Dear Harper"Dear Harper" in Forbes ASAP (October 2, 2000).
It’ll be some years before you read this, if ever. But given the uncertainties of all our futures, I’ll set it down here at the time of your baptism and will hope that — should you ever need it — it will be legible still. Since you’re under the age of 2, chances are slim that you’ll feel the need for well more than a decade. By then the 21st century will be thoroughly under way. Since it’s likely to move as unforeseeably as the 20th, I’ll make no effort to predict how the world will feel then about religious faith.
And I certainly won’t guess at what your own relation to faith may be, though your parents and godparents have vowed to guide you toward it. Those adults have old ties to churches, though those ties vary. Above all, none of us who know you in the bright wonder of your laughing, open-armed childhood can begin to imagine who you’ll be and where you’ll want — or need — to go in your youth or your maturity. So here, by way of a gift, are some thoughts that may interest you in time.
As I write, in the spring of 2000, a large majority of the world’s people say that they’re religious. This year, for instance, 84% of the residents of the United States identified themselves as Christian, associates in the world’s largest religion. What did they mean by their claim? The Oxford English Dictionary says that religion is:
Belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.
Most Americans today would agree, and I’d suggest only one change. Instead of “divine ruling power,” I’d substitute “supreme creative power.” And I’d wonder if it mightn’t be desirable to strip the definition to its bones — “religion is the belief in a supreme creative power.” But perhaps those bones define the word faith more adequately than the word religion.
I hope you’ll be interested to know that I — near the start of a new millennium and at the age of 67 — am still able to believe, with no serious effort, that the entire universe was willed into being by an unsurpassed power whom most human beings call God. I believe that God remains conscious of his creation and interested in it. I believe that his interest may be described, intermittently at least, as love (and I say “his” with no strong suspicion that he shares qualities with the earthly male gender).
Whether he’s attentive to every moment of every human’s life, as some religions claim, I’m by no means sure. But I do believe that he has standards of action that he means us to observe. I believe that he has communicated those standards — and most of whatever else we know about his transcendent nature — through a few human messengers and through the mute spectacles of nature in all its manifestations, around and inside us (the human kidney is as impressive a masterwork as the Grand Canyon).
God created those spectacles many billion years ago and began to send those messengers, to this planet at least, as long ago as 4,000 years, maybe earlier. Those messengers are parents and teachers, prophets and poets (sacred and secular), painters and musicians, healers and lovers; the generous saints of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and a few other faiths — all the deep feeders of our minds and bodies. One of the matchless gifts of our present life lies in the fact that those messengers continue to come, though the task of distinguishing valid messages from the false or merely confused is hard and often dangerous. At least one of those messengers, I believe, was in some mysterious sense an embodiment of God; and it’s to him — Jesus of Nazareth — that you were recently dedicated.
Finally, I believe that some essential part of our nature is immortal. The core of each of us is immune to death and will survive forever. Whether we’ll experience that eternity as good or bad may depend upon the total record of our obedience to God’s standards of action. Most of the long-enduring faiths say that we accumulate the weight of our wrongs — our sins, our karma — and will ultimately be confronted with that weight.
My own educational credentials include 19 years of formal schooling. I’ve likewise read extensively in the literatures of many cultures that are not my own. How then can I explain my defection, in the matter of faith, from the doubts or flat rejection of so many in my social class? And am I suggesting that the reasons for my defection should have any weight with you, if you should face a crossroads of belief and rejection, at whatever point in your life?
In fact, I haven’t defected. Put plainly, I have never held all the central dogmas of my caste. I received the rudiments of my faith long before I began to read or attend school. And while that faith has undergone assaults — from myself and others — it’s never buckled. To be honest, I’ve sometimes been suspicious of that apparent strength. Shouldn’t anyone who’s lived as long as I, on two continents, and who’s sustained more than one maiming catastrophe, have felt occasional very dark nights? Well, of course I have; but they’ve been dark nights of the sort described by the Spanish monk and poet St. John of the Cross — certain souls may feel God’s absence as a form of near desperation, but that pain (which may last a very long while) never tumbles finally into disbelief.
Note that I said just above that I received the rudiments of faith. They came from the usual sources — my parents and other kin, the natural world around me (which tended to be rural or wooded suburban) and from God and his various messengers. To say that much, here and now, runs the severe risk of pomposity, an absurd degree of self-love, and a ludicrous elitism. Yet I know of no more accurate way to describe a situation that’s far from uncommon.
