My work—prose and poetry—is still full of anguish and even unbelief, but I hope it’s also much more open to simple joy. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann once wrote that all theology, especially a theology of hope, had to be conducted “in earshot of the dying Christ.” Abundance and destitution are both aspects of God—or, more accurately, aspects of our experience of God.
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I hope I am now faced with the difficult task of learning to live without my familiar miseries. “Our torments also may, in length of time, Become our elements,” says John Milton. “[T]hese piercing fires [a]s soft as now severe.” There is always some devil in us—that’s a demon speaking the lines above—who makes us think we love or need our pain.
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Sometimes your essays feel like you are arguing with yourself. Do you write them for yourself or others?
I’ve never thought of my essays like this, but I see immediately that you’re right. W. B. Yeats defined rhetoric as the quarrel we have with others. Poetry, he said, comes out of the quarrel we have with ourselves. Prose isn’t poetry, obviously, but I’ve always felt the two arts to be raveled up with one another for me.
I read a lot of theology, even though I am almost always frustrated by it. Thomas Merton once said that trying “to solve the problem of God” is like trying to see your own eyes. No doubt that’s part of it. There is something absurd about formulating faith, systematizing God. I am usually more moved—and more moved toward God—by what one might call accidental theology, the best of which is often art, sometimes even determinedly secular art.
I am moved by works of art that don’t so much strive to make meaning as allow meaning to stream through them: Bach, certain poems by T. S. Eliot, the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the late work of the American sculptor Lee Bontecou, even less conventional religious writers like Simone Weil or Sara Grant. People can occasionally embody and enact this kind of meaning as well—we are, after all, works of the very greatest Creator’s hands.
How much is spiritual experience—prayer, solitude, and the like—a part of your artistic process?
I think poetry is how religious feeling survived in me during all those years of unbelief, and it remains the most intense experience I have of another order of being entering my own. But poems are not contemplative or peaceful times for me; they’re chaotic and can wreck my life for a while. They’re also few and far between, and you can’t (or I can’t) build a spiritual life on that kind of intermittent intensity.
So I try to pray every day, usually in a little chapel near where I work, sometimes in a cathedral because I like the huge estrangement of it, the volatile silence. I feel no connection between prayer and poetry, except for the poems that I have written as prayers. Poetry is a much more powerful experience for me than prayer, but I feel this to be a weakness in me. I’m still just learning how to pray.
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Your faith does not come across as breezy in your essays, which you occasionally grace with levity. For example: “If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it’s only because I have a hornet’s nest of voluble and conflicting parishioners inside of me.” Does your faith ever express itself as peace?
Rarely, which I see as a weakness. I do feel that some people may be called to unbelief—or what looks like unbelief—in order that faith may take new forms. Emily Dickinson is a good example of this, or Albert Camus. But I also believe that God requires every last cell of yourself to bow down. Or perhaps that verb, requires, is wrong, or that it’s God doing the requiring: It’s more like your nature requires, in order to be your nature, that every last cell of yourself bow down. There is still some satanic pride in me, for which I pay a high price.
And yet, I have certainly experienced peace in poems that in their sheer givenness seemed to reveal something of God to me. I have written poems that begin in great anguish and explode into joy. As psychically difficult as the poems may have been to write, certainly I have felt peace and presence in their wake.
There are other moments, too, which are simply moments of life. Simply! I think of the poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I have 3-year-old twin daughters. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to pretend that they don’t at times drive all thought of God out of my head and make me want to write a series of sonnets in praise of celibacy, but it would be equally insane for me not to acknowledge that they are the source of my greatest happiness. Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, defines hell as “the inability to love.” I have known that hell, and I should probably spend my remaining days thanking God that I am free of it.
– Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World’s Top Poetry Magazine (Christianity Today)
- The American Scholar: Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss”
- Bill Moyers: Guest Christian Wiman
- On Being: “Remembering God” interview with Christian Wiman
- The Other Journal: Evil Is What Humans Do: An Interview with Christian Wiman