The Yoderian Eschatology of Mary Oliver


Summer, 1964. Photo by Molly Malone Cook.

Over the past several years, poetry has been low on my list of priorities. Honestly, I’ve no idea why. Although I have lived with wonderful people who appreciate and share poems frequently, it wasn’t until (very) recently that I grew to understand and know the joys it can bring. Anyway, just a few weeks ago, a dear friend persuaded me to pick up Mary Oliver and I was blown away by how her words worked. Since then, I’ve read many more of Oliver’s poems–and others’ poems–delighting in the creative and unconventional ways that poets use language to name phenomena.

As a (basically) new poetry enthusiast I am incredibly naive–or at least, I think I am. To be honest, I’ve no clue if the stuff I’ve been reading is artistically tasteful or commercialized, easy garbage. My hunch is that, like everything else, developing a sophisticated sense of what is “good poetry” and what is “bad poetry” will take time, discussions, and experience. Nevertheless, I’m not about to let my self-awareness ruin the early and awkward stages of a burgeoning interest.

While I’ve most certainly enjoyed the ways that poetry frequently gives the middle-finger to modern construals of “rationality,” I also can’t help myself from making the inevitably academic claim that most poetry seems to be–at bottom–a largely theological event.[1] This first occurred to me while reflecting on Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods,” from her award-winning work American Primitive:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Here, Oliver’s words strongly echo the eschatological themes presented by John H. Yoder in The Politics of Jesus (as well as The Christian Witness to the State). According to Yoder, it was the mistake of Protestant liberalism to  think that the church is responsible for making the world “turn out right.” Affirming the triumphant claim of the New Testament, Yoder insists that “Jesus Christ by His cross, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of His Spirit, has [already] triumphed over the powers. This is the concrete meaning of the term Lord. The signficance of the present period of history, from Pentecost to Parousia, is that ‘he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Cor. 15:25).”

The implications of this are many, not least of which is the conclusion that Christians must be a people who renounce the “illusion of omnipotence”–that is, granting effectiveness priority over faithfulness. In so doing, we simultaneously learn what it means to “live out of control.”[2] Because Jesus of Nazareth has already redeemed creation, the church truthfully understands its role as a fortaste of the peaceable Kingdom–as a patient witness to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection which grants us the time necessary to justifiably renounce violence. Thus, the Christian is uniquely able to “love what is mortal / to hold it” and to “let it go.” All of this, that is, until we reach the the other side of Oliver’s unknowable river.

1. Yeah, I’m actually quite tempted to argue that it’s all theological.
2. A phrase used by Stanley Hauerwas in his essay “The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics,” originally published in The Peaceable Kingdom. According to Hauerwas, to live “in control” involves “breaking the cycle of self-deception that leads to the belief that justice can be achieved only through a power and violence that seeks to assure its efficacy.”