My preparation for faith likely began with the gift of two Bible storybooks — one from my Grandmother Price when I was 2 or 3, the second a year or so later from my parents. They proved to be long-range endowments for the only child I then was (my brother was born just as I turned 8). Each of the books contained strikingly realistic illustrations; and with a small amount of guidance from my parents, I launched myself on an early fascination with the prime characters and stories from Hebrew and Christian sacred texts — Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah; Ruth and Naomi; David, Jonathan, and Saul; Samson and Delilah; Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; Jesus and the girl he raises from the dead; Jesus himself rising from the dead.
At about the same time I began occasionally to go to Sunday school with my father; and there I glimpsed the fact that those stories meant something important to other men, women, and children. I must likewise have begun to sense how vital this thing — whatever it was — was to my father. It would be years before I understood that he was, at just that time, withdrawing from years of alcoholism. And in the absence of Alcoholics Anonymous in our part of the world, help for him could only have come from my mother, his minister, and his own tenacious will to quit (he’d reached the age of 33 before beginning his battle).
When I was 6 years old, we lived on the edge of a small town. Within roaming distance for me were thickets of pine with plentiful birds, rabbits, foxes, possums, and raccoons; and there was a small stream filled with crawfish, toads, turtles, minnows, and snakes. I spent countless solitary and silent hours exploring that teeming world. And there I began to store up an invaluable sense of the endless inventiveness of life and the savage conditions of so much animal existence. In those same woods, I even found and saved my first flint arrowheads from long-vanished Indians. The simple endurance of those shaped stones helped me further onward with their intimations of the doggedness, and yet the frailty, of human life.
Then late one afternoon, still alone but blissful in that world, I was given my first visionary experience. I’m still convinced it came from some inhuman force outside my own mind and body. And though it would be years before I knew it, it was a vision of a kind experienced by more than a few lucky children. In brief, in a single full moment, I was allowed to see how intricately the vast contraption of nature all around me — and nature included me, my parents a few yards away in the house, and every other creature alive on Earth — was bound into a single huge ongoing wheel by one immense power that had willed us into being and intended our futures, wherever they led.
We were all, somehow, one vibrant thing; and even the rattlesnakes, the lethal microbes, and the plans of men like Adolf Hitler (whom I’d heard of from my father; it was 1939) were bound with the rest of us toward a final harmony. At the age of 6, of course, I couldn’t have described it in such words; but memory tells me that the description is honest. And there that day, in the core of a much-loved but often unaccompanied childhood, it seemed a benign revelation.
While it didn’t result in an immediate certainty that God exists and knows me and tends me, it left me watchful for further intimations. And in some way that I’ve only just realized six decades later, it became the first private knowledge of my life. I never mentioned what I’d suddenly learned, not to my parents nor to any child I knew and trusted. My life as a largely solitary mystic had begun.
I don’t recall other such climactic moments in my childhood. But my interest in Bible stories continued; and because at the age of 9 I won a free New Testament for bringing a new member to Sunday school, I eventually began to read the Christian scriptures directly, not in someone else’s version. Above all, the four Gospels interested me with their varying but complementary pictures of a man as mysterious and potent, yet credible, as Jesus. For reasons I can’t explain, Jesus became one of the figures I often thought about and drew pictures of, along with Tarzan and King Arthur.
Since I was then hoping to become a painter in my adult life, I was also increasingly aware of the towering presence in Western art of Jesus at every stage of his short, and brilliantly depictable, life. In a way that it may be difficult for you to imagine years from now, the world around me — which was most of America from the 1930s onward — was as permeated with reverberations of the life of Jesus as the sea is with salt. For good or ill — and he’s still outrageously invoked as the guarantor of hatred, violence, and endless fantasy — he was a constant component (even for those who entirely rejected him) of the air we breathed.
The fact that Jesus was also plainly a man who’d suffered and died for his acts made him more and more interesting to me as I entered adolescence and encountered the usual daunting amount of unhappiness. Mine, like so many others, came at the hands of a pair of school bullies. Like many boys who grew up in Christian cultures then, and perhaps even now, I spent a fair amount of secret time in prayer to Jesus. I’d ask for the meanness to stop and for kinder friends to materialize (my demons had once been my friends). It was my first acquaintance with unanswered, or partially answered, prayer. Other friends appeared but the bullies never relented till we moved from the town.
