Progressive Revival

Emily Dickinson, the poet of exquisite doubt, was born today
in 1830.

Progressive faith makes room for doubt.  In many ways, Dickinson should be
considered the patron saint of ambiguous Christianity.  She grew up in revivalist New England,
where she several times flirted with her peers’ evangelical religion and
attempted to have a conversion experience.  Evangelical Christianity, however, never took.  Ultimately, she refused to confess the
faith, ceased attending church, and transformed the language of doubt into her
primary language for God.  She
explained her religious experience as “a loss of something ever felt I–/The
first that I could recollect/bereft I was–of what I knew not.”

One of her biographers writes of this as Dickinson’s “disenchantment,”
something that few of her contemporaries experienced but that would become a
widespread phenomenon in the twentieth century.   Another describes Dickinson as “the Cheshire Cat” of
doubt who welcomed ambiguity “playfully” and embraced an unsettled version of
Christianity that “doubts as fervently as it believes.”  Certainly, Emily Dickinson wrote for a
sort of spirituality in which doubt and faith existed in a paradoxical

Nowhere was the paradox more grace-filled than her depiction
of Jesus as “the Tender Pioneer,” a compelling figure worthy of both imitation
and love:

Life–is what we make it–
Death–We do not know–
Christ’s acquaintance with Him
Justify Him–though–

He–would trust no stranger–
Other–could betray–
Just His own endorsement–
That–sufficeth Me–

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first–
No New Mile remaineth–
Far as Paradise–

His sure foot preceding–
Tender Pioneer–
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture–now–


Of faith, Dickinson wrote, “On subjects of which we know
nothing, or should I say Beings, we
both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing
nimble.”  Thank you, Emily, on this
your birthday, for making belief an art.  Here, at Beliefnet, we paradoxically honor your doubt.  

This blog is adapted from Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, 2009), 243-246.

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