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The following is excerpted from Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries against Despair by Christian Wiman, forthcoming in December 2023 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. © Christian Wiman. All rights reserved.



OF COURSE THERE CAN BE NO SUCH THING. My Christ. Two thousand twenty years of permutations, interpretations, hardcore seminars, and wholesale slaughters. My Christ?

Of course there can only be such a thing. He is a universal language that only an individual heart can translate. My Christ.

I begin this essay prompted by two things, a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in which he talks of the necessity of drinking one’s particular shame to the dregs if one would ever be released from it. My shame is Christianity, sometimes. My shame is myself, sometimes. In any event I too often too-timidly sip of both, savoring my spite.

The second thing? As I read the Lewis passage, a hawk flew into my vision and landed on a tree limb I can see from my study. How we want the world to speak to us! But some utterance is too intrinsic to be speech. Some luck is love incompletely seen.



Love? The word assumes that the necessity that creates and crushes at the same time, sometimes in the same act, is not quite that—necessity, that is; that the ineluctability of the laws of matter is only apparent; that the blind force has feeling. And feeling that is by no means blind, for the mind behind it seems to reach right into my study in Hamden, Connecticut, August 6, 2021, to be perceived by the hungry and often hapless mind of a writer eager to see meaning in molecules, incarnation and resurrection in a random raptor.



Incarnation? Resurrection? Why these leaps? Why not let the world be world, for Christ’s sake, luck be luck? Because “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” (Dylan Thomas). Because “there are things we live among, and to know them / is to know ourselves” (George Oppen). Because the connection between us and the world is both absolute and absolutely contingent. We know in our bones that this is so, and sacred, and we know in our bones that we can never know that this is so, and that lack is also sacred. My Christ is both the means and the meaning of matter.

And the latter (not greater) miracle, resurrection? Why make that leap? It is life that brings one to believe in the incarnation, though “believe” is a neutered word for the mutual indwelling I have just described. It is life that teaches us of love, and “it is love,” as Wittgenstein said in his last book, “that believes in the resurrection.” That love is not possessed, not controlled, never fully understood—this is one lesson any truly attentive life teaches (love believes in the resurrection; one’s will is not relevant); that love is more than human is another, whether it’s some carnal connection leading one to “the love that moves the stars” (Dante) or some rapturous merging with eternity that leaves one, like Julian of Norwich, holding all creation compacted into a hazelnut.

My Christ—probably not tall, certainly not white, obviously not Christian, dirty and ragged as any impoverished and itinerant first-century minister would have been—lifts up his arms and says (to me, here in Hamden with my plump doubts and taloned falcon): “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”



How in the world to read this? It’s either transparently false, because I think instantly of two people I knew whose faith seemed to me bone-deep and unimpeachable even as they were mercilessly crushed by cancers which they at every minute believed God would heal; or it’s a kind of trick scripture, guarded by a seed of sophistry, because in every failed instance a blindly pious observer can say, “Well, they must not have truly believed in the possibility that their prayers would be answered.”

What if the verse—here, now, in the twenty-first century—is both more and less literal than it seems? Scripture is no more static than electrons are. Its meaning depends on your position in space and time. If you ask with such attention as you are able, then, such attention as you have been given; and if you ask, not of “God” exactly but of things (which makes perfect, even superior, grammatical sense), then you will receive reality, which means—here, now, in the twenty-first century—that you will be received into reality. It’s not a new idea. “That the self advances and realizes the ten thousand things is delusion. That the ten thousand things advance and realize the self is enlightenment” (Dogen, Genjo Koan).



——The wrist of the afterlife curls around
——A stem. Immortality comes first
——If ever it comes afterwards. Suffer
——The rebuke and move on, which is to say
——Upwards into the sainted, oldest tree.

————-——Donald Revell, “A Hint to Plotinus”



——However mysterious the mind-body problem may be for us, we
——should always remember that it is a solved problem for nature.

————-——Eric C. Banks


Is it? Solved, that is? Many thinkers have written about the possibility that the human mind is nature becoming conscious of itself. I would not limit the adjective to “human,” as consciousness seems to me a continuum, evident in apes and whales, for instance, but also uncanny kindred in volatile rocks and communicating roots. But let that be for the moment. If humans are ineluctably a part of nature, and if humans are still wracked with anxieties and difficulties (spiritual, intellectual, psychological) arising from an unresolved tension between the mind and the brain (this is what Banks means), then it follows that this “problem” is hardly solved within some separate or even overarching entity called “nature.”

The theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, in his most recent book, Helgoland, has posited a theory that erases the distinction between the human mind and the natural world. The fact that observing the action of quantum particles influences the way they behave is well established. Rovelli says that quantum theory has hitherto been limited in thinking of this dynamic only in relation to us, when in fact quantum theory “describes how every physical object manifests itself to any other physical object. How any physical entity acts on any other physical entity.” This leads to a radical conclusion, his “relational theory,” which, if correct, upends the history of physics (and other fields as well):

The discovery of quantum theory, I believe, is the discovery that the properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others. It exists only through its interactions. Quantum theory is the theory of how things influence each other. And this is the best description of nature that we have.

Existence is relation. Full stop. If you cannot tell anything about how an object is relating to what is around it, then poof, there is no object. This is incontrovertible at the micro level. That it seems not to obtain at the macro level has led to many theories, some quite imaginatively provocative (many worlds, etc.) but all, according to Rovelli, requiring that we posit realities we can never observe—a leap of faith, if you will. For Rovelli, the micro and the macro mean one thing, which is nothing. Billions and billions of quantum phenomena are happening around us (and in us!) at every instant. Our life, our need to make meaning from it, is all a kind of blindness. “The solidity of the classical vision of the world is nothing other than our own myopia. The certainties of classical physics are just probabilities. The well-defined and solid picture of the world given by the old physics is an illusion…. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.”

A despairing vision? Not for Rovelli. “There is a sense of the vertiginous—of freedom, happiness, lightness—in the vision of the world that we are offered by the discovery of quanta…. Watching what appeared to be as solid as rock melt into air makes lighter, it seems to me, the transitory and bittersweet flowing of our lives.” Gone is the scientific and philosophical materialism and determinism that have choked the soul for the last century. If everything is its relation to other things, the future can hardly be fixed, no matter how refined one’s understanding of the laws of matter are. (The hawk really is “random.”) For Rovelli this represents the end of metaphysics, which has been gumming up the works between the mind (“brain,” I guess he would say) and reality for so many centuries. He would be surprised and perhaps appalled, then, to learn that a religious person might feel as light and liberated by his vision as he does. Yet I do. Not only does it align with many of the modern artists and thinkers I most admire (Kandinsky: “The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus dead matter is living spirit”), it seems to me perfectly trinitarian in its implications. Rovelli’s “veil upon veil” that opens endlessly forever—this is God. (“If you think that you have understood God,” wrote Augustine, “then it is not God.”) The world that we still live very much in the midst of, the illusory rocks that slice us open and the faces made of infinitesimal and untouchable grains that we touch and love with everything we are—this is Jesus on the earth. He too was made of these grains; he too left not a wrack behind. And the elation that both Rovelli and I feel when we are so moved by this emptiness that is a fullness, this lack that feels so like love—this is the Holy Spirit working in ever new ways through the mix of time and timelessness that is our birthright. And none of this “exists” unless and until you turn your full attention to it.



Overingenious? I really don’t think so. Overingenious for me (and my Christ)? Probably.

On a podcast for a Jewish magazine recently one of the hosts told me—querulously, it seemed to me, which, given history, given me, seemed fair—that he could understand from my writings why I was a theist but not why I was a Christian. All my thoughts about incarnation and resurrection, apophasis and cataphasis, atoms and Adams—poof—gone. I stammered out the only answer I had. I am a Christian because once when I was suffering terribly and near death, Christ came to me—in my mind, in my heart, through the minds and hearts of others, through what I was reading and what I was touching and tasting and seeing, he seemed everywhere, dammit—and was present in my soul. Was my soul.

I have fallen so far from that time. I do not relish, and often do not even recognize, “Christianity.” And still, my Christ has led me from that moment to this one, has patiently waited while I have thought and fought my way through all these disconnected fragments. My Christ, I think, is disappointed that I still think I can think my way through such things. That through is even the preposition that should occur to me here.




——One life, not one among
——A thousand others of quail
——Like tipsy mandarins crowding
——The cold of a low wall
——Along a line of trees, the angel
——Promised me and nothing
——More, nothing to weigh.

——Menippus and Lucian
——Be with me now as I
——Feel my way among
——Misted pillars and ghosts
——Of breath on upper Broadway.
——A quick kiss in the crosswalk is
——More to me than mankind.
——There is no middle ground.
——There is our empty bench.
——There is the stoop of pigeons.
——Either I have been alone
——Every hour of my life or
——Never once, not even
——One moment, and the mist rising.

————-——Donald Revell, “Senesco Sed Amo”






Christian Wiman’s most recent collection of poems is Survival Is a Style (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). His new book of prose, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, will be out in December.






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