Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Back to God: Poet as Believer

Poet Christian Wiman (he's been editor of Poetry for the last decade) has recently written My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer.  I happened to read Adam Kirsch's review of the book in The New Yorker.

We could, perhaps, add Wiman's thoughts to our list of God definitions.   Wiman's faith is personal and ultimately mystical.  Kirsch quotes from Wiman's poem which gives rise to the title of the book:  "I say God and mean more/ than the bright abyss that opens in that word."  Kirsch goes on to say, "In this image, God is a present absence, who leaves a space lit up by his departure. 'We feel God in the coming and going of God -- or no, the coming a going of consciousness (God is constant),' Wiman writes.  'We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension.'"

Wiman still has plenty of doubts:  he feels at times that he's "simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there's something worth buying."

Wiman grew up Baptist in a “flat little sandblasted town” in West Texas. He abandoned his faith for decades, only to find it again after two events occurred:  one was falling deeply in love; and the other was, shortly thereafter, discovering that he had a rare form of cancer.  As he puts it,  "When I fell in love with my wife at the age of 38, it became clear to me that I believed in something. When I got sick, it became clear to me that I needed to decide what that something was."  But just as George Santayana recognized (“The God to whom depth in philosophy bring back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them”), Wiman's new religion little resembles his old:  "If you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, you have not lived."

Wiman is after something at once important and elusive:  "I tell myself that I have no problem believing in God, if 'belief' can be defined as some 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 maskes any effing sense."

Again, as the poet, Wiman does not commit himself to any creed or doctrine:  "Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms."

Matthew Sitman, writing for the Dailey Dish makes this comment about Wiman's book:  "You do not finish the book with a sense of closure, that you can put your anxieties and uncertainties aside for pat answers. Wiman makes the skeptic confront uncomfortable possibilities – he asks the doubter to doubt even his doubt. And he makes the believer realize how much of what passes for faith is idolatrous nonsense, evasions and wishful unthinking."  Although religious, clearly Wiman struggles with the nature of things and the difficulties of human existence.  Once again, I find myself wondering what Richard Dawkins is talking about in his declaration, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”


James R said...

It sounds so strange to talk about God as something you believe in. Christian Wiman should know better. Perhaps he titled his new book to increase sales.

Of course, it's not uncommon. It seems to be a relic of the God of childhood. Even Wiman has to redefine the word 'belief' and still realizes he is being somewhat humorous.

If, as Paul Tillich says, you can never use the words 'God' and 'exist' in the same sentence other than saying 'God does not exist.", you should never use 'God' and 'belief' in the same sentence—for any reason, affirmation or denial. This would help solve some serious problems including huge misconceptions by people like Richard Dawkins.

Sure, you could say you believe in God, or metaphor, or essentialism, or life, or quantum physics, or love, or humanity, or "a present absence, who leaves a space lit up by his departure", You could, but we don't normally talk that way. You experience life or love. You struggle with the meaning of quantum physics or essentialism or metaphor. You feel "a present absence", etc. You act to understand the process of God. You experience, you struggle to understand, you seek meaning, you act, you don't 'believe' in God. That sounds so bizarre. I'm not sure what that even means.

Big Myk said...

Just like the word love, the word believe should probabably be split up into several words. To believe in something is quite different than believing that somethin exists. When someone tells you that, "You've got to believe in yourself," he's not telling you that you've got to believe that you exist. The democratic form of government could disappear from the face of the earth, and you could still say, "I believe in democracy." Believing in something has nothing to do with thinking that it exists or not.

To "believe" means to think or suppose. ("I believe that it's going to rain.") To "believe in" is to have confidence in something.

Clearly, Wiman does not think that belief in God is tantamount to thinking some truth or doctrine is correct. Although, that leaves open the question of just what does Wiman mean when he says that he "believes in" God. Again, there's no question that he himself is not so sure.

Perhaps, believing in God means that you have trust in the experience of -- whatever you want to call it: grace, the mysterium trememdum, the bright abyss, a sense of connectedness to the universe -- and that the experience is something real and not, as Freud says, a left-over fragment of infantile consciousness. And that something more must account for it than "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato."

James R said...

I completely agree. Language is so crucial. But do you really think by saying "Meditations of a Modern Believer" most people, including Dawkins, will understand it means "some 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 maskes any effing sense."?

I guess you have to read the book.

Again, I agree completely with your comment, but I still find it bizarre (and misleading). I'd suggest using the word 'explore' or 'explorer' or perhaps better 'wonder' or 'wonderer' in place of belief and believer. Richard Dawkins might also be happier.

James R said...

I guess what I am saying is, the next time the religious survey makes its rounds with the question, "Do you believe in God?", instead of having to include Wiman's statement on 'belief', or an explanation that the survey is not asking about your childhood notions of God, it would be easier to ask, "Do you wonder in God?"

Big Myk said...

Well, now you're back to James Carse and learned ingorance. ("[T]he better a man will have known his own ignorance, the greater his learning will be.” Nicholas of Cusa). Carse would prefer that the survey ask questions like, "are you endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human?" or "are you deeply moved by the thought of an unnameable mystery?"

Big Myk said...

I find that I need to correct myself. I said before that "to believe in" something is to have confidence in it, and not to think that it exists. As in, "I believe in the future." But, it turns out that "believing in" something can also mean to suppose that it exists. When in The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion chants, "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks," I think he's saying that he believes that spooks exist.

James R said...

No correction necessary. I never took your statement to imply exclusivity. 'Belief' can even mean thinking. However, your last comment is cleverly poignant, since when God is the subject, many use the word 'believe' exactly in the same manner as the Cowardly Lion.