Meet America’s Most Important Christian Writer
By Matthew Sitman
Sept 3, 2014
There is one particular passage from Christian Wiman’s latest volume of poetry, Every Riven Thing, that remains lodged in my consciousness, lines I go back to again and again: “I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man.” This confession comes near the end of an elusive two-part poem, “One Time,” which begins with Wiman staring at a canyon in Arizona and ends with him lying beside his wife in the darkness, silently praying that she would “live and thrive” if the cancer ravaging his body kills him. Whatever else these heavy words might express, they reveal the paradoxical essence of Christianity, that there is no experience of resurrection that does not go through the cross, that defeat and despair mark the places from which solace unexpectedly emerges.
This capacity to avoid the empty optimism of so much American religion – the word “abyss” appears more than once in “One Time” – finds balance, however, in the flickering hope that also appears in the poem. While Wiman portrays belief as uncertain and difficult, he still recognizes those moments when “God’s being burns into ours,” still finds the world not totally devoid of God’s presence. The movement from the detailed description of the desert landscape that begins the poem to the bedroom in a house on the aptly named Grace Street seems self-consciously pedagogical. Wiman takes us from sweeping, lyrical observations about being to God’s working in the actual, difficult lives of two lovers. In the poem’s very last lines, as he listens to his wife breathe in her sleep, he even praises the pain “scalding” them toward each other, and the light of the coming morning, “the dawn in which one bird believes.”
Wiman seems to feel what it means to be a modern believer, his faith always mingled with doubt, his hope always counterpoised by the nagging thought that only nothingness awaits us. There is no faked cheerfulness, no sanitizing the struggles that any sensitive religious person feels today when examining his own heart. Wiman’s work resists neat conclusions of any kind; reading both his poems and prose, you can feel the way his experiences seem to elude his grasp, the words never quite pinning down what he has endured. He has absorbed all the reasons any honest person might offer for not believing – and yet, ultimately, he does.
Which is why, I would argue, Wiman is the most important Christian writer in America today. He reflects the moment we’re living through as much as he answers it, his work articulating the half-formed religious sensibility that is emerging amidst the churn of modern American life. Wiman is representative of our times while also pointing beyond them, fully inhabiting the tensions that come with belief in a secular age. The point of his work is not to argue for this or that Christian political position, not to weigh in on the moral issues exercising public debate. Rather, he tries to think about the meaning of faith, hope, and love as one world ends: the days when American Christians felt a kind of cultural confidence, when they seemed somehow more than merely one voice among many. Wiman has emerged as the most articulate, most forceful Christian thinker responding to these changes, seeing the present confusion as an opportunity to forgo the stale arguments of outmoded polemics and return to the most basic – if also the most pressing – problems with which Christians must grapple. What does it mean to believe God exists? How do we understand the life and teachings of Christ? What do words such as grace and mercy really mean to us? What can they mean to us?
When I read Wiman’s books, I am reminded of what the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder once wrote: “The revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem – new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” Not merely rhetorical, of course, because form and content take shape together. Wilder wasn’t suggesting that we simply gussy up old ideas with catchy slogans, but that a renewed religious grammar would emerge from creative thinking, from seeing the ancient story of Christianity with fresh eyes. As Wiman himself puts it, “To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.” No American writer today is exploring what this means, what shape this resurrection might take, with more verve and originality than Wiman.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Christian Wiman, that’s understandable. For most of the past decade, he’s helmed Poetry magazine, perhaps the foremost publication dedicated to poetry and poetry criticism in the United States. While a position of prestige and influence, it’s not the type of job that makes a writer a household name. Last fall, he left Poetry for a post at Yale Divinity School, where he teaches courses such as “Accidental Theologies,” a seminar devoted to writers such as Flannery O’Connor and the novelist Fanny Howe, who approach Christianity through fiction rather than theological treatises. Wiman’s appointment teaching future ministers, however, might have surprised those who knew him even a few years ago.
