The poetry of peace

By DONALD EASTMAN, Special to the Times
Published December 15, 2006

The Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale, or "great fish" as the King James version has it, is instructive in a number of ways, including the admonition not to attempt to escape one's responsibilities. But it teaches us nothing about whales.

It is not meant to. It is a story, not about whales, but about faithfulness, anger and mercy.

Similarly, the story of the creation of the universe in seven days is not - as we have known for many centuries - about the structure of the universe, but a story about man's transient, impermanent and conflicted nature.

Every word of the Bible is true. But every word is poetic, too, and every poem employs metaphorical language about things - nature, time, animals, the unknowable - to create or display a truth about the nature of man.

Metaphor is the use of language to express a nonliteral thing by comparing unlike things: "The bent bow of the moon," says Shakespeare, comparing the curve of the archer's bow to the glowing rim of the crescent moon: Unlike things, bows and moons, but somehow the new moon is more visible when seen through the lens of Shakespeare's metaphor.

The Bible, the greatest of Western poems, is full of metaphors: The seven "days" of creation, the bellies of big fish, the partings of seas, the infant in a feeding trough.

It's absolutely true.

But it is not useful for thinking about the scientific beginning of the universe, or the biology of whales, or the action of oceans or the astrophysics of the stars. The Bible is about what it means to be human and how it feels to be human, but not about how humans or other life came to be, how they are made, nor of what. For that, our best information comes from science, and there is no room in science for design or designer, for creationism or creator, for angels or gods - except as metaphors for the hopes and dreams of the human heart (the heart itself being a metaphor for our emotional life).

The story of Jesus the baby god-man is a wonderful metaphor for the rebirth of hope at the end of the season of death; a powerful image of hope that the bleak midwinter will give way, and soon, to the warmth and fecundity of spring. And that, this time, our lives on Earth will be full of peace: Peace not war; peace not strife; peace not clamor; peace not turmoil.

The Christian Bible tells this hopeful "peace on Earth" story not to turn the responsibility for peace over to a child, but to admonish men and women to care for the hope of peace as they would a child. Peace is our job, not the baby's.

What we know of the world is the province of science. What we know of the spirit and imagination of man is the realm of poetry and the other arts. Science knows nothing of an afterlife, nothing about transcending the life we know, nothing about the resurrection of the dead. Science knows only of the continued evolution of living forms over vast periods of time, to no apparent end save oblivion. Philosophy and poetry know the beauty, the pleasure, even "the necessary fiction," as Wallace Stevens called it, of believing in things unseen that give shape and form and purpose to our lives.

The thing - at least the thing for educated people - is to not confuse science with poetry. Christmas is not ultimately, in an adult, 21st century sense, about gods and mangers and angels and lowing cattle any more than it is about Santa Claus and elves and reindeer. Christmas is about a new chance, a new commitment if we are wise - by us, not by gods - to seek peace, to find love, to embrace life.

It is a story about things of the utmost importance and, especially now, the utmost urgency.

Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA).