Annie Dillard’s God

I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about ten years after it was published and wished I had read it earlier. She was one of few writers I felt an immediate connection with. I was hooked by her ambling curiosity and observations about nature coupled with witty, aphoristic reflections about life, death, and the divine. The writing was earthy and alive, not soaring or remote.  I hadn’t read enough at the time to know that she had pretty much single-handedly revived a literary form that had all but gone extinct–the personal essay. Since then, I’ve always wished that she would write more frequently, but the works that we do have are gems.

Pilgrim cont48ains a number of the themes and characters that have preoccupied Annie for a while. Julian of Norwich and the Kabbalists are there. Also present is the often terrifying engine of evolution that provides a counterpoint to easy claims to the goodness or power of God. Fecundity and death, both together, give us the impression that “…something is everywhere and always amiss.” The existential dilemma of the blindness of the natural world that plagued Darwin is taken up in many of her writings. Darwin had written about the strange fact that the “endless forms most beautiful” often were born from misery:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” (Origin of Species)

Annie similarly took up the problem of pain and has wrestled urgently with it for decades. Life as a whole is beautiful and grand, but the individual suffers and dies for apparently no reason. In fact, the individual seems to have little value. There is so much waste. Babies born with hideous deformities, parasitic wasps,…

“For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.” (For the Time Being)

And there is a lot of bad news we turn our heads from. Mostly because it isn’t happening to us or to people we know well. She claims that we cannot have it both ways. Either the individual is always at at all times infinitely valuable, or they have no worth at all. It messes with your mind to try to think this in relation to God, and Annie seems convinced that most religious answers throughout history have ended up talking pious nonsense.

“Rabbi Akiva taught a curious solution to the ever-galling problem that while many good people and their children suffer enormously, many louses and their children prosper and thrive in the pink of health. God punishes the good, he proposed, in this short life, for their few sins, and rewards them eternally in the world to come. Similarly, God rewards the evil-doers in this short life for their few good deeds, and punishes them eternally in the world to come. I do not know how that sat with people. It is, like every ingenious, Godfearing explanation of natural calamity, harsh all around.” (For the Time Being)

So what is Annie Dillard’s god like? Getting answers to this is a difficult task. Not wanting to be known as religious writer, she has consistently refused to interpret her own books regarding God. However, I believe that she has left us enough hints to piece together a coherent-enough picture. First, I think it is fair to say that the problem of suffering and pain is the landscape in which she stalks God. Jürgen Moltmann, in the post-WWII era, recognized that theology cannot be done any longer without taking into account the Shoah. Similarly, Annie cannot think about God without heeding the silences of creation in the face of suffering. “The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; the whine of wings” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Her biographical work, An American Childhood, and various interviews, inform us that this was an early concern of hers. A pastor had once lent her C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, in an effort to help answer her questions. In at least two separate works she quotes or mentions Lewis’ observation that no one individual ever suffers the sum total of pain in the world. For Annie, this served, to reduce the problem to a slightly more manageable size. Yet, this was only true to a point. The theodicy problem seemed to grow.

Probably the strongest clue to Dillard’s conception of God comes from her last true book, For the Time Being. There are no new pieces and only one unpublished essay in the upcoming 2016 publication. More than any other work, this addresses suffering as one of its primary themes and pulls together her thoughts on the subject.

In the book she quotes Augustine. “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” This apophatic principle is echoed throughout the Christian tradition, but is an especially foundational concept for those from the mystic and existentialist inheritance.  One can find it in Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil, for example, two thinkers that Dillard is fond of. This is a perspective that claims an answer to the problem without resorting to mental contortions. God is not a being among beings, an actor in the play. God is, rather, in Paul Tillich’s memorable terminology, “The Ground of Being”.

Another view that has some appeal to Dillard is the narrative of Kabbalistic /Hassidic mythology, particularly as expressed by Isaac Luria. She characterizes it as panentheism (the presence of God in all creation), and she notes (in 1999) that it is the secret belief of a good many theologians. Today, in 2016, it isn’t much of a secret. However, panentheism is a broad term that can mean many different things. Specifically, for Kabbalism, it is interpreted as the necccesity of God ‘withdrawing’ some of god’s self in order to create; a poetic and spatial way of describing the autonomy of creation. Yet, deep within the structure of the world are order and life (imaged as divine ‘sparks’), waiting to be released by humanity in the process of restoration (tikkun). In Luria’s imagery, God obliterates himself to achieve this.  The metaphors are beautiful and bold.

In the end these two views are voicing one related proposition that can be summarized:

“God is—for the most part—out of the physical loop of the fallen world he created, let us say. Or God is the loop, or pervades the loop, or the loop runs in God like a hole in his side he never fingers. Certainly God is not a member of the loop like the rest of us, passing the water bucket to splash the fire, kicking the bucket, passing the buck.”

Or put another way:

“It is fatal, Teilhard [de Chardin] said of the old belief that we suffer at the hands of God omnipotent. It is fatal to reason. It does not work. The omnipotence of God makes no sense if it requires the all-causingness of God.”

This is about all that can be said. There is a healthy dose of agnosticism in Annie Dillard’s definition of God. Although she ultimately differs from Emil Brunner on a number of issues, his insistence that “God remains a mystery [Geheimnis] to us even in revelation” is not too far from her emphasis. As a result, she is reluctant to give much to another group you might expect her to agree with, the Whiteheadians. The attempt, according to her, to subject “our partial knowledge of God to the rigors of philosophical inquiry…is an absurd but well-meaning exercise.” 

Annie Dillard’s idea of God may be informed by a variety of sources, but it is profoundly in harmony with traditional Christian belief and practice. I leave you with what I see as the clearest statement of her view concerning God

 from the same book. Judge for yourself.

“Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears. Such experiences are gifts to beginners….”

“Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help? Is heaven pliable? Or is praying eudaemonistically—praying for things and events, for rain and healing—delusional? …True prayer surrenders to God; that willing surrender itself changes the situation a jot or two by adding power which God can use. Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power—mechanism unknown—to tilt the balance. Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia. For Tillich, God’s activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity—the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger. I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.
Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world’s necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile. Christians might add that Christ hangs, as it were, on the cross forever, always incarnate, and always nailed.”


Praying Mantis

The praying mantis: beloved by gardeners, but not her mate.







One thought on “Annie Dillard’s God

  1. Pilgrim came into my life when I moved to CT. That same week I discovered that she was teaching 20 minutes away from where I lived. The book moved me in such a way that I found a way to sit in on a few of her classes. I still have that same book purchased in 1986. It’s falling apart because it has been opened and read, studied and thought about all of these years. Her writing inspired and transformed me in ways that I’m still discovering!
    Thanks for your thoughts.

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