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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Biography and the Word of God2/24/2008 13:56:36
I have been struggling somewhat lately with whether to write in autobiographical form; to write, outright, about myself. There is a certain story to tell in the last six years of my life or so, and I've outlined a book that could be written there. But a feeling gets in the way that this is not the thing to do after all, at least not now, not yet, not until I have really learned how to write about someone else.
For the moment, that someone else is an old friend of mine (at least in books), the late William Stringfellow. Living now in New York, a central place in his life, and meeting some of his old friends, I am rediscovering the man anew (see previous writings here, here, and here). Through him, of course, I have no choice but to investigate my own concerns. But speaking of the other at least puts one's own concerns in the background. It forces humility and attention.
When I was an aspiring poet (and, at the time, an aspiring saint of sorts), my father reminded me of the tradition of pastorals. Before the great old poets wrote about heroism and about the life of the state and the myths and the gods, they would write about the countryside, about things ostensibly simple. They would master sympathy, attention, and technique. Only then could their craft do justice to the grander topics.
In today's world, where the individual is king above all, I suspect, one's own personhood is the subject that requires the greatest care and trepidation. It must be worked up to.
Stringfellow, a lawyer-become-theologian, wrote three autobiographical books among many others. They were spaced out. He wrote them to mark the pivotal events of his life—living in Harlem, a debilitating illness, and the death of his partner, Anthony Towne. His other books were most spectacularly not about individuals. They were about society, about God, about transcendence. Seeing God, he believed, meant seeing beyond oneself to the sociality of existence, to politics and justice.
Still, when he wrote autobiography, he did it with equal ferocity. In A Simplicity of Faith, the book about the death of his partner Anthony Towne, Stringfellow writes,
We are each one of us parables. … Biography, thus, is rudimentary data for theology, and every biography is significant for the knowledge it yields of the Word of God incarnate in common life, whether or not the subject of the biography is aware of that significance of his or her own story. (p. 20-21)
What we find in biography, its theological content, he continues, is vocation:
To have a vocation or to be called in Christ means to discern the coincidence of the Word of God with one's own selfhood, in one's own being, in its most specific, thorough, unique, and conscientious sense. (p. 20)
It is a strong ontological claim being made here. To Stringfellow, everyone has a biography, a story (or stories?). Discovering one's divine existence means discovering this story, which describes a vocation. Find it or not, it is there.
Of course, this doesn't mean everybody has to write a book about themselves. Biography and a biographical book are different things. In his terms, it is the biography of the Word of God that we are responsible to; God's book, not our own.
When Stringfellow wrote about his own life, he never attempted completeness. He rambled, and actually spent as much time or more on tangents about other things as about himself. Despite these high words about biography, his own self-described autobiographies seem hardly biographical.
One of the gross temptations of writing, and this is true perhaps most of all in autobiography, is to confuse one's own word with the Word of God.