A wide lobe of my brain finds it difficult to believe that the maker of anything so immense as our universe — and of who knows what beyond it — is permanently concerned with how I behave in relation to my diet (so long as I’m not a cannibal), or my genitals (as long as they don’t do willful damage to another creature), or my hair (so long as it doesn’t propagate disease-bearing vermin), or a good deal else that concerns many religious people.
God likely cares how I treat the planet Earth, its atmosphere, and its nonhuman inhabitants (I think it’s possible that he wants us not to kill or eat other conscious creatures, though I’m a restrained carnivore who feels no real guilt). Above all, the Creator intends that I honor my fellow human beings — whoever and from wherever — and that I do everything in my power never to harm them and to alleviate, as unintrusively as possible, any harm they suffer. God likely expects me to extend that honor to other forms of life, though how far down the scale that honor is to run, I don’t know — surely I’m not meant to avoid killing, say, an anthrax bacillus.
Though I’ve mentioned that a preponderance of Americans presently share some version of my beliefs, it’s fair to tell you that a possible majority of the social class I’ve occupied since my mid-20s — those who’ve experienced extensive years of academic training — don’t share my beliefs nor hold any other beliefs that might be called religious. That characteristic of the intellectual classes of the Western world and China (at a minimum) is more than a century old and is the result largely of a few discoveries of the physical sciences and of the worldwide calamities of war and suffering that have convinced many witnesses that no just God exists.
Somehow that partial success with prayer didn’t stop me. I thought I’d heard the beginning of a dialogue. And life improved rapidly. Relations with my schoolmates in the new town were free of hostility, and I made a handful of friends who’ve lasted. But almost anyone’s adolescence, as you may know by the time you read this, is subject to frequent attacks of self-doubt and melancholy, even bouts of hopelessness. Life sometimes seems too bleak to continue. Why should young people believe that things change — and often for the better? They’ve frequently had little experience of such improvements.
I don’t recall ever plunging so low; but still I went on investing a fair amount of time in prayers to Jesus and his mother (a beautiful Catholic girl had taught me the rosary, and it became a part of my attempts at reaching and persuading the Creator and — what? — his household). And in the absence of the old tormentors who’d even made churchgoing difficult, I began attending church — my mother’s Methodist and my father’s Baptist. The Methodist minister took an interest in my developing curiosities about the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity; and he readily agreed to what must have seemed peculiar requests from a boy — requests for private communion at times when I needed special help, like college scholarship competitions.
By age 17 I clearly had some sort of vocation for a life with regular attempts at persuading God’s attention and cooperation. I don’t think my daily behavior looked unusually “holy,” and I don’t recall that my parents or my minister ever mentioned the possibility. But toward the end of high school, one of my teachers suggested that I think of preparing for life as a pastor. Though by then I’d joined the Methodist church, I felt at once that the idea was wrong. My sexual energies and their direction seemed far too powerful and heretical for such a career. In any case I’d already decided on the parallel careers I’ve ultimately followed — life as a writer and a teacher — and as I moved on to college, I headed for those choices.
As I worked even more steadily at my undergraduate studies and my writing (especially poetry) — and as I began to express my sexual needs — I slowly began to feel less compelled toward the public worship I’d enjoyed for the past few years. I’d begun to suspect that a yen for display played a part in public worship, especially my own. Yet despite my involvement in a number of academic courses that questioned, and occasionally mocked, the foundations of religious thought, my withdrawal from church represented no loss of the faith that had grown as I grew.
My withdrawal was likewise a response to my increasing awareness of the hostility or indifference of all major American churches to the coming crises in racial justice and sexual tolerance. Most honestly, though, I was returning to a means of worship that was more natural for me: private prayer, reading, and meditation, and the beginnings of a comprehension that the chief aim of any mature religious life is union with the will of God, as opposed to one’s own, and the finding of ways to assist other creatures.
My first year of graduate study in England, where study is largely self-monitored, marked also my launching on a near full-time dedication to my writing and on my first real delight in reciprocated love. In the chilly atmosphere of one of the oldest colleges at Oxford and the beautiful 13th century chapel whose emptiness echoed the rapid expiration of Protestant Anglicanism, it was easy enough not to seek out a congenial church, and my sense of the Creator — of the duties I might owe him and the means of communicating with him — continued on the solitary track to which they’d reverted. Yet in normal human fashion, I was now praying mainly when I needed quick help.
I felt mild guilt at my separation from a religious community, especially when my mother or my old minister inquired about my British churchgoing. But I told myself I’d made a necessary choice. I imagined I’d learn to locate — through my teaching and writing — communities where my own questions and whatever useful findings I might make could be best conveyed to others, potentially a wider community than I might have found in a dedicated building and a congregation.
