To My Opposite Number in Texas. May 2, 2010
A Review of Daniel Rifenburgh’s Advent: Poems. The Waywiser Press. London, 2002.
Daniel Rifenburgh studied with Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur, with the latter providing an Introduction to Rifenburg’s only book of poems, Advent. Though not mentioned on the book flaps or in Wilbur’s introduction, Rifenburgh, whom I’ve come to know through Facebook, was, he tells me, a student of the poet Robert Hayden, when he was a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Louisville during the spring semester of 1969. Since I myself had been a student of Hayden’s at the University of Michigan a decade later, I was delighted to communicate with someone else who had also studied with him. We exchanged a number of messages. I ordered a copy of Advent and he mentioned he had ordered a copy of my book, The Grove of the Eumenides, which includes my essay “Robert Hayden in the Morning Time.” He remarked “Hayden got me a creative writing scholarship,” but he had never bought his Collected Poems, which seemed odd to me. If I had studied with anyone of Hayden’s ability, though I don’t know who that would have been, I would have at least read all his work and chosen to own his books. It’s a pity that Rifenburgh didn’t. He might have found much that would have helped in both form and content.
Though I have never cared for most of the poetry of either Richard Wilbur or Donald Justice, finding them small academic poets, campus poets, writing usually on narrow, personal, limited subjects, I thought I’d not hold that against Daniel Rifenburgh and tried to give an impartial reading to his poems, when Advent arrived. The Note on the Author informed me that Rifenburgh had spent three years in Vietnam after his study at the University of Louisville, which made me recall Hayden’s bemoaning in poignant poems and prose his students “brutalized” in that conflict, wondering if he might have had Rifenburgh in mind among them. Wilbur’s introduction didn’t impress me at all, nor did his citing some lines from Rifenburgh, which included, “Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension.” I can respect a poet who believes in Jesus Christ and whatever historically evolved denomination or persuasion he or she chooses, or dissents from. I am not entirely unsympathetic at all. I stem from a long line of Christians of many denominations. Christianity is a humane, spiritual, and true vision of life, when not corrupted by human beings, which is the problem, since we seem to have the capacity to vitiate everything. I even find Christianity infinitely preferable to Marxism, capitalism as a religion, and the other endless substitutes for transcendence that modernity has and does produce. I’m well aware that by saying all of that I’ve violated numerous sacred doctrines, religious and secular, but must be honest before my own conscience, and what I actually found and think about Rifenburgh’s poems.
Getting past the first poem was the problem. I can’t even take it seriously in terms of what it’s saying. “To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” is in epistolary form, addressed to someone in the East, who hears, “The gong inside the old Buddhist temple,” and the call to prayer from “The high towers of the mosques.” Nearby, the reader is told, stands “the lone orthodox church, unevangelistic.” One senses there’s a severe judgment in the word “unevangelistic,” less than full sympathy with Eastern Christianity. Rifenburgh, I should explain, lives in Texas, perhaps known more for evangelism than the high church style, and maybe that influences his word choice. After allusions to Dante, Virgil, and Parmenides, the persona seems to take refuge in poetry, which is a thoroughly modern gesture, time honored for over a hundred and fifty years. What poet can quibble with that? Yet, an ersatz, nonetheless, and even Matthew Arnold knew and understood it as such. To his credit, so does Rifenburgh. He soon turns to the lines quoted by Richard Wilbur, after remarking on the overwhelming experience of reading Montale,
Or, so it seems, in the afterglow of such reading,
As if light had an enduring stepchild in the world
Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension,
Finding play in the interstices and lacunae
Where even breath must pause
In its tally of declensions
And what enters then by a grace
Commands our strictest reverence.
His “strictest reverence,” for the Word, is further implied in the closing stanza, in which he writes to his “Opposite Number,” to speak in the ear of the Boddhisatvas, by implication all the Ways of Opinion, “Parmenides.” The subordinate clause, “if you’re able,” slips in a derisive note, sticking the interlocutor right in the guts, if he hasn’t gotten it by now. In another poem, Herman Melville receives similar treatment, which I think constitutes a misunderstanding of Melville’s complexity: “call it a lack,” “a bible would do him little good.”
