God three angry letters in a book

by maggi dawn

One of my long -time favourite poems is The Incarnate One by Edwin Muir. Nowhere does Muir suggest that faith should be thoughtless or anti-intellectual. But he identifies the subtle difference between thought that embraces and explores the mystery of the incarnate word, and the kind of logical, syllogistic reduction that domesticates God, pulls His teeth, and keeps the Divine Mystery firmly in its place. Even the most liberal of theologies, if their detail and practice is insisted upon to the extent that those who do not (or do not appear to) conform are excluded from the holy huddle, becomes a kind of “purity code”. It isn’t only fundamentalist theologies that exclude their non-conformers; drawing a line around who is “in” is a limitation that people of all political and religious persuasions are prone to fall into.

But back to Muir. Theology, when it becomes reductionist and exclusive, takes the blood out of the faith we are offered in an incarnate God, removes love and humanity from the equation, and takes us back to a law that we must obey or suffer the consequences. “How could our race betray/ the Image, and the Incarnate One unmake…?” Sadly, all too easily.

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.