Wiman grew up in West Texas, where, as he once put it, the land “is flat as far as you can see, and the white aisles of cotton make a stark contrast with the black ribbon of the road, and the sky’s blue.” In a number of autobiographical essays, especially in the collection Ambition and Survival, he writes with searing honesty about his difficult, sometimes violent childhood. He details his strained relationship with his father, who Wiman once punched in the face as his parents’ divorce unfolded. He describes the specter of poverty that haunted his family, and the time, as a teenager, he witnessed a man get shot in the face by his own son while hunting. (Wiman goes on to recount learning that the son, his friend, would beat a man to death in a bar fight.) And of course, this being Texas, there was the old-time religion, the Christianity of hellfire and brimstone, of being born again. When you read about Wiman’s adolescence, you grasp why he fled all this to attend college in Virginia, where he would discover and immerse himself in poetry, the writing and study of which, along with voracious reading and restless travel, would mark most of his 20s and 30s. When Wiman asserts in his essay “Finishes” that “most young poets write less to organize life than to keep its chaos at bay,” it surely reflects his own experiences.
Until last year, Wiman’s literary output consisted of four titles, three of which were volumes of poetry – The Long Home (1998), Hard Night (2005), and Every Riven Thing (2010) – along with a collection of his essays, the previously mentioned Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet (2007). He also translated a book of poems from the Russian writer Osip Mandelstam, published in 2012 under the title Stolen Air, and has contributed to a number of anthologies. Taken together, this is the kind of work that tends to get noticed mainly among devotees of poetry, by academics, or in the somewhat rarified world of literary criticism – an appreciative but fairly narrow audience, occasionally punctuated with a review in the New York Times or a mention in a general circulation magazine. As Wiman once drily put it, “To be a poet in contemporary America is to be accustomed to, let us say, muted reactions to one’s work.” While Wiman receives the accolades and reviews appropriate for a poet, critic, and editor of his erudition and talent, his lapidary remark was, broadly speaking, not a bad description of where he stood in our culture.
But then a breakthrough happened, both in terms of what he wrote about and who read him. Ambition and Survival closes with a short essay, “Love Bade Me Welcome” – originally published in The American Scholar under the title “Gazing Into the Abyss” – that has become, in retrospect, a turning point in Wiman’s career. That essay became something of a modern spiritual manifesto, garnering the kind of following that comes from word of mouth – photocopies handed to friends, a link forwarded through emails, the topic of discussion over coffee. This is how Wiman describes the response to the essay:
It was published … in a relatively small magazine, and it generated what was, in my experience, a lot of responses. It was later, though, on the Internet, in anthologies, in church services and reading groups, that the essay acquired its second life, and I still get the occasional letter from someone who has come across it. These letters are diverse, intense, intelligent, and often from people who have no contact with the literary world whatsoever. They are the most gratifying reactions of my work that I have ever received.
What about the essay caused this reaction? Perhaps the answer is found in the essay’s modified title, a reference to the George Herbert poem “Love (III),” which begins “Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back” – a nod to his experience of love, both human and divine, and his complicated beliefs about what both portend.
In “Love Bade Me Welcome,” Wiman announced a renewed Christian faith, one that emerged as he fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, while also sharing that he was diagnosed with an extremely rare, incurable form of blood cancer. The essay explores what faith meant to him at a time when remarkable joy mingled with immense suffering in his life. God and faith, love and death – not light topics, but ones he wrote about with such bracing honesty that, in an era of religious platitudes on all of these subjects, readers sat up a bit straighter and took notice. And it was these themes that Wiman treated at length in his most recent book, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, a work that extends and deepens “Love Bade Me Welcome,” revealing Wiman as a kindred spirit to all those whose attachment to Christianity is real but fraught, who are struggling to find their way out of the shallows of so much American religiosity. That, at least, is who Wiman describes wanting to reach in the book’s preface:
There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God. I wanted to try to speak to these people more directly. I wanted to write a book that might help someone who is at once as confused and certain about the source of life and consciousness as I am.
My Bright Abyss is a guide for the perplexed, written in the midst of our contemporary perplexities. It is one searcher reaching out to others, trying to communicate what faith means at a time when Christianity’s credibility both as a body of thought and a way of life seems especially bruised and battered.
