Oz: Poetic Faith in a Prosaic World

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. (Romans 4:18)

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
—The Wizard of Oz

Mark Twain, the quintessential American realist, defined faith as “believing something you know ain’t true.” I think he’s on to something. Sometimes faith is a pretending, a kind of creative denial so the show can go on as advertised. Faith becomes not so much about belief as about a quiet struggle against unbelief. We willingly choose not to not believe, consciously suspending our disbelief in order to save the Story.

The phrase “suspension of disbelief” was coined by the romanticist Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to explain his literary strategy. He aimed at creating imaginary characters that seemed real enough to invite “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Poetic faith is a deliberate embrace of what “you know ain’t true” in order to experience what absolutely must be true, a truth greater than the sum of all denials. This is what constitutes the intentional transcendent experience, or what Brother Lawrence calls “practicing the Presence.” Through poetic faith we transform the mundane into the numinous, charging the ordinary with deep spiritual meaning. “By faith we understand.”

Strangely, it’s when our “suspension of disbelief” is shaken that we feel most acutely the necessity of such poetic faith. The reality of evil, the challenge of materialism or other scientific worldviews, Biblical promises apparently unfulfilled—these can tear open the protective curtain to reveal an all too human face. But lest we spiral into despair, we fiercely turn away and with heroic effort again rivet our thoughts on things above. “It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally,” says writer Madeleine L’Engle. “It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.”

Like poetry, faith is an earthly sanctuary from the earthly. It keeps at bay the relentless predators of the dark—the reasonable, the undeniable, the inescapable mechanics of the world which threaten the Story we have chosen to believe, the very story faith itself has written. John Climacus, a 7th century Christian monk, exhorts us: “Fight to escape from your own cleverness.” Poetic faith rescues us from ourselves.

But even though it embraces the truth, poetic faith does not rise from a careful accounting of the facts. Even the great Medieval intellectual Thomas Aquinas did not think that. “For those with faith,” he wrote, “no explanation is necessary. For those without, no explanation is possible.” Poetic faith protects the Great Oz from the man behind the curtain who has the terrible power to disenchant the world. The writer of Hebrews says, “Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.” Faith willingly suspends disbelief in the God it approaches in order to find him. This is poetry of the highest order.

Oh yes. I’ve seen the man behind the curtain, but I still believe in the wizard. The endearing charlatan at the levers is mere prose. The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, is pure poetry.

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One Response

  1. Well done! I think Augustine’s line would be apt as well: I do not understand so that I may believe, but believe that I may understand.

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