Earlier this week, Christian Wiman’s much-anticipated My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer shipped, and although I’m only half way through the essays contained therein, I can’t get them out of my mind. I can already tell it’s going to be a volume I return to over and over again, if for no other reason than that, when it comes to people writing about such things in our context, his gift for words is simply unparalleled–or at least limited to the small cadre of folks who provided blurbs on the back cover (Marilynne Robinson and–you guessed it–Mary Karr). It is such a privilege that we get to host him here in Charlottesville on May 15th! We’ll try to get a formal review together before then (of those that have appeared thus far, The New Republic put up a pretty solid one, as did Books and Culture), but for now, here are a couple of stop-you-in-your-tracks quotes from a book that overflows with them. The first is from “Dear Oblivion” and the second two are from “Hive of Nerves”:

wiman“Contemporary people whose lives are marked by a searching, scorching spiritual focus–whether it’s conflicted believers, God-haunted agnostics, or even the neo-atheists whose very avidity gives them away–tend to be obsessed with whether God exists. What Weil is saying is that this is not beside the point exactly, but a misdirection: God exists apart from our notions of what it means to exist, and there is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered.”

“Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. This can be a productive and necessary endeavor, whether it’s literary criticism or theology or even the entire dogmas and rituals of a religion (since all religion is, ultimately, an attempt to interpret God and numinous experience). Such effort deepens and complicates our initial response, even as it gives us an aperture through which to see our moments of mystery, crisis, and revelation more clearly—to give them “meanings,” to integrate them into our lives. The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself. Just as we seem to have grasped every level of meaning in a poem, the private and silent power that compelled us in the first place seems to drain right out of it. Just as we plant the flag of faith on a mountain of doctrine and dogma it has taken every ounce of our intellect to climb, our vision becomes a “view,” which is already clouding over, and is in any event cluttered with the trash of others who have fought their way to this same spot. Nowhere to go now but down.”

silverclouds“Live long enough in secular culture, long enough to forget that it is secular culture, and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you. Atavistic. Laughable. I know this was true for me. Never mind that many of my favorite writers were quite obviously religious–Simone Weil, Marilynne Robinson, T.S. Eliot, George Herbert–or that I retained some intellectual respect for the “intellectual” side of Christianity…still, the idea of giving my inchoate feelings of faith some actual content, never mind the thought of attending a church, this seemed not only absurd to me but an obvious weakness. To be a Christian was to flinch from contingency and death, both of which were the defining realities of contemporary life. To be a Christian was death for art, which depends on an attitude of openness and unknowingness (never mind the irony of an imperative of openness and unknowningness). It took a radical disruption of my life to allow me to see the sanity and vitality of this strange, ancient thing. There was no bolt-from-the-blue revelation or conversion or any of that. My old ideas simply were not adequate for the extremes of joy and grief that I experienced, but when I looked at my life through the lens of Christianity–or, more specifically, through the lens of Christ, as much of Christianity seemed (and still seems) uselessly absurd to me–it made sense. The world made sense. This distance between culture and Christ seems like a modern phenomenon, but I think it’s probably always been the case. 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.”