In today’s Wall Street Journal, I review Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on God, translated for the first time in English. Rilke was a gifted poet who rejected the Catholicism of his youth partly because of the empty formalism of his mother. (It seems she would take the young Rilke on pilgrimages, to shrines, and other places to improve the family’s standing in the eyes of others.) “I shudder,” Rilke once wrote, “at her absent-minded piety, her obstinate faith, at all those caricatures and distortions she has clung to, herself as empty as a dress, like a phantom, terrible.”
Instead of rejecting God entirely, however, Rilke did what we too often tend to do–he remade Christ in his own image. Christ was divine, but so are we all, according to Rilke. His death did not propitiate our sins; rather, it was simply the result of a life fully lived:
I cannot believe that the cross was meant to remain; rather, it was to mark the crossroads. It certainly was not meant to be something to brand us everywhere. It should have dissolved in him. Is it not something like this: he wanted to simply create a taller tree on which we could more easily mature?
When I say the word “God,” I do so with great conviction and not by rote. It seems to me that people use this word without thought, even if doing so from deep pensiveness. It may be well and good if this Christ should have helped us say the word in a firmer, fuller, more convinced tone of voice; but let us put a stop to involving him all the time.
Christ was an original mind who followed his intuition (or his own “divinity” or “spirit”), not the directives of others. Thus, like Emerson, Rilke transforms Christ into a mere example. He is someone who rejected the small-minded morality of others in favor of what Rilke would call life or beauty. This, of course, allowed Rilke to do the same (especially regarding sexual morals) and, ironically enough, feel all the more spiritual for doing so.
In the end, Rilke’s artistic mysticism is just as self-centered as his mother’s formalism. He empties Christ’s death of its specific significance and uses the words and figures of Christianity, like his mother used its forms, to live more fully not for God but for himself.