These days we seem to have trouble conducting genuine conversations about religious belief. Americans in particular are adept at monologues; we excel at parallel soliloquies expositing our irreconcilable credos, after which we turn away from one another in a dialogical version of post-coital tristesse. But an actual, vulnerable, exchange about divergent fundamental commitments and the epistemic and doxological peregrinations that led us to them? Not so much. Simultaneously politically privatized and culturally ebullient, we are awash in religious speech even amidst a desert of religious conversation.
The most lauded literature out there, at least in English, makes this point. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is a lot about Wieseltier and his father but very little about religion. James Wood, the best of those who explore the condition of ex-fundamentalists (which he, like most fundamentalists, confuses with the condition of being religious), is a master of articulating the alloy of anxious emancipation and preemptively defensive reiterations of skepticism that mark both fundamentalists and their defectors. Marilynne Robinson is a religiously informed novelist, but her novels do not explore belief, so much as what belief does to the believer’s world. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God admits that something wild can indeed happen, but then devotes hundreds of pages to an attempt to domesticate it. Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back tries gently, and condescendingly (to both parties—an impressive feat), to teach secular people how to live alongside the discomfiting believers next door, but it does not talk back to the believers, nor let them talk back to her.
We seem committed to a studied indifference about the part of religion that really matters. Perhaps we’ve decided we cannot handle frank conversation on so intimate a topic. But it’s also the case that our self-images are typically articulated in contrast to some other way of life, and often the contrasting role is played by the most ludicrous depiction of those who differ from us on matters of belief. We know ourselves by knowing we are not like some other people, and often the register of otherness is a religious one. Some secularists deem it the height of philosophical sophistication to view those who take a sacred text seriously as akin to those who take up serpents, and to presume that all who profess faith in a god or commitment to an ancient religious tradition must either be overgrown babies or benighted backwoods ignorami who spend their days field-stripping M-16s just for fun. People like that are presumably never to be found sitting next to you in the coffee shop, sipping a latté and checking their cellphones. A similarly smug knowingness also infects many believers, seducing them into dismissing the challenges skeptics raise just because those challenges are raised by skeptics, and imagining those skeptics to be amoral hedonists seeking to outlaw religion and decency forever. It is so easy for both sides to fall back into the grooves carved out by the protracted culture wars of the past few decades, and devolve into name-calling. We talk about one another all the time, but talking to each other—not so much.
Part of our problem is that the very categories we use to organize our social life and delineate the space we allow for religion—particularly the categories of “religious” versus “secular”—actually hamper our attempts to have such conversations. Scholars from the post-colonial Foucauldian Talal Asad to the Augustinian Christian theologian John Milbank have shown that these categories are the product of the past few centuries of European history and have been shaped by the peculiarities of European religion (especially Protestantism) and politics (especially liberalism). Misshaped, in fact, for our situation: They assume a particular picture of what religion essentially is—mostly, the private encounter of the individual soul with God that takes place in the sublime space of the individual’s most inward and inaccessible subjectivity. In contrast, the “secular” is the outward space, where we negotiate our way amid the material cosmos and our “properly” political concerns—which, by definition, cannot be “properly” religious.
This picture has never made sense as a way to understand the non-Western world, and it ill fits the religious diversity of our society today. It defines religion as a matter more of believing than belonging, and by discounting “outward” practices it creates problems for religious traditions the farther they get from, say, a contemporary liberal Presbyterian church. It distorts, in increasing levels of contortion, sacramental forms of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the several forms of Judaism, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist meditation centers, and Confucian centers. If any of these religion try to “appear” in public (the metaphor itself is telling), they must politely cram themselves into the whalebone corset that is the etiquette of the modern Western public sphere. Religion in the contemporary West has become socially and politically denominationalized and existentially privatized. Many religions can accept such terms only at the cost of self-mutilation. Pretty obviously, this is a situation that doesn’t encourage coherent conversation about belief—more the opposite.
