“I tell myself that I have no problem believing in God,” writes Christian Wiman in his new collection of essays, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (he insists it should not be classified as a memoir; I disagree).
I tell myself I have no problem believing in God, if "belief" can be defined as some utter interior assent to a life that is both beyond and within this one, and if “assent" can be understood as at once active and unconscious, and if "God" is in some mysterious way both this action and its object, and if after all these qualifications this sentence still makes any effing sense. Clearly, I do have something of a "problem.”
That language matters, that the precise words we use when talking about religion are of utmost importance but will still always fall short of precisely what needs to be said, is a primary theme running throughout My Bright Abyss. It opens and concludes with what is at first glance the same four-line poem, until you notice the difference of a single punctuation mark. The book repeats another set of phrases a couple of times, always following some formulation of faith or belief: “in a grain of grammar, a world of hope.”
This, perhaps, is a central thesis of the book, this discussion of the unavoidable inadequacy of language when talking about faith:
To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that "you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general" (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deep your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.
Wiman continues by connecting these claims about religion in general to poetry in particular. Here’s the world of language that he knows:
There is an analogue with poetry here: you can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.
For those who had been waiting impatiently for Wiman’s new book — I only discovered his work two years ago, and quickly devoured everything I could find, both his poetry and his one collection of prose until now, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (bits and pieces of which appear here) — these words, this thinking, seem like what one knew was around the next corner, just beyond the tip of the tongue. Marilynne Robinson, in her blurb, writes that Wiman’s poetry and scholarship enables him to say “new things in timeless language, so that the reader’s surprise and assent are one and the same.” The fragmentary nature of this work echoes some of the pieces in Ambition and Survival: “Fugitive Pieces (I) and (II)” and “Eight Takes,” for example, and allows Wiman to follow each thought and image where they lead, without trying to tie everything up into a neat package or being worried that one part might conflict with another. (“Once more, years between that last entry and this one,” we read every so often.)
* * *
In my early twenties, I gave up on — or better, lost interest in — works of an apologetic nature. Everything I read or heard about from friends stumbled in ways small and large. Over and over, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, a strong conviction that whatever I believed, it wasn’t that. Circular reasoning and straw man arguments seemed to be the bread and butter of these authors. So when I read Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead in my mid-twenties and came across this paragraph where the 76-year-old John Ames, a pastor by vocation, is trying to explain to his 7-year-old son something he’ll need to know about belief and doubt, I memorized it and kept it close at hand, ready to quote:
In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them.
* * *
Following the sentence about his “problem” quoted above, Wiman writes about those things that “tease me toward faith, make me feel the claim on my being that is much stronger than the ‘I’ that needs belief, the ‘I’ for whom faith is doctrine rather than identity.” Finding Thomas Merton on that list of things that tease him — “poetry, fiction, meditative or mystical writers along the lines of Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, Simone Weil” — I realized with a start that I was sitting beneath a statue I had seen in the background of a photo of Merton, a stone’s throw from the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery where he spent most of his life. I had come here for a couple of days of silence, to read and write and think, to find the space I’d craved but had been too busy to find in recent months. With a big work project just wrapped—a new musical opening on Broadway, half a block from Times Square, for which I did the transcriptions and music prep for Trey Anastasio, the guitarist and lead singer of Phish — and Wiman’s memoir arriving on my doorstep, I jumped at the chance to make this trip up from Nashville again. I had been there a year earlier, the weekend of my 30th birthday, with some of Wendell Berry’s poetry and a first edition copy of Merton’s memoir The Seven Storey Mountain.
Although I made it halfway through Merton’s memoir on that trip, it took me another six months to read the remaining two hundred pages, partly out of my frustration at reading the descriptions of his post-conversion experiences, where he suddenly had All the Answers to Every Question. (This only strengthened my conviction to make every effort to avoid conversation (in person or through their writing) with new converts, whether to Catholicism, Buddhism, Vegetarianism, Atheism, or the local food movement.) Wiman, farther along, offers a needed critique of Merton’s early writings by describing one quotation as “a little bit of death from a thinker who brought the world so much life.” This critique, as defenders of Merton are quick to point out, was shared by Merton himself. For one example, see his letter to his friend Dom Francis Decroix written 20 years after The Seven Storey Mountain in response to a request from Pope Paul VI that he write “a message of contemplatives to the world.” Merton’s response, as he tried to explain why he was declining the Pope’s request, includes this:
Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions.
