One paragraph illustrates both the reasons I admire Christian Wiman’s 2013 searingly honest My Bright Abyss, and the reasons I find the book frustrating to the point of irritation. A poet and erstwhile editor of Poetry, Wiman came to Christianity as an adult in the midst of an excruciating and incurable cancer of the blood. His suffering has naturally left a profound mark on the shape of his faith:
I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth that 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. (155)
This is an awesome insight, awesome in the original sense of awe-inspiring: No matter how deep the abyss, or how dark, Jesus has been there first, shattering, as Wiman says, the “iron walls around individual human suffering.”
In the same paragraph, though, Wiman waffles on the resurrection and the uniqueness of Christianity, and weakens his main point by questioning the actuality of the cry of dereliction itself. He acknowledges the role of theology, but tends to view it as a stage toward what he calls “belief”: “Perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (72). That is well put, but at times it appears that he neglects the “utterly possess” part of that equation. And one wonders what it means to forget, in the midst of pain, that “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering”? Surely, faith means that, at moments in the midst of pain, we are arrested by the memory of theological convictions.
Wiman recognizes that dogma is one of the means for forging and reforming his understanding “within the life of God” (117), but the book recounts his ambivalence toward dogma, which he makes impervious to critique by appeals to mysticism. “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” (75), There is much to be said in favor of this, especially the last claim that faith is a self-involving risk. There’s a lot of room between “clean intellectual coherence” and “certainty.” “The purpose of theology . . . is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning – by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings – more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful” (130). There is confusion here (what “aspects” of God are reducible to human meanings?) and the mysticism leaves one wondering if what room is left for a God who is Word.
Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)
Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”