Four-fifths of the way through her new book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard confesses, "I don’t know beans about God." Up until then she nestles her theology behind sharply pointed questions or submerges it in the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, or the cabalist Hassids. At this point, however, she’s downright disingenuous. If Dillard truly has no clue, why write a book that asks and then attempts to answer the question: In the face of human-made horror and natural calamity, how can we believe a personal God loves six billion of us? It’s a gracious statement, but in all likelihood Dillard knows beans about God. She’s just cagey, or honest, enough to know that beans are only seeds.
For the Time Being is an extended prose poem on the apparent contradiction between what our hearts yearn for and what our blunt senses tell us about our world. Dillard begins roughly by shoving our faces in it. She weaves delicately artful descriptions of children so deformed some might call their very humanity into question. If God is omnipotent, and if there is such a thing as innocence, what accounts for these sports of nature?
She goes on to detail horrendous examples of human cruelty, such as the live flensing Rabbi Akiva suffered at the hands of the Romans in 135 C.E., or the first Chinese emperor Qin’s habit of burying Confucian scholars up to their necks so that his executioners could use their heads to practice their chip shots. Nasty business that’s particularly nasty in light of the holiness, gentility, and innocence of the victims. Among the horrors are graces, however. Dillard tells us of the sturdy faith and poetic intelligence of Jesuit paleontologist and writer Teilhard de Chardin, the mystical delight of the Baal Shem Tov, and obstetrics nurse Pat Eisberg, who stands at the lip of what Dillard calls "the wildest deep sea vent on earth...where the people come out," and washes and wraps newborns as if they were dishes lined up on a kitchen counter. These are edgy graces, though. Teilhard suffered heart-rending isolation at the hands of Rome for beliefs that would later be endorsed by the church. And even in Pat Eisberg’s tender world things can go unspeakably wrong.
DILLARD FORMS HER meditation around the recurring headings "Birth," "Sand," "China," "Clouds," "Numbers," "Israel," "Encounters," "Thinker," "Evil," and "Now." The divisions are evocative rather than taxonomic. They are also porous. Ideas, images, and persons bleed from one category to another and build a strange narrative momentum that eventually unify these seemingly disparate lines of reflection. The questions become less abstract and more urgent as she builds a sense of the accumulated weight of human life—past and present—on our planet. In her telling, the layers of our dead thicken like the fathoms-deep dust of the Mongolian plains where Teilhard walked.
Dillard’s questions and ancient, unearthed prayers condense into an image of a God with one hand tied behind his back, who "wipes and stirs our souls from time to time" with the other. God, suggests Dillard, is complete only in God’s creation and through God’s creatures. This is a God who determines no catastrophic storm, no broken chromosome. "The very least likely things for which God might be responsible," writes Dillard in my favorite line of the book, "are what insurers call ‘acts of God.’" Such is the creation that God has set in motion. Through our hands, lips, and outraged tears, however, God responds.
Some readers will find For the Time Being brutalizing. This is nothing less than Dillard’s stated intention. They will be driven away not only by images of human devaluation but by the arch, even comic, tone Dillard uses to draw them. But to call For the Time Being callous is to miss the point. Dillard uses the blackest turns of phrase to smash through our stubborn tendency to sentimentalize death and domesticate God. Point-blank she asks, "Do we believe the individual is precious or do we not?" No assumptions here. It is only through a visceral restatement of our record as a species that we can take this question as seriously as Dillard poses it. If we dare to answer yes, it must be an unqualified yes, for, as Dillard ultimately reminds us, the redemption of the world is then up to us, and, while the work is not ours to finish, neither are we free to take no part in it.
RAY KELLEHER is a freelance writer and a divinity student at the Institute for Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago
For the Time Being. Annie Dillard. Knopf, 1999.