Paul Fiddes (The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (Challenges in Contemporary Theology), 7) repeats a truism when he writes, “Poetic metaphor and narrative rejoice in ambiguity and the opening up of multiple meaning; doctrine will always seek to reduce to concepts the images and stories upon which it draws. . . . . doctrine uses metaphor in an attempt to fix meaning, to define and limit a spectrum of possible interpretations. . . . literature tends to openness and doctrine to closure.” Though Fiddes doesn’t use the word, the implication is that doctrine is more precise than poetry, precision being the opposite of ambiguity, multiplicity, and openness.
I don’t dispute the necessity for “defining and limiting.” I do dispute that the common view that defining and limiting necessarily increases precision. It may; it may not. The assumption that limitation necessarily increases precision rests on the prior assumption that precision is equivalent to simplicity. But perhaps what we want to say is comprehensive and complex; in such a case, defining and limiting involves not only a loss of content but a loss of precision.
Poets certainly dispute that poetry is less precise than prose. Whatever we think of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” it’s standard practice for poets to search for exactly the metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, and range of allusion to convey precisely the layered truth and emotion they want to convey. Theologians should stand with the poets here: Because of its rich multiplicity of implication, “I am the rose of Sharon” is not less but more precise than any prosaic explication.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, August 6, 2012 at 1:15 pm
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