My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief

Excerpt from Fall 2013 Bannan Institute Lecture

by Christian Wiman |

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them, not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the 

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

—A. R. AMMons, “The City Limits”2

Amen. I begin with this poem—“The City Limits,” by the late, great A. R. Ammons, a wonderful American poet—for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m going to talk a lot about art and faith and particularly Christianity; and the word “art” is like “faith” in one sense—if you use it abstractly for very long, you just completely leech it of any meaning that it has. Also, “The City Limits” feels like a religious poem; you will have noticed, right? I said, “Amen” at the end. It doesn’t have “Amen” at the end, believe me. It feels like a religious poem. It feels like it could be a Christian poem; there’s an incarnational sense to the poem. But the fact is Ammons had no religious belief at all, and he could actually be especially caustic about Christian manifestations of religious belief.

We come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God—our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

So that’s another thing I would like to talk about ... what an art or faith might look like—what it looks like in the hands of someone who doesn’t believe at all. Ammons represents a phenomenon in modern thought that by this point is probably pretty familiar to us: he’s what you might think of as an unbelieving believer. He wouldn’t believe in anything beyond the material world at all were it not for the insights that he’s given in his own life in poetry. And yet, by means of these insights—these “spots of time” as William Wordsworth once called them—it becomes possible to live and even to praise. The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel defined faith as primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith. We remember these moments of intensity and closeness to God, and we endeavor to remain true to them. It’s a tenuous and tenacious discipline of memory and hope ...

I was raised in a very religious atmosphere. It was in far west Texas, where the milieu—if I can use that word for that place—was charismatic— fundamentalist in a kind of automatic way. This was long before what are now known as the culture wars. Visceral and very tense. I have no memory of meeting a real-life atheist until I went away to college, when a dauntingly hip and prep-school freshman announced his atheism to me as casually as a culinary preference. In all honesty I could not have been more surprised and terrified had he begun swiveling his head around and growling Aramaic.

My faith fell away, or at least it seemed to, under the pressure of the books that I began to read. And for a long time I lived apart from God. And not simply apart from God, but ... apart from the world. Like many modern artists, the energy in my art seemed to come from this very distance.

That the energy was often a despairing one just seemed to me what modern art was.

I wasn’t an atheist; I wouldn’t have used that word. I was more someone fiercely devoted to his lack of faith, or fiercely devoted to a faith that had no object—either in this world or in any other. “Sumptuous destitution” is an evocative phrase Emily Dickinson uses. “Without my loneliness I would be more lonely,” writes Marianne Moore, “so I keep it.”

It took some serious events to shatter my notions, myself, and my art. I don’t have time or the inclination to go in to all of that ... Let me give you the short version. Poetry, after being the main focus of my adult life, went dead in me for a number of years, and I couldn’t write a word. It was three years. Then I fell in love. In a way that I knew immediately was both primal and permanent. And I got a terrible diagnosis that demanded some radical changes in the way that I lived. All these experiences were weirdly one experience in me. It took a while, but I eventually got it through my thick head what that experience was. It was the call of God. 

Here, then, is one of my poems called “From a Window.” It was written sometime after those experiences in one quick, consuming, and mysterious burst that seemed so utterly of my own mind and yet so little under my control that I couldn’t tell if it came from inside or outside of me. The scene here is someone looking out of a window when a flock of birds takes off suddenly from a tree.

From a Window3

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

So nothing in this poem was planned. I didn’t begin to have the realization that an experience of reality can open up into an experience of God and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. It’s not the way poetry works. I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief—all the emotions that had animated my earlier poems ... and the poem suddenly exploded into joy.

“God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And he goes on: “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.”4

Christian Wiman delivers his Fall 2013 Bannan institute Lecture, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief.” Grace Ogihara

 
Clearly then, the question of exactly which art is seeking God and seeking to be in the service of God is much more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made subject to God a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extension of, reality.

But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact, we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God—our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God, but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as the poet Patrick Kavanaugh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.”5 One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us is the void of godlessness and—this part is crucial—the occasional joy of that void. What I’m trying to say, I suppose ... is that sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.

Christian Wiman graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. For years he traveled the world—from Guatemala to the Czech Republic—devoting himself to the craft of poetry. He later became the Jones Lecturer of Poetry at Stanford University, a visiting lecturer at the Yale Divinity School, and also taught at Northwestern University and the Prague School of Economics. From 2003 to 2013, Christian Wiman served as the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest American magazine of verse. Under Wiman’s leadership, Poetry was honored with two prestigious National Magazine Awards in 2011. Wiman is now Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of three well-received books of poetry, a book of essays, and most recently, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer.

Endnotes


  1. Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” lecture, 2013–2014 Bannan Institute: What Good Is God? series, October 17, 2013, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available online at: http://scu.edu/ic/publications/videos.cfm 
  2.  A. R. Ammons, “The City Limits,” in The Selected Poems (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 89. 
  3. Christian Wiman, “From a Window,” in Every Riven Thing (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 31-32. Reprinted with permission of author. 
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 188. 
  5. rom Patrick Kavanaugh, “The Great Hunger,” in Collected Poems, ed. Antoinette Quinn (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 36. 
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