“To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” and the last one in the book are clearly intended as “bookends,” if you will, that frame the poems in between of mostly much broader range, with many on Rifenburgh’s experiences in Texas and South America. His sequence of poems titled “Andean Music,” for instance, explores his time working as a newspaper reporter in Latin America and Peru. I was struck in particular with the poem “VI. El Condorito,” about “Che Ernesto,” not the Marxist hero, but a local person known for flying down from the mountains of Macchu Picchu in a hang-glider. Later, together, they “headed, in the dark before the dawn, up to the sacred city.” Such poems are the best of his work, involved with life. In terms of other poems, Aristotle in his Poetics emphasized one of the crucial abilities of the poet was to choose the right material to work with. Rifenburgh often seems to me to lack such a sense of decorum, though our times may tend not to like that old tag. It is something poets forget and neglect at their peril. And it is always a temptation for the poet to write with his or her doctrine in mind and not the heart.
The last poem of the book is the title poem, “Advent,” and the reader is meant to feel the weight of the book leading up to it, emphasizing its importance to Rifenburgh. After describing a rainy day and the material decay of various leaves, he writes,
The mind, too, sheds a tattered cloak
And recalls elements of the old story:
The hoop round the omphalos of Christ, Marian,
The cold coin imprisoning Caesar,
A tocsin of alarm dilating the pupils of Herod,
And now the heart shunts the oil
Of incarnation out of its chambers again
In time with the last drumbeats of the rain.
We defeat the world through surrogates, and but briefly,
While placid beasts feed in drizzling pastures,
Building strength for the flight into Egypt,
Yet the son must be born in us, says the Father,
Or wither, when new oil floods the ventricles
And we become, however briefly, His surrogates
And for this, in Winter’s dead zero,
We must sing, sing Hallelujah.
The choice laid before the reader is the exclusivism of truth, for, from whatever perspective, this truth is the Truth, either we are “His surrogates / Or betrayers.” Some Muslims, Jews, and others might say essentially the same thing about their own religion. Influenced by the commonly shared Old Testament, the Western world, especially, has a penchant for this kind of approach to whatever the word “religion” means. Not a new idea, nothing tricky about it, just straight out in your face. I like that. Some Christians enjoy it as “scandalous.” That’s fine. That helps me know where I stand. And I respect Rifenburgh’s conscience, conviction, and interpretation. I stand with his “Opposite Number in Samarkand,” and I am proud of it. Rifenburg’s subject is as fit for poetry as anything else, and I don’t find it offensive, just out of touch with all of human history and religious experience, especially the last five-hundred years. Both religious and secular exclusivisms do that to people. They can keep people isolated from other equally valid traditions of the meaning and purpose of life, often not that different at the core from Christianity or an enlightened humanism, if one can be fair and open about it, make the brotherly effort to understand. Rifenburgh exhibits no such openness but continues along the line of what he had stated in the first poem, “Parmenides was right, / None of this exists!” Many Christian denominations have wisely moderated their thinking and teaching beyond caustic, dismissive either/or’s.
Writing off the history and religious experience of much of the world is perhaps not an entirely efficacious approach for any human being, especially a poet, who must be open to all that is human, if he is truly to serve the Muses, the daughters of Zeus, the sacred servants of All. Had Rifenburgh read Robert Hayden’s poetry years ago he would have found a much more open and universal perspective on life than he has spent his minor talent on. Toward universality, not exclusivism, is where the Divine Being, the Lord of history, has been guiding, and continues to guide, humankind. All peoples are able. In the light of the fullness of the literary tradition, which includes all nations and peoples, poets should encourage humanity to choose to travel together and be tolerant of their fellow human beings. We are all human, fallible, and not a one of us has ever had, or ever will have, the entire Truth, though it is human to think otherwise. At a time when it can seem some people in the United States and elsewhere are pushing toward religious fascism or secular utopia, it might help to step back from the brink and reflect on the healthy effect that pluralism and tolerance have had on civilization. People around our small planet need to value pluralism and universality more, not less.
Leszek Kolakowski and the Children of Abraham
September 1, 2010
(I wrote this review in 1983 but never published it. I’ve decided to publish it now for a friend in Africa since it discusses the three major monotheistic religions stemming from Abraham. For a more recent piece on some of the same issues, also see, Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity.)
A Review of (1) F. E. Peter, Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Princeton University Press, 1982; and (2) Leszek Kolakowski, Religion: If there is no God. . . On God, the Devil, Sin and other Worries of the so-called Philosophy of Religion. Oxford University Press, 1982.