This is a special problem in a liberal society. If the genius of political liberalism is to recognize an inviolable wall around the privacy of the individual, the problem that liberalism faces is that that wall, once established, blocks passage in both directions. If we deem it abhorrent to violate another’s conscience, and so construct the public sphere in such a way as to forbid the public from invading the conscience, it is hard to see how so private a conscience can break out, to interact at all with public affairs. This risks turning the individual’s fortress into a prison; we have secured ourselves from violation only by forbidding ourselves real encounter. Liberalism’s admirable recognition of the unique value of each individual has had the effect of creating a society composed of gilded birds trapped in iron cages.
Not surprisingly, then, from the beginning of “liberal individualism” we have seen a rich series of exploratory efforts by thinkers (novelists, essayists, others) who aim to escape the isolation chambers into which liberalism puts us—so that, “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.” Such efforts are admirable and inevitable. Historians point out that people in other times and places ill fit the categories and concepts within which they believed they had to live, and the same is true of our age: We try to speak, even when the cultural tide runs against us. Some thinkers hope for success. Charles Taylor, the most influential contemporary thinker on the state of belief in late modernity, thinks there is potential “openness to transcendence” in the “immanent frame” of our Secular Age, and that religious participants may well find multiple routes to remind all of us of the contingency of the way we see the world. Religious actors thus become a secular age’s “loyal opposition.” But how much such hope is reasonable?
Two new books provide cases in point, each in their own way, of Taylor’s prophecy. Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a work, I think, of real genius. It is the most powerful memoir of a life re-viewed in the light of religious transformation since Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, and it is more philosophically searching than either of those ancestors. Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, a moving philosophical tract, offers a lovely and thoughtful account of a religious mindset within a broadly liberal picture of the world. It reminds us all, liberals and non-liberals alike, of the profound normative energies coursing through an apparently cool-minded political philosophy.
More than their particular quality, the two together may presage a new stage in our efforts to escape our deprivative privacy. Both would end our captivity to the “naturalness” of privatized belief. Both raise the question of their own local religious convictions (self-consciously so in Wiman’s case) in ways that remain alert to the precariousness of genuine common understanding on these matters. Both speak in idioms flexible and fine-grained enough to express our various religious sensibilities, yet durable enough to sustain vigorous questioning and multiple understandings. In all these ways both books move toward each other; we all could have a healthier conversation if we worked from them, diagnosing their weaknesses while building on their strengths.
But they also differently illustrate the challenges we face today as regards religion. Dworkin still at times fails to transcend the limitations of what Lionel Trilling called “the liberal imagination” (by which he meant the lack of imagination, in a way) and fails to see the parochialism of his own self-proclaimed universalism. Wiman struggles, not entirely successfully, to reach beyond his idiosyncratic self and journey. Dworkin speaks in a confident “we”; Wiman uses a too-chastened “I.” Neither dares to engage, confront, or beseech any “you.” Considering them together lets us see something of the many ways that religious conviction and religious dynamics can enrich and complicate our life together, in all our diversity of faiths and doubts, in our common world.
Ronald Dworkin was undeniably the most influential liberal legal philosopher of the past several decades. And yet he never really amounted to a truly profound or creative thinker, for reasons perhaps related to his enmeshment in two deeply unreflective academic fields, philosophy and law. His earlier attempt at addressing the vexed issues of religion in modern society, Life’s Dominion, was remarkably tone-deaf to religion. One could just imagine that there were banked fires at the back of John Rawls’s work, deep existential wellsprings obscurely driving his writings. With Dworkin, believing that was harder; a relentless, trundling dialectical machine, he seemed arguments all the way down.
That exactly is what makes his last book (Dworkin died in February of last year), Religion Without God, so surprising. Here he does not attempt to devour others’ arguments, but instead to exposit a vision of the world—and a properly religious worldview at that. Here he gifts us with his understanding of how his ethical and political views are rooted in fundamentally religious energies.
Of course, it is “religious” only in a certain way; it is definitely not godly. Religion Without God begins with the effort to differentiate religion from theism. Dworkin’s main objection to theism is a restatement of Plato’s Euthyphro problem: How can the fact of God’s reality ever impinge upon the compellingness of value in our lives? Dworkin asserts there is no “conception of agency from which it follows that its exercise can in and by itself create value.” Value and metaphysics emerge in our lives in different registers.
