Can You Recover an Irrecoverable Faith?

Here, in the title essay for Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, he talks about the […]

Ethan Richardson / 4.17.13

the_faces_first_stepHere, in the title essay for Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, he talks about the perennial nostalgia “seasoned” Christians tend to feel about the faith of younger years. Often selectively remembered (and often unhelpfully untrue), selves of the past are conjured up as a judgment upon the faith that is lacking here and now. We think about the devotion we used to have, the fervor. We used to journal, we say, we used to pray, really pray, as we walked to work–bible studies used to feel like something. Now it doesn’t so much–so what does that say about where the faith has gone, or the God who gave it? We suddenly seem to have turned into our fathers, or our gossip-bitter roommates, or our jobs.

Wiman here unbends the accusation, and instead speaks frankly of the multitude of selves and worlds we inhabit and try on in the span of a couple months. It’s the way we are as humans. As Mary Karr quotes George Orwell in Lit, “You wear a mask, and your face grows to fit it.” And so to say that our faith is irrecoverable is instead an embrace of a life that is just as irrecoverable. Our faith is stitched into all the tenuous and quick-lived faces and queries and rationales we go to bed with tonight, and is just as much a part of the new world we awake to the next morning.

If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations–motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life–which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived–or have denied the reality of your life.

To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects the wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.