In the winter of 1992, on a tiny island in Puget Sound, Washington, an acoustic technician working for the U.S. Navy detected a strange rumble in the Pacific. The sound came in through an undersea network of listening devices called hydrophones, installed during the Cold War and repurposed in peacetime for science. A fellow technician suggested that it could be the call of a blue or fin whale, though its spectrograph printout showed a frequency of 52 hertz, more than an octave above the usual 15–20-hertz groan of those species. Baleen whales typically travel in pods and dispatch such sounds to navigate, find food, and mate. But when scientists tracked the migration patterns of “52-Hertz,” it became apparent he was alone, moaning into the sea without getting an answer.
In the years since, popular culture has seized on a sympathetic image of 52-Hertz as “the Loneliest Creature on Earth,” churning out articles and social media posts, sculptures and albums. The whale has become a patron mammal for lonely people worldwide, his love language just high enough for the human ear to make out, yet tragically inaudible to the beings who speak it.
Somehow, I was oblivious to this cultural phenomenon until last summer, when I listened to a COVID-inspired This American Life episode called “How to Be Alone.” The story about 52-Hertz, written and narrated by Lilly Sullivan, points out the irony in the fact that thousands of social media users have bonded—if only virtually—around their shared solitude. But as I stood still in my quarantined home to make out Sullivan’s clip of the whale, first at its original frequency and then sped up for easier listening, I wasn’t panged by sympathy, but rather a kind of wonder I can only, in retrospect, describe as spiritual. Like everyone else, I heard what I wanted to hear in the sound. I crafted my own narrative to explain the inexplicable.
Three decades after the discovery of 52-Hertz, scientists continue to record his anomalous vocalizations, but we know little more about him. No one has tried to track him down, for he would be all but impossible to locate visually; we can only guess he is male because female whales don’t call during mating season. We don’t know that he is alone, or if he wants to be alone, or if whales get lonely as humans do. We’re not even positive that the source of the sound is a whale. We may track it another hundred years without knowing for certain.
The mystery surrounding 52-Hertz reflects how little we know about marine ecosystems in general. It’s often said we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our oceans—including, in this case, their largest inhabitants. We still have no idea how any baleen whale species, lacking vocal cords, produce what scientists have termed “song.”
But the dearth of knowledge about 52-Hertz has nourished, not stymied, public interest in him. The accidental discovery of the Loneliest Creature, and our careful monitoring of him since, begs the age-old question: what other songs might we hear, right here on Earth, if only we knew where and how best to listen?
I grew up in secular San Francisco, attending a church of what C. S. Lewis would call “soft soap” Christianity: no shortage of platitudinous sermons about loving one’s neighbor, but almost none about sin or the literal truth of the Bible. Outside the mindless recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, God was painted more as social good itself rather than an actual entity; it was easy to go through the motions of Sunday worship without examining one’s belief. I can’t remember disbelieving in my childhood god—that would have been ludicrous, like defying the golden rule—but I couldn’t claim to hear a “voice.” The low-stakes god I conjured had no bearing on everyday life.
By the time I entered middle school, however, this wishy-washiness rankled. During sermons, I’d stare at my pastors disaffectedly and wonder whether they really believed in Jesus’s miracles, or simply in the cryptic “message” the scriptural accounts of them conveyed. Then, as now, I had a devotional disposition bordering on obsessive-compulsive, and I couldn’t afford to turn my critical gaze inward. I probably feared that if I examined the religious rituals in which I took so much comfort, I would discover they were spiritually empty.
Soon enough, feeling socially unmoored and academically nonplussed at my huge public middle school, I transferred to an Episcopal all-boys academy atop Nob Hill. During my “shadow visit” I was seduced by boys who, handsomely uniformed and in the absence of girls, channeled their jovial competitiveness into academics and befriended me, an obliviously but obviously gay kid, without fearing emasculation. Shadowing Friday Hymn-Sing, I marveled at how they not only took singing seriously but enjoyed it, too. With time, I understood they were no more devout, on average, than any other kids in the city; they were simply freer to embrace authority, liberated from heteronormative narratives of how to behave around girls. A boy as repressed as I was, lacking direction or control over his identity, will seize every chance he gets to partake in such positive freedom. At home in those hallowed halls, I was primed for a spiritual awakening.
