On Poetry and Being Porous
Poetry can be a polarizing genre for some readers. So, I took a few minutes to explain how I understand poetry, why I write it, and then I read some of my favorites from Borrowed Images: Prose Poems. You can check out the video below. Another collection of poems is coming soon: word by Word: Poems Inspired by Scripture.
We Are Still Porous: A Charles Taylor Reflection
It’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it? I’m not talking about our skin; I’m talking about our souls.
As I’ve been slowly working through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, he said something that got me thinking about how God reveals himself to us. In explaining the older, “enchanted” world in which our ancestors lived, Taylor says that the people were “porous.” What did he mean?
We tend to think of ourselves today as locked boxes, with lots churning on the inside. Whatever meaning we find in our lives, whatever direction we take in our daily choices, is something that comes from inside of us, something we arrive at through reflection and thought. The outside world is just “stuff”; neutral things that have no baring on our spiritual and mental life. In other words, there’s a clear and clean wall between what goes on inside of us and what goes on in the outside world (Taylor calls this the “buffered self”).
Scripture, of course, directly opposes this. It suggests that the world outside of us is constantly glorifying God and testifying to his nature (Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:20). It’s not neutral; it’s witnessing. And that witnessing has a power over us. It affects us.
Think of this in the context of Taylor’s words about the older Christian culture (early church and pre-Medieval, leading up to the Reformation). He’s talking about the power and meaning that was thought to approach people from the outside.
In the enchanted world, the meaning exists already outside of us, prior to contact; it can take us over, we can fall into its field of force. It comes to us from the outside (p. 34).
In the enchanted world, charged things can impose meanings, and bring about physical outcomes proportionate to their meanings. Let me call these two respectively influence and causal power (p. 35).
The fact that things outside of these Christians could affect them on the inside, with “influence and causal power,” is what makes Taylor refer to them as porous. There wasn’t, for these “enchanted Christians,” a clear wall between the outside world and the internal world of the spirit. Think of these people as sponges. By walking through the world, they soak in its atmosphere; what’s outside affects what’s inside. God’s world has a God-given power over God’s people.
Here’s the thing, though: we’re still porous. And isn’t what Taylor describes, in a sense, simply how God’s revelation works? While Taylor was talking about Christians prior to the Reformation, it’s no less true that all Christians today—in fact, all people—are permeated by the revelation of God in the natural world. Otherwise, how else could Paul say that people are “without excuse” for not honoring God as they should (Rom. 1:20)?
You and I—we’re still porous. Right now, God’s world is testifying to him, speaking about him. Our current secular culture may suggest that this is just a mind-game, but it’s not. It’s how revelation works . . . on everyone.
What are you taking in today through the pores of your soul? Are you even aware that God’s revelation from the outside world is approaching you, telling you about who God is and what he’s like?
People need to be reminded (and we need to remind ourselves) that we’re not machines walking through a cold, metal landscape. We’re more like sponges. We might pretend to be hard and rigid and impenetrable, like a fortress. But we’re not. That’s not how we’ve been made. We are creatures who must respond to revelation, either in a God honoring way (in Christ) or a God-denying way (in Adam). In fact, if weren’t porous, we’d be lost and alone. Praise God for making porous people!
If you’d like some examples of what it’s like to see God in the natural world around you, check out Finding God in the Ordinary. A trailer for the book is below.
NOTE: The piece I shared with you the other week on engaging with culture is now posted live on Westminster Magazine. You can access it here, which may make it easier to share.