On this trip to Kentucky, I’m staying in a small cottage overlooking the pond at the back of Bethany Springs (the Thomas Merton Retreat Center), rather than at the monastery itself. Partly because of something I felt with renewed force when I finished reading Merton’s memoir last year. I am interested in neither a monastic life, nor an ascetic one. I’ll gladly stand with Jovinianus (and against St. Jerome, who identified this as an honest-to-God heresy, back in the year 393) in the declaration that abstinence from food is no better, in the eyes of God, than a thankful receiving of such. And you’ll find me much quicker these days to quote Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” than to agree with St Paul’s Greek-influenced dichotomy between spirit and flesh.
And so, out of that conviction, out of a desire to embrace and enjoy life in all of its sensual pleasures, before arriving at this cottage I stopped for groceries: asparagus and steak and a good cheese for dinner one night, salmon and a baked potato for another, a bottle of red wine to start the evenings and Glenlivet 15-year single malt scotch to end them, freshly roasted coffee beans from a shop back home to wake up with, and varieties of tea to enjoy throughout the day.
* * *
As a child, Wiman attended the First Baptist Church in Dallas with his family, pastored by W. A. Criswell who was also at the time the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a story recounted to Krista Tippet in an interview for On Being, Wiman tells about running forward at an altar call at six or seven years old and handing Brother Criswell a poem he had written — “I love the Lord and the Lord loves me / I will not forget and neither will he” — which Criswell promptly published in the newsletter of the Southern Baptist Convention. This makes Wiman, I suspect, the only prominent poet today whose first published poem was in the SBC newsletter.
Reading one of the PhD theses written about my great grandfather, John R. Rice, I discovered that as he was discerning between a career as an English teacher and a revivalist (he eventually left his English studies at the University of Chicago, after hearing a William Jennings Bryan lecture), he counseled a young man struggling with a “call to ministry” during a revival meeting at a small East Texas church. Turns out that young man was W. A. Criswell, then only 12 years old. After their conversation, Criswell decided that he would become a preacher, and his friendship with Rice, 15 years his senior, would last to the end of their lives. Rice would explain this connection in later years when attacked by fellow fundamentalists for still holding a friendship with a leader in that liberal, God-forsaken denomination known as the Southern Baptist Convention.
This connection to Wiman, this shared background where the first understanding one has of religious teachings is couched in fundamentalist language, was hopeful for me, proof that it is sometimes possible to get from here to there, to learn a new vocabulary of faith when the cracks in the old one become apparent. These read like notes from a fellow traveler whose current religious beliefs are in spite of, not because of, their childhood:
I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier).
* * *
When the questions of faith and belief comes up in discussions with friends these days and I sense that a short answer is wanted, I have lately turned to quoting a stanza from the last poem in Wiman’s newest collection Every Riven Thing in an attempt to explain my “problem,” to return to the opening formulation:
Sometimes one has the sense
that to say the name
God is a great betrayal,
but whether one is betraying
God, language, or one’s self
is harder to say.
* * *
As I have found Wiman to be a trustful guide in so many ways for this stage of my pilgrimage, I find him helpful in his exhortation towards apophatic language, a concept I had just started to explore when I picked up My Bright Abyss:
Apophatic language, language that seems to negate or undermine the very assertions that it is making, may be at this point not simply the only “proper” means of addressing or invoking God, but the only efficacious one as well. . . . We need to be shocked out of our easy acceptance of — or our facile resistance to — propositional language about God. Besides being useless as any definitive description of God, such language is simply not adequate for the intense and sacred spiritual turmoil that so many contemporary people feel.
* * *
What are, then, some of the things that “tease me toward” something like faith these days, distressed at the inadequacy of learned religious language and mindful of Wiman’s caution that “wonder is a precondition for all wisdom”? Scott Russell Sander’s memoir A Private History of Awe. Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. The poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail, Adam Zagajewski, Christian Wiman, Mary Oliver. The ability to breathe deeply, a sense of being at peace. Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony and Miserere, Op. 44. The smell of percolating coffee and sizzling bacon over a camp fire while the sun rises across the lake. The quiet found on a hike in the woods, or in my house late at night, when I’m sitting in my reading chair. Where I am at rest, hoping and waiting, content to be here now and looking ahead to the next fifty years.
Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he feels lucky to be able to do work he loves. When he’s not writing a string arrangement or printing out another thousand pages of music for a studio session or a symphony orchestra somewhere, you can usually find him hanging out at a local coffee shop or beer garden, book or journal in hand, or enjoying conversation with friends. Sometimes he dreams about being a writer. He blogs at www.jslweb.com.