F. E. Peter’s book Children of Abraham offers an interesting and systematic treatment of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions that demonstrates their essential unity. Professor Peters achieves this by concentrating on six areas that are outlined by his chapter titles: “Community and Hierarchy,” “The Law,” “Scripture and Tradition,” “The Liturgy,” “Asceticism and Mysticism,” and “Theology.” His intent is, as he states, “to illuminate how these affiliated religions approached common issues.” His perspective is one that holds the monotheistic religions as sharing the same source, attested by the opening paragraph of his book:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all scriptural religions, that is, they affirm the existence of a divine revelation in written form. “The Sacred Writings,” “The Scripture” or “The Book” are practically interchangeable terms among the three, and their adherents can all be identified as “People of the Book,” as the Muslims in fact call them. More, these revelations from on high represent God’s intervention in history; and, indeed, the same God: the Jew’s Yahweh, the Christians’ God the Father who is in Heaven, and the Muslims’ Allah is one and the same deity, with the same history, the same attributes and, in fact, the same name.
This statement of their shared origin informs much of the discussion of Professor Peter’s book and enables him to cut through, as it were, the malignant growths of countless sectarian debates, animosities, and misperceptions.
His perception of their oneness surfaces again during his discussion of Islam:
What was understood to have happened was that a new prophet had appeared in the Judeo-Christian tradition and had promulgated a new revelation, or rather a new version of revelation, which had as its object not the abrogation of the old Law but its restoration to its original vigor.
Here his analysis probes the common origin, which Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity, and shows that, far from an entirely new revelation, Islam, as Christianity before it, marks the “restoration” of the “old Law” to its pristine purity. Conversely, his perspective aids him to discern common absurdities that mar the historical development of each religion:
And each community lived in the conviction that God had spoken to it for the last time: the Jews, for the first and final times; the Christians, for the second and final time; the Muslims, for the third and final time.
Although Peters does not expand on the illogicality of this conviction, such an idea is implicit in his work, given his emphasis on their shared origin.
The progressive universality of each dispensation is developed in his chapter “The Law”:
Moses was given the Law to modify pagan custom for the better, and so provide a bridge from idolatry to a belief in the unique God. . . . The Law appears, then—and most clearly in its cultic and sacrificial aspects—to be a transitional and ameliorative instrument rather than final and perfect, at least when viewed from a historical perspective.
Certainly this progressive bridge suffuses the Torah—the covenant code and the Book of the Kings document precisely the struggle with the “cultic and sacrificial aspects”—as well as the books of the prophets. But what is noteworthy here is Peter’s realization that the Law was not final and perfect but a transitional and ameliorative instrument—one that guided and directed the Jewish covenant community to belief in one God. Later, Peters also suggests that Muhammad provided this bridge for the pre-Islamic peoples by preserving “within the hajj [pilgrimage] a treasure-trove of early Semitic cult practice,” much as Christ had preserved aspects of the Jewish cultural background of his day.
Although the strongest point of Peter’s book is his demonstration of the shared origin of the revealed religions, it is also, paradoxically, the most conspicuous weakness. For Professor Peters, all religions are pretty much the same. There is a sense in which he never takes any issue seriously. His tone itself exudes skepticism, and one wonders if “common” in his vocabulary does not often carry a pejorative nuance. And although he claims objectivity and rationality, his biases are those of what he calls a “secular historican,” one who believes categorically that all religions ultimately and merely amount to a struggle for political power.
Leszek Kolakowski’s book Religion concentrates on exactly the issue that Peters refuses to consider, whether or not God exists. By quickly surveying the history of the philosophy of religion, Professor Kolakowski covers both the major critiques of religious belief and the major counter-arguments of such philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal. He also discusses theodicy, skepticism and mysticism, eternity and inevitable human failure, reason and eros, the relationship of knowledge and language, and the link between belief in God and death. Despite the expansive sweep of his discussion, his concerns find their center in his oft-repeated thesis:
I take the act of worship as unremovable and instrinsic to any description of the phenomenon of religion. The socially established worship of the eternal reality: this formulation comes perhaps closest to what I have in mind when talking of religion.
Though he marshalls what Abdul-Baha calls in Some Answered Questions the “proofs and demonstrations of the existence of God,” Kolakowski believes the act of worship to be superior to all such arguments—as Abdul-Baha put it, “When man feels the indwelling spirit, he is in no need of arguments for its existence.” But to stop at this observation would be to ignore much of what is of value in Kolakowski’s book. For one thing, his definition of religion as “the socially established worship of the eternal reality” refutes the conception of an individual faith that can be separated from the communal matrix. Religion, by its very nature, presupposes social cohesion—albeit a cohesion enigmatically based on individual worship.
