Dialect

Matt Sitman:I was thinking, too, Chris, of the great — I forget whether it’s the very final lines or in the last two or three paragraphs — of A River Runs Through It — where the title comes from, right? ‘Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs.’

Christian Wiman:That’s beautiful.

Matt Sitman:I mean, is it too cheap to say, it wasn’t an accident that a poet came to embrace the faith that claims, ‘In the beginning was the Word’?

Christian Wiman:Yeah — I mean I do see a sort of inevitability to it. I mean, I’ve thought a lot about the arbitrariness of faith. That is, you grew up in Pennsylvania in a Baptist church, I grew up in west Texas in a Baptist church — here we are, adult Christians, surprise, surprise.

[laughter]

Matt Sitman:Yeah.

Sam Adler-Bell:But Christ is contingent, Chris.

Christian Wiman:Paul Ricoeur has that great phrase to define his Christianity, that, that it’s a ‘chance, raised to the level of a destiny by virtue of a continuous choice,’ and I think that’s a very good way of putting it — I’m also very influenced by the theologian George Lindbeck, who used Wittgenstein to talk about the way in which religion is like a language, and you can only go to its depths in your mother tongue. You might be able to acquire another one, but you’ll always speak it with an accent. And my mother tongue is Christianity, so it’s inevitable that I would, you know, go as far into that as I could get . . .

Matt Sitman:I mean, the Lindbeck you’re citing — it was a passage you introduced me to, actually, and it’s long been deeply fascinating to me, because — this is where, you know we’re not mostly talking about politics in this episode, but to me, as someone who’s religious and on the left, the idea that religious depth can only come through particularity, right? — the, a particular language. That that’s almost a requirement for depth. Because there’s no, like, ethical or religious Esperanto, right? To go deeper, you have to go in a more particular direction. Uh, you have to kind of follow even the idiosyncratic and sometimes arbitrary-seeming . . .

Sam Adler-Bell:Absurd. . . .

Matt Sitman:Yeah, absurd, even, aspects of religious tradition, and submit yourself to them, to kind of get the full effect, in a way. [laughs] That’s just been something that you’ve, again, taught me, or drew my attention to, that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years — that, that my religious commitments are, again, deeply particular. And I bring that particular faith to bear, on, when I talk about politics. But that tension — I was just wondering maybe if you could talk about both sides of it, in a way. The particularity, as you were getting at, of a particular language, your mother-tongue — which for us is Christianity — but what the challenges are of that in a pluralistic and, and highly diverse country of three-hundred and fifty million-plus people?

Christian Wiman:Well, I’m a poet. And so I’m gonna pledge allegiance to the particular over the abstract at any moment. I don’t believe in any sort of universal truth except insofar as the particular reveals itself. So, I mean, I’m not bothered by that, I’m not, I’m not bothered by there being some sort of universal truth. I just see no need to think of Christianity as a universal truth for everyone. I’m the least evangelical person you would ever meet.

Sam Adler-Bell:You haven’t made it sound very good for me, by the way.

[laughter]

Should you visit and read on this site much, you’ll gather before long that I’m a listener of Sam Adler-Bell and Matt Sitman’s Know Your Enemy. Above, I excerpt a recent episode.

Here’s the whole:

It’s good for a little smile to appreciate that the question Sitman poses to Wiman mid-way through a somewhat undirected conversation about art and American religion, he has set up by reciting without comment the close of a half-century-old literary hit (birthed at the U. of Chicago, in late-nineteenth-century origin a college for Baptist boys) which at its opening line famously declares itself a story for talking, in a way, about art and American religion. (Sitman does quote that opening, too, a little further on.)

My background is close to Sitman’s and Wiman’s in respect to what they have to say to each other in this excerpted portion of their conversation particularly. In earliest church experience, in fact, until about age eleven, I’m from the same small modernist-controversy-sprung Baptist conference of Sitman’s upbringing — in my case, in defense-complex-underpinned working-class neighborhood just outside south Baltimore rather than in rust-belt PA. (I’m about a decade older than Sitman, and younger than Wiman by I think a bit less.)

So in a number of ways I am identifying strongly, unavoidably, with these two fellas in podcast dialogue. But I’m not going to dwell much on the identification. Here I’m turning more toward the not-found than the found. A thing that seems to me to be missing, there in their exchange on religious inheritance and acculturation, is just a responding note of recognition that no language and no faith, standard or hegemonic in a given place and time though it may be, ever existed apart. That you will not in the real world, that is, in the end know in itself intensively any language or any faith just of itself. The languages or the faiths some particular language or faith folds off from and accompanies or with which it collides in time belong to it, or come to belong to it — however clearly distinguishably each proceeds — and it to them. Coming to know one language or faith deeply, indeed coming to real grips with your own, comes in some way (albeit perhaps largely non-obvious and un-self-aware) with knowing it with another language or faith, or with others, plural — together, alongside, relatively. That’s how the world is, compound, combining, co-operative.

