Christian Wimin is a talented poet and long-suffering spiritual seeker whom I discovered through his book, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer.
He has forced me to do something I did not anticipate when I picked him up to read: I rejected him — or a good part of him, or, at least, what I take to be him, or, if not him, his spiritual thesis, to the extent that I understand it. I can only go by what I read, and I read the following on page 111:
The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular kowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of srtychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneoulsly transformed into a corpse. Any belief that does not recognize and adapt to its own erotion rots from within. Only when doctriine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance. Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.
So, everything is relative, or “provisional”? Even God? Really? What use is a “provisional” or ephemeral or conditional, here today/gone tomorrow God?
Well –okay. I think I get what he’s saying. Such feelings have led me and multitudes to a kind of agnosticism in which the nature of God eludes us, or we suffer from God’s silence. Or, when it comes to orgnized religion and orthodox Christianity in particular, everything always seems, sooner or later, to ossify into stale praxis in musty old buildings or cold glassy ones, both eminating spiritual emptiness, clericalism where genuine spirituality is smothered by clostrophobic bureacracies, all supported by heaps of dry, demanding documents we call “doctrines” and “dogmas.” We’ve often been heartened by the bumper sticker slogans that proclaims them to be dubious and worthy of death (e.g., “my karma ran over my dogma.”)
(By the way, the default religion of the modern soul seems to be Buddhism –until you read the disenchanted testimonials of disaffected Buddhists disavowing Buddhist orthodoxy, or any claim that there is just One Path — or any limit to the numbers of paths to enlightment. Self-will is forever the bus running over any dogma, however orthodox or heterodox.)
What sent Wimin off on this heterodox tilt was a quote from that unendingly renowned spiritual culture hero, the late Thomas Merton. . That statement was: “The reason why Catholic tradition is a tradition is because there is only one living doctrine in Christianity: there is nothing new to be discovered.”
There is much to like about Merton. I like much about him. I once owned both his Seven Storey Mountain (read it and was moved by it) and The Sign of Jonah, his late 1940s jounal of his early monastic years. He somehow seems to maintain great popularity among self-identifying “liberal” Catholics who identify as “spiritual” but reject dogma and doctrine. Merton, before his untimely death in 1968, was plainly off on a tilt of his own, becoming topical and rather political over issues of war, peace and nuclear armament and more interested in eastern religious traditions and seemingly less willing to be bound by his once-vital vocation as a Trappist Monk happily embracing Christian orthodoxy or the centuries-old Benedictine rule.
That’s fine, to a degree. Everybody, even the best, now and then take a spiritual walk around the block. But I believe during Merton’s particular walk, his once rich vocation was sheered away as, more and more, he felt the need to become socially “relevant” but less orthodox within the silence of the cloister. That, in itself, made him popular with a less orthodox fringe of the Church eager to shake off what it percieves or experiences to be the rigidity of doctrine.
Wimin’s sour verdict on that quote of Merton’s is that it amounts to “a little bit of death from a thinker who brought the world so much life.”
Then he goes on to write, “To be fair, Merton himself certainly realized this later in his life, when he became interested in merging ideas from Christianity with Buddhism.”
Ah, sweet syncretism! A kind of srtychnine pride (to borrow a phrase from Wimin) of the agnostic dabbler. It did not, in my opinion, enrich Merton. It diverted him — pridefully.
I long ago, during a period of “searching,” read Merton’s Mystics and Zen Master. I don’t doubt that mystics (some of them Christian) and Zen Masters might find some common spiritual ground. But I would enter the exalted company of the likes of G.K. Chesterton and suggest that Christian tradition and orthodoxy has not failed but really never been tried — that the nature of our search is, with the help of God’s grace, to be more Christlike, amending our lives accordingly. And while there might be nothing truly left to discover doctrinally, there is much to learn. Our understanding of doctrine can grown and develop, just as we come to know and better understand the nature of an oak tree as it grows from a seed to a flourishing mass of branches and leaves and, organically, resists any effort to become a banana tree. And thre is, in fact, really much to re-discover in the spiritual realm, especially in the search after a greater knowledge of our individual selves and our relationship to the one-and-only true God based on the earthly actions and pronouncements of the Second Person of the Trinity. This, I submit,m is a divine adventure, full of thrills and spills, darkness and light.
