Ragan Sutterfield interviews Christian Wiman, poet and author of the new book:
Christian Wiman grew up steeped in the Christian culture of West Texas, but left that faith when he went to college and entered into a literary world where Christianity no longer seemed to make sense. He excelled as a poet and eventually became editor of Poetry Magazine, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious journal of verse. Faith found its way back into his life through finding love and his diagnosis with a rare chronic cancer. His new book My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer is both the story of his return to Christianity and a beautiful mix of poetry and meditations on the experience of faith in this time and culture. I talked with Wiman about his book and the questions explored there.
RS: I was struck by a statement in Adam Kirsch’s review of your book in the New Yorker. He said that, “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 faith – not a polemic but a description, a confession, a kind of poem.” What is your take on that statement and how did that reality play out for you in writing My Bright Abyss?
CW: I agree with you that that was a very astute comment and also a generous one because Adam Kirsch is a secular Jew. You wouldn’t expect him to be immediately sympathetic to a book like this, but he read it very sensitively and intuitively and intelligently. I felt really lucky and I also felt enlightened by it because when I wrote the book I was certainly not out to make any argument; I was struggling to understand what I believe and was wrestling with these questions within myself. I wanted to give an experience of what trying to believe, trying to have faith felt like.
RS: As you try to tease out what trying to have faith feels like one of the things that comes up again and again is this kind of wrestling in and out of doubt. You even say that Christianity must pass through a “crucible of doubt” quoting Dostoevsky. Can you speak to doubt in its different forms and possibilities?
CW: I think it really depends on the person. Dostoevsky was talking about the kind of doubt that was around him because of modernism – the kind of intellectual despair of idealism and materialism. He thought that Christianity had to understand that doubt in order to get beyond it. I think there can be another kind of person who can become enamored with doubt and can come to think of doubts as a kind of higher thing than faith. But if you think about it doubt is actually quite easy. We all doubt all of the time. Any of us who have any kind of inclination toward God, most of our waking moments are spent in doubt. It’s the moments of faith that are difficult. It may be that if you have a simplistic faith you need it to be doused with doubt periodically, but if you have a despairing faith it may mean that you need to temper it with a more active joy and happiness. Those things also have to be cultivated.