In an earlier post I drew attention to the under-appreciated humor of Emily Dickinson's poetry, something I myself had previously overlooked. This past week we've been reading Dickinson in my American Lit II class, and we got on the rather frequently-discussed question of her faith. There is some controversy about just what Dickinson believed, with voices claiming her for one "side" or another much the same as people do with Shakespeare or Dickens, and even in our class discussion there were different takes on what heaven, faith, and God meant to her. But I most appreciated the argument one student, Cindy Benz, had made on our (public) course blog that day to the effect that Dickinson wrote about faith with "unflinching honesty." For Christians, people who value truth, this is no small thing in itself, but it may also be an important thing for all Americans these days.
Benz is less concerned with pronouncing upon Dickinson's actual beliefs (hard to get at in the mere 109 poems we read) than in examining the poet's way of describing faith from the inside out, as it were. This insight frees her to read seemingly heterodox poems charitably, appreciating the "pure humanity" of the sentiments. Benz argues that if we are all as honest with ourselves as Dickinson is with herself (and whatever audience she may have been writing to), then we can sympathize with moments where God seems dark or distant (on that note: ever read a psalm?) or where values like love seem fleeting.
I'll let you read for yourself how Benz works through these things. I think she offers a great example of a kind of reading that is informed by Christian values of both charity and truth, as well as a humility to open oneself up to another and to really learn something - which is a way of pursuing truth.
It's also just a good insight into reading Dickinson. It helps, for instance, to not be scandalized by the apparently heretical love of "I cannot live with you," in which the poet describes a rapturous romantic love that challenges her love of God. We all know the right answer to such a conflict: we're supposed to love God above all else. But, again, if we're honest, we know that romantic love can sometimes feel all-consuming - it's precisely what establishes the familiar analogy between marital love and spiritual love (which is biblical, after all).
One of the great rewards of Dickinson is just how honest she is - and never smug. Christian culture often encourages us to assume a confidence that is really a mask for self-righteousness, that is, presuming a God's-eye-view (thus, significantly, the need for Relief). Dickinson takes off her own mask - or refuses to don it - writes from our common human perspective - from the "cheap seats" of faith - and offers us the consolation of knowing we are not alone in experiencing some of the conflicts and paradoxes of love and faith.
For ten years or so, now, we've been talking about the increasing polarities in American civil discourse. Charitable reading, and, by extension, charitable conversation and argument, are surely practices that can help us overcome division by focusing on our common humanity, if nothing else. If, as Image editor Gregory Wolfe argues in his new book, beauty will save the world, it strikes me it will be, at least in part, through poetry like Dickinson's and readers like Benz (yay for my student!).