explore Nkhulunkhulu's
thrilling universe - immeasurably vast, but begun as a dot, or
possibly an equation, where we are related not only to chimpanzees,
but also to bacteria - and find stories to connect with
We need a 21st-century Commedia. The challenge to
clergy and congregations is to understand this quest that we must
undertake - to tolerate, even encourage, our bungling and panicking
explorations. Granted our incompetence, granted our inadequacy, you
do need us.
Leo Aylen has published nine collections of poetry, and
won prizes at the Arvon, Peterloo, and Bridport poetry
competitions. He also works as a TV film director and