I started Holy the Firm after I finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, yesterday and finished it today. It’s a short little book but dense. I liked it better than Pilgrim although I am glad I read Pilgrim first. Holy the Firm seemed much more down to earth to me even though Pilgrim was all about earthy things.
I actually have more thoughts on this book than I did Pilgrim, too. I don’t really think these are spoilers, but be warned…
Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
For some reason, I was under the impression she was a Roman Catholic. But this seemed very Calvanistic to me. So I looked it up and sure enough, she was raised Presbyterian. She didn’t convert to Catholicism until the 1990s. Pilgrim and Holy the Firm were written in the 1970s, long before her conversion. This is the typical Calvanistic struggle of believing that nature is evil. No matter how intune we are with nature, if we were brought up with that depravity of man thinking, we’re going to have a hard time reconciling the problem of evil. (It’s difficult to reconcile in Catholicism, too – but it presents a different version of the problem within Catholicism.) Dillard doesn’t resolve it in this book although she comes up with a lot of interesting ideas.
I do thinks she is right that the lower churches have a sort of wisdom the higher churches don’t. This is a huge generalization but I’ll throw it out there anyway because I think it fits with what Dillard is saying: people in lower churches go to church to express their experience of death and pain while people in the higher churches go to try and make themselves immune to it. Wisdom doesn’t come through the avoidance of pain. It comes with the acceptance of suffering.
There is a great documentary called "Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus" made by some British guys who went deep into the American south and filmed what it was like to live there. It’s absolutely fantastic. The thing about the extremist religious element in the south is that it is nothing like corporate fundamentalism. Corporate fundamentalism is as intentional as is any major marketing endeavor. But the religious fanaticism of the deep south is far more like an artistic expression than it is business like or controlling.
Scholarship has long distinguished between two strains of thought which proceed in the West from human knowledge of God. In one, the ascetic’s metaphysic, the world is far from God. Emanating from God, and linked to him by Christ, the world is yet infinitely other than God, furled away from him like the end of a long banner falling. This notion makes, to my mind, a vertical line of the world, a great chain of burning. The more accessible and universal view, held by Eckhart and by many peoples in various forms, is scarcely different from pantheism: that the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here, if nowhere else. By these lights the world is flattened on a horizontal plane, singular, all here, crammed with heaven, and alone. But I know that it is not alone, nor singular nor all. The notion of immanence needs a handle, and the two ideas themselves need a link, so that life can mean aught to the one, and the other.
This, to me, is the typical Christian struggle (Catholic or Protestant). If you revere nature and think God is within it, how do you balance that with a monotheistic world view that says God is separate from his creation? If you value nature and are Christian, at some point, you have to entertain this struggle. There is no way around it. Pantheism throws the absolute out the window altogether. Monotheism makes nature evil. Of course we can talk about Panentheism now, but clearly Dillard is one of the thinkers who was bringing that sort of understanding into focus.
The question for Dillard, as it is for all pantheists and panentheists, is whether God touches anything. She asks, “Is anything firm or is time on the loose?” It’s possible I don’t fully understand her question, but if I do, I think it is the wrong question. I used to ask something similar: If God is in everything and we are God, what happens if the universe comes to an end? Does God come to an end, too? I had been brought up with the idea of an external God in the Calvanistic tradition. Methodists were not Calvinists, but nevertheless I was brought up to believe God was good, we were bad, and he could kill us all off if he wanted and would go on just fine and dandy, probably better without us. We were to love God, not God’s creation. But if you change that and say that God is God’s creation, then what becomes of God if the creation dies? I think that is very similar to what Dillard is asking – is anything firm or is time on the loose?
Dillard wants nature to be “real” even though she recognizes everything as “transluscent”. She still wants the Absolute even though she can’t quite make sense of it. She writes,
These are only ideas, by the single handful. Lines, lines, and their infinite points! Hold hands and crack the whip, and yank the Absolute out of there and into the light, God pale and astounded, spraying a spiral of salts and earths, God footloose and flung. And cry down the line to his passing white ear, “Old Sir! Do you hold space from buckling by a finger in its hole? O Old! Where is your other hand?” His right hand is clenching, calm, round the exploding left hand of Holy the Firm.
This Holy Firm is an idea that she says comes out of Esoteric Christianity (mystical Christian traditions).
It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale,’ and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute, at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.
I think this gives her is a way through the middle of monotheism and pantheism. It allows her to hold on to an idea of an Absolute although she clearly has an almost pagan view of the world. It’s probably some of the first panentheistic musings in western Christian thought after the advent of rationalism and Protestantism. What interests me is that Dillard claims Eckhart and other Catholic mystics of the middle ages were pantheists. I wonder if the mystics were more comfortable with the illusory nature of reality and didn’t need nature to be “real” in the same way those of us who have been brought up in rationalistic societies do?
I also wonder if Native American Spirituality has within it this same sort of struggle with nature as evil? I don’t know enough about it to know for sure, but it seems to me they wouldn’t because they have so many gods and a lot of them are trouble makers. I think this struggle probably comes specifically out of western idealism which adopted Greek philosophical abstract idealism. Our ancestors were raised with an abstract God that was “good”. The Enlightenment got rid of “God” in favor of rationalism but maintained the abstraction.
Anyway – I loved this book! It’s so beautifully written and extremely personal. Her interest in Roman Catholicism is apparent in both Pilgrim and Holy the Firm. But both books feel very Protestant to me. Catholicism just doesn’t have that same struggle of nature being evil that Protestantism has. It’s far more pagan, in a sense, and much more open to mysticism. Ecumenical efforts have been merging a lot of Catholic and Protestant idealism together since the 1960s so the differences aren’t as extreme as they once were – especially now. And this has been both good and bad. But I can understand why Roman Catholicism would have appealed to Dillard more than the Calvanistic religion she was brought up in.
I’m definitely going to have to read one of her more recent books and see if she managed to come to a more satisfying resolution.