Category: existentialism

Faith in the Shadow of Death: A Review of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 

Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.

It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.

My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)

It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:

We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)

He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.

For Wiman, faith is something fragile:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. (60)

At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.

More: Interview with Wiman here.

The Adass and the Amish: Community and Autonomy

The Weekend Australian Magazine (Oct 1-2) featured a cover-story by Kate Legge on the conservative Adass Jews in Melbourne, a distinctive, largely self-contained Jewish community. Inevitably, the Amish were mentioned as a point of comparison, another distinctive religious community not wanting to embrace all of the technologies and assumptions of the 21st century – or even the 20th. For the Adass, adhering to strict dietary laws is paramount. The Sabbath is closely observed. Men do not touch women, even to shake their hand. They do not forbid contact with the outside world, but they live largely within their community.

Reading about the Adass brought out conflicting feelings in me, two ideologies which sometimes overlap and sometimes clash. One is a belief in the need for deep community; the other is a belief in the need for an authentic life.

It was in my teen years that I articulated a personal vision that pitted myself against the suburban world around me; I called it ‘calibanism’ then, after Miranda’s term in John Fowles’ The Collector (who in turn had got it from the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest); it is similar to ‘boganism’. I was arrogant, ignorant and lonely then. I thought that the only authentic response to lowbrow culture and consumerism was an individualistic elitism. As my politics and faith became more left wing, I came to see the bogans or calibans of this world as at least partly victims of a system. I embraced the (not exclusively) Anabaptist conception of the church as a counter-cultural community. But even in my twenties, I was ambivalent about conforming to the norms and rules of a community.

I think our society has become so sadly fragmented and individualistic, losing much of the community involvement which gave our ancestors a sense of belonging and meaning. And yet I always place myself on the fringe of any system or community – too ready, perhaps, to see its compromises and faults, too unwilling to compromise on my own complicated code.