Of course, experiencing such an epiphany in early adolescence, when the intensity of one’s emotions can be inversely proportional to their comprehension, was a recipe for disaster. In a last-ditch attempt to conquer my gay sexuality, I developed a strict-constructionist stance on the Bible, casting myself as a righteous firebrand determined to avenge my brainwashed liberal classmates. I was influenced by no one but myself and the Evangelical Right at large; my classmates’ standardized familiarity with Christianity, albeit a relatively liberal version of it, only empowered me to speak. My faith in God didn’t grow stronger during this period—I just thought about what God wanted exponentially more often. I felt that scripture could be no plainer when it read, as in Leviticus (in one translation), “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” (It never occurred to me to sample the rest of Leviticus, with its penitent goat sacrifices and postpartum lamb offerings.) It’s no coincidence that I made gay marriage my token issue, particularly as the Supreme Court debated and ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges. In the 2016 presidential campaign season, which gained momentum when I was an eighth grader, I supported Ted Cruz.
High school, co-ed and secular, brought new challenges. Defending conservatism labeled me no longer as a curiosity, but rather as a nuisance. I found a haven in the theater department, learning it would behoove me to stay silent on politics. Meanwhile, my middle-school countrymen became slackers and womanizers, Juul addicts and lost boys. I hardly recognized them, and as I realized my gayness, I failed to recognize myself. In a school where religion was taboo, scriptural exegesis took a necessary backseat to self-acceptance. By the time I came out to friends and family, I understood spiritual dormancy as the ongoing price I’d have to pay for gay “pride.”
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our church migrated online indefinitely. My faith entered yet deeper hibernation, alienated by the YouTube livestreams my family watched smushed together on our couch. Imagine four-part karaoke, except religious and out of tune and at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. My soft soap became hand sanitizer. I was back to square one.
Many theologians have argued that we, as humans, intuitively believe in God. J. B. Phillips points to our melancholy experience of beauty, how it “arouses a hunger and a longing which is never satisfied”—just think of the old cliché about looking up at the stars. We refuse to believe, even when told by scientists, that beauty and love are mere chemical responses in the brain. But authors like Phillips, Lewis, and Timothy Keller spend more time on what we call our moral compass: that sense of moral obligation, of compassion against the invisible hand of natural selection, that biologists have begun to discover among old-growth trees. Certain scientists, in order to square this collectivist behavior with Darwinism, propose that our most ancient forests must be treated as single organisms. But humans, we know, are too messy for that. Even our most ardent moral relativists will go to war for what they believe to be unequivocally just.
The theory goes that some of us are simply better at ignoring the God intuition than others. As I reflect on my life in soft-soap Protestantism, this idea resonates, and is easily understandable. Conscious belief comes with a lot of baggage; a religion like Christianity comes with even more. “As moderns,” Karl Barth laments, “we no longer dare to speak about God in principle, primarily, and with uplifted voice.” Our intellectual excuses for secularity have never been more convincing, not least in the Bay Area.
Here’s a massive disclaimer: I have lived only eighteen years and been Presbyterian for all of them. But my lazy short-sighted self is constantly looking for a way out. “We need not seek a more familiar proof of this point,” John Calvin writes, “than that some portion of unbelief is always mixed with faith in every Christian.” Barth goes so far as to say “that those who live in faith, encountering the faithfulness of God, find themselves convicted of their own unfaithfulness…. Unlike unbelievers they regard the impossibility of faith as necessary, not accidental.” In the wake of my ideological radicalization and alienation, I must constantly remind myself that intuition, marred as it is by doubt, is the only foundation of my belief. Faith cannot be conjured out of fear or free will.
