I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe," observes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a rich, beautiful, spiritually honest, theologically informed assembly of fragmentary, God-haunted reflections about suffering, death, love, life, poetry, and the shimmering gift of the real. Wiman, the former editor of Poetry (and a guest at one of our evening programs a few years ago), writes of many things, the most important of which is his struggle to survive a rare and deadly cancer that brings death close and on occasion annihilates him with pain's oblivion. But his main goal is to bear testimony to what he can and does believe.
Full of vivid images and arresting observations ("Trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author's personal faith is not actively at risk"), this is not a book of confident theological proclamation. On the contrary, Wiman is most certain about his tentative uncertainty, quoting Czestaw Mitosz, "Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, / and only late do we discover how obedient we were." As Wiman observes, quite accurately, many of us believe, yes, but a critical, skeptical spirit infiltrates, "and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between science and religion, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind."
Nevertheless, in these fragmentary reflections the core of his faith comes clear. God is the great illumination, or, better, the Great Illuminator, the brightness of the unfathomable, abysmal (in its literal sense of being very deep) realness of all things. A genuine faith in God seeks what he illumines, plunges us into the ecstasies and agonies of contingent existence that our self-enclosed egos often draw back from or merely use, exploit, and manipulate. "It propels you back toward the world and other people."
This affirmation stands against a strand of the classical tradition that argues we must affirm death in order to fully embrace life, "that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it." By this way of thinking, to know that nothingness awaits makes every little something precious: the distant train whistle, the aroma of coffee in the morning, the odd bend in your lover's nose. It was the view Wiman entertained in his unbelief, but when his cancer brought him face-to-face...