Where it has become or is becoming usual to find rendered obscure or rarified such a basic feature of human experience — as you wouldn’t probably be taken aback to observe in a social environment much marked by nationalist arousal, for instance — it’s bound to be worth asking whether some form of dominance-seeking political project isn’t (or hasn’t already long been) afoot.

Not that I mean to suggest that Wiman and Sitman have the least inclination to obscure or diminish anything about human experience of languages or of faiths either one. But what I want to think about, even so, is something connected (or sort of parallel, or mirrored maybe) with what I take to be the not-altogether-accountable peak-hopping in their way with talk of languages and faiths as like things. Let’s see if I can ‘tease out’ something about the corresponding or adjacent tendencies of thought I have in mind. It happens, by the way, that I got to go hear Wiman give a talk once when living in New York — winter 2016 / 17, at Redeemer Pres, hosted through its Faith & Work program. It happens also that I don’t recall a thing from Wiman’s address or even so much as what he looked like. I was in attendance with the person I’d moved to New York in furtherance of relationship with a few years before. (That evening out didn’t go especially well for the two of us — this I remember. Nothing to do with Wiman.) Right, and this post is not about that. In part by way of that personal history, though, I had an eye last fall on the curious Institute for Human Ecology event — video for which follows below — where this person with whom in early 2017 I was in late stages of failing to make it work is herself on stage before an audience (probably composed not very differently from the one we were in then), joining NYT-byline-noteworthies (ah, and past Know Your Enemy guests) Ross Douthat and Tara Burton and a priest with the DC archdiocese. Listen to the recording, and you’ll come away, chances are, concluding that she and Wiman must have little in common as to understanding of faith. Your impression in that case would by no means be wrong, in one sense — yet might have failed to capture things less plain. There is something for comparison, in a funny way, between what Wiman and Sitman reach for in circling KYE conversation this spring and what the contrasting — indeed opposing — vague attitudinal propositionality of NY writer friends Roberts, Burton and Douthat offers a crowd of conservatives at Catholic U. last year.

It is though, again, in any event quite a difficult thing to make clear, this point of comparison or connection implicit between otherwise strikingly unlike discussions of contemporary American Christianity. I’m not going to end up going at it very directly in the present post, I don’t think. Still, I’m going to see if there isn’t a step forward or two to be taken through introducing a couple of other recorded items.

One of those items is an installment in Sam Aronow’s Jewish history series. He released it in mid-summer last year, and for various reasons I didn’t get to check it out until around the fall time-frame of the IHE ‘weird religion’ shindig. The two recordings, Aronow’s and IHE’s, came to hang together helpfully in my thoughts as consequence.

Like the Know Your Enemy show, as anyone who may follow me here for a while will know, Aronow’s series is something I hold in pretty high regard — and likewise not so high, of course, that I’d never speak critically of it. Here what I want to notice with critical eye is just a moment, a short segment, about three-quarters through a 50-min. special on turn-of-twentienth-century U.S. immigration which is on the whole great material and to which, as to all the series’ episodes, you should listen in entirety. In the segment I mean to single out, we’re introduced to Ignatius Donnelly as index of the presence, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, of more virulent forms of antisemitism in an America then beginning to be known widely as a place where (Europe’s) Jews could go, could turn to, to have lives as Jews.

The difficulty (where we’re concerned, here) is, Donnelly was a lot of things besides standout antisemite in his ‘American frontier’ situation, and the suggestion in Aronow’s telling is that the antisemitism had something to do with some of those other things — with his claim to theosophical convictions, possibly, and with prominence in the People’s Party, very likely. More, though: Aronow seems to say that elevation of the period crackpot figure Donnelly typifies, a new vogue for (something being called) theosophy, and the era’s American populist surge are together so much fringe phenomena, destined to pass as challenges to them mounted and what had seemed cohesive about them broke down. It’s this, especially, that I’ve tripped over.