It is typical but nonetheless disappointing that Dworkin asks his questions, of which this is but one, but does not stay for an answer. He admits as much when he says, somewhat defensively, that “sophisticated theologians will no doubt judge my argument ignorant and puerile.” “Puerile” goes too far, but “ignorant” is fair. Judging from his notes, he read much more thoroughly in recent popular scientific writing than in the history of theology or even philosophical discussions of religion (not an unusual educational imbalance among the secular cognoscenti these days). For all his advocacy of taking religion seriously, he doesn’t have a lot of time for religious thinkers. That’s too bad, because (for example) Robert Merrihew Adams’s contemporary work, Finite and Infinite Goods, articulates an Augustinian-Platonic account that is just on this topic, and explicitly engages Dworkin’s earlier views thereupon. Had Dworkin attended to detailing their disagreements, we might have learned a great deal.
But if he refuses any god, why does he affirm the moniker “religion”? Well, he has a positive and a negative point here. Negatively, affirming religion means refusing reductionist materialist naturalisms. Such reductionisms are often conflated with science, or purported to be organic implications of the scientific method, but they are, Dworkin insists (rightly in my view), merely philosophical interpretations of it. Like William James, Dworkin recoils from any but the most radical empiricism, and so argues that the experiences of awe and wonder which occasionally perforate even the dullest human lives should be explained, not explained away. Positively, his is a religious view because we can see both the human’s objective moral value and the universe’s own intrinsic coherence; both apprehensions provoke in us a certain genuine and irreducible awe. This awe is at the core of the truly religious mindset. In this religion, then, piety, properly understood, trumps deity.
Dworkin’s argument to this effect will be controversial and annoying to some, and we should be grateful for it. The view itself is not novel; when people claim that they are “spiritual but not religious”, for example, they mean something like this. But Dworkin’s argument for it is powerful and interesting. He discusses our apprehension of the integrity and inevitability of certain phenomena—works of art, mathematical proofs (for those who understand them, they apparently seem like works of art), and, for scientists, the universe’s intelligibility as a whole—and concludes with the claim that, “for those of us who think beauty real, the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty.”
There is some mystical apprehension, equally cognitive and affective, about the totality of reality; gripped by it, we feel in our bones a sublime integrity and inevitability pulsing through the cosmos. This apprehension orients and focuses our attention, and energizes and directs our will. “Muss Es sein? Es muss sein!” wrote Beethoven on the score of his final string quartet; Dworkin sees an analogous recognition at the heart of the properly attuned picture of the cosmos.
But how do we cultivate this apprehension, and how can we explain why so many smart people don’t see things this way? For seeing things this way is quite metaphysically optimistic. Despite Dworkin’s refusal of an agential god, he remained convinced that all is finally harmonized. His affirmation of inevitable cosmic integrity suggests a monistic, quasi-Spinozistic cosmic harmony that denies ultimately irreconcilable moral conflict; that is to say, he denies the reality of tragedy. But tragedy at least seems obviously real; as Pierre Bayle famously argued in his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, moral dualism is hard to deny from the bare evidence of our experience. So Dworkin’s denial constitutes an interesting perspective for a liberal theorist to take, for two reasons.
First of all, on this account, necessity comes to function as the final rationale of the system. But when we start worshipping necessity, things get ugly quickly. Across history, the refusal of tragedy typically comes either from religions that have a unified providential divinity and an eschatological promise (so that “whatever is, is right”—or will be made right), or from a fatalist or stoic necessitarianism that reduces our complaints about cosmic injustice to the grumbles of the metaphysically miseducated, which is the route chosen by Seneca, Spinoza, and Stalin. It looks like to refuse tragedy you need either the cathedral or the Gulag. Neither seems very liberal-friendly; which would Dworkin choose?
Second, Dworkin’s vision contradicts other forms of political liberalism, but it is unclear how Dworkin’s view engages them. Consider the most profound of the tragic liberals, Bernard Williams. The integrity and coherence that Dworkin perceived in the universe were not what Williams saw; for him, humans are always at the mercy of moral luck. The arguments between liberals like Dworkin and Williams on the coherence of justice, say, and the ultimate harmonization of individuals’ aims, are as deeply metaphysical as they are ethical or political. In effect, they are arguments between rival theologies: Dworkin’s immanentist monism versus Williams’s immanentist polytheism. As was the case with Adams’s theism, an opportunity is lost here in the silence between them. Dworkin might have articulated how his tradition undertakes the self-conscious sculpting of its adherents’ perception, in order to see the cosmos aright, and to learn that and how a tragic apprehension of the cosmos (such as Williams’s) is a misperception. That seems to be the only way in which the fundamental disputes between the two schools can be engaged.