Religious institutions are our hydrophones, not our ears. Sometimes, they are angled just right toward an incoming call, and sometimes all they pick up is oceanic static. We’ve used them for warfare and wildlife and everything in between. But if we aren’t listening to ourselves—convictions and doubts alike—we will miss our next momentous discovery. For years, my relationship with God equated to visiting the naval air station once a week, staring at the seismogram as if I were a doctor checking up on a patient’s heart rate, and going merrily on my way.
On the other hand, maybe we “moderns” aren’t any better than our forebears at ignoring the God intuition. Judging by our overstimulated culture, our appetites for beauty and love seem to have multiplied. Literature became my surrogate god in high school, satiating my spiritual appetite without demanding religious commitment, or indeed any commitment. I could put down a book if it failed to hold my attention without weathering existential guilt.
Yet my favorite books have been deeply spiritual, if blasphemous in their defiance of religion. At the head of this canon in America stands Walt Whitman, with his tirelessly debated poetics of “amativeness.” Leaves of Grass had me tossing in bed at night, with its simultaneous reverence (“I hear and behold God in every object”) and irreverence (“nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is”). Whitman revels in this paradox, confessing just before his famous “multitudes” line that “I contradict myself,” and elsewhere that “My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths.” Though the discourse has dwelled on Whitman’s white saviorism, it seems unwilling to entertain the obvious parallels between his speaker and the original Savior. Some of Whitman’s most provocative lines might have been ripped straight from the Gospels—most iconically, “I am the man….I suffered….I was there.” What poet better represents the doubtful ventriloquism of a man imitating the Messiah, the impossibility of treating Jesus as a sage if he is not the resurrected Person of God? Phillips joins many in pointing out that Jesus, if not divine, must be denounced as a “lunatic.” But in my religious strife, I easily bought the separation between the flawed Whitman and his immortal speaker, who literally does “act as the tongue of [us]” when we read him. What could be more exciting than a flamboyant, churchless, and pansexual Jesus Christ?
Other, more contemporary spiritual works might appear less conversant with God, like the Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle. Although the adult character of Knausgård calls himself an atheist, the books are essentially a search for the sublime—and the authentic self within it—rooted in an ambition to meticulously name the unnamed. The Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund (also secular-spiritual) venerates that core literary ethic: to fästa blicken, in his mother tongue—to fasten one’s gaze. I can hardly imagine a more spiritual endeavor, despite scant attention to religion in Knausgård’s 3,600-page tome. In the novel and in interviews, however, the real-life Knausgård seems unable to shake his childhood faith. When asked by The New Yorker in 2018 if he considered himself religious, he said he did not. But, he added, “being present in a moment, that’s the beginning of the kingdom of God. In that sense, I’m religious. You know, recently, someone else asked me if I believed in God. It was a very young person. And I said yes.” Writers like Knausgård are enviably adept at believing in the death of religion as a social force while maintaining profound private faith. Knausgård’s writing, like Whitman’s, was an ideal balm for me, validating my alienation from church while offering the spiritual fix I craved for the price of a paperback.
The American poet Christian Wiman chronicles this modern paradox of faith in the straightforwardly titled “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs.” Wiman troubles the notion that 21st-century humans are more godless than ever, suggesting that his friends have simply found new religions: one follows “exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine”; “This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees.” But the speaker’s patient gaze bypasses mockery. Rather than invalidating his friends’ new beliefs, he empathizes with their struggles to maintain a sturdy belief system in our contemporary age, breaking into existential angst and finally a moving litany: “and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends, / my beautiful, credible friends.”
Jia Tolentino could be one such friend. In her New Yorker essay “Ecstasy,” she recounts her pivot from an evangelical upbringing in Houston to psychedelic drugs as a more self-directed route to spiritual euphoria. Tolentino appreciates the curiosity Christianity instilled in her, born into original sin, about “what it means to be good.” But that same critical eye allowed her to identify the hypocrisy endemic to her church, to turn away from its cultish rituals, and to stop “believing in God.” Years later, though, on an acid-addled walk through the desert—where else?—she scribbles on a piece of paper: “The situations in my life when I have been sympathetic to desperation are the situations when I have felt sure I was encountering God.” The essay ends in fascinating ambiguity that, to me, insinuates a persistent belief Tolentino is equal parts aware of and, no thanks to her childhood, unwilling to face.
