Christian Wiman: the limits of language, the persistence of love

By Ray Waddle

In a public world where professional believers thunder about the will of God and atheists deny and disdain, poet Christian Wiman projects an alternative voice.

WimanChristian Wiman

He is soft-spoken, precise, unafraid of ambivalence, intent to give an honest account of what it means to pursue God in the face of illness, bewilderment, the limits of language, and the persistence of love.

“I think poetry often does theology better than theology,” says Wiman, the newly appointed senior lecturer in religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, a joint appointment with YDS.

“We know God only indirectly and by metaphor – and that’s what poetry does, using metaphor, image, indirection. God is not as approachable a subject as we’ve sometimes made him out to be. We can learn from poetry.”

This semester, his first at YDS, he is teaching “Poetry and Faith” – an exploration of expressions of theodicy, doubt, suffering and praise, mostly through modern poems – an assemblage of themes that preoccupy him intensely as a poet and a human being.

Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine, is a leading practitioner in a rare contemporary discipline: he writes serious verse about faith – about losing it, finding it, being baffled by it, being somehow saved by it.

A religious cast of mind was stamped on him early by his west Texas Protestant childhood. But his deepest wrestle with God has come in the last decade, when he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable cancer in the blood. It’s in remission now. He has captured the ordeal, the severe pain of treatment and a relentless quest and questioning of God, in his 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than 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),” he writes. 

“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 he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.)”

Wiman’s writing and probing about belief thus come out of fierce personal experience – including the love of his wife and two young daughters – rather than the well-turned debates about the history or future of official Christianity. 

On this sojourn he finds companions in other poets who have faced the elusive meaning of faith (affirming it or rejecting it) across the centuries – George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, among many others. He highlights modern writers who, haunted by the divine, work against the grain of secularism – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Fanny Howe, Marilynne Robinson.

“They’re all wrestling ferociously with what it means to believe in God in this period after modernity,” he says.

Wiman realizes such a preoccupation will sound peculiar to the dominant literary culture, which has largely lost touch with the religious imagination and turned away from the dramas of belief.

“Poets today aren’t very concerned about theology, or they’re only accidentally concerned,” he says. “One of the reasons is the trend of specialization that characterizes all disciplines.”

“More generally, though, the problem is: we know too much. We think we know too much for the Christian story to be true. We know too much historically, cosmologically, anthropologically for this one story to be true.

“But that’s a paradox, because the more we know, the more we should realize how little we know. As physics demonstrates, we can’t even observe phenomena without distorting them. Uncertainty is built into our fixed knowledge. If that’s the case, then – good Lord – think of the mistakes we’re making.”

Religion belief in contemporary times faces another challenge – the need to enliven the language of faith so people hear it and connect with it beyond the clichés. 

“We do lose the habit of hearing the story. We have to find ways of engaging people without resorting to old formulas. Language can atrophy. The context in which language is used goes dead. One thing poems do is detonate clichés.  But another thing that poems can do is reanimate clichés so that they can communicate again.” 

His “Poetry and Faith” course goes directly to this issue, testing the extent to which poetry can do the work of theology, add to the fund of Christian tradition and inhabit the religious heart.

Students are expected to keep a journal of the assigned poems they read. They must also learn and recite at least 25 lines of poetry.

“Inevitably we will also look at poetry through the lens of faith, but a working assumption of the course is that a poem is, for a reader (it’s more complicated for a writer), art first and faith second,” he says in the course description.

“You may want to challenge this assumption. The entire course may end up being a challenge to this assumption.” 

These are not abstract matters. Staring down the threat of death, Wiman writes about God’s presence (as well as the “galvanizing consciousness of his absence”) as a most pragmatic and personal question. Apparently that’s how it must be with human life: God communicates and communes through the storms of personal consciousness and insight, as well as through one’s urgent connections to other people. 

“ … Christ is not an answer to existence, but a means of existing, and I am convinced that there is no permutation of man or mind in which he is not, in some form, present,” he writes in My Bright Abyss.

In the suffering of the cross, the otherness of God is distilled. “The incredible otherness becomes personal – it turns and looks at you,” Wiman says.

Through the assaults of experience, and through poetry, the mystifying puzzle of God becomes a personal reckoning, the precondition of epiphany. Wiman writes at the end of his memoir:

My God my bright abyss

into which all my longing will not go

once more I come to the edge of all I know

and believing nothing believe in this.

Date Posted: Friday, September 27, 2013 - 5:11pm