They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? … But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
A few years ago I was asked to give the convocation address at Yale Divinity School, where I have taught for the past decade. Not only did I happen to be reading George Marsden’s biography of the great eighteen-century minister and theologian Jonathan Edwards, who was both a student and tutor at Yale, but I happened to have paused at precisely the moment when Edwards himself was about to address the student body. Teaching in an institution to which I would not have been admitted as a student (bad grades, bad “life choices”), I was flattered by the association, and it occurred to me that many of the students in attendance might be as well. To be welcomed into a place with so much august history, so much intellectual curiosity and attainment, so many great names – surely it’s worth a moment of pride. But maybe just a moment. In the last chapter of Marsden’s book I came across a quote from Ezra Stiles, who was president of Yale when Edwards died. “In another generation,” said old Ezra, the works of Jonathan Edwards “will pass into as transient notice perhaps scarce above oblivion, and when posterity occasionally comes across them in the rubbish of libraries, the rare characters who may read and be pleased with them will be looked upon as singular and whimsical.”
The pride of accomplishment, the humility of being you. The glory of the door, the reality of the room. They are ancient themes.
There is a profound tension in the eighteenth century between divine grace and human reason. Grace is absolutely beyond all human capacity, one thinker after another (like Edwards) will say, and then they begin furiously reasoning their way toward it. The idolatry of logic – and it does often seem like that – led to some miraculous discoveries, such as those of Isaac Newton. And it led to some pretty strange Nostradamus-like noodlings in the margins of the Book of Revelation as one thinker after another tried to pin down the exact instant of the Rapture. Newton himself engaged in this activity, as did Edwards. In preparing for that talk at Yale, in fact, Edwards read repeatedly the verse from Revelation 16 in which “there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent” and told himself that the hail, in this instance, would be his own remorseless rhetoric, which he would unleash (in Latin) upon any Antichrist (that is, Anglican) who happened to be in the audience.
I have no hailstones. I have no Latin and I have no answers. What I do have instead are two things. The first is a first-century Jew from Nazareth well known for his oratorical skills but nevertheless, at a crucial moment in his ministry, remaining silent and writing in the sand. It is a strange moment – and one of my very favorite stories from the New Testament. I’ll come back to that. The second thing is another form of writing in the sand: poetry.
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubt and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
A whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood. By which Amichai means, I think, that even though our human pride might wreak havoc upon our houses, there might, if we have the proper humility, arise a living whisper out of the ashes, something resuscitating and revitalizing, something close, perhaps, to a still, small voice.
Now, the circles through which I move, even the religious ones, constitute a pretty “safe space” for this poem. It requires no great courage for me to celebrate its spirit of productive doubt. But I must admit, I do hear the skeletal chuckle of Jonathan Edwards in my own mind – his ambition, after all, was to be “God’s trumpet.” And you can make an idolatry of doubt. You can become so comfortable with God’s absence and distance that eventually your own unknowingness gives you a big fat apophatic hug. One could argue that when doubt becomes the path of least resistance it becomes the very thing that a faithful person must most resist. And resistance is often a matter of language.
Every once in a while
we need a
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it—
refusal to multiply,
and the single
Initially, it might seem that Kay Ryan’s poem falls more on the “doubt” side of the ledger than on the “faith” side. The great stumbling block for modern consciousness with regard to the Gospels are the miracle stories. Why should we believe that the laws of reality, which seem so implacably inflexible for us, were mysteriously suspended for a few years in first-century Palestine? Indeed, there has been during the past century or more a whole theological movement to “demythologize” the Gospels. At its best, such thinking has helped to re-sacralize matter and restore primary importance to immediate existence (human and otherwise). This is obviously Jesus’ intention throughout the Gospels, even when – actually, especially when – he is performing miracles. At times, though, demythologizing the Gospels has led faith to take refuge in neutered and confused clichés. How many sermons, how many blurbs on the backs of poetry books, praise the capacity for “discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary”? For a thought to become this common is no guarantee it’s rotten, but one might want to give it a good sniff.
Ryan’s poem raises this whole question while inverting the terms. The miraculous is so “common” (as in beneath us) that sometimes we need to be jolted back by and to the particular. Don’t be too quick to transcend, her poem tells us. Being precedes meaning.
