Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Some-Are like My Own-": Emily Dickinson's Christology of Embodiment

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Some-Are like My Own-": Emily Dickinson's Christology of Embodiment

Article excerpt

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is "acquainted with Grief," we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.

--Emily Dickinson, L932

Circa 1859, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that set forth the issues that would preoccupy her religious writing for the rest of her life. Poem 128 details Dickinson's conflicted view of her Christianity--she is tied to the Church's language and narrative, but its views of God and immortality terrify and anger her--and presents in a condensed form the shape of her lifelong theological explorations:

   Going to Heaven!
   I dont know when--
   Pray do not ask me how!
   Indeed I'm too astonished
   To think of answering you!
   Going to Heaven!
   How dim it sounds!
   And yet it will be done
   As sure as flocks go home at night
   Unto the Shepherd's arm! (1-10) (1)

Writing in a critical and ironic manner of studied carelessness, this speaker both anticipates and negates the Calvinist understanding of predestination and heaven. The initial declaration gives way to uncertainty and surprise, indicating the speaker's lack of agency in eschatological matters: not knowing means not answering. Still, the speaker attempts an answer in more relentlessly cheerful exclamations that connect heaven's dimness to the will of God. Whether this shock is genuine or studied, it resembles Poem 157's response to God's will and the end results of predestination: "My will goes the other way" (17). (2) However, the "yet" of Poem 128 indicates acquiescence to both God's will and heaven. The line "yet it will be done" is an unemphatic and reluctant statement of faith, but it is a statement of faith nonetheless. The original suspicion of an arbitrary God and of heaven becomes suspicion of the speaker's own astonishment as the stanza ends with a gesture toward Christian redemption. While still ambivalent, the final two lines align heaven with domestic comfort, offering Jesus as a welcoming and redemptive presence, the Good Shepherd of John 10. Astonishment, implied speechlessness, the dimness of an assured heaven, and the arbitrariness of divine will combine to suggest that this speaker voices an oblique criticism of Calvinist doctrine and that the faith depicted here has unanswered questions.

The second stanza continues to juxtapose this questioning faith with the continued need for assurance as it focuses on "the two I lost--" (15). Poem 128 was occasioned by two deaths that affected Dickinson deeply, and her speaker claims a certainty of grace for those loved ones even as she pleads for her eternal place beside them. (3) The stanza begins with another exclamation, "Perhaps you're going too" (11), which again alludes to the inscrutability of divinity, a point emphasized by the "Who knows?" (12) following it. This speaker may take to task the mysteries of God's will and heaven, but her wistful claim of her place there affirms her belief that they exist and sets forth the complexities of faith and doubt in light of eschatological questions. Given the poem's biographical grounding, Dickinson's frequent references to her own diminutive stature, and this stanza's "little place" (14) and "smallest 'Robe'" (16), I contend that this poem's speaker is female. (4) If so, then her oblique criticisms and questioning faith must be considered as one woman's theologizing, which may have implications for today's feminist theologies. Where this speaker claims only the smallest part of heaven and just a bit of the saints' raiment, she also claims her place beside her loved ones in something she fashions, again, as home.

The final stanza of Poem 128 figures doubt as necessary to faith in an overt fashion:

   I'm glad I dont believe it
   For it w'd stop my breath--
   And I'd like to look a little more
   At such a curious Earth!
   I am glad they did believe it
   Whom I have never found
   Since the mighty Autumn afternoon
   I left them in the ground. … 
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