Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 4)


Chapter title in bold below.

O Thou Mastering Light

That is, you don’t once pass through religious innocence into the truths of philosophy or theology or literature, any more than you pass through the wonder of childhood into the wisdom of age. Innocence, for the believer, remains the only condition in which intellectual truths can occur, and wonder is the precondition for all wisdom.

The great fear was not that God would withdraw, but that one’s capacity to perceive him would atrophy. I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God. I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life, these rare times in which you are utterly innocent. It is a means of preserving and honoring something that, ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice.

Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder.

Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair.

In fact, as I’ve said, this is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself.

You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward— or at least outward— even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful— more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms— but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.

We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

surely any spiritual maturity demands an acknowledgment that there is not going to be some miraculous, transfiguring intrusion into reality. The sky will not darken and the dead will not speak; no voice from heaven is going to boom you back to a pre-reflective faith, nor will you feel, unless in death, a purifying fire that scalds all of consciousness like fog from the raw face of God.


Dear Oblivion

It can happen when eternity, in the form of your first child, comes crying bloody and impossibly beloved into time.

For Weil, though, one thing is clear: to believe in God is a practical matter, faith a physical act renewed (or not) at every moment.

I felt almost as if God had been telling me, as if Christ were telling me (in church no less): get off your mystified ass and do something.


Continue to part 5

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