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Science, Poetry, and the Imagination
with Brian Volck

Class Description

Poetry and the sciences struggle to find language for the unknown, imagining reality in new ways. Both employ precise language, using narrative and metaphor to make unexpected connections. Both disciplines arise from the human desire for beauty, knowledge, and wisdom. As Czeslaw Milosz writes, “the incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of science or art is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves both physicists and poets.” Einstein, who was sixteen years old when he began imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, later wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

This is not a class on science and religious faith, although aspects of that fraught relationship will necessarily arise. Great poets and scientists see the world off kilter. By engaging reality with the assistance of the imagination, their work can inform our creative, moral, and spiritual lives. Both disciplines can teach us to ask better questions as we ponder the precious little we actually know.

What Others are Saying

“Volck is a good listener. More to the point, and unlike most of his professional peers, he is a terrific writer. His stories of attending to others are artful but without artifice; the lessons he shares and the means by which he shares them reflect erudition and wry wit.”
 Paul Farmer, MD, cofounder of Partners in Health, author of Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues, and subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World

“As a story-teller you are an excellent artist. I know this because you are able to reveal, in no more words than necessary, not only how you do your work, but more importantly, why.”
 Wendell Berry, from a letter to the author about On Attending Others: A Doctor's Education in Bodies and Words

“Like any poetry worth poring over, Brian Volck’s Flesh Becomes Word proceeds as inquiry accompanied by acute observation in pursuit. Like any poetry worth poring over, these poems perform what George Steiner calls a wager on the possibility of God, even in the midst of what some might consider to be evidence to the contrary. These are poems of deep humility, of wide and deep learning, of abiding and strenuous faith—and pervasive joy.”
 Scott Cairns, author of Slow Pilgrim and Idiot Psalms

“Drawing on an extraordinary range of literature both theological and literary, Volck and Shuman help us see the difference it might make for how we as Christians learn to live and die–for how our medical care of one another should be shaped. I simply cannot say enough good about this book.”
 Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School, reviewing On Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine

“I loved the variety of ways Brian helped us enter into this study: music, visual art, poetry, prose excerpts. He was open to disagreement, comfortable with necessary discomfort (example: people in class had different opinions on what it means to be Christian). He listened, allowed, synthesized. There was enough air and silence. The lecture he gave on Friday was also very moving. I would definitely take a seminar from this teacher again.”
— 2019 Glen Attendee, referencing Brian’s seminar “Beauty and Silence”

Brian Volck

Dr. Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received an undergraduate degree in English Literature and MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words, and co-author of Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in The Journal of Moral Theology, Christian Century, DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He does his clinical work in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation, teaches theology and medicine at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He is a Benedictine oblate at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

+ Read: Brian’s website

+ Read: Attending to the Body, Part I

+ Read: the Midwestern Gothic interview

photo credit: Michael Wilson

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