THE BLOG
03/24/2014 08:18 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

Review of Christian Wiman's 'My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer'

I carried My Bright Abyss with me for weeks. I had difficulty finishing and then writing about it. Of course, I had the usual excuses---work, deadlines, family. All this was ultimately balderdash. Plainly, I was resisting the book. In part, this was because it can be intellectually knotty, even for a reader with a doctorate in English. In even greater part, I feared its power to disrupt my careful struggles and balancing acts among religious conviction and doubts. Then, I could no longer resist. The claims of My Bright Abyss on my attention were too intense and compelling. I gave in to disruption.

Wiman refuses to hector or preach down to anyone---be they believers, doubters, or atheists. He treats his readers like grown-ups. His purpose is speak clearly about what he believes. His faith is a "mysterious and inexplicable" process, a movement, the "motion of the soul toward God." (p. 139) He then seeks a dialogue with the many people who may be "frustrated" with American religion today and yet continue to "feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God." (p x)

I read that phrase on an airplane. Coincidentally, the inflight entertainment system was featuring the film Gravity. Gravity: the force that grounds and tethers us. People tell me that Gravity belongs on a big screen, not on a tiny screen jammed into the back of a seat three inches away. No matter how diminished the viewing experience might be in a plane, the psychological frisson is enhanced. For the ability to travel 35,000 feet above the earth in a metal tube is a result of the same technological revolution that has launched space flight. Strapped into their respective seat belts, both passive passengers and active astronauts are children of the machine age. Moreover, for all, a malfunction can be catastrophic. The airlines simply work harder than space agencies to numb people, their customers, to this possibility

The religious arguments about Gravity pivot on two questions. Their answer depends in part how one interprets the character of Captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The first is about the fate of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the scientist/astronaut left to fend for herself in outer space. Following Kowalski's instructions about how to survive, given before he sacrifices himself and drifts off to die, does she bravely manage to get herself back to earth? Or does she, too, die in space , only to awaken in some paradise? In either case, she is reborn and grateful to be able to grasp a handful of sand, stand upright, and walk, buoyed by the weight of gravity.

The second query is how religious the film is, overtly or covertly. Does Dr. Stone, initially dead of heart because of the death of her little daughter, personify the "nones," the numerous Americans who may be vaguely spiritual but who, when asked to identify with a religion, check off "none of the above." So suggests Jeffrey Weiss in Religion News Service. Or does the film smuggle in more explicit spiritual and religious messages, especially Christian ones? It would be easier to say "No," if Matt were named Ricky or Rochester rather than Matt, an abbreviation of St. Matthew, the author of one of the four Christian gospels.

Unlike The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's drama of 2004, and others of its ilk, Gravity asks us to exercise our capacity for wonder. So doing, the film encourages us to act as interpreters of its meanings, to think about and open them up, and to doubt any iron-clad, popcorn answer. Obviously, My Bright Abyss is a different aesthetic experience and cultural event. But it, too, prefers wonder and interpretative acts to compliance with bossy and inflexible dogmas, no matter how repressively reassuring they might be. My Bright Abyss calls for a radical receptivity to change, to diverse ideas and tumultuous feelings, including uncertainty. "Sometimes," Wiman writes, "God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms." (p. 61)

The plot of My Bright Abyss is the evolution of Christian Wiman, a West Texas boy, into Christian Wiman, the author of My Bright Abyss. He was born in 1966 into a small homogenous community of believer. Fortunately, some of them could serve as models of faith. At 12, he has an overwhelming, mysterious religious experience. He later goes to college in Virginia, and to his astonishment, meets "an actual unbeliever." He bounces around, eventually becoming a well-known poet, ,writer, and editor. Wiman persuasively, attractively writes that poetry both leads us into the natural world and points to forms of life beyond it. Then, he endures a grey period of listlessness and lassitude until, at the age of 37, he falls deeply in love. Slowly, awkwardly, he and Danielle begin to pray together. He also begins to apprehend the interpenetrations of human and divine love. "Love," he writes, "which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us." (p. 23-4)

