What Ships Are Built For: A Review of Callid Keefe-Perry’s ‘Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer’

I was fortunate enough to receive a free copy of Callid Keefe-Perry’s Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer for review purposes from Wipf & Stock, as a part of the Theopoetics Book Blog Tour (where you’ll find a number of lovely and insightful reviews of the book, as well as thoughtful commentary/conversation about theopoetics underway).

Image courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

Image courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

At the risk of over-extending the imagery of the book title itself, I found myself pulled by the currents of two streams in considering the book as a whole: the first being what the book does; the second being what it doesn’t do (which perhaps implies an indictment of the work itself, but is not that in the slightest), and what that means.

So first: what the book does, and does impressively.

Well-presented, and well-represented, Callid has deftly drafted what might be considered the 8-week master’s course: Introduction to Theopoetics, as the table of contents reads as a syllabus of sorts for the journey that unfolds, touching on the major players and illustrating their works, perspectives, contexts, and contributions with primer-appropriate conciseness and without oversimplifying, or perhaps worse give the subject at hand, creating false analogues (and thereby dichotomies) between thinkers within a deliberately and gorgeously amorphous field of thought: the complexity is, in a very process-oriented sense, where the beauty of theopoetics tends to dwell most coruscatingly, and Callid maintains this with gentle hands, an admirable steward of the natural chaos of an unevenly-tread academic/pastoral/literary/theological/philosophical/bramble-ridden path.

Shepherding the reader through this foundational research, from the linguistic etymology of theopoetics to the places its been referenced explicitly and obliquely alike over time, charting its journey as a concept and the places it corresponds and clashes with established modes of thought (and where it has attempted to establish itself uniquely, in kind), is a task in and of itself, but Callid manages it with genuine grace, speaking with a welcoming intelligence that I both appreciated and believe will appeal both to specialists and to casual scholars and/or religious leaders seeking to employ theopoetic themes and approaches to their work.

Beyond this, however, what I found most impressive in the realm of what the book offers successfully was the closing section that speculates on potential routes for theopoetic application. I applaud this specifically because—at the risk of speaking in stereotypical generalizations—we’re often quick to theorize in theological studies, but we’re sometimes less ready to go out and do. By citing Rebecca Chopp’s work on poetic liberation and the power of testimony in teasing experiential significance and referencing bibliotherapy/poetry therapy and Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy as they exist within psychotherapeutic traditions, Callid makes important strides in setting the precedent for tangible realization of theory, which is crucial to the future of theological studies in the particular, and for academia (and its role as an agent for human advancement) at large. In Whitehead’s words (fitting, given Callid’s engagement of process studies):

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it against lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

Callid urges the landing of the plane, and time-worn as the call remains, it is still necessary to the work being done. Armchair theology has long outstayed its welcome, after all.

And here, I begin to reflect upon the second stream: what Way to Water does not do, and what it means within the larger topical discourse.

Callid speaks to the potential for integrating the aforementioned modalities into church settings, and thus I note again: it is entirely defensible, logical, and absolutely understandable within both the stated and the implicit context of the book at large, and Callid’s perspective in writing it, that this be the focal orientation, and Callid acknowledges the question of “completeness” in the epilogue specifically, and seeks there as well to expand the interdisciplinary conversation in new angles and measures. Perhaps most appropriately, he explicitly invites new conversations and writing; I accept that invitation enthusiastically because, aside from these stated caveats in the present case, the contextual limitations noted are, I believe, indicative of the existing conversations that do feature theopoetics. Yet—and here I show my own hand—as someone who personally eschews religious affiliation, and who also prioritizes interdisciplinarity, this focus highlights the gaps within the existing discussion to both of these ends, and the narrowness of the theopoetic application within a larger context. Within the text, Callid expresses the sentiment:

“I believe that encouraging a greater poetic, embodied, and hermeneutically hospitable sensibility in theological discourse can contribute to practices that help contemporary people of faith move beyond the “desert of criticism” and reconnect with a sense of the Divine.” (emphasis added)

And yet, I would counter with the assertion that “people of faith” makes a distinction—at least colloquially—that need not limit the application of theopoetics, and that may in fact detrimentally usher the discussion toward limitations that eventually keep it in the “conversation corner” that Guynn fears.

I make a confession: post-Divinity School, I began to find myself very uncomfortable with traditional uses of “God language.” And when I say “uncomfortable,” I mean it in the embodied way that theopoetics concerns itself with: such uses settled wrong with me, quite viscerally. Since, I’ve found my feelings on the topic well summarized as follows:

We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir the heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.

