Some books wait for you to be ready for them, then they call.
Elizabeth and I were married in the summer of 1991. When she moved into my apartment in Durham she brought a paperback of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with her. The volume commenced to mark time on our shelves, waiting patiently through twenty-five holiday seasons, seven moves, five job changes, three childhoods, two reluctant arrivals at middle age, the ripening of a marriage, the loss of a beloved one, and all the discussions, arguments, misunderstandings, joyful celebrations, TV shows, jokes, board games, and silences these events imply.
Then, late one night in December, I wandered into the living room, walked over to the bookshelf, and picked it up. Like the One Ring, its time had come. And like the One Ring, it has taken possession of its bearer. I read it in a few days, turned from page 279 back to page 1, and read it again, slowly this time, taking care to stop when fatigued, building pictures in my mind, looking up words, researching creatures.
I’ve always loved nature, but for most of my years that love has been directed toward its remote and alien features: atomic nuclei, distant galaxies, abstractions—the more abstract the better. That ended in May when Dad died. My field of view contracted overnight. Suddenly I had a distaste for abstractions and generalities, and an appetite for all things concrete and specific. I became interested in what was happening in my backyard, and by this I mean my actual backyard, out behind my house: this bird, that tree. The other stuff could go hang.
My field of view has undergone an expansion since then, a kind of rebound, but, given the scale of the universe, not much of one. Several months after Dad died and long before picking up Pilgrim, I began visiting Ira B. Melton Park as often as possible. This is a wood very near my house. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek runs through it, and several smaller creeks contribute to the landscape, as does the CSX Railroad and the Old Decatur Water Works. I’ve not yet finished my initial exploration of all Ira B.’s trails, which show themselves clearly in winter, but I think I’m close (I’m not in a hurry).
My affection for the creek was growing when I picked up Dillard’s book; this is surely what led me to choose it after so many years. But I was not prepared for what it has given me.
And what is that? It’s not Dillard’s prose, which hurts my feelings because it’s so good, so unreachable, transcendent. Nor is it her descriptions of rotifers and moth larvae and muskrats and green herons, which evince a great and infectious love. Nor is it her conclusion, that beauty is real and a sign of holiness, which is true. These are all gifts, but none come close to what Pilgrim, above all books, has granted me: permission.
A thing has been growing in me, a sense that our theological language is dead. It might (or might not) be sufficient in churches and official theological circles, but nearly all Christian God-talk resists translation to those who live and move outside these worlds. This is to some degree unavoidable and even proper: every community has its own words and these words are surely important, linked as they are to the community’s life and practices. But sometimes a language dies, even as it remains in use.
As it has for me. Large parts of the Christian lexicon no longer have any meaning for me, if they ever did. So much of it seems abstract, unconnected, loveless. But I believe in God as much as I ever have, probably even more. Also, I’m convinced (and this is a whole other post, or book) that the God I believe in is the very one to which Christianity points. So you might see my problem.
What I’ve needed, without being conscious of it until I read Pilgrim, is permission to love the woods and the creek and the sky without apology, and therefore to use the language of these things when I talk about God. The language has always been there, ready to be picked up. I have known some of it for years and am learning more every day. Pilgrim has allowed me to start using this language theologically and without hesitation.
Dillard bristles at the label nature writer. “Pilgrim is a book of theology,” she told her editor in 1974, and this is the exact point. God is mentioned in the book, yes, but not often. On its surface it’s more about snakes, seasons, mantises, and horsehair worms than anything else, but the infinite swells and crashes one thin layer beneath these finitudes.
Whether God created the heavens and the earth is not Dillard’s question, nor is it mine. It is, instead, the one given, the statement of faith, the creed that drove her to write Pilgrim in the first place and drives me to Peachtree Creek as often as I can make the walk.
The question Dillard asks, and I’m asking too, is: What kind of God would make a world like ours?