My Bright Abyss is idiosyncratic and difficult. Structurally, it possesses only the barest narrative arc – it’s not really a memoir, telling a unified story across its pages, but, as its subtitle indicates, a series of “meditations.” It mainly consists of short, almost aphoristic reflections on God, faith, suffering, and poetry in a manner reminiscent of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, a book Wiman notes as being particularly important to him. This gives My Bright Abyss a nearly unfinished feel – not because Wiman’s prose lacks vigor and polish, but because the fragmented text points to the difficulty of reducing the experience of his faith to written words. If Wiman’s story were too tidy, it would undermine all the paradoxes and complexities he’s trying to express. The form his writing takes mirrors the unsettled nature, the hesitations and doubts, of his own thinking. You do not finish My Bright Abyss with a sense of closure, of being able to reduce the book to a simple “message.”
Similarly, it’s wrong to view Wiman’s work as constituting a “conversion” story, a turning to God occasioned by his cancer diagnosis. He specifically notes at the book’s outset that he almost wrote it without mentioning his illness to avoid any accusation of special pleading. So many of the reviews of My Bright Abyss juxtapose his cancer and his faith that the casual reader could be forgiven for linking the two in this manner, for thinking that the former somehow caused the latter. Such a mistaken impression might also be adduced from the fact that Wiman describes himself as adopting a “bookish atheism” in college and then, as a young adult, slipping into something like agnosticism, treating religion with a kind of benign neglect. It’s easy to see how a too-easy story might take shape: a man who hadn’t been to church in years got sick and found Jesus.
Reducing Wiman’s story to the above is all the more tempting given the vagaries of American religious culture, where the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian language of being “saved” or “born again” looms over how we think about religious experience. But one reason Wiman goes out of his way to resist such tropes when writing about his own faith is that, growing up in west Texas, this was exactly the style of Christianity in which he was immersed. He peered into one way of understanding what it means to be a Christian and found it wanting. In the opening pages of My Bright Abyss, Wiman shares an “experience” he had one morning in church around the age of twelve:
…I rose during the altar call to be saved and, instead of heading toward the altar and the preacher’s extended arms, fled the service entirely and ended up in the basement. What intensity seized me so utterly that I could not stay still? What love or judgment so overmastered me that I could not speak? Eventually my father found me, muttering incoherently, weeping – ecstatic. No one was in doubt about what had happened to me, nor did it matter that I myself had no idea. I had been visited just as Jacob or Mary was visited. I had been called, claimed.
To be sure, Wiman takes seriously what happened to him. Searching his memory, he wonders if the event was due to cultural expectations – many in his church were “saved” around this age, in preparation for an early teenage baptism – or even if he somehow contrived to fake the event. He also holds out the possibility that it was real, and the fact that he remembers so little of it is because he “can’t stand apart from it, can’t find an ‘I’ from which to see the self that, for a moment, I was. Or wasn’t.” Perhaps it lives on, to use his word, in some “cellular” fashion, has become so much a part of him that it’s impossible, as he indicates, to claim an objective position from which to judge what really occurred. He doesn’t want to dismiss the experience so much as show that a faith that takes its bearings from what happened to him as an adolescent would reveal a kind of arrested development, an inability to deepen and explore his faith as experience impinged on his understanding of Christianity. As he writes, “If you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, you have not lived.”
More importantly, though, Wiman looks back with ambivalence at that episode because he simply no longer holds to such a model of what faith is like. The notion of conversion he grew up with presumes a neat division of before-and-after, that you have a certain kind of spiritual experience and then move across a ledger that separates the damned from the saved, the lost from the found. In a particular moment, you are born again. This approach also treats faith, in a way, as believing in certain propositions – it is about grasping your situation and responding in a particular kind of way, even if such knowledge is mingled with, or initially spurred by, an emotionally fraught experience. You “accept” Jesus into your life, and that is when you become a Christian. Many fundamentalists and evangelicals can tell you the exact moment they became saved, which only is possible when you understand salvation, at least in part, as a function of processing certain information. Everything “clicks,” and you are bound for glory. You know you are saved.