Piety is not always so overtly dissected. Jenny Offill’s Weather contains one of the most spiritually rapturous lines of prose I have ever read, despite the its general portrayal of a bleak diminution of faith. Where other authors contrive, amplify, or interpret 52-hertz song, Offill dwells comfortably inside its ambiguity. At the end of Part One, the narrator listens to a podcast episode on the interconnection of Earth’s species:
A man calls in from Dallas. What do you mean interconnected? he says. There is a pause and then the ecologist speaks: There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.
In cataclysmic 2020, such oblique hints at spirituality whetted my appetite rather than slaking it. Fortunately, by late fall, I’d found my way back to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I first read aloud with my mom in sixth or seventh grade. Though the narrator-pastor’s mesmerizing voice had impressed me deeply, I was amused to find that much of its wisdom had flown over my head. Upon rereading, the reverend’s reminiscence of the Spanish flu pandemic took on natural prescience (“People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all”); but the novel’s genius, for me, lies in its timelessness: not only its ongoing relevance, but the unusual way its narrative seems to exist—to take place, even to have been created—outside of time.
Robinson’s book is entirely unfashionable in contemporary terms, eschewing high drama and gimmicky plots in pursuit of a quotidian transcendence that feels alien to postmodern life (and, indeed, to other recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize). Gilead is a soft-spoken letter from an ailing Iowa pastor in 1956 to a future version of his young son, a letter whose psychological scope and cautionary wisdom recall Paul’s epistles, those books of the Bible that form the basis of so much Reformed theology. Indeed, Gilead is somehow as much a theology as it is a thrilling fictional narrative. I kept flipping back to the copyright page, stunned that Robinson wrote it in the early aughts. But then it struck me that Gilead could only have been written in the twenty-first century, by a writer whose technical mastery and philosophical expertise are matched by her fury at the moral bankruptcy of our age. The book belongs to neither the 1950s nor the 2000s, though it obviously belongs to both.
Gilead was quickly becoming (dare I say it?) my favorite novel. Suspicious of such unconditional admiration, I began to wrestle like Jacob. Was I hearing cetacean song, or conflating aesthetic awe with religious reverence? If we never live out of earshot of the 24-hour radio station that is God, it feels impossible to delineate the true God from the god I’ve constructed in my imagination (with the undeniable help of literature). The obvious flip side of not listening to oneself enough is to listen only to oneself, recklessly and futilely attempting to purge God of all mystery. In this attempt to better understand God’s nature, I walk a precarious tightrope. After all, my best-yet conceptualization of God is a silly whale metaphor.
Perhaps this is the heart of our modern religious crisis: we need a way to describe God that acknowledges our laughable failure—past, present, and future—to do just that. For haven’t we always, pandemic or no pandemic, craved the meaning, the poetry in the world, that is wildly divorced from our timeline, built to outlast?
The voice on the opposite shoulder is hard to escape: that our search for meaning is a wild goose chase. Wiman, in another poem, “The Parable of Perfect Silence,” finds the verb believe “tedious” in reference to his relationship with God. “Not wrong, not offensive, not intrusive, not embarrassing. / Tedious.” In the wake of his father’s death, he has found himself believing “in nothing”—“A grief at once intimate and unfelt, / like the death of a good friend’s dog”—despite his ongoing resistance to solipsism. Echoing the fine-tuning problem of theoretical physics, often cited by those seeking scientific clues of God, he marvels at
of particles with their waves and entanglements,
their chance and havoc, resolving
into some one thing:
And then he cites a raptor on a rooftop: “No power on earth can make it stay. / But is it lost or released into formlessness / when we look away?”
If we do not intuitively believe in God, we at least have an unshakable instinct toward meaning-making. I imagine few people know this more intimately than a poet named Christian. Writing, like reading, is a stubborn act of faith.