In the midst of his happiness, on his 39th birthday, he learns that he has a rare, ravenous, and probably fatal cancer. His life breaks open, is ripped apart. In his suffering, pain, and terror, he nears the icy abyss of meaninglessness. However, as the book ends, he is in remission, perhaps for 5 years, perhaps for 10, perhaps longer. He has survived because of his teams of doctors and high tech medicine; because cancer is an unruly and unpredictable disease; and because of his marriage, the twin daughters born during his illness, a moment with an empathetic pastor (coincidentially named Matt), and his own will, art, responsiveness, desperation, and imagination. He has gained faith and felt grace, the mystery that operates as "present joy and future hope." (p.148)

My Bright Abyss is not a smarmy story that can be easily shared on a TV talk show about the miracle of surviving cancer. It is a meditation, a genre that is thousands of years old, in which a writer or speaker thinks about and arduously contemplates his or her experience. This meditation consists of focused passages of prose and of poems, some by Wiman, some by others. It is a network of challenging, only occasionally portentous, and richly mindful fragments---not a chronological narrative nor logical argument nor paint-by-the-numbers sermon.

Signficantly, My Bright Abyss is a modern meditation about faith. To be modern, he asserts, is to live in a secular culture. God seems to be nowhere. Religious belief can become "preposterous." Yet, as Marilynne Robinson, the author, tells us, religion refuses to disappear. It persists "even where it seems to have been suppressed or renounced." ("On Human Nature," p. 10). The aching demand of modern faith is that we consider God as if God is not there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the great German theologian who was killed in a Nazi prison, is one of Wiman's many spiritual guides. As Bonhoeffer wrote, "...The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God." (p. 61)

If we are to have and hold faith, we must humbly instruct ourselves in such antimonies and contradictions. . We must dwell in "honest" or "devotional" doubt. If we are to hear the call of God, we must also gaze into a void in which God has neither voice nor echo. Wiman compresses the dialect or doubleness of faith, this deep experience of both presence and absence, into a poem that gives the book its title and that begins and ends it:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

Wiman is neither a missionary nor a proselytizer for any particular church or religion. None solely mans and guards the royal road to faith. He has, however, chosen to be a Christian, perhaps more allied to Protestantism than Roman Catholicism. This is because of the figure of Christ, especially Christ on the cross. Historically, our imaginations constantly renew this figure, but for Wiman, a modern poet, Christ feels "human destitution to its absolute degree..." Yet , "God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering." (p. 155)

Wiman respects some of the benefits of a religion or a church. For example, it offers a platform in bad times. However, he underestimates the role of the church in providing aesthetic exaltation (listen to Bach); moral comfort; and social services. Not surprisingly, for a man of such far-reaching and independent sensibility, he is also sardonic about contemporary American churches. The more mainstream pontificate; the more conservative pitch a babbling , bubbly optimism. . As an alternative, Wiman proposes a revolution in the way we worship communally. He is actually quite practical about the practice of faith, and sketches out a plausible blueprint that stresses "poetry as liturgy;" extended silences, which will not surprise any Quaker; consciousness of language ; and learning from other religious traditions and rituals. Though he slips into a yucky gender stereotype about women's spiritual capacities, he also calls for their full participation in the church.

Modern though it might be, My Bright Abyss invokes one of the oldest, most global of religious activities: the acceptance of mystery and mystical experiences. In 1901-2, William James, that towering American intellectual, gave the lectures that were the basis for his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. In every religion, he argues wisely, the mystical experience has four features that map onto Wiman. It is ineffable, a direct experience that defies expression; it is "noetic," a state of knowledge, of insight, of revelation; I it is transient, memorable but brief; and, finally, it is "passive." The human will is "in abeyance." Though we might prepare for a mystical experience, it happens to us. We do not choose its time or place. When it strikes, it changes or transforms us. Glowingly, mystery and mysticism help to brighten the abyss.

Faith traditions schedule sacred times that they dedicate to prayer and reflection about faith itself. They measure the distance that believers may have fallen away God, the sins that have created this distance, and the need for atonement and renunciation. In Judaism, this is Yom Kippur; in Islam, Ramadan; in Christianity, Lent. In some denominations, in 2014 Lent began on March 4. I scrawled my notes on the last page of My Bright Abyss on March 3. It will now provoke my dialogues with myself, cognitive selfies that only matter if they are disruptive. Wiman's taut, grave, go-for-broke meditation should be in the pack of pilgrims as they walk through the wilderness of this world or in the airlessness of its outer spaces. .