Recall the detail of what, for Wiman’s childhood church in Texas, such an experience was meant to precede: baptism as a young adult. This style of baptism means, in contrast to the infant baptism of other branches of Christianity, that the person is conscious of exactly what he or she is doing. One reason many in these churches are baptized in their early teenage years is because that is when they have reached what is called the age of accountability, when they are old enough to understand their decision. It is a public declaration of a choice to follow Jesus, implying that those who participate in the rite have decided to do so not just with their hearts, but with their minds. When the preacher dunks the person into the water three times – once for each member of the Trinity – she emerges cleansed of her sins, renewed and committed to the Christian life. This manner of baptism is the physical enactment, a symbol, of the assumptions about faith just described. It is the ritual corollary to knowing the day and the hour when you were saved. Part of what Wiman does in My Bright Abyss, as well as in a number of his essays, is push against this understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Or rather, how you become a Christian.
It doesn’t make sense to call My Bright Abyss an account of Wiman’s conversion, then, because he doesn’t really believe in conversions, at least not of the sort just described. In his essay “Notes on Poetry and Religion,” Wiman makes this explicit, writing, “I find it difficult to believe in radical conversion stories – Saul on the Road to Damascus and all that.” Instead, he holds that, eventually, “I assented to the faith that was latent within me,” a phrase Wiman notes that he chose with great care. He claims “there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two,” no rupture or extremity that jolted him from agnostic to Christian, not even the cancer diagnosis that upended his life. This is important because, if nothing else, dramatic conversions – along with the related notion that becoming a Christian demands a moment when the tenets of the faith, even the most basic ones, make sense, when the blurred lines of belief come into a purifying focus – are not what many sincerely religious people experience. Some are born with an instinctive hunger for God, many quietly drift into a humble but real devotion, and still others, as long as they live, find their faith assailed by doubt.
By stressing that his faith is not the product of a religious epiphany, exactly, but the consequence of a more gradual shift in understanding, Wiman opens up the possibility of faith for those who never find themselves responding to an altar call. He anchors religious faith in life, demanding we rethink the very distinction between “everyday life” and the “miraculous,” the separation of nature and grace, of God being found apart from all that we see and feel and experience. And by doing so Wiman offers a different way of getting at what it means to talk about having, or not having, faith.
Wiman’s work refuses to be trapped in the prevailing categories of contemporary American religious debates. Part of this is due to biographical accident. Once he left his Texas childhood behind, he was formed outside these pressures altogether – he’s never been a professional Christian, never felt obliged to toe the line of any sect or organization. He was not actively religious for most of his adult life, and he describes his return to church as unplanned, surprising, and almost accidental. As such, his writing completely sidesteps the well-worn clichés of church language, the catchphrases that come secondhand to anyone steeped in certain faith communities. There are references, as noted, to his evangelical youth, and an aside or two about the New Atheists, but the real content of My Bright Abyss emerges from Wiman’s own experiences – with love, with sickness, with the struggle for meaning. These in turn are shaped by the vast expanse of his own eclectic reading, especially poetry, but also including many of the great theologians of Christianity, particularly those who grappled with the tumults of the twentieth century. Perhaps no set of circumstances could have better prepared him to see past the prejudices and banalities of his own age.
For Wiman, having faith in God is not like believing that a table or chair exists, or that certain laws of physics are true. The Christian God can’t be construed as a being like other beings, perhaps just “bigger” or more powerful. God is not “up there,” a person who lives in Heaven, looking down at all of us, occasionally intervening in our affairs. God, rather, is the “ground of our being,” to use the theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase, the source of all things, the reason anything exists at all. Wiman thinks the question of whether or not God “exists” almost is beside the point – that very quandary is, in a sense, a category error: “God exists apart from our notions of what it means to exist, and there is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered.” To say “God exists,” in other words, would be to project our experience of existing onto God – of using our finite, temporal existence as a template for understanding the divine. The difference between God and human beings is qualitative, not quantitative. It is a disparity of kind, not magnitude.
Wiman understands God and God’s existence, then, in a way that combines ancient metaphysics and modern doubt. That is, along with classical and medieval theologians and philosophers both within and beyond the Christian tradition, he takes great care not to anthropomorphize God, to write as if God were just The Big Guy Upstairs. David Bentley Hart, in his recent book The Experience of God, aptly summarizes this view:
To speak of “God” properly … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things.
