Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Religion: To Its Cultured Inquirers

A review of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.Christian Wiman was recently appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Some books are so incredibly good that they simply elude review. This is such a book. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, is so ripe with meaning, so full of insight, that it is impossible to summarize or adequately comment.

It's the kind of book that, on every page, you simply write down the name(s) of the people you want to buy a copy for.

Lots of books offer great theological reflections, but often the prose is wooden. Other books, though beautiful essayistically, lack the rigor of a work of theology.

Wiman somehow manages to accomplish both, consistently, repeatedly. This is prose as poetry, and it is theology as essay and confession.

Wiman suffers from an incurable cancer. This becomes a topic at times in the book, but ultimately, the book is not just a living with cancer book--as helpful as those are--but something that encompasses his suffering and then transcends it, even as it descends into and is swallowed by it.

The only thing I can compare it to in terms of quality and concision is Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

Wiman's book is not written with quite the same intent. But it can function in a similar way. It is now the book I will repeatedly give away as a gift, or suggest to friends, who are considering faith, considering God, struggling with suffering, seeking to make meaning out of the intimations of faith that keep creeping into their lives in spite of their doubts.

I offer a few quotes, as teasers. But I can't say it enough, or more clearly than this, "You need to read this book. You want to read this book. It will be your companion and friend."

"Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone, even joy is, in a way, sorrow's flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I'm not sure you can have communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one's solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of the self."

"Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moment of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn."

"One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that Scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man tho whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the Scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see."

"The temptation is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is. Even here, in some of the entries above, I see that I have fallen prey to it. In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others. There is something I am meant to see, something for which my own situation and suffering are the lens, but the cost of such seeing--I am just beginning to realize--may very well be any final clarity or perspective on my own life, my own faith. That would not be a bad fate, to burn up like the booster engine that falls away from the throttling rocket, lighting a little dark as I go."

No list of quotes would be enough. I want to quote the whole book. I want to read it aloud to you, or have someone read it to me. It's that good.

1 comment:

  1. Compassion or "com-passion" = "suffer with"

    We all need some compassion.