In the decidedly secular literary world, poet Christian Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2005, stands out as one who’s willing to talk about God. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, but he leaves that post in the fall for Yale University’s Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music. In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Wiman offers urgent essays on faith and mortality, studded with his and others’ poetry.
How are you feeling?
Good. Really well. I had a bone marrow transplant [in October 2011] and have done well since then. It’s been a long recovery. I get tested all the time.
Do people back away from you at cocktail parties if you say something about God?
I do think it unnerves some people. I do think there’s an antipathy toward Christianity per se, [but] I don’t find an antipathy toward religion in general.
Christianity in this country has taken some noxious forms. I think many Christians are uneasy with the term “Christian.” Skepticism about the language of Christianity is extremely healthy right now.
Who’s on your theology play list?
I wrestle with midcentury Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner. They’re so impenetrable. I don’t really believe in systematic theology, I don’t believe God can be systematized. [But in their writings] there’s something that comes across in flashes—that illuminates whole areas of belief.
You have been speaking about religion these days. What are you hearing from people?
I find a tremendous spiritual hunger among both secular and religious [people]. Everyone seems to be fighting for a way to articulate this hunger. I don’t think contemporary churches are answering this need. I certainly don’t think secular culture is answering this need. One of the places I think this need can be addressed most effectively is art.
How ready are you for the job change?
My whole life has been arrowing toward a job like this, and I’m incredibly grateful to the Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School for creating it for me. I think it’s a really bold move on their part to bring in a poet to investigate the ways in which poetry and theology interact.
And how do they interact?
Poets can learn from theologians and vice versa. Contemporary poetry has given up on abstraction in favor of the image. Theology tends to forget the light.