I am reading the recently released memoir of poet Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss. It’s not an easy read, but it rewards those with patience. Several years ago, Wiman found his way back to the Christian faith he had left behind as a young adult. This would not be particularly noteworthy except that Wiman is a serious published poet of the highest literary kind. He has in fact been the editor of Poetry magazine. People who move in these circles tend to be, as Schleiermacher put it, the “cultured despisers of religion.” Wiman’s book is a kind of apologia to explain to those who perhaps like him had believed without believing why he came to embrace openly the faith he had once denied. Part of his story — though only a part — is that he has been battling an insidious and deadly form of cancer.
I am not very literary. I am far too literal-minded to understand easily much modern poetry or for that matter much modern literature generally. So the parts of Wiman’s book that take flight into literary language and allusion are the parts I struggle with. And yet Wiman writes movingly and with great insight into the nature of what it means to live with faith in the present day. For example:
Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable. This is as true in life as it is in art. Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted. What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (pp. 47-48). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
I’m particularly gratified that Wiman has read Bonhoeffer and draws on him occasionally. Wiman finds in Bonhoeffer the key insight that we must live in the world as it is and look for God in the midst of the material world yet not expecting God to appear and direct every aspect of our lives. (“Before God and with God we live without God,” Bonhoeffer wrote.)
I’ll continue to post passages that seem to me particularly worthwhile.