Robinson is most exacting on the spirituality of this uniquely human enterprise. “For me, writing has always felt like praying,” Robinson’s Pastor Ames reflects. “You feel that you are with someone…. And there’s an intimacy in it.” This essay is a testament to such yearning. I take my spiritual strife to the page because writing allows my subconscious to stream forth legibly, and then stay as something tangible—something captured and crystallized—that may eventually be shared. To be a writer is to rejoice in the autodidactic potential of one’s own language.
But the subconscious as a wellspring of creativity is hardly unique to writing. Making art, in most cases, requires a childlike sense of play, of reclaiming a wonder about the world unencumbered by socialization. I once participated in an acting workshop borrowing from the renowned Scottish voice coach Kristin Linklater, whose philosophy is based on releasing all bodily tension in service of the voice. As we pupils lay on the floor, curled in fetal position, our instructor offered the example of crying babies, whose bodies are so tensionless that they can wail for hours without straining their vocal cords. I can easily visualize my “spiritual tension,” too, as a lifelong accretion of physiological stress.
What if we brought the same serious play to religion that we are taught to bring to artmaking? Barth, a contemporary and favorite of Pastor Ames, entreats us to “play properly,” even in our work, for “when children play properly, of course, they do so with supreme seriousness and devotion.” To treat our human work as anything grander might even constitute hubris, because “when measured by the work of God which it may attest, it cannot be anything but play, that is, a childlike imitation and reflection of the fatherly action of God.”
As children we are deeply impressionable—not only to our parents’ religious beliefs, but also to real sublime phenomena that we, lacking language, are not yet obliged to explain. Wiman again, in “Parable”:
The love of God is not a thing one comprehends
but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended.
It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being,
and like that time, we learn it by its lack.
So, too, must we learn our faith by its lack. No wonder having children is such a spiritual experience; to raise one is to catch a glimpse of your “pre-reflective” past. Surely this is in part what Jesus means in the Gospel of Matthew: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
For me, Gilead revisited was a return to pre-selfhood. Shortly after that early read with my mom, my chaplain awarded me a hardcover copy as part of the “Chaplain’s Award” at middle-school graduation. That the chaplain entrusted a confused boy with a literary masterpiece of Robinson’s caliber now seemed as miraculous as—and even symmetrical to—the book’s epistolary premise. As Pastor Ames observes, “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
Yet inextricable from my joy in the book’s rediscovery was an abiding grief. Grades six through eight had been among my most repressed years of life, but also the most spiritually fertile. I missed simpler pleasures, too: playing soccer on the roof during P.E. class, whooping savagely as classmates “five-starred” each other’s bare backs by the lockers, sneaking a forkful of mac and cheese in the split-seconds before grace. By high school I formed deeper friendships, but they were all with women. How I’d yearned, since growing into my gay self, for those increasingly elusive platonic male friends!
Rereading Robinson I came across a line that shook me to my core: “There are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.” The previous summer, bowled over by a single memory from a Friday Hymn-Sing at school—the precise weight of The Hymnal 1982 in my clammy palms, joined voices mingling and cracking and lip-syncing along to old poetry—I’d written a short story about it. (Writing as praying, remember?) Yet while I was more or less aesthetically pleased with the piece, I was spiritually unsatisfied.
“I truly believe it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions,” Ames goes on to say—and I felt that Robinson, through the reverend, was personally admonishing me. From my bookshelf I fished the used copy of Keller’s The Reason for God I’d purchased at age twelve (to judgmentally arched eyebrows from the cashier). This was not to be a relapse but a reeducation, a return to childlike wonder. In the depths of my pandemic gap year, I embarked on a personal Second Great Awakening. I gave myself over to that mysterious—yet recognizable—gravitational pull.
