I recently shared a passage from Paul Fiddes’s The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (2000) with students in my class on interdisciplinary theology. Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford, offers a constructive model for how to perform theology through literature:
I propose a relationship of mutual influence without confusion, where the images and narratives of literature can help the theologian to make doctrinal statements, while at the same time doctrinal thinking can provide a perspective for the critical reading of literary texts. (7)
In other words: literary narratives can unfold and image doctrine; doctrines can provide interpretative possibilities for literary meaning.
The statement, “mutual influence without confusion,” sounds promising, but reminds us of the possibility of disciplinary distortion, too. Fiddes reflects on precisely this problem:
There is, admittedly, a fundamental difference between the narrative of literature and doctrine. Poetic metaphor and narrative rejoices in ambiguity and the opening up of multiple meaning[s]; doctrine will always seek to reduce to concepts the images and stories upon which it draws—including those within its own scripture. Literature emphasizes the playful freedom of imagination, while doctrine aims to create a consistent and coherent system of thought, putting into concepts the wholeness of reality that imagination is feeling after.
Language can only go so far. Even doctrinal statements of ancient authority, historically considered, inevitably depend on images, symbols, and metaphors to name matters of spirit. For this reason, Fiddes cautions against excessive doctrinal optimism:
I certainly do not mean to suggest that doctrine is ‘literal’ speech about God in contrast to the images of poetry. But doctrine uses metaphor in an attempt to fix meaning, to define and limit a spectrum of possible interpretations. In short, literature tends to openness and doctrine to closure.
Doctrine, without unfolding or exemplification, risks distorting the living faith. Literature, lacking conceptual categories, remains ever variable. The vital relationship between the two underscores the unmistakable prominence of poetry, parables, metaphors, and stories in the communication of faith. Theology and literature together foster dialogue about truth and meaning through explorations of language, narrative, and the possibilities of creative imagination.