Friday, January 22, 2016

My Bright Abyss: Christian Wiman (Part 6)


Chapter title in bold below.

Varieties of Quiet

What is the difference between a mystery in which, and by means of which, one’s whole spiritual and intellectual being is elated and completed, and a mystery that merely deflates one’s spirit and circumvents one’s intellect?

We do not need definite beliefs because their objects are necessarily true. We need them because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. And not simply glimpsed— because certainly revelation is available outside of dogma; indeed all dogma, if it’s alive at all, is the result of revelation at one time or another— but gathered in. Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery— those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we “know” absolutely nothing— accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives. And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

If piety forbids one to imagine any afterlife that makes this life seem altogether inferior, then piety essentially forbids one from imagining any afterlife at all. (Unless you simply imagine this life somehow continuing in perpetuity, which would, even for the happiest person out there, eventually be a kind of hell.) One can still have faith in an afterlife, but it is a faith both kindled and confined by the earth.

The purpose of theology— the purpose of any thinking about God— 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. This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.

Renouncing sex may not be easier than renouncing disbelief, but at least you can understand it; it is a problem you can, so to speak, grapple with.  Trying to take hold of disbelief is like fighting your own shadow.

Every man has a man within him who must die.

Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine. —H. J. IWAND

It goes both ways, though: mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. So what does all this mean practically? It means that congregations must be conscious of the persistent and ineradicable loneliness that makes a person seek communion, with other people and with God, in the first place. It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall. It means that we— those of us who call ourselves Christians— need a revolution in the way we worship. This could mean many different things— poetry as liturgy, focused and extended silences, learning from other religious traditions and rituals (this seems crucial), incorporating apophatic language. But one thing it means for sure: we must be conscious of language as language, must call into question every word we use until we refine or remake a language that is fit for our particular religious doubts and despairs— and of course (and most of all!) our joys.

You can’t really know a religion from the outside, and you can’t simply “re-create” it to your liking.


Continue to part 7

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