The Corner

Through a Glass Darkly

Christian Wiman is a poet, the editor of Poetry magazine, and a Christian believer. The following is from his forthcoming book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer:

Simone Weil says that “Absence is the form God takes in this world,” which, like every profound human conception of God, is at once true and untrue. It is true insofar as God does not appear to us in any form beyond the forms of the world. It is false insofar as it assumes that God is not present in the forms of the world, in ways that require a lifetime of looking and praying to recognize. . . . God’s absence is an anguish every honest believer feels, but the problem with Weil’s statement is that it stops at this anguish, not realizing that God’s absence is always a call to his presence.

Wiman also offers a healthy caution about the via negativa in spirituality, i.e., the effort to reach God through negations of what is false about him, rather than positive assertions of what is true about him:

To assert that all doctrine is provisional and in some fundamental way untenable is itself a doctrine, as subject to sterility and vainglory as the rantings of any radio preacher bludgeoning his listeners with Leviticus. One must learn to be in unknowingness without embracing it.

A point well taken, but I would put the thought of that last sentence somewhat differently. I think it’s okay to embrace unknowingness if you simultaneously — in some way — embrace knowingness. (No, I’m not saying this is easy to do.) The religious believer is someone who simultaneously knows and doesn’t know, and thus makes an act of existential trust. Which is to say: someone who lives in hope.

I have not read all of Wiman’s book, but what I have read so far has impressed me greatly. This is one that needs to be read slowly.

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