Speaker for the Dead

Photo by Joshua Humpfer on Unsplash

”Poets exist so that the dead may vote.”1

I was reading the lead essay in Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar, in which she makes an argument for the arts to replace philosophy and history at the heart of the humanities. “The arts are true to the way we are and were,” she writes, “to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.”2

Somehow, I jumped from that bountiful essay to reflecting on my own conflicted attitude toward the Psalms. I’ve never really liked the book as a whole. The headliners like the 23rd Psalm, the 46th (“There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God”), the 51st (“Create in me a pure heart”), and the 103rd (“Bless the Lord, my soul, and forget none of his benefits”), always touched me. But so many of them, even the crowd-pleasers, seemed so contradictory to a loving God.

Dashing out the brains of the enemy’s babies? Boasting about the thousands put to the sword? Hardly the stuff of repentance and lovingkindness. Most of them were altogether too vengeful, too consumed with complaint, too . . . cruelly honest. They were not Christian, they were vitriolic. Some of them were frankly embarrassing.

I had tried. In college, I had gone on a tear through C. S. Lewis’ best works, including his Reflection on the Psalms, but alas, not much of it had lodged with me to be called up in reflective moments.

I did remember this though: “Where we find a difficulty we may always expect that a discovery awaits us.”3 And he taught me to regard them as poetry. That was key.

I devoted a couple of months to Sir Philip Sidney’s translation of the Psalms in Elizabethan metered poetry. Sidney was already an accomplished poet when he translated the first forty-three psalms. After he died from battle injuries in 1586 at the age of thirty-two, his sister Mary, a patron of the arts and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, completed the Sidney Psalter, translating the remaining 107 psalms and revising many of Philip’s. John Donne, a close friend, and George Herbert, Mary’s distant cousin, both treasured these poems, Donne remarking that they are “the highest matter in the noblest form.”4

I read the Psalms in various translations, from the KJV to the NEB to the NIV to The Message Bible, in hopes that I could see below the surface to the treasure so many have mined for thousands, thousands!, of years. What was wrong with me?

My grandfather read his Bible through every year for seventy years. I still have it, marked and annotated, the pages now brittle but the colored underlinings and remarks in the margins still legible. The Book of the Psalms was among his most favorite Old Testament readings; he had memorized long passages.

When something in us resists the natural leap of curiosity and honest interest, we need to back up and look more closely. Is it a rock in the stream, around which our lives may flow? Must it be blasted apart and the pieces scattered? Or is it our rock to roll, like Sisyphus, forever?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed a break. After I put the Sidney Psalter back on the shelf, I didn’t study the Psalms for years. Aside from looking up the occasional text or coming across a verse in some other work, I left them alone.

But I kept encountering them everywhere I went. Evensong at Winchester Cathedral, as the choir’s clear tones drifted up to the vaulted ceiling. Verses embedded on almost every page of Augustine’s Confessions. A concert with U2 where thousands of us sang, “How long to sing this song,” from Psalm 40, as one by one the band members left the stage, until drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., finished the chorus and the concert with a definitive snap.

And when I created a visual presentation memorializing the nine people murdered in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, I instinctively turned to Psalm 44: “Why do you sleep, O Lord?” And, “You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”5 In times of grief and anger only the Psalms will do.

The Psalms, like the prophets, are a fever reading of the body of believers. They scorch, they curl up at the edges, they blister my doily-shaped Christian heart and sensibilities. “The gain in this for the study of the Psalms,” says Walter Brueggemann, “is that it shows how the psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God.” Then he adds, “Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness.”6

I was reading the Psalms for comfort, filtering out the harsh cries and the din of conflict. When the Psalmist agonized over God’s abandonment of him, I cut him off. But I couldn’t deny that the absence of God was the presence of my own starless darkness. I had felt that too. Refusing the eclipse of God brought no light. And it flat-lined the life of the spirit, “losing all the highs and lows,” refusing to take the pain that comes to us all along with happiness. Most of all, it was a closing up to the full human experience, a filtering out of the contact points that unite people in empathy with one another, even across centuries. The writers of the Psalms, I had to concede, dressed in their full humanity.

Perhaps that was my problem, an introvert wandering dazed through a city of humankind riotously celebrating in the streets. For someone who would rather be led by the still waters than to run with the bulls, the Psalms swallowed whole can burn all the way down.

