The New Atheists often assert that people cling to faith from a place of weakness. In response to this, Christian Wiman, who has long battled cancer, was quoted in the May 6, 2013 issue of The New Yorker as saying: “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.”
Indeed. If religion is most urgent for those in despair, does that negate religion’s validity? If in our despair we seek a cosmic, spiritual connection why does that not amount to humble, hopeful submission to life’s mysteries, far too beautiful and immense for us to understand? Should it not be natural that this realization comes most strongly during moments of inconsolable desolation? I think it more stirring that in times of despair we may seek to assert and to maintain belief in the divine, a task that is much easier in times of profit and plenty. Wiman, who has several times been near death, states that at that moment when once faces one’s naked mortality, the last thing one wants is divine transcendence. Rather, one wants earthly concreteness—the comfort of the feeling of breathing.
Christian Wiman’swork is among the contemporary voices helping to construct and to explore a new language for modern belief. Christian Wiman isa poet and soon-to-be Yale University professor. His writings ring with the beauty and mystery of life’s paradoxes, drawing from his keen awareness of human mortality. Wiman identifies as a Christian, but while Christianity has given him a language and vocabulary to discuss his belief, his concepts and faith transcend Christian dogma and seem far more personalized and even mystical at their core.
In this, Wiman turns to poetry as a means through which to explore the divine, toward which our language can only hope to point, as it necessarily eludes human description. Indeed, it is for this reason that poetry has an ancient pedigree as a vehicle for exploring religion and belief. WM. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano describe in their book Sources of Chinese Tradition the Daoist textLaozi,which“appears to be a combination of very old adages or cryptic sayings, often in rhyme, extended passages of poetry, and sections of prose interpretation and commentary. There is extensive use of parallel construction and balanced phrases; the statements are laconic and often paradoxical, intended not to convince the mind by reasoning but to startle and capture it through poetic vision.” This is because the Laozi admits the inability of human language to capture and to convey the divine, which must, ultimately, be known through mystical intuition. The sophisticated, formal devices in Wiman’s poetry seem to draw upon the same ethos and goal as the Laozi.
But, in many modern, secular environments and amid the braying of the New Atheists, to speak of belief has become unfashionable and even gauche. It seems, then, that in the social circles and environments I inhabit we need a new, more inclusive language for belief, dislocated from but not divested of the religious and spiritual traditions from which our societies’ understanding of the world draws.
At this, I will leave off with Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing” —a masterpiece of both vision and language, and which has done more to suggest to me a vision of the divine than the Catholic scriptures with which I grew up.
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University