Christian Wiman is a gifted poet who formerly edited Poetry and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. Over Labor Day Weekend, I read his new memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (2018). Entitled after A. R. Ammon’s poem of the same name, the subtitle provides a greater clue about its subject, which Wiman formulates as a question in the book: “Is the question ‘What does an authentic life in poetry look like?’ the same as asking ‘What does an authentic faith look like?'” (93).
I first became acquainted with Wiman when my friend, Sean, gifted me with a signed and dated copy of his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (2013). I doubt that this work is “destined to become a spiritual classic,” as the publisher wagers, and I disagree with Ilya Kaminsky’s effusive endorsement: “In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text.” Nevertheless, Wiman’s fierce honesty, searching faith, and—at times—luminous writing earn my respect.
When I gave a copy of My Bright Abyss to Joey, a former student, I could never have predicted that Wiman would become a resonant voice for him. “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” I am grateful that Joey has come to share my professional and personal enthusiasm for literature. We travel in the same direction, even when our taste in writers are not always shared. Our friendship involves an exchange of literary riches. Just as I have encouraged some of Joey’s reading endeavors, he has encouraged mine, including some poems from Wiman’s Hammer is the Prayer, a volume that brings together three decades of work selected by the poet.
It is difficult to explain why one person befriends a writer and another does not. Temperament, aesthetic, enculturation, mimesis, and education all influence taste. While I recognize the merits of Wiman’s prose and poetry, I have not experienced “the rescuing effect” of his art because, it seems, I am not his target audience, which he identified in an interview:
I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.
With an education in the great books of the Western canon, a vocation in classical Christian schooling, and an adherence to creedal Christianity, I am not an “unbelieving believer,” nor is my consciousness “completely modern.” In a review of My Bright Abyss, Reformed theologian Peter Leithart speaks to his ambivalent experience of reading Wiman, which consists of admiration and frustration “to the point of irritation.” He writes:
Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)
Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”
I am ambivalent about Wiman’s ambivalence on matters of faith: on the one hand, it avoids hackneyed pieties and expresses honest doubt; on the other hand, it may inadvertently blunt pious devotion and enshrine doubt. A good example of this equivocation, which occurs repeatedly in his writing, can be found in He Held Radical Light: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means” (7-8). Wiman thinks both answers may be “equally accurate,” which may comfort the unbelieving believer but discomforts the believing believer, who can reasonably maintain that God is the only correct answer. Is Wiman accounting for different points of view, or betraying his own relativism? Does equivocation reveal defiant or timorous disbelief?
There is benefit to reading an author that leaves you deeply ambivalent because the tensions provokes a desire to clarify your thinking and feeling. For that reason, I am grateful to engage Wiman’s latest book. He Held Radical Light deserves attention for its central paradox, which can be regarded as a needful reproach to Percy Bysshe Shelley and all who believe that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: like a wide-eyed watchman, Christian Wiman is alert where others are drowsy to the element of overweening that sneaks into his guild and takes hold, resulting in the fancy that poetry saves; he fights this pretentious enemy, insisting that “poetry is not enough,” and yet everything must be given to crafting words that will not survive the poet or the reader. This understanding of the artist, which does not forfeit dedication or passion for humility, recognizes that the deepest hungers of the human being are satisfied outside of art, while art gives those hungers their force and vividness.
Here are a few salient passages that rattle around in my head after reading the book:
What is it that we want when we can’t stop wanting? “Lord,” prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, “give us what you have already given.” (42)
I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make. (66-67)
I don’t really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. (83)
What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting? Form? Order? Yes, certainly those things, something to both speak and spare the turmoil of my own consciousness, something to protect and preserve me from the ramifying reality of impersonal space and matter long before I had science to confirm these things, and long before I had my own malevolent cells to ram that fact into my heart. But after all this, what I know is that poetry is not enough, and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one. “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.”
Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, you must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you. “If you don’t believe in poetry,” said Stevens, “you cannot write it.” He might have added (and perhaps, implicitly, he did): If you cannot believe in what poetry—in all of its forms, even the wordless ones—has revealed to you, you cannot survive it.
And of all those revelations, a certain “sacred weakness,” as Maritain calls it, is key. (Thank you for my losses is the prayer that a friend of mine—also a poet, also a patient—found herself bafflingly but joyfully praying recently.) To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, like the missing stitch that certain master craftsmen weave into their rugs as an act of piety meant both to imply and appease the original Maker, but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that we cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure. (112-113)
NOTE: I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for sending me a courtesy review copy of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light.