“Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?”
On a sunny, cloudless Thursday in late May, I, thirty-five years old, looked up into the sky and was blinded. I wasn’t looking at the sun. I even had sunglasses on. But the brightness of everything was unbearable. I sighed, slumped, closed my eyes, and mumbled, “I don’t believe anymore. I don’t believe in God.”
Sometime after my first child was born my father told me that once when he, my sister, and I were in a row boat on Lago di Garda, my sister turned to him and asked if God had “a thousand eyes or more to see all the things that all the people in all the world did.”
“God needs no eyes to see us,” I answered.
My sister was five. I was three and half.
I have no memory of making this theological pronouncement, only my father’s account of it. And, I’ve never known what to do with this autobiographical fragment.
After years of keeping this memory like a secret name, like a charm that should remain unspoken lest in speaking it its truth be vitiated, he finally told me the story. Why? I don’t know. It was simply given to me one day when I was already a grown man. Though I’ll never know his reasons for keeping it so long or why he finally told me, his telling me was a way of saying, “Son, there are truths you’ve always known.”
The days that followed that blinding loss of faith were dark and confusing. I was mourning my loss and keeping a secret. For months I didn’t eat and barely spoke to my wife. I didn’t know how to tell her that the gift of faith I thought was mine had left me. So I had no words for her at all.
God matters, my tradition tells me.
God, like a summer storm, a thief in the night, a visitor from a far off place, a baby, comes, whether invited or not, and changes everything. But the stories collected and passed down are stories of God’s coming. Hardly ever are they of God’s leaving.
It’s not that there isn’t also a shadow tradition that gathers up and passes on these narratives. But official history is that God comes in myriad ways and that it is we, inconstant humans lured away by desires unnatural, who leave.
“Behold,” writes John the Revelator, “I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
But what of those for whom God has left?
I know people who speak of their loss of faith as nothing more troubling than the loss of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. What is the sloughing off childhood myths but the inevitable maturing of the mind?
“When I was a child, I thought as a child,” writes Paul. “Now that I am a man, I think as a man.” But this is certainly not what Paul was speaking of.
In college, when friends lost their faith this loss always seemed to be accompanied by an embrace of hedonism. For those of us still within the embrace of God and bound to traditional piety, this loss seemed suspect. A way to mask behaviors the person thought obviously morally wrong.
Now I’m not so sure. My own loss was absolute despair. God is what grounded me, what moved me to acts of kindness. God’s leaving took from me joy and life. I now can see how this leaving can lead to wildness. How the giving over of the body to its pleasures can be the result of loss rather than the cause. The pain truly is so great you need to find ways to mute it.
God matters, so I have been told.
The Decalogue states, “I am the Lord your God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
And quick on the heels of that assertion is the affirmation that language also matters. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
When I was young, this mainly meant not using God as an expletive. It also meant not using euphemisms like Gosh and Golly, though Goodness was permitted.
But as I’ve lived with the Bible, grown up with the Prophets and the Gospels, my understanding of the burden placed on language, and by extension the role of the poet in the tradition, has changed. It now has much less to do with piety of speech and much more with the power of words to create and destroy.
In an interview with Krista Tippet the theologian Walter Bruggemann has said,
“What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power.”
Bruggemann believes what power the prophets have lies in their poetry as it finds new ways to describe the world and God. For him, this power is ultimately transformative and it relies on the expansive nature of metaphor. Metaphor opens up language and belief to new possibilities. And, it’s, ultimately, inclusive. It establishes new connections, new paths, and through these connections it redefines reality.
It would seem that the poet of faith should readily embrace definitions that stress God as the ultimate poet speaking the world into existence through the word, and also those definitions that understand the task of the poet as affirmation and praise. Certainly this is part of the task, but only part.
Bruggemann also believes, and he gets this from Kafka, that poetry is a pickax that chips away at the false narratives of life. The Mexican poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa believes something similar. She thinks poetry is destruction. It’s not that she doesn’t think poetry isn’t also creation, but destruction is the first and necessary movement of poetry. If this is true, and I think it is, the poet of faith cannot but also be a poet of doubt and negation. This role is older, in fact, than Christianity. It’s as old as Job and Elihu arguing as the latter sits and watches the former scrape puss from his wounds with pottery shards and call down judgment on God. It’s as old as God’s silence on Mount Horeb as Elijah hid in the cleft of the rock.