I’ll own that Christian Wimin’s intense strivings toward what we might call enlightenment or even sanctity are authentic and heroic. He has long battled a painful form of bone cancer, and kept on searching and writing through pain and multiple operations. He is a most admirable and talented and insightful soul. But I just hate to see him falling, in this particular instance, back on a pedestrian agnosticism and spiritual relativism, suggesting (as he seems to) that Christian doctrine is a product of pride and is infinitely protean, as is the God who is its subject. And he does so in vivid, concrete, almost disdainful terms: we must view God as “provisional” and as ever elusive, or our faith becomes a “corpse.” Ouch! That makes us gods, right? We’ve seen this movie before — from Eden on. It is a war on certitiude that seems to sanctify doubt. Wimin might (I could only hope) profit from the admonition of St. John Henry Newman, which was offered to me at an especially painful, grief-filled, confused and doubting period of my youth — that “a thousand difficulties do not constitute one single ‘doubt’.”
But I know that’s a thesis always destined to be rejected by those who simply don’t ever want to be common travelers with observant or orthodox Christians of any stripe.
The Christian religion, being codified and administered according to the divergent practices and beliefs of infinitely splintering congregations and denomination, can turn people away. To wit:
I was just in the company of a woman who attented the Southern Baptist funeral of a friend’s son who’d struggled his whole life with drug addition and recently died of an overdose. As she tells it, there was no divine conslation to be had at the preacher’s hand or from his mouth. He spoke in roaring fashion only of the possibility that the young man, a sinner like all of us, might or might not have found his eternal destiny in heaven and hell was alway a possibility. (Undeniably true.) Disenchanted in the extreme, she vowed never again to enter a Southern Baptist Church. Well, I might point out that that stuff from the preacher (again, as she tells it) ain’t orthodoxy. That’s heresy, in my Catholic book (and catechism). It’s Calvin, Zwigli and Luther working by their dreary, benighted, human lights.
It is worth noting that Christian Wimin, a bright an inquisitive soul, had an intense pentacostal upbringing in Texas and probably didn’t encounter an unbeliever until he got to college — and realized he was faking his salvation. Wouldn’t that be a bitch? Same sort of thing happens with Catholics. To an extent, it happened to me. When I realized my faith had gone unchallenged, it nearly dissolved under pressure.
But according to Catholic belief, we must persevere to the end, through the dark valley, depending on God’s supportive grace and mercy which are always available through our prayers, the prayers of our loved ones and, especially, through the sacraments, those visible signs of grace. We are saved or condemned by our own actions and we see now only “through a glass darkley.”
Yeah, I’m talking voodoo to a lot of non-believers. But, as that old sinner Kurt Vonnegut might have said, “so it goes.”
So, again, we are various grades of stumblers, and all children of the one God who can save us, lift us up after we fall. We have only to ask and, exercising free choice. Offered for our guidance, which we are free to reject, is what comes to us through centuries-old….doctrine.We seek love, understanding and forgiveness from one another if we are functioning normally and properly according to that “bright”-ness that illuminates Christian Wimin’s abbys. Could it be otherwise with the God we claim to believe and whom we don’t, out of love, wish to offend as we find Him in other people, even our enemies? God reaches us or is defeated in us in this very frail and human way.
Of course, I often love my sins, even the memory of them, more than I love God. I admit it. So I shouldn’t mind it when conscience begins blinking its red warning light. We CAN fall from grace. And I’m not preaching here. Just whistling in the abyss, and hoping it stays “bright” for me. And for you. For all of us.
Christian Wimin has written a short poem that reads:
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
(Yes, he ends with a colon — a fill-in-the-blank ending, still, at the volume’s end, blank.)
Let me be clear:
But note: Christian Wimin’s subtitle tells us he IS a believer. And he is a poet. So much of the Christian Bible is written in poetry, much of it beautiful. And from Job to the psalm writer, there is much anguished questioning. (Any actual readers of this blog might go back to the entry called, “On Serious Earth,” a meditation on atheist poet Philip Larkin’s poetic meditations while exploring a church buiding. Read Job while you’re at it. And Lamentations….)
In conclusion: G.K. Chesterton from his classic, Orthodoxy:
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepeted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficulty thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob….
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.
And, really, isn’t that basically what good old Thomas Merton meant and never truly ceased meaning, even as he now and then fell — and rose again? That we arrive home and recognize it for the first time. We discover that the truest thing has already been discovered. Isn’t it the truest and worst pride to be be found in the impulse to think otherwise?
Keep searching, Christian Wimin. You are well-named. I’m with you in that abyss. Whistling when it gets dark. Listen for me. It may be that we are home and don’t want to say so. Believing nothing believe in this – that there is nothing new to be discovered, just a difficult love to be embraced. Reliable sources have told me that that way lies joy and freedom.
I’m not there yet. How about you?