Kolakowski further elaborates his definition in the following passage:
Religion is not a set of propositions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality . . . and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the essense of the original act of worship.
He convincingly makes the case that religion is not merely a “set of propositions” or rational constructs; rather, it is, as he states elsewhere, “a way of life.” And although the human mind is capable of analyzing its act of worship, of separating it into metaphysical, moral, social, and rational elements, of looking at the mountain, the mind cannot comprehend either itself or the mystery it contemplates. Far from constituting a flight into vague irrationality, Kolakowski’s position asserts the fundamental difference between religious and empirical or scientific truth. This difference is basically one of validation: “The only reliable access to religious truth is by way of a private experience which cannot be satisfactorily rendered in intersubjective discourse.” Yet modern science asserts its now “fanatical rationalism” by affirming self-assuredly “what is or is not knowledge.”
Kolakowski’s position, like that of all Christian apologists of the 20th Century, is an embattled one. He himself recognizes the fact and acknowledges at length the decline of religious belief over the last century or so. His emphasis throughout the book on “two irreconcilable ways of accepting the world and our position in it” would largely concede defeat were he not correct that historically the two “colliding” viewpoints have at least forced one another to be consistent in their reasoning about their respective beliefs. Still, there is something wistful about his thinking. Against the vast panorama of the century, Kolakowski’s attempt to breath new life into Christianity possesses a certain amount of wishful thinking that is similar to W. H. Auden’s quixotic call at the end of hisEnchafed Flood to renew “the ruined walls of the city,” because Baha’u’llah revealed no man can renew the city: “Once in about a thousand years shall this City be renewed and re-adorned. . . .That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation.” T. S. Eliot’s comments on The Waste Land indicate at least an honest confrontation with modernity: “Now there is nothing in which to believe . . . Belief itself is dead . . . therefore my poem is the first to respond properly to the modern situation and not call upon Make-Believe.”
In all fairness to Kolakowski, perhaps he is honestly thinking of Christianity when he writes,
A religous worship reduced to its secular utility and oblivious of its original function can survive for a time, no doubt, yet sooner or later its emptiness is bound to be exposed, the irrelevance of its form to its content will become apparent, its ambiguous life sustained by credit from a non-existent bank will come to end and the forgotten links with the Sacred will be resumed in another place, by other forms of religiosity.
Coming as this excerpt does a few pages from the end of the book, it cannot be read (however he may have intended it) as anything other than a requiem for all Christianity and particularly for Catholicism, which he focuses on and which has undeniably been reduced to its secular and political utility in a few countries that readily come to mind.
We now live in a time of transition, the interregnum, between the decaying of old cities and the renewing and re-adorning of the ancient one. And while many observers are refusing to take any religion seriously, while many are choosing to “call upon Make-Believe” to shore up their swiftly eroding position, religious and secular, the major and minor plans of God to renew the ruined walls proceed.
Having thought of Chartres Cathedral and Dante for more decades than I can remember, I consider it a blessing that he chose to guide me there. The Queen of Heaven, to whom I prayed as a child, found me, I hope, not entirely unworthy of her grace and mercy, though we human beings, from that perspective, are always undeserving. Europe, a hallowed tale, in colored glass.
One always wonders how to go on. How from here. But one does somehow. Through the labyrinth. On one’s knees.
Back in London, so soon. Outside Westminster Abbey.
Pray to Your Father
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew, 6.6
I was very young when I first read these words of Christ. I knew they were true, felt them deeply, as I still do. They guided me the right way, when much else was often in doubt. They guide me now too. They teach humbleness and sincerity before God, closing the door to the distractions of the world, communion with Him alone. All the prophets and teachers of the great religions, including Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, similarly extol prayer and meditation. The guidance and example of the Bahai prayers deepened, strengthened, opened my soul to the Divine.
In times when we are lost, the best thing we can do is follow Christ’s teaching, withdraw into prayer, find our way through worship of the Divine Essence, the peace and stillness found in surrender to the Mystery of Being; await there for the still, small voice to pick us up and lead aright. As Plato wrote, first a shudder, and then the old awe pours over one.
Rereading this spring the four Gospels, I savor again transcendence and its vision of spiritual and moral perfection, the surest guide, down to earth, while reaching to the stars.