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We are stardust, we are golden

by
20 December 2013

Poetry is out there. Leo Aylen urges the Church to boldly go where others have gone before

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 moving.

"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, imagination-expanding thought.

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 streaming side".

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 disagree.

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 discovered?

 

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 wilderness.

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 Christianity's story.

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 scriptwriter.

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