The theory goes like this: Emily Dickinson was America's great Calvinistic poet because Calvinists can never really be confident of their salvation. Since the doctrine of election necessarily leaves them out of any significant decision-making with respect to God's love (God chooses those who please him, and human beings are the recipients of his whimsical, eternal choices), Calvinists never really know about their salvation and therefore live in worrisome unease, unsure of their eternities. Lots of tension in Calvinists' lives.
Whether or not the syllogism has any strength is worth fighting about really, is a question for another time. Meanwhile, I rather like the designation, even if the light it shines on us Calvinists isn't particularly pretty. But hey, we'll take any ink we can get. Besides, I could do worse than be a player on a team that fields Ms. Emily.
What's unquestionably true is that Ms Dickinson, who had all kinds of trouble dealing with people in her later life, also had all kinds of trouble dealing with God. Sometimes he was there, sometimes he wasn't. Sometimes he offered joy, sometimes she couldn't handle the vacuum he created when he'd vamoose. This morning's Writers Almanac offers vivid proof:
This World Is Not Conclusion
this world is not conclusion
a species stands beyond -
invisible, as music -
but positive as sound -
it beckons, and it baffles
philosophy - don't know -
and through a riddle, at the last -
sagacity must go -
And she's not terribly wrong, at least in the estimation of some of us, even some of us believers, even some of us Calvinists. There is always more, she says, than what we see. God himself is like music, like sound itself, always there, beckoning and baffling, creating riddles that conjure doubt because finally, she suggests, we can't know. This morning the temp is well below zero. I know it is. If I walk out to the river in a t-shirt, I don't have to believe it's cold. I'll know it is. But I can only believe that he's there, this morning, in the chattering branches and gray ice.
to guess it, puzzles scholars -
to gain it, men have borne
contempt of generations
and crucifixion, shown -
It sounds like urban myth, but that people say it's true is itself proof of a certain validity: the internet is as jammed full of God and porn. You want religion, it's all over. You want sex, it is too. Faith's great mysteries beckon just as surely as our most human desire. And if you want it, you can get it in any shape or form. But it's not just joy--faith that is. History makes amply clear that people have suffered for it, even on a cross.
faith slips - and laughs, and rallies -
blushes, if any see -
plucks at a twig of evidence -
and asks a vane, the way -
Faith wears a million faces, and no one of them, humanly speaking, is the standard. Often as not, it plucks at straws, takes direction from sources that seem embarrassingly silly.
much gesture, from the pulpit -
strong hallelujahs roll -
narcotics cannot still the tooth
that nibbles at the soul -
We're once more in the season of Handel's Messiah, an oratorio that can make a believer out of almost any ordinary ingrate. Mega-churches hold forth for thousands. Michaelangelo created one of the world's great wonders on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel. My daughter loves Michael W. Smith. There's no end to great and full inspiration drawn from what we believe.
And then that final couplet, "narcotics cannot still the tooth/that nibbles at the soul--" No matter what we try, no matter how we attempt to dull the desire, it's always there. But does she mean faith that won't quit, or its contrary, doubt. No matter how faithful we are, there's always doubt?--is that it? Or the flipside?--no matter how much we doubt faith, it's simply always there? Both work poetically.
Either way, that's Ms. Emily--certain only of her uncertainty. The paradox here is that God is always in her poems, often--more often than not--because he isn't. Does that make sense? To me, it does.
"The world is not conclusion" found its way into my in-box this morning because today is Emily Dickinson's birthday--she was born in 1830. Long ago, of course, she died.
But like that memorable ceiling in Rome, her poems have their own life, and for that--and for her--this morning, I'm thankful.