St. Augustine called poetry “the devil’s wine.” It wasn’t one of his more insightful statements. In some ways, the most important aspect of religion is its poetry. We have to outgrow the science and ethics of any earlier understanding, but the art of the ancients only grows more precious with time.
Many believers are more comfortable believing that religion describes reality exactly. When some first learn that religion is spoken in symbolic language, they may feel disappointed and betrayed. “If the stories aren’t true, then what good are they?” More importantly, they may feel if scripture is poetry, that we should abandon it for a description of life that is easier to understand? Their reasonable question is, “why doesn’t religion just come out and say what it means?”
We sometimes forget that words are invented and may not resemble reality much at all. Language can be a kind of trance that loses its relationship to the world as it tries to describes it objectively. Religious poetry is the homage words pay to the unspeakable depth of living. When we speak in the rhythmic language of poetry, our static world of ideas is reanimated by tuning to the deep vibrations of life. Poetry is wine alright, but it is a nectar that awakens us to that deep pulse under girding our lives and weaving us together with every other being into one electric web.