Wiman might nod along with this, and fully grasp its meaning, but part of what makes his thinking distinctive – and distinctly appealing in an age of uncertainty – is that he knows such language leaves most of us cold. Not because Hart expresses this view of God in somewhat technical language, though that might be part of it, but because we are no longer drawn toward a God of metaphysical necessity. Our universe is not so neat and tidy. We know the speck of dust we inhabit, orbiting around a third-rate star, is not the center of all things. We know about Darwin and modern science and live in a time when belief in God is quite optional. So to hold up this older vision of God and say, “See, God isn’t what you thought!” is a necessary but insufficient move. Part of what Wiman attempts is to take these ancient insights about God, so far removed from modern rationalism, and make them fresh for our own age, claiming their continued validity while responding to the doubt and uncertainty that so many of us experience. As Wiman puts it, “Omnipotent, eternal, omniscient – what in the world do these rotten words really mean? Are we able to imagine such attributes, much less perceive them? I don’t think so.”
Wiman depicts faith as something like an orientation toward reality, a way of seeing and understanding our lives. In this, he offers an alternative way of grasping the truth of Christianity. Such a truth is not propositional – it does not treat doctrines as philosophical axioms that can somehow be proven correct. Rather, Wiman holds to Christianity, at least in part, because of the way it makes sense of his experiences. It is a way of life, a framework for grappling with love and loss, suffering and joy. Religious faith is not a leap in the dark, but a stance toward reality. Faith is less about blindly accepting dogmatic claims and more about staking out a position from which to grapple with life. We all have such a position, all operate and think on the basis of presuppositions, even if most of us only rarely examine them. Christianity’s persuasive force, for Wiman, comes from the extent it “maps” onto life, the power of the interpretive resources it lends to a person over and against various alternatives. To give a sense of this, consider Wiman’s response to those who claim to have “no religious impulse whatsoever”:
I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life, these rare times in which you are utterly innocent. It is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.
This, of course, is not yet an argument for Christianity, exactly. But you can begin to see how Wiman approaches faith, how it emerges from life while also being a means of understanding it. Religious belief is a response to the felt breadth and depth of reality rather than being a set of abstractions imposed on his life from the outside, somehow apart from the life he’s lived. Religion – and thus faith – is not just about signing onto a creed, but about doing justice to the experiences he describes. There’s an integrity to these moments of intensity or insight, for Wiman, that demands we do something with them, viewing them not as aberrations in comparison to the humdrum of everyday life but, in their jarring luminescence, the means by which the “everyday” is reconfigured and seen anew. In Wiman’s words, these moments “situate us in something larger than ourselves, even as they cast us back into brute reality.”
Wiman is not writing here of “bright light” experiences, of a voice from the heavens. He’s pointing to experiences almost all of us have had, but might not consider religious – feelings stirred by falling in love, or being alone on the side of a great mountain, or the flash of insight arising from art or poetry or a song. Faith is trusting – rather than asserting, or even somehow fully comprehending – that these moments show us there is something more to existence than matter in motion. Acknowledging that something more, “preserving and honoring” it, is the beginning, if not the end, of faith.
Just as faith can be a response to life’s intensities, it’s also true that faith can lend intensity to life. For Wiman, religious faith should be deeply worldly, drawing us more fully into living. His is a faith of engagement. Wiman claims the “truth of a spiritual experience” is that “it propels you back toward the world and other people,” not more deeply into your own isolation, toward a kind of spiritual solipsism, nor beyond the world, reaching toward an ethereal “heaven.” Here’s how he explains this, in slightly different language:
I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God.
