My morning with McBaine and Wiman

As happens every now and then, I had a furious, fortuitous conjoining that so filled the boughs with fruit that they now creak and threaten to break. And language—especially quick language—isn’t likely to succeed in conveying the experience. What follows is a quick, momentary set of notes. But I don’t want to let it pass or hold back; I want to attempt to capture and share a moment of clear resonation.

Riding in to work I was reading two books: Christian Wiman’s utterly unparalleled My Bright Abyss (review forthcoming) and Neylan McBaine’s desperately needed Women at Church. The one prepared me for the other, but I’ll share them in reverse order.

At the end of Chapter One Sister McBaine seems to strike right at the heart of our paradox with women’s issues: “How do we protect the traditions, practices, and truths of our earliest progenitors while holding sacred the rebel explosion of the Restoration?”

I’ve no desire to dilute or dismiss the vital, wrenching particularity of her focus. It’s a question that any reader of my posts at Times and Seasons knows I wrestle with almost obsessively. But clearly this question expands beyond women’s issues and is really a complicated paradox for the Restoration and it’s disciples generally.[1] 

Wiman’s writings this morning were focused on the difficulties and necessities of language in religious experience. Exploring and drawing on the wealth of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics and the ways in which they use language apophatically to indicate the ineffable nadir of religious experience, Wyman writes:

It goes both ways though: mystical experience [e.g., the Sacred Grove or your own first or latest communion with the Divine] needs some form of dogma [e.g., an institutional church or propositional creed or set of communal norms] in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. So what does all this mean practically? It means that congregations must be conscious of the persistent and ineradicable loneliness that makes a person seek communion, with other people and with God, in the first place. It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall. It means that we—those of us who call ourselves Christian—need a revolution in the way we worship (138).

We need a revolution in the way we worship. Sister McBaine helps us to understand the need for and possibilities of local revolution now with regard to women. But together Wiman and McBaine help us to see that this is always the case, particularly in our own lives and relations—it’s a fundamental reality of spirituality, and religious institutions must be aware of and facilitate this open questing and articulated transmission. Our pursuit of truth—particularly our pursuit of true ways to live and commune and progress—are always at the intersection of past, present, and future. We calcify and eventually die if we try to remain in any one domain, no matter how bright. We need constant exploration, a constant taking up of our past today for the future. And the answers aren’t ever obvious. We—and certainly our institutions—need that flow of pure intelligence, we need the constant irruption of a Sacred Grove, we need the embodied embrace of an incarnate God.

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[1] McBaine seem’s to me quite clear on this point, even in her focus on women—she seems well aware of the expansive nature of the question and its implications for all saints. Not to be too terribly naval gazing, I’ll note that this is also a question important to all attempts to take up the legacy of our past.

3 comments for “My morning with McBaine and Wiman

  1. November 20, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Helpful reflections, James. Nothing like the looming prospect of dying to sharpen a writer’s mind. Two more books for my queue.

  2. Ben S.
    November 20, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    The citation from Wyman sounds a bit like the old anthropological observation of the necessity of both charismatic founders and “priestly” systematizers. One is necessary to start a religion, but the other for it to last. (I also recall Nibley off-handedly mentioning similar debates between Amt and Geist, office and spirit.)

  3. James C. Olsen
    November 21, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Ben S., I think that’s right, though it goes deeper. Part of the genius of what Joseph did was to never let go of the “Geist” element on an institutional level, always trying to orchestrate and to convince those of us who follow to constantly seek after it. Wiman’s pressing for us to realize we need this on an ongoing personal but also on an ongoing institutional basis. Much harder done than said, but clearly a need.

    I can’t speak very competently on the model we see in place for at least a few hundred years in the OT, but it’s interesting that the institutional, “priestly” systematizers were continually criticized and had to accommodate the outside prophets. I get the impression that it wasn’t just the Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s that they had to try and deal with, but there were “local” prophets regularly pestering both the political and ecclesiastical authorities (who were sometimes one and the same). And then there’s the caution of the Sadducees with regard to how to accommodate both John and Jesus. Does that accord with what you know?

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