I have to make glancing reference at this point to the preceding post, May 5. Like (for example) the communists and Anglo-evangelicals with and among them, the theosophists of the day or the American populists of the day can be taken to task on all sorts of grounds, racism in various contemptible forms certainly included. What won’t stand examination, however, is to characterize all these folks and their ideas as outliers and ephemera. Nor will it hold, fifty or a hundred years later or today, to talk about them as relics and ghosts of another world, as if by this or that year or milestone in modern life the situation had moved on and we’d left them behind. Not hardly. If we can speak of a through-line from Donnelly’s (not at all distant) time to ours, what that line may be we can’t hope to get at without addressing ourselves to these theosophists and these American populists in their varied and still widely proliferating guises. To acknowledge this ought not to be even a little bit controversial.

But for Aronow, as I take it, the inter-century through-line recommended for our regard is one to which the nineteenth-century theosophists or American populists retain with time perhaps no firm tie — nothing that would compel ongoing engagement with them and their preoccupations. That’s something to be lingered with for a minute. It should hold us among other reasons because wrong as it is, Aronow’s not at all unusual in seeing our story in such terms. (Aronow apparently something of a Vexler fan, it may or may not be useful to have back-of-mind here — as I certainly am too, you know, in my way.)

Invoking theosophy brings us around at last, anyhow, to the other, remaining recorded item for thinking with in the present post. A way to grasp the thing under the name of theosophy overtaking, through impact of the large personality of Helena Blavatsky, a lot of American and European imaginations during Donnelly’s lifetime is as one form of re-appreciation in popular culture of the entangling of West with East, by then several centuries underway (pushed on with embrace in Christian Europe of an idea of prerogative for ‘discovery’ abroad) and only getting much thicker. And there’s nothing ultimately very strange, we’ll realize, in finding American Henry Steel Olcott, Blavatsky’s principal backer and collaborator during her years of exceptional celebrity, central in an account of modern-era evolution in popular Buddhist life, Asian and world-wide, like that of this video up a couple of weeks ago at Religion for Breakfast:

Before we go further — and as in a post like the present one, so often, we may feel we’d had no clear idea where we were going in any case — let’s maybe wander back to where we came in and ask: What should we guess the spiritual mother-tongue to be of the guy who drawing his tale of art and religion in New-Deal (that is, People’s-Party-recast) -era America to a close intones ‘All things merge into one’? Or how should we reckon with the way of Westminster catechesis he tells us suffuses his youth, meeting him as we do in the later-life work? (Hey, for whatever it’s worth, you know Olcott too came up Presbyterian.)

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?

By this point in the post you may indeed judge that I’ve lost the thread, whatever I’d thought the thread might be. Fair enough — and I won’t urge ‘Bear with me!’ But the Buddhism bit isn’t tossed in here just for the Hell of it. I think ringing that Buddhism note actually does bring us pretty near the heart of what we’ve been about in the post — even if putting this ‘what’ cleanly as question should (as seems likely) in the end remain out of reach.

In social environments people like Wiman, way down in Texas, or I, an hour’s drive from DC, were growing up in circa the moment of publication of Maclean’s hit novella of the American century’s prior half, sorting out in the predominating sort of Christianity what was the ‘religion’ and what the ‘politics’ had, I think it’s more than fair to say, come to be among adherents about as confounded and opaque a matter as it’s ever been anywhere. Not that anyone said so, of course. What we would say, what we claimed for ourselves and our believing, was the reverse. Politics was of the world while we were transparently about the things of the spirit — so we felt certain borrowings from apostolic writers, at enormous remove from their situation and with no great care for what innovations of language credited to e.g. St. Paul served originally to do in it, authorized us to hold. Such a condition of self-confusion obviously doesn’t come about overnight. Where, looking backward, would one say it had begun? That may or may not be a rhetorical question, but in any event it’s not one I’m concerned here to answer. I will however try to observe also, alongside, something else, coordinate but undoubtedly less plain: that this sort of Christianity — pace for example Douthat and self-amusedly vigilant company of the IHE panel talk last fall — is, in its time and in the places where it’s the governing cultural form, already overwhelmingly, to extraordinary extent, mix-and-match, DIY, bricolage faith. That’s another thing folks situated as we were naturally never would say of themselves. I well recognize also that it’s a harder thing yet to demonstrate. It’s revealed best, possibly, in the way ‘the faith’ gets handed along from one generation to next, which in these settings can inter alia be described as much, much more characteristically about evolving patterns of consumption in modern media- and commodity-economies terms than about any transmission of enduring spiritual practice individual or communal. Appreciating this may help us to hear what Wiman’s saying, it strikes me, when he speaks of Christian roots and a dependency on ‘the particular’ as though, at least as much as anything else, the west-Texas country surrounding had itself for all that really mattered been in this milieu the bedrock of belief. My read is that Wiman gets that, as a question of faith, on some important level it long ago stopped being critical to Christian life to ask whether we mean something close to what the apostle meant when we take up the apostle’s words.