***

Left to myself with a Bible, my inclination is to take the door to the right that leads to the Gospels, rather than the door to the left which leads to the Law and the Prophets. Like a lot of Christians, I’ll take my chances with Jesus more readily than with Ezekiel or Nehemiah. But Jesus knew the prophets, and he lived and breathed the Law, cutting to the beating heart of it with a love that penetrated the tough skin of righteousness.

And he sang himself and the disciples through the fields, over the waves, under the moonlit sky and up to the dawn with the Psalms. They were his poetry, his praise, his lament, and his agony. In his mouth, with these songs, the noble dead could sing again. “Sing to him a new song; strike up with all your art and shout in triumph.7 That art, to which Helen Vendler unknowingly pointed me, is true to the way we actually live and have lived.

At the end Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” With his lungs crushed and his mouth caked, was he quoting the first verse of Psalm 22? Or was it a cry from the heart that any human being would make? And if he had had the breath would he have wrung out one last defiant shout: “But I shall live for his sake . . .”?8

  1. Wiesel, Elie. Quoted in Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002, p. xiv.
  2. Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015, p. 16.
  3. Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. San Francisco: HarperCollins EPub edition 2017, p. 32.
  4. The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay, and Noel J. Kinnamon. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009, p. xxxi.
  5. Ps. 44:23,14, NEB.
  6. Brueggemann, p. xii.
  7. Ps. 33:3, NEB.
  8. Ps. 22:29, NEB.

A Fractured Gift to God

“The color of water is that of its container.” — Al-Junayd (14th c. Sufi)

Photo: Luca Baggio, Unsplash

Our ability to both experience and examine religion is the cause of both inspiration and disillusionment. Entering college in the early Seventies, I wavered between a major in English or a double major of Religion and Communication, with a minor in Sociology. I had a vague notion that communication studies and sociology would fit together well, and it wouldn’t hurt to know how people acted in groups. I have a wariness of crowds and crowd behavior, and I thought knowing more about it might give me some insights into religion and help me as a writer.

I knew I wasn’t made in the pastor mold, but I couldn’t shake religion. It fascinated, irritated, and inspired me—and still does—and I wanted to know why it was there and how it worked. My tradition regarded religion as something handed down to us and recommended by God—acting as our loving Father—rather in the way that implicit suggestions from your father are actually veiled commands. Even then, I had a half-formed view that religion ran the other way—from the downside up—that it was a human construct that appeared in all times and in all places. I wondered why.

The English Department chair, a personal friend, talked me out of majoring in English. “If you love books,” he said, “the process of dissecting them might not be for you.” In the event, I stayed with Religion and Communication, and kept my interest in sociology strictly amateur.

A complete neophyte, I started with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and then jumped to C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, with an ongoing trek through Gustave LeBon’s, The Crowd. But for the most part, my mentor in this has been Peter Berger, an Austrian-born American professor, one of the premier sociologists of our time, and a Protestant theologian. He spent a good share of his life (1929-2017) working over ideas in the sociology of religion that could be understood by laypeople in books such as A Far Glory, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, A Rumor of Angels, The Heretical Imperative, and In Praise of Doubt.

His most famous work was The Social Construction of Reality, written with Thomas Luckmann, in which they examined how society builds up the layers of what it terms “reality.” “Society,” says Berger, “not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions.”1

Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, helped me understand how religion could be a human construct, while not excluding the possibility that this longing pointed to a transcendent being we call God. Or as Berger put it, “the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man.”2

In graduate school I read Ludwig Feuerbach, who reduced theology to anthropology—God as a proportionate magnification of our own fathers. Berger casually offered up the idea that “man projects ultimate meanings into reality because that reality is, indeed, ultimately meaningful, and because his own being . . . Contains and intends these same ultimate meanings.”3 Anthropology, then, could be reconstructed as theology. Berger playfully called this “an intellectual man-bites-dog feat,” and begged off pursuing it further while wanting “to at least suggest the possibility to the theologian.”4

Every society, says Berger, is in the business of world-building. Religion is a part of that. We make our societies and, in turn, our societies mold us. This is not a contradiction, says Berger, it is rather how this dialectical process works. We find ourselves in an open world, one that must be fashioned by our own activity. It does not come to us as an Ikea kit, ready for assembly with one simple tool. We must establish a relationship to the world, and because we are finite and tend to slip on the one banana peel within range of our feet, that relationship has a built-in instability. We are always out of balance with ourselves and with our world, and so we constantly strive for the ultimate while living the penultimate. As Tillich warned, we often substitute the penultimate for the ultimate.