Curious about the theology undergirding Gilead, I tumbled through a Wikipedia wormhole in which I discovered that Robinson’s was the same Calvinist theology that supposedly formed the basis of my native Presbyterian Church. Questions of forgiveness are at the heart of Robinson’s novel, and at the heart of Christian forgiveness are questions of that altogether more troubling doctrine, that frightening word even Pastor Ames—like Robinson herself, in interviews—hesitates to name: predestination.
Could my church really have anything to do with witch-hanging Puritans, Handmaid’s Tale bonnets, and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?
Fast-forward a couple weeks and a library hold later, and I was driving out to the Ortega Branch of the San Francisco Public Library to pick up its sole copy of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I., a blue clothbound book (once belonging to “Robert H. Johnson”) that ran to 838 yellowed pages and exhibited the kind of wear that multiplies a book’s import. And this was only the first of two volumes. Overwhelmed by a sense of temporal dissonance, I thanked the guy manning the SFPL TO GO table and walked—no, trotted—up the hill with a November sunset at my back. I felt unhinged, giddy as a froth-mouthed Puritan accusing his neighbor of witchcraft, as I ducked into my car and laid Calvin on the passenger seat.
Predestination, put simply, holds that God consigns us to heaven or hell prior to birth, and that none of our earthly actions can alter that fate. Lest I tread into its thick logistical weeds, however, I’ll relegate the father of mainline Protestant theology to the (related) area in which I find him most exhilarating: our fundamental failure to be good. This is Calvin’s doctrinal keystone, later dubbed “total depravity,” by which man, “being utterly lost in himself, and incapable of conceiving even a good thought by which he may restore himself, or perform actions acceptable to God … must seek redemption out of himself, in Christ.” Reading Calvin, I began to consider the possibility that feeling ashamed of oneself, to a healthy extent, might actually be liberating. So many of my earliest anxieties about being gay stemmed from my fear that I didn’t belong in “the gay community,” or least its most visible faction—the hyper-performative, hyper-countercultural, sacrilegious-for-the-sake-of-sacrilege element. Until I met Calvin and a few of his modern interpreters, particularly Keller and Lewis, I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then I recognized that the problem, for me, was hiding in a single word: the imprecise LGBT co-option of “pride.”
Queer people learn the power of language earlier than most; its availability is our greatest affirmation, its suppression the ultimate weapon wielded against us. My conversations with gay friends constantly circle back to media representation. We continue to share a love-hate relationship with identifiers like “bisexual” or “transgender,” for they can be just as restrictive as they are validating. Many of us share Wiman’s longing for pre-linguistic freedom, extrapolated to the contexts of gender and sexuality. Strangely, we don’t often extend this critique to the great gay euphemism.
At least in the United States, “pride” has become invariably connotative of its LGBT variant. Each June, an increasing number of corporate ad campaigns capitalize on the word, no longer obligated to take a “political” stance by actually articulating support. Not even an accompanying rainbow gradient is necessary. Meanwhile, the older meaning of pride—the sinful kind, the vice Lewis says “leads to every other vice”—has been lost, almost antiquated, yet without an equivalent. Many gay writers have spoken about the intolerance of shame in the gay community. Accepting my identity, especially in San Francisco, meant pigeonholing myself into pride. The writer Garth Greenwell has called queer people “geniuses of transformation”; and while transformation may begin as a survival skill, it quickly bleeds into our whole sensibilities, including those of non-LGBT people. Repressed desires must be freed. Shame demands not careful examination, but immediate transfiguration into “pride.”
Yet Calvin offers us an alternative path, what Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, quoting a man he met at an AA meeting, charmingly calls “achieving low self-esteem.” Calvin posits that “implicit faith,” characterized by the “obedience” of one who is “docile and ready to learn,” is “nothing but a preparation for faith”—a second, more enlightened stage that comes only, Lewis says, once we have “discovered the fact of our bankruptcy” and turned to God in desperation. In the meantime, Calvin calls us to accept that being ashamed of one’s shame does not amount to pride; it is only more shame. A private acknowledgement of inadequacy is not only a precursor to forgiveness of oneself and others, but also the most crucial prerequisite for faith.
