I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature. I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism.
In Theopoetic, Wilder begins with what theopoetics is not. First, it's not a shallow aestheticism. It's not ornamentation nor is it window dressing that prettifies religion by making it look more beautiful on the outside. It emerges from "the essential dynamics of the heart and soul." (2) Second, while it does not supersede love and action, it "orients" and "empowers" action. Third, a truly powerful theopoetic is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Instead, a generative theopoetic is exorcising and revelatory: it challenges us, presumably by changing how we see ourselves or the world. Finally, it is not meant to displace but to enhance and enlarge tradition theology. (3) Part of that enrichment involves taking seriously secular literary criticism. (4) Renewing faith through renewing language is not a quick fix nor is it easy. "It is a costly transaction and cannot be manipulated." (5)
Wilder notes that the work of the greatest theologians has been "shot through with the imagination." He lists Augustine, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. (3) We might add to that list George Fox, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.
In part II of chapter 1, Wilder mentions several motifs in the contemporary world he believes not adequately addressed in the current religious imagination. The first he calls a "hunger for innocence and naivete." (7) Another is the transformative "experience of glory" or "intoxication." The intoxication theme also includes the "revolt of the beggars or vagabonds." Finally, he mentions the apocalypse, noting the "vision of an End can mean catastrophe to some, a new heaven and new earth to others." (10)
Quaker literature has been preoccupied in the last two centuries with a "hunger for innocence of naivete"--but in ways that look backward nostalgically rather than forward to become exorcising and revelatory. The social justice theme expressed in the revolt of the beggars, with its promise of transformative Jubilee, has been another Quaker preoccupation, but in its work in the world rather than its fiction. Would Quakers be better equipped for effective work with a more creative fiction? Finally, Quakerism is founded on a apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and new earth emerging in the present moment. We live on the fumes of that vision today, but do little imaginatively to express this ecstatic future as a counterweight to the dark forebodings that dominate our times.
A Quaker fiction of the heart and soul would shatter us, not soothe us.
In the last section of this chapter, Wilder mentions the mingled joy and suffering at the root of the Christian experience. This is captured by the term kreuzseligkeit or "blessedness in the cross." This results not in "a masochistic cult of suffering" but invites participation in the divine activity, sometimes including suffering, through which evil is "encountered and transmuted." (11) This experience is social and communal and woven into the fabric of everyday life "so that glory is associated with both its labor and its redemptive costs." (12)
Wilder finds limitations in the 1960s conception of "transcendence or ecstasy" because this vision lacks the spiritual courage to embrace the suffering inherent in the battle with evil. Both liberals and evangelicals, each caught in outmoded stereotypes, would do well to return their vision to the cross "in a way that would speak to all." (12)