Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 5)

Chapter title in bold below.

Hive of Nerves

But the reality of contemporary American life— which often seems like a kind of collective ADHD— is that this consciousness requires a great deal of resistance, and how does one relax and resist at the same time?

Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.

Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.

It is a strange thing how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God.

Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it. It is never neutral. Either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length.

God Is Not Beyond

If you come to an idea of faith as “first of all an intellectual assent” (Thomas Merton); or if you think of it not as a state of mind at all but as “being seized by Being itself” (Paul Tillich); or if you think of faith as primarily “faithfulness to an event” (Abraham Joshua Heschel) in the past in which you or even all of humanity were, in effect, seized by Being; or if you construct some sort of “inductive faith” (Peter Berger) out of the moments of transcendence in your ordinary life; or if you feel that faith is wholly a matter of grace and thus outside of man’s control altogether (Karl Barth); or if you feel, as I do, that every one of these definitions has some truth in it— then you are still left with this question: Why? Why should existence be arranged so that our alienation from God is a given and we must forever fight our way not simply toward what he is but toward the whole notion that he is? If you let go of the literal creation story as it comes down to us through Genesis, if you let go of the Garden of Eden, the intellectual apple, the whole history of man’s separation from God tied to the tongue of a talking snake; if you let go of these things— and who but a child could hold on to them— then you are left, paradoxically, with a child’s insistent question: Why?

It is not that conventional ideas of an afterlife are too strange; it is that they are not strange enough.

I always have this sense that something is going to resolve my spiritual anxieties once and for all, that one day I’ll just relax and be a believer. I read book after book. I seek out intense experiences in art, in nature, or in conversations with people I respect and who seem to rest more securely in their faith than I do. Sometimes it seems that gains are made, for these things can and do provide relief and instruction. But always the anxiety comes back, is the norm from which faith deviates, if faith is even what you could call these intense but somehow vague and fleeting experiences of God. I

Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory. There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him— to find him— does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.

Continue to part 6

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