Articulating the Mystery of Faith: Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

We Christians are sometimes taken to task for the way that we, when embroiled in difficult conversations about whether or not God exists, chalk things up to “mystery.” Our atheist/agnostic conversation partners see this (rightly, in some cases) as a cop out, as a way of saying, “I don’t really understand why I believe, but I do believe, so I’ll just say it’s a mystery, which will end the argument because what makes a mystery mysterious is that it remains unknown and unknowable, unexplained and inexplicable.”

Poet Christian Wiman’s new memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer tells the story of Wiman’s ambivalent embracing of Christian faith, in the context of a cancer diagnosis. The events of Wiman’s life, however, take a back seat to his contemplation of God. Using poetic language, as well as actual poems (his and others’), Wiman articulates the mysteries that abide in the heart of faith—to the extent that such mysteries can be articulated at all, which is imperfectly.

Wiman explains why a living faith requires both articulated beliefs (dogma) and a mysticism that transcends language:

[M]ystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. So what does all this mean practically? It means that congregations must be conscious of the persistent and ineradicable loneliness that makes a person seek communion, with other people and with God, in the first place. It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall.

And if we claim to understand everything about our faith, if we claim a comfortable certainty with what we believe, our faith is suspect:

There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.

Writing about faith feels risky to me. My shortcomings become painfully obvious. For the past week or so, an atheist commenter (going by the screen name “ngotts”) has argued with many things that I and other readers have said on the blog and in the comments. I have not responded, in part for the purely practical reason that I have been focusing my limited writing time on penning future posts as well as some work I have promised to editors. But  I also haven’t responded because I have been unable to find the words with which to respond. I know the essential outlines of what I believe, but I don’t know how to explain it. I know that I see the world through a very different lens than ngotts does, but I have trouble saying why or clearly explaining how that lens alters my perceptions. I wasn’t ignoring ngotts’s questions because they were bad or silly or uninteresting. I was ignoring them because they were good questions, to which I felt unable to respond in a way that would be of value.

Sometimes I wonder what the heck I’m doing, passing myself off as a Christian writer when I don’t know how to articulate why I am a Christian.

Reading Wiman’s book has given me some new perspectives on all of this—ngotts’s (and others’) questions, my difficulty in figuring out what to say in response.

Falling back on “mystery” to explain (or not really explain) faith is not necessarily a cop out. If there really is a God who created the universe and all that is in it, including intangibles like love and beauty, isn’t some allusion to mystery necessary? If God could be entirely summed up with concrete language and tidy explanations, wouldn’t we be worshiping a tiny, limited God—one not worthy of our worship?

Only the poets among us are able to access language with which to begin to kind of sort of articulate the mysteries of God. Only poetic language can begin to articulate the mysteries abiding at faith’s core.

I am not a poet. Words will continue to elude me as I try to explain why I believe as I do. But my inability to articulate the mystical core of my faith doesn’t mean that such a core exists only in my imagination. That I am utterly unable to write a decent love poem, after all, doesn’t mean that my love for my husband is superficial and questionable. It just means I’m not a poet.

Christian Wiman is a poet—a poet with feet planted (or stuck) firmly in the muck and horror and mundanity of the world, even as he seeks something beyond it (or actually, deep within it, as Wiman argues that the reality of God is tied intimately to suffering). He writes,

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.

That sort of God doesn’t work for most of us. Wiman points us to a different sort of God, one we meet in humility and suffering and art and, yes, mystery. This Bright Abyss doesn’t set out to prove anything about God, which is possibly why I found it a far more convincing defense of faith than the most thorough attempt at apologetics. “What I crave now is that integration,” Wiman writes, “some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality, in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.” Wiman’s speech points us toward that which is unspeakable, which is probably as close to articulating the mystery of God that any of us can get.

(ngotts — I hope you’ll consider reading Wiman’s book, if only to understand why we Christian non-poets so frequently give incomplete, frustrating answers to your questions.)

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • mhelbert

    Thanx, Ellen. Far too many folks try to explain ‘why we believe what we believe’ in terms that, frankly, have no meaning outside of their small circle of influence. For me, music and poetry are a first language.Yet, as I have wrestled, (down on the mat with face scrunched into the floor), with the ‘why’ question, I’ve been left without words. The wounds inflicted by life cannot be explained by a ‘pie in the sky’ kind of god. Nor, can the transcendent experiences of walking in the heavenlies be explained by a simply human Jesus.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Well said. Thank you.

  • DaveP

    > I don’t know how to articulate why I am a Christian.

    Because that’s what your parents were. If your parents had been Islamic, you’d probably be Islamic. That’s how it works for most people.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes and no. Yes, I grew up in a Christian family and milieu so that is the articulation of faith I ultimately embraced. But I also made a conscious choice in college to be more than a Christmas and Easter Christian and to build a life on what I see as the essential truths of Christianity (some of which have lots in common with other faiths, and some of which are unique). That said, I believe that most faiths have much more in common than they do differences, so yes, I might have been a Muslim if I were born into a different family and culture. And articulating the mysteries through poetry would still hold true.

      • DaveP

        > … I also made a conscious choice in college to be more than a Christmas and Easter Christian …

        … just like your parents were more than Christmas and Easter Christians? Both socially and genetically, their parents are the people that children take the most after.

        > … articulating the mysteries through poetry would still hold true.

        Yep. I think that’s true across all religions and all people, because certain things right now are truly universal mysteries: how did the universe, and we in particular, get here? Was there a creator? What lies outside our universe? What is the best way to raise children? Why does chocolate taste so good?

        • mhelbert

          Because it’s chocolate! ;o)

          • DaveP

            :)

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I love that line about the poetry and the prose of knowing, Ellen. Our God is the Word, so I figure that language in all its richest forms points to him.
    Tim

  • Nick Gotts

    Hi Ellen,

    Thanks for your kind remarks. I don’t want to pester you or dominate conversation – the tendency to do that is a fault I recognise in myself – so I won’t ask any more awkward questions just now ;-). I also recognise that you are dealing with problems far beyond anything I’ve ever had to; if I was in your position, maybe I would feel the need for a faith (I don’t mean your faith is an outcome of your situation – clearly many people in similar situations to yours don’t have one, and many in similar situations to mine do). Finally, I don’t know why my nym started appearing as ngotts – I was originally posting on other Patheos sites as Nick Gotts – my real name – and would change it back if I knew how (my computer is currently telling me not to trust the link to “My Account”, where presumably I could do so).

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m glad to know your real name, Nick. I truly don’t see your comments as “pestering.” By putting my thoughts out for public consumption, I have to accept (even welcome) those willing to thoughtfully question my conclusions.

      And as for the problems I’ve dealt with…for me, they are definitely not what leads to faith. In contrast, they can be obstacles to faith. Or at least, obstacles to participating in Christian community. Because I truly despise most of the ways that Christians have excused/explained suffering and pain over the centuries.

      Please feel free to come back with “awkward questions” when you want to. As long as you do so kindly (without attacking or making unfair assumptions about me or other readers) your questions are welcome. I haven’t seen you do that yet, so I assume you won’t. And questions are good for me as a writer! I will be honest when I am unable to answer and you can take that as you will.

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