This is an example of a how a Christian may read and think through the matter of art. I use a poem by Dylan Thomas, This Side of Truth, because I find Thomas one of the most extraordinary of English speaking poets.
First, the poem. Read it aloud – Thomas loves words, their sound and rhythm – the way in which thoughts trip upon another, and cadence (a near confusion of sound and meter, like a great driver racing along a mountain cliff) which suggests something more dread and dark than can be said otherwise. In Thomas, even blue eye, a six year old, the wind and sea, the sun, moon and stars are dusted with death and judgment.
This side of the truth,
You may not see, my son,
King of your blue eyes
In the blinding country of youth,
That all is undone,
Under the unminding skies,
Of innocence and guilt
Before you move to make
One gesture of the heart or head,
Is gathered and spilt
Into the winding dark
Like the dust of the dead.
Good and bad, two ways
Of moving about your death
By the grinding sea,
King of your heart in the blind days,
Blow away like breath,
Go crying through you and me
And the souls of all men
Into the innocent
Dark, and the guilty dark, and good
Death, and bad death, and then
In the last element
Fly like the stars’ blood
Like the sun’s tears,
Like the moon’s seed, rubbish
And fire, the flying rant
Of the sky, king of your six years.
And the wicked wish,
Down the beginning of plants
And animals and birds,
Water and Light, the earth and sky,
Is cast before you move,
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love.
Now, some brief considerations:
Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, launches into his presentation of the problem of life and its solution with the words,
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul, among other points, argues that human beings lie under judgment (“the wrath of God”) and thus seek to still their conscience by suppressing that truth. Having been built to worship, human beings turn that worship rightly owed to God to that which God creates. In such an explanation, even the most over materialist “worships” the creature by giving hydrogen atoms the capacity to create — if left alone long enough.
Thomas in this poem seeks nothing more than to suppress the thought of judgment. Now one could argue that Thomas is merely seeking to suppress a culturally manufactured dread (Thomas grew up in an at least nominally “Christian” world). But to do this, Thomas must first presume the God he rejects.
He begins with “truth” and ends the poem with “love”. Now, “truth” cannot had yet — “This side of truth”, since truth is future. Love at the end does not judge (“unjudging love”). Such ideas fall apart when he attempts to tie them to “good” and “bad” — indeed, the poem in the middle is an argument that both hands are mere illusion. The things which appear to be good and bad will be “undone”. That the skies are “unminding”.
There is the silly level of tension — plainly the argument of the poem, that all will resolve into a unjudging “truth” undermines the concept of truth itself. Truth is not necessarily not “false”. And yes, there is the claim that there is a higher register where such things resolve.
No one actually believes this.
Even in Hindu India, the people rightly are in arms about a crisis of rape. Yet, if there were no truth, no judgment, then shouldn’t they celebrate the evil? Shouldn’t we ignore maniacs who murder children or barbarians who enslave the weak of sex slaves?
Thomas presuppose a moral universe — love, truth, good, evil, love, hate before he can seek away around judgment. Thomas does not want to reject meaning, only his own judgment.
Thomas write the poem in a tone that plainly evinces love — and yet he seeks to reject the existence of love by rejecting the fact of truth. As a Christian I must admit to the horror of evil, but I hold that in tension with the fact of judgment and reward.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Were Thomas’s son to be murdered, Thomas’s poem would acquit the villain – yet Thomas would know the murder to be evil.
What then lies behind the poem? Death. The fear of death. Thomas touches upon the inability to stand before the Judge. Thomas prays for the nonsense of an “unjudging love” when what he needs is a Merciful Love. There are two ways to avoid judgment — lawlessness, anarchy and evil unchecked, or (2) mercy. Thomas does not want the first, but needs his own sin to pass unjudged. What Thomas truly needs is mercy.
I cannot promise a blue eyes six year old boy that the world has no meaning and that love will ignore evil. I can promise him that the Father gave his Son so that my son could be redeemed from wrath and made a son:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons.12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Luke 15:11-24. I love Thomas’s poetry. My heart breaks for his son as I think of my own. But the promise of mercy from the Father in the Son overwhelms all:
But Jesus wants to show us that this is not the case and that we shall be given a complete liberation. “You are right,” he says, “you are lost, if you look only to yourselves. Who is there who has not lied, murdered, committed adultery? Who does not have this possibility lurking in his heart? You are right when you give yourself up as lost. But look, now something has happened that has nothing to do with your attitudes at all, something that is simply given to you. Now the kingdom of God is among you, now the father’s house is wide open. And I-I am the door, I am the way, I am the life, I am the hand of the Father. He who sees me sees the Father. And what do you see when you see me? You see one who came to you down in the depths where you could never rise to the heights. You see that God ‘so’ loved the world that he delivered me, his Son, to these depths, that it cost him something to help you, that it cost the very agony of God, that God had to do something contrary to his own being to deal with your sin, to recognize the chasm between you and himself and yet bridge it over. All this you see when you look at me!”
From The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by John W. Doberstein (Harper & Row, ©1957)