RS: In the book you seem to struggle with that question yourself – not only coming to faith, but coming to faith through a concrete form. I wonder to what extent you think that that is a modern problem and to what extent it is a perennial one.
CW: That’s a good point. If you read the desert fathers, the patristic stuff, you find that almost all of our anxieties were there as well, so you’re probably right. We tend to think of these as modern problems, but they’ve always been there. I think what they were wrestling with was the adequate way to experience the ineffable, mystical reality of God and how that translates into Christianity. I think that problem has always been there. Ours is different because the question starts with whether we experience any ineffable reality, any mystical reality at all or is it just firing neurons in our brains. There’s a particular modern element there, but there are no new arguments – we just rework them century after century.
RS: I love the way you address this modern reductionism in the book where you talk about the attempts to explain St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as an epileptic seizure. Part of what you get at is that faith begins at the place where reason fails us and you go on to talk about phenomena like love that can be explained on a physiological level but we all have a sense that such explanations are insufficient.
CW: Yes, I’m just baffled by scientism, as Marilynne Robinson calls it; the confidence of scientism that everything is going to be explained. It seems to me that the further we get the less we know and the world becomes more mysterious. But there’s this trend that’s just recapitulating the Enlightenment and its explanations of the world as a machine, the brain as a computer. We make these same mistakes, the same spiritual mistakes that they made which is what it means to be human I guess.
RS: I’m interested in that in relation to poetry because poetry wrestles with paradox, with mystery and I’m wondering how that scientism and the desire to explain and control affects the place of poetry in the society at large.
CW: I think that people are starved for meaning and that because of that poetry is actually growing in the culture.
RS: Because it answers something that so much else isn’t answering?
CW: Exactly, the thing is that you can tell people what the world looks like mathematically, but if it doesn’t answer some imperative they feel in their spirit, or their intuitions and instincts it’s not going to matter. And I would argue that it’s not just softheaded to say it’s not just our neurons firing or some primitive fear that we can’t give up. All of the major decisions we make in our life we make on instinct. We don’t fall in love because we sit down and catalogue and make ourselves a calculus of all of the faults and benefits of the relationship. You don’t choose a career that way, at least most of us don’t, you don’t choose your friends that way, you don’t choose your faith that way which is more important than all of these.