The Welsh poet and country priest R. S. Thomas, one of the best apophatic poets of the twentieth century, knows something about poetry as negation and about living faithfully with doubt. In “Via Negativa,” a poem from H’M (1972), he provides an eloquent and modern description of this ancient mode of knowing God.
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
His poem “The Letter,” from Mass for Hard Times (1992), brings a kind of negative thinking to bear on the act of prayer. It tells the story of someone sending Thomas a note with the promise to pray for him. The poet then interrogates the meaning of this phrase. And asks if, in order for the prayer to come true, he might have to refrain from walking along the seashore, or driving his car, or placing himself in any other kind of risk, lest by his or someone else’s carelessness or some freak accident he die. At the end of the poem Thomas states that this person’s casual promise to pray for him has led him, the poet, also to prayer. Yet he comes to a very different conclusion about what prayer is. He writes,
… I admit
he has driven me to my knees
but with my eyes open so that,
by long looking over concealed
fathoms, I gaze myself into accepting
that to pray true is to say nothing.
At the heart of this poem lies, it would seem, a radical doubt. Isn’t the duty of the faithful to pray unceasingly for one another? Yet, another way to read this poem is that Thomas is carrying out the duty of the poet of faith. Namely, calling into question a tick of language that evidences easy belief, a turn of phrase that we toss off because we think we should, because we hope the phrase is true and real and comforting, but is instead a hurried rushing through the world to affirm things because we think that faith and affirmation are one and the same.
Thomas, instead, brings together prayer and silence, prayer and waiting, prayer and sitting, eyes open gazing into the abyss without saying anything. The poet turns away from speech to sit and contemplate, and in that contemplation calls into question not prayer but an easy presumption about prayer.
Part of Thomas’ struggle is how to know God in the modern world, in the world of the machine, the telephone, the split atom. To rephrase Theodor Adorno’s celebrated and often misquoted statement about poetry after Auschwitz, “Is a poetry of faith possible after Darwin, after Oppenheimer?” The answer that Thomas seems to give over and over again is, “Yes. It is possible, but only through a constant wrestling with the given notions of God, through a faithful sitting with the questions and the images and the language of affirmation and doubt that are part of the Christian tradition.”
Doubt has always walked behind, if not beside, faith. Much of the history of this modern walk has been one that has actively sought to silence the questions, shore the believer up against the dark fire of doubt. Maybe this has always been the case. The editor of Job makes sure to end with restitution above and beyond the protagonist’s loss. Ecclesiastes turns away from the corrosive acid of Qoheleth’s insights to affirm the need to remember God and even cautions the reader against too many books.
The church typically views the negative theologian and the mystic with suspicion. Meister Eckhart, for example, was accused of heresy. He writes in one of his sermons,
“Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, he takes leave of God. St. Paul took leave of God for God’s sake and gave up all that he might get from God, as well as all he might give—together with every idea of God…yet God remained to him as God is in his own nature—not as he is conceived by anyone to be—nor yet as something yet to be achieved—but more as an ‘is-ness,’ as God really is.”
Rejecting, giving up, wrestling with any notion of God is not itself a rejection of the is-ness of God. It is a necessary movement of faith.
During the dark days of fire I kept going to church, kept reading the Bible. Though I could not pray, my poems returned more insistently to the Prophets and the Gospels, and to Meister Eckhart and R.S. Thomas. Though I said I no longer believed, the discipline of poetry kept me immersed in the images, metaphors, and language of my faith tradition.
“It is good that a man should both hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord,” says Lamentations. And also, “He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so there may be hope.”
Jeremiah adds, “the city will be rebuilt on its ruin.”
“Part of the mystery of grace,” writes Christian Wiman, “is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence.”
I look back now at those bright, burning days of disbelief and I see a grace in them. What was terrible absence, is a sort of presence. It’s not that I’m now anything more than a Christian who affirms while doubting, or vice versa. It’s that I think of this doubt, this negation in another way. I think of it in relation to the idea of poetry as destruction, as pickax, and to Bruggemann’s conception of the poet as one who stands at odds with the systematizing, categorizing, tenet-producing work of the institutional church.
