Recently, while traveling here and there, I read the poet Christian Wiman’s new memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (FSG 2013). It was recommended to me by a theology professor who knew of my interest in and work on Thomas Merton, suggesting that Wiman’s autobiographical and poetic reflections were reminiscent of Merton’s own style. I would concur. While different in myriad ways, there is an easiness to reading Wiman and a creative draw that lures the reader into his own experience of wrestling with questions of faith, God, theodicy, and the like. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been drawn to Wiman in recent weeks and months, thanks to the creepy omniscience of the Facebook newsfeed, I’ve noticed lots of friends — mostly theologians in this case — posting or reposting Wiman-related articles, interviews, and poems online. He’s certainly captured the attention of those who professionally reflect on questions of faith and theology.
I want to share just a few passages from early on in the book where Wiman is introducing the readers to his experience of faith and the struggle he has and continues to make sense of what that word even means. It’s especially timely, in my opinion, given the ongoing debates among bishops and theologians about what precisely constitutes “authentic faith.” I’m certainly on the side of someone like the great German theologian Karl Rahner or the well-known sacramental theologian Mark Searle, who both advocate for an emphasis on the fides qua or the intrinsic faith that is inherently relational and connected to divine revelation as God’s free self-disclosure and humanity’s capability for hearing or receiving it.
Wiman seems to have a similarly a priori and non-cognitive sense of what faith is, or at least where faith begins. He refers to this as “the faith that was latent within me.” Here’s some of what he offers us to consider:
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me — and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert that had known, though I was just discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year within me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief. When I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: poem after poem about unnamed and unnameable absences, relationships so transparently perishable they practically came with expiration dates on them, city after city sacked of impressions and peremptorily abandoned, as if I were some conquering army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a person, but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts from God) the overweening self.
He presents a sense of faith that is intuitive, pre-themtic, always present, yet oftentimes unacknowledged. It manifests itself in the human gifts of creative expression, it exists amid and within true and good relationships, it is occluded by the drive to be self-sufficient and satisfied wondering in the desert of our parched hearts.
In addition to this latent sense of faith, Wiman also writes about what faith is not — it is not concretized, propositional, and — most importantly — unchangeable. Faith does change and is organic because at its core, it is about relationship.
Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change. I don’t mean simply that faith changes (though there is that). I mean that just as any sense of divinity that we have comes from the nature order of things — is in some ultimate sense within the natural order of things — so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product. Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best parts of themselves.