What we produce is culture, something that has to be continuously produced, repaired, maintained, and reproduced. Religion is a part of culture and that tremendously complicates life for any person of faith. As Berger notes rather drily, “suffice it to say that, while it is necessary that worlds be built, it is quite difficult to keep them going.”5

To put this spiritually, we yearn for ultimate meaning and that yearning picks up the faint signals of the memory of Jesus, God-become-human, transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit. As incomplete and as wobbly as we are, if we listen to our deeper self that self is straining to hear the music and the rhythm of God, despite the booms, tweets, whistles, pops, and thuds from the culture around us.

Somewhere, C. S. Lewis encourages us in the face of our frustrations with the forms and outcomes of our religions. Standing for the hymn during Evensong, he winces at the braying of an old woman next to him, but clings to the notion that God rejoices to hear such praise offered up.

Religion is the locus of some of the most heinous acts of human beings, but it also gives us humans at their most sublime. If we regard it not as something handed down to us by God and subsequently bent out of all recognition, but rather as our fractured, misshapen, but well-intentioned gift to a loving and bemused God, we’ll all be better off.

***

Berger led me, via his footnotes and bibliography, to Georg Simmel, who was born in Berlin in 1858 and spent most of his professional life there lecturing at the University of Berlin.

Although Simmel was a sociologist, his interests and influence spanned ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and intellectual history—in addition to blazing new trails in sociology. He refused to stay rigidly within his discipline, however, and as a result was viciously excluded by his colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences at Berlin, although he counted as friends such luminaries as Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, and Ernst Troeltsch.

An expressed anti-Semitism and a bias against sociology kept Simmel from getting a regular faculty appointment for most of his career. It probably didn’t help that he was extraordinarily original in his thinking and did not quote his predecessors or contemporaries.6 He was less interested in creating a full-blown system of thought as he was in following his interests where they led him for the intellectual and practical cultivation of individuals.

Although his publishing career was haphazard, he wrote over two dozen books and more than two hundred articles. He was considered one of the most brilliant lecturers of his generation, and he constantly led his students to think for themselves, rather than to push forward a narrow set of his own thoughts at the expense of discussion. He was a multi-disciplinary adjunct teacher, who cared more for his students than for scholarly advancement, God bless him.

I keep dropping in on him from time to time because he always stimulates thought. And since I’m not constrained either to master his sprawling fields of interest nor to fit them all into a system, I feel free to take what interests me at the moment and come back later for more.

He describes the difference between the young person and the old in an essay entitled “The Adventurer.” Comparing an adventure to the danger and attraction of love, Simmel says the decisive point is that an adventure is “a form of experiencing. The content of the experience does not make the adventure (author’s emphasis).”7 He goes on to say that the color, ardor, and zest for life which we bring to love decisively transform a mere experience into an adventure.

Attitude and perspective make all the difference. “Such a principle of accentuation,” says Simmel, “is alien to old age. In general, only youth knows this predominance of the processes of life over its substance; whereas in old age, when the process begins to slow up and coagulate . . . it then proceeds . . . in a certain timeless manner, indifferent to the tempo and passion of its being experienced.”8

Lord preserve us from such rigor mortis.

There is the world “out there” and there are the worlds we carry inside us. Each shapes the other, each one influences us in ways we may feel more than understand. There are days when, as Christian Wiman says, I can wake up a believer and go to bed an atheist. On those days a certain distance toward religion may be an act of self-preservation. A sociological perspective which regards religion as a human construct offered up to God restores our equilibrium and good humor on those grey days when our adventure of faith slows, coagulates, and loses its passion.

Here, we draw inspiration so we may exhale religion as adventure, one that both entices and extends us, even as we are both immersed in it and observe it from a distance, a kind of wave and particle theory of divine and human interaction.

  1. Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Random House, 1963, p. 121.
  2. Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 180.
  3. Berger, 180.
  4. Berger, 181.
  5. Berger, 6.
  6. Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. X.
  7. Simmel, Georg. “The Adventurer,” in On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 197.
  8. Simmel, 198.