Magazine article The New Yorker

Faith Healing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Faith Healing

Article excerpt

Religion and secularism often face off in our culture as megaphone-wielding opponents, each braying out the sins and shortcomings of the other. As in a political campaign, such negativity is a dangerous strategy, and may tarnish its user as much as its target. Religion tells us that secular people are nihilistic, pleasure-chasing relativists; and the effect is to make us flee what sounds like a punitive and sanctimonious religion. Secularism, in the voices of the celebrated New Atheists, tells us that religion is mental slavery, reaction, and prejudice; and this shallow condescension makes us close our ears to secularism.

The contest between religious and secular world views can't be resolved by force of argument, because both offer a vision of reality and human life that is, on its own terms, coherent and convincing. The problem, always, is whether to accept the terms. Take, for instance, the case of a man from a Baptist home, who loses his faith as a teen-ager and, for decades, lives a productive life without it. Who, in his late thirties, undergoes two life-altering crises almost simultaneously: he falls in love with the woman who becomes his wife, and receives a diagnosis of a rare form of cancer. And who, in the aftermath of these shocks, returns to Christianity, as the only framework he knows that seems adequate to the extremes of joy and fear he has undergone.

The poet Christian Wiman, whose story this is, is perfectly well aware that it can be described in two opposite yet consistent ways. To a religious person, it is a prodigal's return to his true path. To a rationalist, the timing of the return to faith suggests an instinctive flinching from a reality too terrible to bear. "That conversions often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them," Wiman acknowledges, in "My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). "The sufferer isn't in his right mind. The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God."

Yet why should the immediate cause of the call invalidate the call? "To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative," he insists, "any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love." Faith, like love, can be clinically described and analyzed from the outside, but it can be known only from the inside. That is why there is something so pitiable about the spectacle of those debates in which a celebrity atheist takes on a clergyman, and always wins. To argue for faith, at least in the twenty-first century, is already to lose the argument. What believers can give nonbelievers is an account of what it means to live in faithnot a polemic but a description, a confession, a kind of poem.

"My Bright Abyss" is a mosaic of short essays, written over several years, in which Wiman chronicles his return to Christian belief, and wrestles with its personal and metaphysical implications. He reflects on illness and love, but also on childhood and churchgoing and doubtall the contradictory influences and emotions that make up his faith. Often, Wiman, who has been the editor of Poetry for the past decade, reflects on favorite textsthe austere essays of Simone Weil, the gentle poems of George Herbert.

Unlike the authors of the most conspicuous recent books about religion, pro and con, Wiman is not writing about religion from a political or a cultural point of view. He contributes to no debates about the goodness or badness of religion for society, nor is he interested in reconciling God with evolutionary psychology or with quantum physics. Rather, he writes as someone who has had certain experiences that compelled him to believe, and who is trying to make sense of both what he believes and what, often, deters him from believing. …

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