—Nikos Kazantzakis, The Action: The Relationship Between God and Man

Which opens the platform for what intrigues me about the limitations of the conversation (again, understandable, necessary, and authorially-acknowledged and defined limitations) present in the book. Callid notes: “By inviting others to engage in these practices with us, we engender the possibility that by hearing from one another about how God is manifesting we all come to a greater sense of how we are being called out into the world to serve and to be.” And if we speak of God at the spiraling powers, as the wonder that may have been otherwise named, and may be otherwise named elsewhere, by the others we are aiming to engage in constructive dialogue (itself in line with Polling’s Movements of Poetic Worship, looking to “Encounter God in dialogue”), we are looking for a transdisciplinary, intersectional, cross-contextual conversation that transcends the classroom, the Academy, and houses of worship alike, not just in where it reaches, but where it originates and grows roots.

Controversial as the idea of the public intellectual is at present, Callid’s presentation—and many alongside it—replaces this figure with the preacher, and while he does speak to the “fetile ground” for future work on the liminal spaces, the intersections between therapeutic methods and theological application, they are primarily engaged (even theoretically) as a resources for pastoral therapy; from the perspective of what other things can do for theologically-charged initiatives.

But doors open both ways, after all.

And if we are interested in “cultivating that Aristotelian mark of poetic genius: seeing the unfamiliar in the familiar and the familiar in that which is not,” it behooves us to step beyond the theological context and invite conversation across fields, across experiences: to immerse within the truly unfamiliar, and seek the genuinely novel. While I don’t pretend at any sort of methodologically-sound surveying on the subject, candid conversations regarding the interplay between pastoral care and clinical counseling with both my colleagues in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and other mental health services and within religious studies at large tend to yield vastly different responses, with interest in and concern for the interplay of these two poles being expressed much more commonly on the side of mental health professionals than by theologians and religious practitioners. There is interest in engaging: as a field, we do ourselves no favors by curtailing the conversation before its had a chance to realize its potential. If we are concerned with “living human documents”, explicitly stated to be “within the web” or otherwise, we should consider our conversations as symbiotic, covalent: the reading of which is like reading scripture, just as sacral a move as experiencing the Word.

Which brings me to what, on the whole, I love most about Way to Water, and which I offer its author immense gratitude for: it is an entry-point; it is not an endgame. Callid understands that theopoetics itself is unfinished, indiscrete as a rule, and he carries forth his primer in kind—Callid leads us to the riverbank, and recognizes wholly, intentionally, that in do doing, in showing us the way to the water, we will encounter the stream at a single, distinct point along the banks. There are still many other points to explore.

And if Catherine Keller is correct, and “God is somehow somewhere in this all, every ripple and all, every bite, flight, scramble, or stillness,” then Way to Water is an invitation to transcend the slightly myopic approach that is indicative of the bent of religious studies at large, in the present moment—that sees theological studies as a space for erudition and esotericism, for tradition and progress-in-only-the-ways-that-we-know, stepping outside the box by toes in the stream, rather than by the leaps of faith (religious or otherwise) that we need within the world we face today. The aphorism proves both relevant and thematically-suited: a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

And so the challenge posed is to meet the water at the harbor, but to set sail from that space, and seek new ports in the process. To find ways to reach the masses, to seek out the untold numbers of “nones” and those who know “God” in different forms, by different names—as theopoetics is uniquely situated to comprehend and accommodate. As a field academically, and as a community within and outside of the University, we cannot remain self-contained, we cannot continue to only speak to one another. We must, in many ways, hearken again to the source: we must regain the cross-disciplinary fervor that typified the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (SARCC), the multimodal passions of mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and psychoanalytic-theologian Rubem Alves; we must cease accepting the call to interdisciplinarity as a pleasant day-trip—as more than just a sidenote, a secondary interest, or a series of anecdotes in an epilogue—rather than a home-base from which to venture at the first. And we must recognize, intentionally, that this work is not just for the many-interested theologians and philosophers, or for the “faithful” psychiatrists and biologists, not just the physicists and businesspeople who belong to a synagogue  of a mosque—the conversation exists everywhere, by different names, but we are tasked with following the common threads and making meaning of the many-sided whole.

There is a risk that theopoetics will remain just a conversation corner in the academy: Yes, the writing may evoke more writing, but these rivers of words deserve to also flow into the sanctuary and toward the streets.

—Matthew Guynn

Callid charts the practice of bringing it to the traditional sanctuary, and touches on how it might appear already in the streets. We must do the work, now, of recognizing it and making sense (and meaning) of its appearance deliberately, with creative intent. No one exists within a vacuum, and the world we live within requires that we converse with intention and a willingness to expand our perspectives. No human is an island: we must find our own ways to the water we seek.

And Callid Keefe-Perry’s primer provides not just a solid roadmap for the first leg of the journey, but a vote of confidence in the reader for figuring out the rest of the way from there.

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One thought on “What Ships Are Built For: A Review of Callid Keefe-Perry’s ‘Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer’

  1. Pingback: Theopoetics Book Blog Tour

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