RS: You talk about how poets like Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes “are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.” This reminds me of the theologian Alexander Schmemann’s point that the sacraments are not holy exceptions to reality but ways of showing that the world is in fact holy. How are faith and poetry ways of getting at this fragile, deeper reality that we often miss?
CW: It does two things at once. When I’m speaking strictly of those poets I’m addressing their use of metaphor and what they can do is simultaneously show you what you know but won’t let yourself see, these connections between things – things that you feel, things that you think. And at the same time they place that knowledge in the scope of all that you don’t know so that there’s this enormous mystery wrapped around the poem so that you get absolute precision in these poems and yet absolute mystery. And I think that’s what religious experience is, as I understand it – those two things at once. Poetry can be one way of accessing that experience.
RS: How has that contrast of the concrete and the mysterious played out in your own experience of faith and then your experience of Christianity? If someone in our age is going to have faith it seems like the more common option is not to jump into a traditional religious structure but to choose some loose spirituality. I’m wondering how that played out for you and whether that dance of concreteness and mystery had something to do with it?
CW: You put your finger on the agony for me and the reason I consider myself a Christian. Think about it this way. We’re exhorted all of the time to love God, but I don’t know what that means. How do you love God? If I think of this in the abstract I have no idea how. All of my understanding of love is concrete and human, and so I am at a loss when some preacher just tells me to love God. But when I think of it in the context of Christianity then I see that God is incarnational, that God is in the world and that Christ gave us all sorts of models for how to love and I understand. I understand that there’s no difference between loving God and loving my wife, loving my children, loving my neighbor – that those are the same things and to love God is to love them and that there is not this separate thing called “God.” Without Christianity I don’t know how to think about that and that is one of the chief reason that I do try to be a Christian.
RS: Along with that concreteness you also talk about the importance of unbelief. You say that “sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” What does that call to unbelief look like and how does that fit with Christianity.
CW: I think it looks very different for different people. I think of artists who are not obviously faithful – Albert Camus, Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan – all whom could be called atheists, though it’s sometimes hard to tell, and yet they all seem to me exemplars of spiritual courage and it’s hard for me to believe that they weren’t following the call of God in making the things that they made.