In retrospect, I estimate that my subsequent years of work may have communicated to a few thousand readers and a few thousand students how one relatively lucid and respectably educated man, in the final two-thirds of the 20th century and somewhat thereafter, has managed to live at least six decades of a life that (while it’s committed a heavy share of self-intoxicated incursions on others and has broken at least five of the Ten Commandments) has so far hurled no dead bodies to the roadside, abandoned no sworn partners or children, and has managed to turn up — shaved and sober — in a writing office, a teaching classroom, a kinsman’s or lover’s or friend’s place in time of need on most promised occasions.
I’ve been especially chary of broaching discussions of my relations with God in the arenas of either of my careers, in books or in classrooms. That’s partly because, by nature, I’m among the world’s least evangelical souls but also because my own beliefs were acquired so gradually, and in response to such personal tides, as to be almost incommunicable if not incomprehensible. In recent years, however, I’ve relaxed a little in that reluctance.
I’ve spoken of my faith in two volumes of memoirs, a number of poems, and a published letter to a dying young man who asked for my views; and I’m writing this new letter to you. After more than 30 years of teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, I’ve begun, very lightly, to confess to my students that I’m a renegade Christian and that they might be at a certain advantage in studying a Christian poet with me. Wouldn’t they like to study Homer with, say, an actual Zeusian?
So my life has gone through youth and middle age. It was normally subject, as I’ve said, to serious wrongdoing. And it was frequently challenged by disappointment and at least one bitter remorse. Throughout — despite several deep dives into self-blame and the sporadic lack of any clear view ahead — my faith has been the prime stabilizer. Like many other navigational aids, it’s done most of its work when I had only the dimmest awareness of its service.
Then, when I was 51, I found myself having difficulties walking. After a few weeks of denial, I was discovered to have a large and intricately entangled cancer of the spinal cord. Despite surgery, with the best technology of the early 1980s, the tumor couldn’t be removed; and no chemotherapy was available. The only medical hope was five weeks of searing radiation, directly to the fragile cord. I was warned that such a brutal therapy might leave me paraplegic or worse. The alternative, however, was to wait while the tumor paralyzed my legs, then my arms and hands, and finally my lungs. With no other imaginable choice, I agreed to the radiation.
A few mornings before the daily treatments were to start, I was propped wide awake in bed at home, when I experienced the second visionary moment of my life, some 46 years after my childhood glimpse of the unity of nature. I’ve written about this second moment in other places. Enough to say here that I was, suddenly and without apparent transport, in a different place — by the Sea of Galilee — and a man whom I knew to be Jesus was washing and healing the long wound from my failed surgery, the site of my coming radiation.
My conviction, since that second vision, is that the experience was in some crucial sense real. In that moment I was healed, and the fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by radiation two years before a new ultrasonic device made the removal of the tumor possible, the tumor was merely a complexity in the narrative that God intended. There does seem a possibility that, had I avoided the withering radiation, I might have been healed in any case. My doctors felt that, along with its damage, the radiation had stalled the tumor for a lucky while.
I’m aware that many of my contemporaries will read such a statement as groundless, if not howling crazy, and I can all but share their laughter. Yet 16 years after my initial diagnosis, I’m an energetic man working when virtually none of my therapists thought I had a serious chance (one of them told my brother that I had 18 months at best). And since I’ve mentioned my healing in print, I’ve had dozens of letters from patently sane strangers who confide similar transcendent experiences in a time of crisis.
They mostly describe an experience in which some entirely real figure, whether Jesus or some matter-of-fact plainclothes angel, comes and consoles or heals them. Such confidences almost always end with their telling me that they’d mentioned their experience to no one else for fear of ridicule. My correspondents also generally say that their experience, like mine, was singular — that is, never repeated, thereby eliminating the possibility that we’d all been merely cheering ourselves with pleasant dreams in the face of calamity.
My moment by the Sea of Galilee occurred 16 years ago and has not recurred in any form. Those years have brought me an unprecedented amount of work — 21 books since the cancer — and an outpouring of affection and meticulous care of a sort I wouldn’t have allowed myself to expect from kin, friends, and strangers. In addition to the books, I’ve continued my regular schedule of teaching. I’ve traveled for business and for pleasure more than in my able-bodied life. And those changes have only deepened my certainty that my illness — its devastations and its legacies of paralysis and chronic pain — was intended for me at that point in my life and perhaps ever after.
