How can poetry vivify and deepen our
understanding of Whitehead’s Process and Reality?
This is the third in series of three four-week courses taught by Christina Hutchins. The “vivid suggestiveness of the poets” can deepen our engagement with process concepts that have been well-developed yet also limited by conventional theological or philosophical thought. In this class, we will use poetry to animate felt understandings of several of Whitehead’s key ideas.
Attend the live class sessions
or work at your own pace.
How do we continue to feel experience while thinking about it? What are, as poet Brewster Ghiselin calls them, “clear sayings of the unsystematized,” and how can we use them to keep freedom and concreteness in process thought? It may seem unusual to think of poetry as a tool of understanding abstract concepts, but it can “be of use” in profound ways. A poem is a little engine of meaning making. It can resist “misplaced concreteness” in ways philosophical and theological language may not, necessary as those modes also are. As processes of their own, poems can participate in complex ideas, without simplifying them. A poem can do this, because it heightens language into a living entity. Like music, it can open in us realms where shared longing and grief and history shape life.
In each hour and a half meeting of this class, we will consider a single aspect of Whitehead’s thought by reading and discussing one or more poems from diverse poets. This is not a comprehensive look at process cosmology. Rather a sampling of how to engage poems as modes of experiential understanding of an idea. How to think without leaving parts of our humanity behind. Poems, with their own architectures and pleasures can precisely open and make accessible each concept.
“Language halts behind intuition. The difficulty of philosophy is the expression of what is self-evident. Our understanding outruns the ordinary usages of words. Philosophy is akin to poetry. Philosophy is the endeavor to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet.”
–Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49-50
So, a poem might do marvelous things, but what if we are not comfortable reading poetry,” don’t get it?” The poems in this class will be opened like doors. The class is for experienced poets who want to begin to understand Whitehead’s worldview, and the class is for process theologians and philosophers seeking fresh ways to experience process ideas. It’s for anyone who wants an adventure in thinking and feeling. The course can be taken as an independent four-week class or as part of the three-course series on Unfolding Poetry and Process Thought.
“Doctrine has never sheltered” the “vivid suggestiveness of the poets.” Therein lies something of sacred experience when we use poetry to meet the world and its ideas. Doing this may reveal otherwise unnoticed or unspoken philosophical insights. We may encounter a process worldview without losing how “meaning passes like wild nightbirds.”
“My meaning passes like wild nightbirds
Whose cries are like the dew, risen
Or fallen, night’s emanation, clear
Sayings of the unsystematized.
. . . Doctrine has never sheltered this
Untamed belief that takes the whole
For its housing, heaven and earth and breath
And sleep, the undivided sphere.”
–Brewster Ghiselin, “Credo”
- Session 1: Clear Sayings of the Unsystematized: When a Theory of Feeling Can Misplace Concreteness and Another Approach
- Session 2: The Treeing of the Tree: Becoming as a Nexus.
- Session 3: Thinking By Feeling: Causal Efficacy and Becoming Human
- Session 4: Via Negativa: God and the World
About the Instructor
Christina Hutchins is a poet and scholar of process philosophy and theology. She has also worked as a biochemist, a Congregational (UCC) minister, and for many years taught theology and literary arts at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She lives in Albany, California, where she served as the city’s first poet laureate.
Her poetry collections are Tender the Maker (2015 May Swenson Award, Utah State UP), The Stranger Dissolves (2011), finalist for the Lambda and Audre Lorde Awards, and the chapbooks, Radiantly We Inhabit the Air (2011 Becker Prize), and Collecting Light (1999). Her poems appear widely, including in The Antioch Review, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, Salmagundi, The Southern Review, and Women’s Review of Books. Her essays on process theology, queer theory, and poetry appear in volumes by Ashgate, SUNY, and Columbia UP. Awards include The Missouri Review Prize, National Poetry Review Prize, a fellowship to St. Petersburg , Russia, and living in Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, NH, as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence.
Christina holds a BS from University of California at Davis in Biochemistry and Piano Performance, an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, where she delivered the graduation address, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Graduate Theological Union, writing a dissertation on reading and radiant time that draws on Alfred North Whitehead, Judith Butler, and Henri Bergson.
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