In other words—and this is a major flaw in Religion Without God —Dworkin does not recognize the necessity, and inevitability, of institutions, of ritual or liturgy. Human beings must cultivate perceptions, must learn to see reality in certain ways; we do not do so automatically. For that we need training in vision, and that training comes through institutions. Dworkin never tells us what proper cultural structures will sculpt the perceptual capacities at the heart of his religious sensibility.
This is, of course, an old worry about liberalism: that a fully mature and refined liberal mind cannot recognize the (often very illiberal) disciplines that brought it itself into being. Nietzsche and Bernard Williams (and John Stuart Mill, in his Autobiography and his essay on Coleridge) press this point, but Dworkin seems unable even to recognize it. He powerfully describes the mature religious disposition he commends, but he doesn’t say how one can cultivate this vision in a world where its development is not inevitable, and where other intelligent people don’t share it. One value of institutional religions today is their self-conscious particularism, their insistence that certain contingent practices, ruthlessly repeated, will craft the dispositions of their adherents. One wishes that one day Dworkinian liberals will see their vision as analogous to a religion at least enough to realize that such a liberalism, as it were, needs a catechesis.
For that to happen, though, it would help them to recognize their most relevant predecessors. Dworkin thinks of himself as a deep follower of Spinoza, but the profounder, formal similarity is with Kant and William James. Both of them insisted that the epistemic basis of religion is analogous to other aspects of our lives, that a kind of “faith” lies at the heart of scientific apperception as well as moral and aesthetic apperception. For both, our smug rationalism must be tutored into humility by an analysis of how we actually comport ourselves in the world, in often embarrassing contrast to the stories we tell ourselves about how we so comport ourselves. And neither, like Dworkin (and also Spinoza), really recognized that moral formation needs institutions dedicated to such formation. Kant and James’s most thoughtful descendants—G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey, respectively—knew this; thus they dedicated much time and energy to exploring the educational and “situated” context of the moral life. (It’s also why the Amsterdam synagogue expelled Spinoza, but that’s another story.) There need to be institutions of moral formation; call them schools, or shuls, or churches, or whatever. Liberal religion, even in its overtly ecclesial forms, rarely gets this point, and Dworkin is a case study of that failure.
Wiman is a well-regarded poet, a onetime editor of Poetry, a fabulously wealthy and influential poetry publication. Raised a hardscrabble Baptist of brittle convictions, he lost his faith only to “return”, haltingly and slowly, to a renewed Christian faith of a quite different sort in his thirties. The return to faith happened when he fell in love with the woman who became his wife; then, soon after, he was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that has stalked him ever since. “Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.” So what starts out as a spiritual memoir then swerves, as has his life, into a theological story of illness that gathers momentum until the trope becomes a landslide. My Bright Abyss is a love story composed of braided interrogations of poetry, faith, and affliction.
Wiman is less argumentative and theoretical than Dworkin, but more forthrightly theological and self-consciously particularist. He details how he discovered a coherent story of his life in a liturgically serious and doctrinally orthodox form of Christian faith—a wounded faith, to be sure, bleeding from its side, but still a recognizably Christian one. He has insightful things to say about the quotidian round of churchgoing, daily prayer, and meditation, the sorts of discrete practices and rituals Dworkin never mentions.
Furthermore, the interplay of questions about art and belief form a dimension of My Bright Abyss that bears at best oblique comparison with Dworkin’s discussions. Here Wiman is especially interesting on the “artlessness” of belief, the way in which belief must of necessity present itself to us as guileless to be accurate. Whereas for Dworkin the point is that aesthetics are present everywhere, for Wiman aesthetics must be kept within their proper sphere, lest they make everything a fit topic for art, and hence too much less than a matter of life and death. Wiman believes that art can focus our attention in good ways, but he knows it can also lure us away from reality, and this is no light matter for him: “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?”
