The new issue of Image includes an essay in which poet and editor Christian Wiman grapples with the frailties, inadequacies, and embarrassments of religious language—and struggles with his own reactions against this kind of language. Read an excerpt here.
I HAVE TRIED to learn the language of Christianity but often feel that I have made no progress at all. I don’t mean that Christianity doesn’t seem to “work” for me, as if its veracity were measured by its specific utility in my own life. I understand that my understanding must be forged and reformed within the life of God, and dogma is a means of making this happen: the ropes, clips, and toe-spikes whereby one descends into the abyss. But I am also a poet, and I feel the falseness—or no, not even that, a certain inaccuracy and slippage, as if the equipment were worn and inadequate—at every step. And that’s in the best moments. In the worst, I’m simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there’s something worth buying.
What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect? The latter, you might say, occurs in quotes. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to an inept or unprepared preacher (or poet!) defer to the mystery of existence and God when more mystery is the last thing his words need or can bear—nothing, that is, except perhaps plowing through some twelve-volume Teutonic tome explicating every last letter of the laws of God. I begin to think that anything that abstracts us from the physical world is “of the devil,” as we said in the baked—and sometimes half-baked—plains of west Texas where I was raised, though there we were more inclined to blame Satan for tempting us too close to the sweet stinks of the earth. What I crave—and what I have known, in fugitive instants—is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it, some ultimate insight that is still sight. Heaven is precision.Eternity, the idea of it, is a powerful magnet for the mind, but the heart remains unmoved. It is a truism to say that we are never more alive than when we are closest to our deaths. (It is also, at times, if said of one whose suffering has swamped his humanity, an obscenity.) Yet under the easy gesture toward this fatal intensity (easy so long as it is safely intellectual, remote from us) there is a sharp edge: it might take an illness for you to feel that edge, either in your body or in the body of one you love, or it might simply be a kind of cut in consciousness so sharp that there is a pause between you and all that is not you, and, like a quick-handed cook whose deft slicing suddenly opens his own thumb, you are stuck in the shock of watching.
We live in and by our senses, which are conditioned in and by our deaths. When some singular aspect of reality—an object, a person, even a duration of time—seems to acquire a life in excess of itself, what we feel is more complicated than joy. This is because that excess is at once some inexplicable ongoingness of the thing and the loss of the thing as it is, at once eternity and oblivion. And this is why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God.
“God is distant, difficult,” writes Geoffrey Hill, a contemporary religious poet whose work—distant, difficult—might be said to have grown out of the seed of that assumption. But in fact distance from God—the assumption of it—is often not the terror and scourge we make it out to be, but the very opposite: it is false comfort, for it asks nothing immediate of us, or what it asks is interior, intellectual, self-enclosed. The result is a moment of meditative communion, perhaps, or a work of art, or even—O my easy, hazy God—one more little riff on the ineffable. To believe in—to serve—Christ, on the other hand, is quite difficult, and precisely because of how near he is to us at all times. In Seattle once, when I was twenty-one and working at some crap temp job downtown, I used to spend my lunch hours near the docks. One particular day when everything was crisp, blue, new, and even the molten men emerging from the metal with which they were working, and the bickering gulls buoyed up in gusts, and my own release from numbing office efficiency seemed to verge on some mysterious, tremendous articulation of light and time—suddenly a tattered gangrenous man staggered toward me with his arms out like a soul in hell. Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a thorn in the brain. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
I thrust my lunch into that man’s hands, one of which was furred green as if a mold were growing on it, and fled.