How do we make the leap from implicit faith to true faith? How do we understand our depravity not intellectually but intuitively, with every part of our being? “Pretend,” Lewis answers. In fact, God commands us to pretend; Lewis reminds us that saying “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer is itself an act of pretense, of “dressing up as Christ.” Now here is a place where my gay powers of transformation may be put to good use.
A dialectic emerges, amid all this literature, between pretense and self-criticism as our only tools for attaining the “desperation” that forecasts complete faith. Perhaps Knausgård provides the starkest example, with his endless cycle of self-inflation and self-loathing. Whitman’s multitudes are not dissimilar. Robinson’s reverend writes an epistle worthy of the Pulitzer, but its central focus may be the failure of communication—between him and his son, between him and a prodigal son character, between all of us and God. In fact, isn’t our incompetency to create and use language the basic animating tension of all literature? At the same time as we’re listening for 52-Hertz, we are 52-Hertz, or at least made in his image.
Wiman’s speaker, in “Parable,” offers us a glimpse of that desperation arising from the unspoken: he realizes that he loves his father properly only now that the man is dead. He hopes that his newfound love will lead to newfound faith, but we can’t be certain it will. Our only hope lies in the insight that “love is possible for anyone / because it is equally impossible for everyone.” Then the speaker asks outright: “Are you with me, love?” After a stanza break, he gorgeously, devastatingly adds: “(For love read faith.)”
Wiman, in this single parenthetical line, is in dialogue with a robust theological tradition. Christian hermeneutics have long centered on Christ’s duplex commandment in Matthew: first to love God, and then to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The Korean theologian B. Hoon Woo traces to Augustine the notion that love—followed by knowledge of total depravity and scriptural signs (God’s 52-hertz song, if you will)—is the great prerequisite for textual engagement and, by extension, belief. In “Parable,” Wiman synthesizes the dialectic of pretense and depravity we must bear in pursuit of faith. His central line feels like a tongue-in-cheek confession to the reader, a fourth-wall break that reveals our reading itself as a suspension of disbelief. If Wiman wanted to, he could have uttered “faith” instead of “love,” but his speaker cannot. Faith remains confined to a hushed parenthetical, Barth’s ashamed whisper. In turn, Wiman, like Robinson, asks us to approach his text in an Augustinian posture divorced from “criticism,” a posture cognizant of its own frailty. He is advocating, in other words, a hermeneutic of love.
Here, if no sooner in this theological dunk tank of an essay, is where the whale metaphor fails us. The 52-Hertz Whale is just a whale (to our limited knowledge), and though scientists have detected its song since the 1980s, he will die eventually. The whale doesn’t love us back. But within the Christlike hermeneutic of love there is a forgiveness that seems to come from without. Here is the special utility of using God’s mechanism of grace as a lens for examining personal faith: By osmosis, I’ve applied the hermeneutics of love to my life outside reading. Understanding God’s unconditional grace has led me to treat my faith itself with generous grace. “Grace is the great gift,” Robinson writes, for “to be forgiven is only half the gift.” By forgiving ourselves and others, “we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves.” Ultimately, it is through sheer grace—unencumbered by our previous failures—that we read faith into love.
Grace’s “grand laughter” rejoices in the juvenile articulation of God as marine mammal, for at the root of the metaphor is a productive question. In the sixth and final volume of My Struggle, Knausgård asks it outright: “How do we name what is beyond humanity without drawing it into the human domain, given that language in itself is human? How do we refer to God?” This mystical concern is nothing new. Yet Barth offers a radical antithesis; what he argues is “the real thesis,” which propels us back into youthful pre-selfhood: “We can speak about ourselves only as we speak about God.”
Barth has a point; I haven’t been able to separate the personal from the theological. But Knausgård is right in suggesting that our best articulations of God might be lurking in the margins, the section breaks, the blank space your eyes pass over once I hush already. Listen to a clip of 52-Hertz and that won’t seem so esoteric. His song sounds like white noise to us humans, or at best a charged silence. We might mistake it for our own held breath.