Wiman avoids (at least in the conversation with Sitman and Adler-Bell) trying to say what the faith ever is. Pressed, it almost seems, he’d be likely to respond ‘Well, you had to be there.’ This posture is certainly wiser in its kind than the one I, a semi-literate, have taken as obligation for a lot of years, far beyond youth, and which you find a form or forms of spoken for among the surely much more (than I) literately-armed panelist companions of the IHE ‘weird religion’ evening last year — devotion to an idea of the authoritative through-line, ancient teaching determinable in the bind of tradition and text. And yet: what one has to do to keep to Douthat and friends’ path with the authoritative and what one may come to acceptance of going Wiman’s way play out alike, somehow, in refusal of concern with, in abnegation toward, the promiscuous, miscegenating, riotous ride of the real intertwined politico-religious histories amid which we have to discover ourselves and each other. So that, while what’s actually under the hood of Christian life and thought from seminary lectern to Bible-study sofa — yes, even in (maybe peculiarly in) exceptionally rigorously intellectualizing communities like some I’ve known, minutely worried with upkeep of an edifice of doctrinal integrity and ‘historicity’ — is always a kit-bash conglomeration of notions and habits philosophical, spiritual-disciplinary, lifestyle-pragmatic, historiographical, and so on, widely varying in degree of defensibility, drawn from ever-increasing array of sources, all patched in under whatever the Christian-terminological regime established in a given scene may be, putting aside all that mess in preference for the face-value of a faith once-given, single and complete, will be good for falling back on about as well by way of the one sensibility as the other.

Is there a place for bringing something like Buddhist understanding, say, into Christian regard for the divine or Christian approaches to the life of prayer? The only real answer, of course, is that this ship has sailed. Today, any Christianity I’m going to know — certainly if I’m for instance an American — was good and Orient-fortified already before I showed up, going back indeed quite a long way before the nineteenth century, whether I’m ready to see it or not. It can only keep becoming more so. The question, rather, is how we’ll make sense of these changing conditions in our own moment and how we’ll attend to those met with, gently or violently, in the way. At any rate, Wiman is I think for his part in truth more than ready to see it. He’s very open to the encounter. He embraces the discomfort. He is at the same time not so sure, possibly, that the next person should feel the necessity of so being or doing. I wonder — if I follow him there — how right he can be on this point.

If I were anyhow just ready so to embrace the discomfort myself, I guess, I might be spending time otherwise than in working thoughts over in posts like the present one.

I may not be ready, quite, to embrace the discomfort. But then I’m far on the other hand from any longer imagining myself now or someday able to assume the position I might have expected or been expected to occupy, telling clearly, assuredly between what belongs and what’s out, the proven and the doubtful, the mainline and the borderline. I feel today, moreover, that I have to expect in any event in no tongue, mother or other, ever to reach what you might call appreciable depth. Which is awareness that comes with a certain sense of disappointment maybe — and is at the same time, honestly, a load off.

Only as I’m trying to work out a close to the present one, now, am I taking a glance back at the (mercifully short) earlier post here having something to do with Wiman. I was beginning to feel, in the time around writing of that in 2020, that chances were good I would not after all wind up formally going Catholic — which just a few years earlier (rounding out that year we had kicked off with going to hear him edify an auditorium of Manhattan Presbyterians and fellow-travelers, in fact) I had stood stubbornly prepared to do and would have done, I believe, had my peculiar situation in Queens lasted through to Easter 2018 and fulfillment of RCIA. At time of the present post, mid-2024, that feeling about where I’m apparently no longer headed in regard to communion is only stronger. Absent, however, is any sense that I’ve somehow got Christian faith behind me. It’s true, of course, that for so many at various way-stations in my background, some idea of a ‘falling away’ is how one has to take a case like mine. Communion and sacrament touch the question directly — and five-plus centuries of western-Christian blooming decomposition show how impossibly far they are from exhausting it. The bond of faith is complicated business. By no means does it only bound.

There is a whole lot less likelihood that I’d eventually come in any full way to adopt Judaism or Buddhism, looking ahead at this point in my life, than there is that I’ll just get wheels unmired and turning again on the roam toward Rome. But that missed Easter of 2018 was before long attended by a few new occasions to sit in quiet, so to speak, before each of these vast things — as contrast and challenge to as well as companion with Christian faith-histories. It’s been good for me. I hope for more of it. I expect reflection on that will keep figuring in in some form with posting to come.

 

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