I am no philosopher or theologian. I don’t think in categories or build systems. I am poet who affirms with Bruggemann that, “I am essentially a collection of fragments that do not fit very well together.”
To name the God I no longer believe in is supremely difficult. In part, this is because any description of that God from this side is too much a caricature. In part, it’s also because the nature of faith is that it changes over a lifetime. The idea of God believers have is an amalgam of things handed down to them by family and friends, church and culture, study and meditation. Particular beliefs slough off or deepen over one’s life. Already there were things I didn’t believe: the literal, inerrant inspiration of Scripture; history as some unfolding master narrative where my part was to find the role already written for me; that one should live one’s life here based on a possible afterlife of reward and punishment. That blinding light was the last flame of those evangelical ideas.
To describe the God that now grounds me is even harder. Thomas Merton speaks of faith not as an emotion or feeling, not as an opinion or conviction based on reason, but as “an intellectual assent” that puts one in relation to God and “perfects the mind.” However, it does not “give complete satisfaction to the intellect [but leaves it] suspended in obscurity, without a light proper to its own mode of knowing.” This, of course, is early Merton, before his rapprochement with Buddhist thought, before much of his poetry was written. Still, even here, “suspended in obscurity,” we see, like with R. S. Thomas, a poet of faith living with the darkness.
I would add to Merton’s characterization that faith is also the decision to live within a certain tradition and a certain language about God that shapes the inner and outer life. It is a recognition that God – wholly other, radically different – matters. That God, because of this difference, unsettles and troubles the believer, and so transforms those who seek God. That God calls believers out of themselves to be in community and in the world because they are to live a full life here and now.
Some might read my story of loss of faith and return to faith and only see the return and think nothing truly ventured, little really gained. After all, faith is faith and modernity has placed it in opposition to science and reason. Others might want to question me on various creedal points to ascertain whether or not the faith to which I returned was true. To these I would reply like Abba Poeman or Abba Pambo, “Let us attend, instead, to this world and to our passions.” These fifth century desert fathers refused to speak of Scripture and heavenly things. Not because they did not know them, but because silence is a marker of humility. Also, I’m afraid I would much too tentatively affirm too few tenets. A life that tries to embody the mercy of God and emphasizes love over and above theological correctness is, however, not enough for certain strains of Christianity. The Christianity that has come down us, that has survived the purging fires of the Middle Ages, the violent clashes with Judaism and Islam, and the bloody schisms among those that fall under its own broad banner places belief in tenets at the center of faith. Orthodoxy is what marks you, not life-practices, such as prayer, meditation, humility, love of justice, and mercy.
I stand somewhere between the absolute no of the atheist and the militant yes of the fundamentalist. To believe while doubting is also a position different than the agnostic. God is, and matters. And it’s different than those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. In fact, I might claim the opposite. Though God is not limited to those of faith, the most interesting forms of spirituality to me are those that are bound to religious traditions and deepened by the disciplines those faiths have developed over time.
My faith is different than it was. It’s not that I don’t sing redemption songs when I can. It’s not that I don’t try to find small moments of grace and mercy and sing these in the muted way my modern sensibility allows. But it’s more tentative. I claim a quiet Christianity and say along with Adam Zagajewski, “I’m a Christian, a sometimes doubting one (but this is almost a definition of a Christian: to doubt also).” Though I may struggle and argue with Christianity, my faith tradition gives me the vocabulary I use to grapple with God and with my passions.
Poetry, and also faith, is destruction, is a bright light that burns away the wax used to smooth over the cracks. Neither allows for platitudes. Poetry and faith are also creation, a search for new metaphors and a paying attention to the world as it is. Both, likewise, are affirmation and also doubt.
“Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old,” says Isaiah. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”
“God’s eyes are on the righteous,” says a Country Gospel song. No, God needs no eyes to see us. We live and move and kill and eat and are kind and cruel and fully human and sometimes better, we are all these things in God – sex and love and lies. The language we use to express our faith, language that in turn molds and creates our faith, needs to be purified by the fire of doubt, needs to be broken and made new. The poet of faith speaks truth also in the language of doubt.
Jeremy Dae Paden is a Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Transylvania University. He was born in Italy and raised in Central America and the Caribbean. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets. On Twitter: @JeremyDae