Christian Wiman on belief, faith, poetry, experience, and the unreligious artist

IAM (International Arts Movement) recently posted Makoto Fujimura’s 4-part interview with Christian Wiman. I thought it was worth sharing:

1. On belief and faith

2. On poetry and faith

3. On experience and self-expression

4. The unreligious artist

Whenever I read Wiman, or read about Wiman, I am reminded of the Church’s long history of mistreatment and silencing of the doubters and sceptics in its midst, of my own disquiet about the idolatry of certainty, and of my own hunger for honest conversation about the mysteries that lie most deeply in the centre of existence. I am also reminded that scepticism as well as faith ‘seeking understanding’ (after Anselm) involves not only some continuity with the past but also the constructive work of doing what Hans-Georg Gadamer famously refers to as opening ‘horizons’ of meaning where one learns ‘to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it, but to see it better within a larger whole and in truer proportion’. Theologians, it seems to me, ought to champion the opening up of such ‘hermeneutic space’ for all those – whether so-called believers or sceptics – who simply cannot imag­ine any other way of the world being. This is one place where the work of artists like Wiman take on an almost indispensable role for the church, and perhaps especially in those parts of it which tend to be more than a little wordy (and a little nerdy!) – where, despite all claims to the contrary, what is communicated is that ultimate truths really can be captured by human constructs – not only in liturgical contexts but also in our other theological musings.

My friend Cynthia Rigby recently identified Wiman as an example of one for whom the search for meaning constitutes ‘a kind of belief that … would not run nearly as deep were it void of skepticism’. Clearly, doubt and scepticism may be expressions of faith. Equally, belief may be an expression of a lack of faith, a mistrust and/or fear – the fear of not believing. All this is part of the complexity and ambiguity of scepticism. What sceptics and doubters need, Paul Tillich said, is not repression but courage which ‘does not deny that there is doubt, but … takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern’. This is the kind of scepticism which is essential for the kind of theology that grown-ups do!

St Ambrose once said that ‘it did not suit God to save his people by arguments’. Of course, arguments have their uses – encouraging the gift of clarification, for example – but they are no substitute for imagination, vision, and hope, truths not lost on the biblical writers. It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is learnt not, in the first instance, by clinical enquiry and epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Marilyn McCord Adams on the relevance of feelings

The relevance of feelings. [Defenders of hell often] do not enter at any length into how bad horrendous sufferings are…. [They] imply that those who are offended [by the doctrine of eternal torment] will be motivated by understandable feelings, which are nevertheless not relevant to a rational consideration of the subject.

I want to close with a contrary methodological contention…: namely, that feelings are highly relevant to the problem of evil and to the problem of hell, because they are one source of information about how bad something is for a person. To be sure they are not an infallible source. Certainly they are not always an articulate source. But they are a source. Where questions of value are concerned, reason is not an infallible source either. That is why so-called value calculations in abstraction from feelings can strike us as “cold” or “callous”. I do not believe we have any infallible faculties at all. But our best shot at valuations will some from the collaboration of feelings and reason, the latter articulating the former, the former giving data to the latter.

Personally, I am appalled at [the] valuations of defenders of eternal torment, at levels too deep for words (although I have already said many). I invite anyone who agrees with [them] – that the saved can in good conscience let their happiness be unaffected by the plight of the damned because the destruction of the latter is self-willed – to spend a week visiting patients who are dying of emphysema or of the advanced effects of alcoholism, to listen with sympathetic presence, to enter into their point of view on their lives, to face their pain and despair. Then ask whether one could in good conscience dismiss their suffering with, “Oh well, they brought it in themselves!”

I do not think this is sentimental. Other than experiencing such suffering in our own person, such sympathetic entering into the position of another is the best way we have to tell what it would be like to be that person and suffer as they do, the best data we can get on how bad it would be to suffer that way. Nor is my thesis especially new. It is but an extension of the old Augustinian-Platonist point, that where values are concerned, what and how well you see depends not simply on how well you think, but on what and how well you love (a point to which Swinburne seems otherwise sympathetic). I borrow a point from Charles Hartshorne when I suggest that sensitivity, sympathetic interaction, is an aspect of such loving, one that rightfully affects our judgment in ways we should not ignore’. – Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann (ed. Eleonore Stump; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 326.

A note: I’ve come across too few who have made the invaluable point that McCord Adams makes here (whether or not one agrees with her conclusions on universalism is another matter). Of course, the implications of her words reach well beyond conversations concerning apokatastasis – they reach to how we think about all of life. BTW: She really needs to update her homepage.

Experience and Evangelical Succession

‘What Christ has done for me has become possible only by what He did even more powerfully for others whose faith and experience have been deeper and richer than mine, but who reflect my experience all the same, even while they diversify and enlarge it mightily. Standing over my experience is the experience of the whole evangelical succession. And standing over that is the historic fact of Christ’s own person, and His consciousness of Himself (“All things are delivered to me of the Father”) as Lord of the world, Lord of nature in miracle, of the soul in redemption, and of the future in judgment. When I meet Him in my inmost soul I meet one whose own inmost soul felt itself to be all that, and who has convinced the moral flower of the race, in the whole historic Church, that He is what He knew Himself to be. And in that conviction the Church has become the finest product of Humanity, and the mightiest power that ever entered and changed the course of history from its moral centre’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 204-5.

U2 and Schleiermacher

Yesterday, I referenced a forum where a discussion on religious experiences at U2 concerts is happening. This morning, I have been reading Schleiermacher’s autobiography (as you do) and came across this related entry to Henriette von Willich to Schleiermacher:

I cannot tell you what a strange state of mind I was in while at church; how vividly you were present to me, although my whole soul was full of devotion; how, in the moments of profoundest worship in the sanctuary, I was so conscious of my love for you, that the feeling of the divine character of this love penetrated me anew, and filled me with rapture. One doubt, however, arose in my mind, and I determined to speak to you at once about it. It is whether I am wrong in calling those feelings religious which are awakened in me by the music in church? For I must confess that I feel quite differently when the service is not accompanied by music. I cannot describe to you how my soul is borne aloft, as it were, by the tones; what a feeling of freedom is developed in me, what a consciousness of the holy and the infinite seems to pervade me.

Now I’m trying to imagine the young Friedrich at a U2 concert.


‘The Holy Spirit is so present’. So said one U2 fan reflecting upon a recent U2 concert. Over at Interference.com, there’s a forum on spiritual experiences at U2 concerts – a nice postmodern mix of experientialism and religiosity. As one fan said, ‘I can’t say for sure whether there such a thing as God, or Holy Spirit, but if there is I swear that it must feel like how I feel at a U2 concert!’ There it is … I knew God liked U2.

‘But that was just Paul’s experience …’

‘Paul never really proclaimed anything he, himself, had not experienced. Whatever theology he may have had prior to his experiences, he appears to speak primarily from experience and not from some theological rationalisation of the same. He talked of Christ as Lord because that was the way he met him. He spoke of forgiveness because he had been forgiven, and of justification because he had been justified. The Cross meant everything to him because he had been there: ‘I have been crucified with Christ’. He knew the gift of the Spirit because he had received the Gift, as indeed he had been filled by him.’ – Geoffrey Bingham, Paul, the Pursued and Pursuer of God (Blackwood: New Creation, 1986), v.

The painting is Rembrandt’s The Apostle Paul (c. 1657). Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.