Meeting Her Maker: Emily Dickinson's God

Article excerpt

It's common for secular academics to assume that religious belief--adherence to any religious system or ideology--is fundamentally at odds with the open-minded, exploratory enterprise of critical interpretation. That was certainly my assumption two autumns ago, when, as a new member of the English Department of the women's college of an Orthodox Jewish university, I led a seminar-style exploration of Emily Dickinson's poems about God. The question of Dickinson's religious beliefs--what, if any, beliefs she held and what, if anything, her poems reveal of them--has long been a subject of debate among Dickinson scholars. As I expected, the question was of great interest to my students, who had grown up practicing a modern Orthodox form of Judaism. What I did not expect was that these young women, who knew little about poetry, less about Dickinson, and nothing about Christianity or its nineteenth-century New England manifestations, would see so clearly through the tangle of Dickinson's contradictory portrayals of God and the equally contradictory conclusions scholars have drawn from them. I had assumed that the intellectual habits promoted by traditional religious belief and humanistic inquiry are inherently at odds, that while humanism encourages the exploration of complexity and contradiction, traditional belief encourages the opposite--simplification, homogenization, retreat from the messiness of existence into the comfort of tautological projection. But rather than inhibiting their ability to engage with Dickinson's challenging texts, my students' lifelong immersion in Orthodox Judaism helped them recognize dynamics at work in Dickinson's poems about God that my secular approach had obscured.

One of the nice things about teaching is the way it transforms vexing scholarly uncertainties into signs of professorial sophistication. Rather than feeling anxious that I didn't know the answers to the questions I was raising, I felt quite pleased to introduce the subject of Dickinson's religious beliefs by informing my class that scholars had been utterly unable to agree on them. For example, while Dorothy Oberhaus has argued that Dickinson wrote "in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion," Richard Wilbur and many others since have seen Dickinson's poems as expressions of an idiosyncratic, home-made relation to religious belief--what Wilbur calls "a precarious convergence between her inner experience and her religious inheritance" (Farr 105, 54). Other readers, focusing on Dickinson's most iconoclastic texts, see Dickinson as radically challenging Christianity and indeed all religious belief. This extraordinary range of opinions as to what Dickinson believed--and the abundance of textual evidence to support each of them--has prompted many scholars to adopt what we might call an agnostic attitude toward Dickinson's beliefs. As Denis Donoghue put it, "of her religious faith virtually anything may be said. She may be represented as an agnostic, a heretic, a skeptic, a Christian" (quoted in Yezzi 20). Wary that my students might simplify Dickinson's beliefs by filtering her contradictions through the lens of their own faith, I presented Donoghue-style agnosticism as the only intellectually responsible position possible--that is, the only position that confronted the entire range of beliefs presented in Dickinson's poems. To demonstrate Dickinson's irresolvable religious contradictions, I started my students off with poems that present completely incommensurate representations of God: the amputated absentee of "Those--dying then"; the withholding parent of the poem that begins "Of Course--I prayed-- / And did God Care?"; the outgrown childhood God of "I prayed, at first, a little Girl"; the faceless, dematerialized "Infinitude" of "My period had come for Prayer"; the Disneyesque savior of vermin addressed in the poem that begins "Papa above! / Regard a Mouse / O'erpowered by the Cat!" No one, I assured them, could infer a coherent idea of God from this blizzard of conflicting evidence. …