By Rae Printy
Have you ever asked “God, where are you? Do you really exist? Do you love me?”
It is this struggle with faith and doubt that poet and author Christian Wiman came to the W83 Ministry Center to discuss in February as part of the release of his latest poetry collection, Survival is a Style.
Wiman is the author of several books, including two memoirs, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013) and He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (FSG, 2018). His book of poems, Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010), won the Ambassador Book Award in poetry, while his collection, Once in the West (FSG, 2014), was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in poetry. He teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.
He also served as editor of the oldest monthly magazine of verse in the English-speaking world, Poetry, from 2003 to 2013—when he had to step down due to his diagnosis of bone cancer (he is now in remission). His illness and its ramifications on his life and beliefs are a common thread in much of his work.
Wiman lays bare his painful spiritual journey through an abyss of God’s perceived silence, told in mesmerizing prose and poetry.
He starts off Survival is a Style with this prologue:
“Church or sermon, prayer or poem:
the failure of religious feeling is a form.
The failure of religious feeling is a form
of love that, though it could not survive
the cataclysmic joy of its inception,
nevertheless preserves its own sane something,
a space in which the grievers gather,
inviolate ice that the believers weather:
church or sermon, prayer or poem.
Finer and finer the meaningless distinctions:
theodicies, idiolects, book, books, books.
I need a space for unbelief to breathe.
I need a form for failure, since it is what I have.”
It was the prospect of facing death at the age of 39, along with the almost mystical love he held for his wife, that brought Wiman back to faith in the divine again. Although, he acknowledges, his faith today looks very different than that of his Baptist upbringing.
In another Survival poem, he goes on to say “I for whom God is not entirely gone,” and in another, “When I began writing these lines it was not, to be sure, inspiration but desperation, to be alive, to believe again in the love of God. The love of God is not a thing one comprehends but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended. It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being, and like that time, we learn by its lack.”
In his talk at Redeemer, Wiman described this abandoned and reclaimed faith as a sort of “Second Naiveté”, but then decided this wording was not quite right. “Second Innocence” was, perhaps, a better description.
When we first come into our faith, Wiman explains, there is this time of surety of religious belief and love for God and feeling of God’s love towards us. And then, God becomes silent, a ghost.
Perhaps God seems to ghost us because intense suffering has entered our life, challenging our faith, and causing us to wonder why God did not intervene. Maybe, for some of us, it’s a slow, steady decline into lukewarm conviction and platitudes before we’ve even realized we’ve lost our first love. Or, it’s simply that other idols – money, sex, career – have replaced a desire for God in our hearts.
Whichever the case, according to Wiman’s theory, if we persist in trying to move towards God again, eventually we will return to an almost childlike amazement for our creator. However, as I recall the parable in which the shepherd leaves the flock of 99 to save the single, lost sheep—I wonder how much is it us coming back to God, and how much is it the Holy Spirit carrying us back?
Wiman noted philosopher Richard Kearney as an inspiration for articulating this idea of a second innocence. Kearney calls it “anatheism.”
What does this term mean? To be honest, I was a bit lost at this point in the conversation, not having familiarized myself with either Kearney or Wiman’s works yet. But in discussing Kearney’s book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God, this is how Columbia University Press described the concept to potential readers: “Has the suspension of dogmatic certainties and presumptions opened a space in which we can encounter religious wonder anew? Situated at the split between theism and atheism, we now have the opportunity to respond in deeper, freer ways to things we cannot fathom or prove.”
Wiman is open in many of his interviews about some of his more unique perspectives on faith. In He Held Radical Light, he writes: “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.”
He recognizes there are still days when he wrestles with doubt, or the feeling of God’s absence sometimes, even after having passed through the latency stage of his faith. At one point during his reading, Wiman remarked about that period of time in his twenties and thirties before his belief began to blossom once again, “If it weren’t for all those years of poetry in my life, I don’t think that God could have made a space within me.”
I smiled when I heard this, because I think God was behind the poetry. If I could converse with Wiman I would tell him, “All beautiful things ultimately find their source in him so, perhaps all along it was God making his way inside you, even before he became recognizable.”
In reading Christian Wiman’s intense questioning and doubts in Survival is a Style, although the hope in God’s presence is not obvious – I see it. Why spend so much time wrestling with these thoughts if there isn’t some underlying prayer that it’s all true; that God is not just some gorgeous myth? That God is with us, and loves us very much, even in the midst of all the hard things we go through? Why bother unless you already feel sure this brief life is not all there is, that there is something beyond it worth believing in and changing the way we live and how we spend our time?
At one point he writes in his poem, “A Heresy”: “How does one believe in a God whose only evidence of existence is one’s insatiable and perhaps insane desire to praise?”
It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite authors and philosophers, C.S. Lewis: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I believe Christ is the key to one day seeing God in this other world.
Like Christian Wiman, I too went through some years of doubt in God’s existence so I searched out and discovered books like The Case for Christ, Reason for God, and Mere Christianity, which helped me believe once again that the resurrection is plausible.
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened, there can be no doubt in God’s love for us.
So even in those times when I feel distant from God, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there or isn’t affected by my suffering in this broken world. In sending Christ, he has provided a way for me to know him for all time, if I simply hold on to that truth of the incarnation.
As I wrote in one of my poems, which I shared at the NYC Poetry Festival this past summer, “Just because the sun disappears at night does not mean it ceases to exist, and this, I believe, is what they call faith. A mustard seed, indeed, but I can now see the glow and I know the Son has risen.”
Rae Printy’s works have been published in Reed Magazine, Youth Imagination, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and EveryDay Fiction. She has two poems in the forthcoming Redeemer Writers Groupchapbook collection, Broken Altars.