Those last phrases are emblematic of Wiman’s thinking – God is implied, included, or demanded by the “overflowing” in our lives, but not, in the usual sense of the word, argued for, as if adequate proofs could be provided for God’s existence. Faith sees these moments of intensity as truly revelatory, as disclosing an aspect of reality we too rarely look for, or move past too quickly. It tutors and channels them, finding their beginning and end in God – their evanescence is mitigated or at least comprehended by becoming part of the fabric of a world saturated by the divine. They become part of a broader reality, one upheld by God, and living with faith becomes a way of seeing them in more and more aspects of our lives. David Bentley Hart’s God who is “the infinite wellspring of all that is” becomes, for Wiman, the clue to why life can so overpower us, or why even small gestures of mercy and kindness can take on profound import. Faith in such a God enables us to live into our experiences with joy and openness, rather than believing God requires us to shift our gaze toward the world to come. Here’s Wiman again: “If God is not in the very fabric of existence for you, if you do not find Him (or miss Him!) in the details of your daily life, then religion is just one more way to commit spiritual suicide.” You can feel your way into faith, finding it among the intimations of the love behind all things, even when arguments about God’s existence fail to fully convince.
If much of this seems abstract, that’s because, frankly, it can be. Wiman’s writing is not without its frustrations. At times, it slips away from you, circling around an idea but never quite nailing it down. Wiman bobs and weaves – God or faith or religious experience is this and now that, appears to be one thing and then another. From time to time in My Bright Abyss, he recognizes this, chastising himself for intellectualizing such matters, for being stuck in his head rather than simply living his faith. In one moment of exasperation, he writes to himself, “get off your mystified ass and do something.” He admits that “hardcore theology” tends to leave him cold, as opposed to the poetry and fiction that can put flesh on the dry bones of Christian doctrine. Wiman grasps that, if it is anything, Christianity is a way of life, and not merely theological speculation.
This awareness of his own tendency to think rather than practice the Christian life points to another reason for Wiman’s cagey prose – he believes words fail to capture fully what God might be like, or how we experience the divine. In “Love Bade Me Welcome,” he turns to Simone Weil to explain what he means:
There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time – and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time – they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”
Note the nuance of what Wiman argues. His point is not that “negative theology” – saying only what God is not – is all that we can muster, though certainly there is an apophatic, mystical strain in Wiman’s thought. Rather, he seems to indicate that our connection to God, especially the language we use to speak and write about God, possesses both insufficiency and integrity. In one sense, our words about God separate us from the divine, necessarily falsifying some aspect of God’s nature – the full extent of what God is like spills beyond the limits of language, or even our comprehension. Yet acknowledging this should not cause despair, but rather humility. What else do we have to grapple with such questions, if not our minds and our words, even if they are caught up in our finitude and fallibility? Not being able to say everything is not the same as being reduced to saying nothing at all.
Wiman further explains what he means in “Notes on Poetry and Religion”:
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.
Part of Wiman’s distinctive religious sensibility stems from this posture toward religious language. His embrace of doubt and uncertainty is rooted in the necessary imperfection of the words and symbols we use to talk about God. When every link is a separation, when we understand our communicating with and about God to be scratches on a wall, mystery does not have to be evaded. To lose all faith in language is to fall into nihilism; to believe human words fully capture God’s essence is to slip toward fundamentalism, where there is no gap between the words of a sacred text and all that there is to know about God. Faith, then, is not just faith in God, but a kind of trust that language has a genuine purchase on reality, that when we describe our experiences, including those we link to the divine, there is a meaningful – if also incomplete – connection between those experiences and the words we use to articulate them.
Wiman’s attention to language also reveals just how deeply he approaches religious questions as a poet. Consider this passage from his essay “An Idea of Order,” which takes Simone Weil’s image of prisoners in a jail cell and turns it toward poetry:
[Poets] are enclosed in a kind of cell, but from beyond the wall on which they practice their half-learned language of taps and scratches there sometimes comes something like an answer, something that, in their better moments, they can almost believe is an “original response.” The wall is poetry. Life is on the other side. The wall is what separates the poet from life, but it is also the means by which life is apprehended and understood.
The context for this statement is a defense of poetry that does more than merely mimic the felt chaos of the modern world, but finds in the structure of a sonnet, or cadences of a pattern of rhyme, the means of organizing thought and experience. Wiman’s upholding of traditional poetic forms is not reactionary; he never slips into a stringent conservatism that forbids aesthetic experimentation. What Wiman does defend is a “formal coherence” and “sense of closure” in a poem that still is conscious of “the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes.” The poet has the capacity to wrestle our anxiety and uncertainty into a certain order, and the best poetry does that without obliterating – indeed, still encompassing – those very feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Poetry and religious faith “work” in similar ways. What Wiman seems to be saying is that just as poetry can capture something of both the suffering and peace we experience and give them meaningful articulation, so religious faith can take the sorrow and love and longing for fullness that we find in life and give them shape as well. The dilemma posed by this, though, is whether poetry, as a means of staving off chaos, ultimately is a form of evasion. The same question can be asked of religion, and Wiman answers them both in the same way:
[T]he only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. [Theologian George] Lindbeck would go so far as to say that your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it’s your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended.