And yet, we need this backward miracle only “every once in a while.” Why? Because if it can become too easy to transcend, it can also become too easy not to. One can become so disenchanted, so adapted to the “reality” of one’s immediate senses and experience, that reality itself, which surely is stranger than our minds can circumscribe, becomes pinched, partial, even inert. (Attention catalyzes existence: “The eye with which I see God,” says Meister Eckhart, “is the eye with which God sees me.”) Ryan’s poem, in essence, unsays itself: don’t be too quick to eschew transcendence. Don’t be too sure that being is not filled with meanings that are the task of one’s life to discern.
Being and meaning: two ways in which the mind relates to – or, in the case of the former, participates in, even fuses with – life. Christ and Jesus: two names that are the source and pattern for that way of relation. Christ is Being itself. Jesus is one specific meaning that Being acquired at one specific date in history (and forever after). And they – being and meaning, Christ and Jesus – are one thing.
Now consider the moment when Jesus writes in the sand in John 8. The Pharisees have come to him in the temple courts with a woman accused of adultery. They ask what they should do with her, given that Mosaic law demanded her death. This is a trap. If he says “stone her,” then he’s breaking Roman law. If he says “don’t stone her,” then he’s setting himself above Jewish law – either way, he’s in trouble. Instead of answering, Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. When they persist – in outrage, one can safely assume, because think how irritating that would be – he says his famous line, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he bends down and writes in the sand again.
What does he write? That’s the first place the mind goes, isn’t it? It’s certainly the direction a lot of sermons take. (Though some scholars question whether Jesus could write at all; I’m not equipped to weigh in on this with any authority, but if he couldn’t write, what was he doing down there, doodling?) Some say he was writing down the names of those self-righteous and accusatory Pharisees standing around him and the woman. Some say it was their sins, others that he was writing down specific verses from the Old Testament. To this layperson all three seem about as likely – and as consistent with Jesus’ character – as doodling. So how to read this passage, which by the way is probably not even part of the original Gospel, since one thing that scholars do agree on is that this anecdote of Jesus writing in the sand was added later.
This is a job for a poet. Or, more accurately, a job for those who know how to read poetry, because this scene operates as a kind of poem. It is meant to be experienced, not dissected or “filled in.” It is suspended between the metaphorical and the literal, between myth and witness.
Consider the mythic elements. First, there’s the act itself, of writing on the ground surrounded by inquisitors. Who does that? Just try it the next time you find yourself in a heated meeting. Then, too, Jesus writes with his finger, not an implement of some kind. The Word (capital W) inscribes the word (lower case) upon reality itself – reenacting, I would argue, and perhaps salvaging, that original moment when the Word of God became the word of man. Also, it is metaphorically suggestive that Jesus writes on the earth, not on a tablet, as if the law had come alive, as if the closed world of human religion represented by the Pharisees had been blown open and shown to be as transient and perishable, but also as immediate and meaningful, as this glorious earth that is all around us.
On the other hand: consider the documentary details of the scene. We are told exactly how the crowd is arranged and the order in which the Pharisees depart. We know the woman is not simply being accused of adultery but has been “caught in the act.” Then there’s the fact that this act of writing in the sand really does feel like something the unlikely, unpredictable, and often decidedly unhuggable Jesus would do. It has the feel of a witnessed event, whether or not it was.
Marianne Moore famously described the successful poem as containing “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The phrase is apt for this scene from John as well. It is one of those moments we come to again and again in the Gospels – whether it’s a parable whose message is either implacably opaque or so transparently obvious that it amounts to its own kind of koan, or the silence after Pilate’s question “What is truth?” which you can still hear two millennia later, or in this moment when Jesus “writes” something that you will never read, never “understand,” and thus maybe, just maybe, never forget.
Does this mean that religion and poetry are essentially the same thing? Best to let a poem provide an “answer.”
Poetry and Religion
Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.
A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.
Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?
You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror
that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds—
crested pigeon, rosella parrot—
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.
God is the poetry caught in any religion, a law against its closure. God is in the world as poetry is in the poem, a law against its closure. “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems,” Walt Whitman famously asks in “Song of Myself,” by which he means, of course, that that very pride of understanding is just another form of ignorance, and ignorance is not at all the same as a fractious and catalyzing – as opposed to a cozy and complacent – unknowingness. Have you felt proud to know the meaning of scripture, the right kind of theology, to know what you believe, or even, perhaps, that you don’t believe in anything at all? Perhaps you have forgotten the law against closure. By all means, let us declare our faith, if we have any; let us be “God’s trumpets.” Because in that first Amichai poem it is not only “doubts” that dig up the yard and restore the ruined house, but “loves” as well, and love is decidedly active and declares itself. But let us also keep in mind the ineluctable law against closure, the poetry of reality.