For his world is burning. His affliction reveals his faith to be deep but troubled—non-defensive but still questioning, tentative not strident, earnestly seeking truth, always troubling its temptations toward resolution. For him now, words like “cure”, “faith”, and “God” are “both radiant with, and devoid of, meaning.” He is aware of the poetic temptations inherent in such semantic ambivalence. So it is not triumph but companionship he seeks:
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ . . . I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.
That may be right. Perhaps deep faith must remain troubled in this world. The real seriousness of the book does honor to the issues engaged. Its questions will last longer than any of us. A century hence, others will still ask them, and find a fellow questioner in this book.
But what can the rest of us find herein? The book is composed of fragments, as if a fragile, mirrored statue had fallen off an altar, and we see ourselves reflected in its shards. Wiman tries to build a mosaic out of his epigrammatic fragments, yet his suspicions hinder his aesthetics, so the book’s sententiae seem sometimes more a garage sale than curated museum show. This seems an intentional decision: He recognizes that “the temptation is to make an idol of our own experience”, and one suspects that the splintered prose is meant to snag the inevitable momentum of that process.
All its vibrant, sinuous energy makes My Bright Abyss an exhilaratingly difficult work to read. Out of professional habit I typically fillet a book: I track its arguments and outline its structure in order to summarize and analyze its points. This book resists being so filleted; it rather provokes you to talk back, stimulating a running commentary as you read. The very intimacy of the engagement perhaps disarms the critical intelligence. And yet one is grateful for the chance to follow his journey. At very end Wiman quotes Pascal—“If you are searching for God, then you have found him”—and he clearly is imitating Jacob by wrestling with God.
Anyone who pens a spiritual memoir writes under the overwhelming shadow of Augustine’s Confessions, yet the differences between Augustine and Wiman merit reflection. Wiman seems more Pascalian than Augustinian, more focused on current questions about his wounds than on the route he took to get to those questions, or those wounds. Augustine knew he had been saved; for the bishop, all is foreshadowing, giving birth to, what it will become on the eschatological morning. Wiman is more vexed, perplexed, by his suffering and his life. Augustine’s title suggests self-involvement and Wiman’s implies a vision fixed on something outside the self, yet both works move against those expectations. Augustine turns us to wonder at God and what God hath wrought; Wiman makes us wonder at himself, at the questions he asks and at the courage with which he asks them. But he asks little of the reader beyond that. I am not asking for an altar call, but perhaps some suggestion that a life lived with such intensity and self-awareness may have lessons for our own. Wiman’s prose stops before the foot of the imperative, however, unwilling to climb and address the crowds gathered on the plain.
Is that a failure? Perhaps. We live in a narcissistic and voyeuristic culture, in which we are taught to be more interested in ourselves, and those like us, than in what is not us. More admirably, we are profoundly aware of the diversity of ways of being human that exist in the world—more pluralized, as the sociologists would say—and hence more hesitant to presume that our experience is easily communicable to others, or theirs to us. This is an inheritance of liberal pluralism, and it is both blessing and curse. It makes us humble, but it can at times paralyze. If there is a flaw to My Bright Abyss, it would be this.
Wiman and Dworkin suggest two different visions, two different styles of thinking, about religion in our world, and the substantial accomplishments of both come with telling limitations. Dworkin’s work is remarkably ambitious and philosophically sophisticated, but lazily universalizing; it is limited by his own inability, perhaps derived from the generosity of his liberalism, to recognize the particularity of his own vision. Wiman’s work, as searching as it is, is too humbly particularist, nailed too firmly to the gloriously, tragically, stubbornly idiosyncratic nature of one concrete self in space and time—what Philip Larkin called “one man once, and that one dying.” Both accomplish much, but reveal at least as much in their failures. For as I said earlier, what is interestingly absent in both books is the second person: you. Dworkin speaks with an overconfident “we.” Wiman speaks in an overly humble “I.” But neither says “you.” These are not, that is, directly dialogical, invitational books. We are not spoken to here; we more basically overhear them. They show us much of value, much that is insightful, much that is true, about religion today. But neither recognizes the reader as a partner in a dialogue. Perhaps that is what you and I, dear reader, need next.