Christian Wiman on Poetry and Religion


Christian Wiman, editor of Chicago’s venerable Poetry magazine, shares some brilliant thoughts on poetry and religion in the Winter 2007 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. This article (unfortunately not available online, so subscribe now!) is taken from his upcoming book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Some highlights:


Language can create faith but can’t sustain it. This is true of all human instruments, which can only gesture toward divinity, never apprehend it. This is why reading the Bible is so often a frustrating, even spiritually estranging, experience. Though you can feel sometimes (particularly in the Gospels) the spark that started the fire of faith in the world — and in your heart — the bulk of the book is cold ash. Thus we are by our own best creations confounded, that Creation, in which our part is integral but infinitesimal, and which we enact by imagination but cannot hold in imagination’s products, may live in us. God is not the things whereby we imagine him.

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You cannot really know a religion from the outside. That is to say, you can know everything about a religion — its history, iconography, scripture, etc. — but all of that will remain inert, mere information, so long as it is, to you, myth. To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that “you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general” (George Lindbeck)….I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.

(For an elegantly written book on the latter theme, check out George Steiner’s Real Presences.)

Blogging will be light this weekend because I’ll be attending the feminist anti-porn activists’ conference at Wheelock College. Of course the biggest question on my mind this afternoon is “What should I wear?” So far I’ve packed my leopard-print sequinned hat, camo pants and a crucifix. Let ’em wonder.

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