This is true of poetry, too: I don’t think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of 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.
Poetry emerges, then, as a kind of preparation in Wiman’s life for religious faith. When he describes a faith that was “latent” within him, he doesn’t mean he was a Christian all along and simply failed to see it, or at least not exactly so. Instead, I take Wiman to be saying that certain suppositions about language and life, first articulated in the context of poetry, found their full flowering when applied to religion. It is telling that the book he subtitled “on becoming a poet” ends with him becoming a Christian. That a man spending his life obsessing over words should find himself practicing a faith that claims “In the beginning was the Word” is more than a happy coincidence.
Lurking behind Wiman’s appreciation of Simone Weil’s image of prisoners tapping out messages, however, is his sense of its ultimate limitations, especially when we move beyond what it might teach us about religious language. After all, a jail cell seems an inadequate picture of life, especially the religious life – all the more so given his emphasis on faith drawing us toward engagement with the world. As Wiman puts it, “Weil’s image for the human condition is a person in solitary confinement. There is real hope in the image, but still, in human terms, it is a bare and lonely hope.” Wiman is wary of being an artist abstracted from the world and distant from other people. He struggles to avoid having his work and his faith become an excuse to negate life rather than a way of inhabiting it. “Art, like religious devotion,” he writes, “either adds life or steals it. It is never neutral. Either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length.”
Which is why, when it comes to his most concrete affirmations of Christianity, Wiman so often connects faith to love. His return to Christianity, as he describes it in “Love Bade Me Welcome,” was bound up with falling in love with the woman he eventually would marry. Loving another person seems to enact the movement toward the world, toward affirming the goodness at the heart of life, that he also places at the center of his religious faith. In My Bright Abyss, he claims that “Christ comes alive in the communion between people.” He sounds this theme again and again, both in the context of romantic love and with regard to more ordinary interactions with other people. Wiman notes his fondness for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s line that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own. His gloss on the meaning of that phrase is “first, that we depend on others for our faith, and second, that the love of Christ is not something you can ever hoard. Human love catalyzes the love of Christ.”
No better summary of Wiman’s thought exists than his meditations on love. Nearly all his distinctive emphases find their most striking articulation in the context of it. Before he fell in love, Wiman describes years in which he stopped writing poetry and moved through life, as he puts it, as if “watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.” He had arrived at a creative and personal dead end. And then love broke in:
We usually think of falling in love as being possessed by another person, and like anyone else I was completely consumed and did some daffy things. But it also felt, for the first time in my life, like I was being fully possessed by being itself. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
I don’t mean to suggest that all my old anxieties were gone. There were still no poems, and this ate at me constantly. There was still no God, and the closer I came to reality, the more I longed for divinity – or, more accurately perhaps, the more divinity seemed so obviously a part of reality. I wasn’t alone in this: we began to say a kind of prayer before our evening meals – jokingly at first, awkwardly, but then with intensifying seriousness and deliberation, trying to name each thing that we were thankful for, and in so doing, praise the thing we could not name. On most Sundays we would even briefly entertain – again, half-jokingly, – the idea of going to church. The very morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue.
This is not Wiman’s capitulation to our culture’s obsession with romantic love. Instead, his falling in love opens the way to God’s love, or at least points to that possibility, because the former mimics our experience of the latter; that is, love yields both an “overflowing,” a sense of something more, of transcendence, while also drawing us more fully into the task of living. This double movement defines both falling in love and religious experience for Wiman, which is why, when he announces that love quite literally brought him to the door of a church, we aren’t surprised.
