My Bright Abyss: Cancer, Poetry, and God

My Bright Abyss: Cancer, Poetry, and God

My Bright Abyss is narrative poetry by an award-winning poet with his back against the wall, diagnosed with an incurable cancer.*  The book is not thematically organized; it reads more like a diary of a poet whose death will come too soon.  Wiman writes about God, and thinks like a poet.  I don’t, and there is a subtle grace to his thought that I am unable to convey.  Not even the deep theologians I’ve written about have left me feeling more inadequate to the task of reviewing their work.  The result is that I am going to treat his book as though it were a set of claims or theses about God, even as it reads more like a poem.    

Wiman is an honest man, writing that his return to God has not lessened his terror of death.  About his grandmother, a deeply religious woman all her life, Wiman describes “a pure spiritual terror in her eyes” as she tried to answer his question: “Are you scared?”  But by then she could not speak.  Years later he had a similar experience.

God has given me courage in the past — I have felt palpably lifted beyond my own ability to respond or react. But this most recent time in the hospital, when the cancer had become so much more aggressive and it seemed for a time as if I’d reached the end of my options, I felt only death.  In retrospect it seems like a large and ominous failure. (loc 2141)

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The best book defending atheism isn’t great

The best book defending atheism isn’t great.

I keep looking for a good book defending atheism.  It’s not easy.  Jon Mills’ Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality is better than Grayling’s book, about which I posted a while back, but it’s not great.

Mills tries to do three things.  First, to demonstrate that God does not exist.  In this he joins a long line of aggressive atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007), Sam Harris (2004), and Richard Dawkins (2006).  Mills says he is not a “vociferous atheist,” but he could have fooled me with his remarks about “the believing masses [who] cannot accept the fact that we are ultimately alone.” (p 104) 

The third thing Mills tries to do is construct a defense of a humanistic spirituality.  He says a lot of good things about finding “intrinsic worth and meaning in living our lives for the present” (p 228), but the foundation of this claim was laid down by Camus and Sartre, and I don’t see where Mills adds a great deal to this argument.  In Mills’ defense, it should be pointed out that this is not a book aimed at an academic audience, but to an educated public.  Or at least that’s the way I read it.

The second thing Mills tries to do is construct a psychoanalytic argument explaining the need for God.  He begins with Freud (1930), who argued that God is an infantile delusion of an enormously powerful father figure.  I turn to another psychoanalyst to find a different way of thinking about God.  I’ve posted about D. W. Winnicott before. 

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