04/24/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Remembering God: Christian Wiman and the New American Religiosity

Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. It was a media and religion course at a Lutheran liberal arts college. They talked about their dismay with the narrow and often-inflammatory way religion is discussed, especially in the context of politics. I asked if they felt at all represented in these discussions, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, "I don't think there is any real, public expression of what it means to be religious now. It's different."

He's right. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations. And there is a new evolution underway.

In the mid-1990s, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of unprecedented first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. It's not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.

I remember sitting with one 93-year-old Benedictine monk, a giant of twentieth-century liturgical reform, Father Godfrey Diekmann. He told me about going to Yale to work with a small group of Catholic and Protestant scholars who were creating the first ecumenical translation of the Bible — what became the New Revised Standard Version. Someone suggested they pray before they begin. But the awkward question arose: would it be a Catholic prayer or a Protestant prayer? Someone spontaneously spoke the first line of the Lord's Prayer, the prayer of Jesus in the New Testament: "Our father, who art in heaven..." Everyone joined in without needing to think, as this prayer is Christian muscle memory across traditions high and low. By the final line, as Godfrey Diekmann described it to me, they had all met each other's eyes and most had tears in them. They had only now realized they had this in common — a simple reality internalized but a profound discovery.

Growing up in the 1960s in the Bible Belt, I had no idea such encounters were happening. My small town was still segregated along religious lines. My mother fell in love with the boy next door, a Methodist, and my grandfather — a Southern Baptist preacher — forbade the relationship.

Thirty years later after she had divorced my father, reader, she married him. I digress, but not completely.

Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being utterly identified not merely by the same denomination, but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed utterly in a handful of generations.

Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more options than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown, as thinkers since the Enlightenment have predicted they would. They are rediscovering and reinventing it.

Recently, I interviewed the editor of Poetry magazine Christian Wiman, who has become something of a surprised voice for this transformation and renewal of faith in our time. His own story has the arc of an iconic American story: a violence-tinged, charismatically-churched Texas upbringing followed by a period of agnosticism after he left home, traveled the world, and became a writer.

For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhood behind, it's the experience of having children of your own that brings an urgency to the question of what you believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling profoundly in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became unsentimentally articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us hunger for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that might kill him in 30 days or 30 years.

So Christian Wiman became more aware of his mortality that most of us. And he became more aware of his own and his contemporaries' robust and aching grappling with the ancient existential quandaries of theology and philosophy. But we cloak them in secular terms, he realized. We talk about how to manage our technology, about never finding time for ourselves and what we care about, about feeling overwhelmed by life.

Christian has himself become overtly religious again, but not satisfied with the forms on offer. He describes a huge cultural grasping towards "clarity and austerity" — "something that won't be so frou frou and slip out of our grasp and just make us think it's ridiculous. And yet also something that is open enough to engage those parts of us that we don't understand."

This points at the most fascinating aspect of the emerging religiosity that is genuinely new — its aspiration at one and the same time to be serious and open, devout and hospitable to difference. The new religiosity reaches across boundaries of faith and across boundaries of belief and non-belief. Christian Wiman says this, "I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that's going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief — I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms."

Such words echo the longing of that student in a Minnesota classroom, and a longing I pick up everywhere I go. This is theology for a world in which our kinship with people across the globe is no mere Bible verse but something that can become incarnate in an instant through Skype. It's a world in which New Age spiritual promiscuity has yielded to a real curiosity about ancient texts and hard core theology; this is evidenced, not least of all, in undergraduate classrooms at universities across the country. It's a world in which traditional religious language and rituals make a new kind of sense to people and clearly have their place — and yet in which new language and new forms are needed too.

There are dangers and pitfalls here too, to be sure, cautions that people I deeply admire would rightly raise. The late, great historian of religion at Yale, Jaroslav Pelikan, talked to me after he had completed his last epic project — a compilation of Christian creeds across history and cultures. He reminded me that Emerson — who was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Unitarian minister — believed that everyone should compose his own creed. Emerson said to the divinity school students at Harvard in 1838, "You must be yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit and sing it out." The trouble with that, Pelikan reflected, is that "you do it and then you do it a little bit more, and pretty soon you have to teach your children something, and so the best you can do is to teach them what you have. And you do that a generation or two, and all of a sudden, there you have a new creed."

A champion of the enduring value of tradition to the end — he converted from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy in his 80's — Pelikan believed starkly that the only alternative to tradition is bad tradition. But there is something in the intelligence and questioning and twenty-first century pragmatism of the new religious thinkers and seekers that makes me curious at least and hopeful at best about the creeds they will give voice to. We will see.