Wiman also makes clear that falling in love did not “cause” him to be a Christian, at least not in any straightforward sense of cause and effect. What he describes is less a linear process – step one, fall in love; step two, find God – than mutual reinforcement. The precise relationship between human and divine love is a mystery for him, even while it’s impossible for him to disentangle the experience of both. In practical terms, the human love often comes first, or at least that is what we perceive first. But then, as this love does its work in our lives, we come to grasp that it is a part something both broader and deeper, even all-encompassing, that was there all along. In My Bright Abyss, Wiman articulates it this way:
I don’t think the human love preceded the divine love, exactly; as I have said, I never experienced a conversion so much as an assent to a faith that had long been latent within me. But it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found – together, and his presence dependent on our being together – burning there. I can’t speak for other people. I only know that I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God.
Here Wiman makes his distinctive stance toward life and faith most clear. The overpowering experience of human love finds, as he phrases it just a page later, “its essence and origin” in God. This applies, as mentioned, not just to romantic love, though that perhaps is the most powerful example he can offer – rather, any love, a mother for her son, or between friends, or even the simple kindness of one stranger for another, can fit this pattern. At their best, these offer glimpses of God’s unconditional, sacrificial love for us. God’s love is what our love for one another points toward, the ultimate reality in which our acts of grace and mercy participate.
What makes this distinctively Christian is that the looming presence behind such arguments is the life of Jesus. In the passage just cited, he describes the “pure contingency that caught fire” in his and his wife’s life together, leading them to Christ. And the reason the one led to the other is because, as he remarks a number of times, “Christ is contingency.” Put aside abstruse debates about the Incarnation, of how God could become man. The meaning Wiman finds in this doctrine is that God gave himself over to matter, to “the mutable and messy process of our lives,” thereby confirming the here and now as the place where we find meaning and encounter God. When Wiman asserts, again and again, that religious faith really is faith in life, this is what he means. There is, for him, “no release from reality,” no beyond we can expect to really know, and Christ’s own contingency – that he lived in a particular body, in a certain place, thoroughly embedded in the context of one historical moment – affirms that meaning emerges from within our own contingent lives, and our relationships with the people who unexpectedly share this fragment of time with us. God has confirmed, in the life of Christ, the legitimacy of what is intimated about the divine in our lives and experiences.
Just as importantly, this matters for the texture of the faith Wiman holds. Contingency also means change, chance, and uncertainty, so any idea of faith as some “fixed, mental product,” to use his term, really is impossible. What access could we, in our finitude, possibly have to absolute truth? Wiman argues that “faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change.” Faith, then, is not about trying to wrench a set of timeless abstractions into our time-bound lives – Wiman is clear that this only will end with defeat and despair. The true task of faith is to reconcile us to our contingency, living into our mortality with love and hope.
This grace in the face of contingency and change particularly matters when Wiman discusses his cancer diagnosis. The unexpected turn in life, at its most difficult, includes suffering and pain, and this is where the humanity of Christ becomes most essential in Wiman’s thinking. If there is one reason Wiman’s spiritual longings express themselves through an attachment to Christianity, it is because Christ, in the fullness of his contingent mortal life, experienced the suffering that can suddenly intrude into our own lives as well:
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). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.
I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death even – possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.
There are passages in My Bright Abyss that include harrowing descriptions of Wiman’s cancer treatments, what he endured physically and spiritually while undergoing them. Suffering, and the possibility of a young death, obviously constitute a major concern in his writing, including much of his recent poetry. But the essential point Wiman always circles back to is that, while his suffering can settle into bleakness and doubt, it relates to his religious life not in the form of hoping for a better afterlife, but through a fragile awareness that God is somehow present in and through that suffering. Those hoping for extended meditations on the theodicy problem, for discourses on why an all-loving, all-powerful God allows suffering, will not find them in Wiman’s work. Faith in a crucified God is not an explanation of suffering, but a response to it that believes love endures even when we are at our most helpless, and that somehow pain and fear are not the final word. And it might be in the midst of such suffering that we discover what love really is, and when we perceive the meaning of Jesus, his arms stretched out on the cross, in all its abiding power. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” Wiman writes, “and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.”
(Top photo by Daniel Zimmermann. Inline photo courtesy of Christian Wiman.)