What the ultimate intention of such a blow may be, I barely guess at. Time, or beyond, will presumably uncover as much of that mystery as I’ll ever need to know. I can say, however, that the drastic reversal led me to abandon certain choices that I’d always explored with both pleasure and uncertainty of purpose. I’ve made that simplification because I’ve slowly come to suspect that a curbing of past choices was intended. And while this new course has left me deprived of a few physical rewards, I’ve all but ceased to miss them. If nothing else, paraplegia either leads to a rapid refining of human focus and one’s expectations from other creatures or it plunges its cripple into querulous, or wailing, neurosis or worse.
Yet now I’ve outlived both my parents; and though I’m nearly 70, I’m hopeful of as much more time as I have work to do, the resources with which to do it, and the help I need in my straitened circumstances. My relations with God run a fairly normal course. They intensify when I’m in trouble; and when things go smoothly, they tend to resemble the domestic relations of family members — a good deal of taking-for-granted on my part, with a dozen or so snatches of prayer per day (mostly requests to understand God’s intent, if any; to learn patience, to bear what I can’t change and then to incorporate it). I’m aware of no substantial fears of age or death, though I won’t say I welcome either prospect. And I have no doubt that the usual calm I live in — and here I tap on the nearest wood — comes as a form of mercy from whatever force created the world and knows of me in it.
Can I expect that spotty run through 60-some years of faith to be of any weight for you, years from now, or for anyone else to whom religious belief is either a baffling phenomenon, an inviting curiosity, or an intellectually impossible position? From a friend, I might hope for the patience required to read these pages — something less than an hour. But I can hardly expect it to be convincing or even comprehensible for unbelieving strangers. One of the characteristics of faith that can seem so repellent is the apparent necessity that faith be given help from God. The most sophisticated theologies of the Western past — millennia of rabbinical debate, the treatises of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth — deduce a similar necessity.
The leap of faith that believers so often recommend is preceded by a serious hitch. It almost invariably requires God’s presence, on the far side of the abyss, saying, “Jump!” In Christianity, anyhow, Calvinists agree. God calls certain creatures to believe in him and thus win salvation; others he simply permits to live and die in preordained damnation. It’s another idea that looks absurd to anyone who has not been inclined to faith by a propitious early atmosphere and training. For me, as for more than a few writers of the early Christian documents comprised in the New Testament, that terrible prior choosing by God seems at times the baldest deduction from attentive witness of the world.
How can anyone reared in the desert air of contemporary science — physics seems the most relevant science — even begin to move in the murky direction of faith, especially when so many manifestations of religious faith lead to violence, disdain, if not outright hatred, and dithering or murderous nonsense? In any day’s news, half the world’s human wrongs are done in God’s name. That one obstacle to faith, if no other, is all but impassably high. (Yet, again, the majority of human beings claim some form of faith.)
It’s my seasoned instinct, then, that any slow scrutiny of contemporary science will demonstrate at many points its intellectual inadequacy as an ample chain of theories to explain the face and the actions of the world. Thus Isaac Newton, who in many ways invented modern science, was a fervently convinced believer; and physics, here at the beginning of the third millennium, is uncovering at a breathtaking rate subatomic phenomena that surpass the imaginings of the wildest hierophant scraping his sores with a cast-off potsherd.
That’s not to claim that anyone should fling posthaste into the arms of an invisible God or any religious cult simply because science has proven so prissily bankrupt as a guide to what’s here and what’s there (here and there seem increasingly to be the same thing). Helium-filled New Age unfortunates are steadily chattering away on television to warn us about that. Yet if nothing else, an honest, well-informed creature must now acknowledge that the world — the universe of physical objects, forces, and actions above, within, or below the range of human or instrumental vision — far surpasses in extent and wonder what we can see and absorb.
But if anyone with a persistent curiosity about faith, anyone who has lacked a sane early grounding in one of the central faiths of his or her culture, were to ask me where to go to begin to understand the inevitability of belief and its mixed rewards (faith is more difficult than unbelief), I’d suggest two initial courses, each to be pursued with quiet steadiness. First, begin to read the sacred texts of your native culture. For the majority of Americans, those texts would include the Christian Bible (which includes the Hebrew scriptures).
Simultaneously, begin to read the thoughts of the great believing minds. For you, friend, those would include a concentration on the actual words of Jesus as preserved in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and then an awareness of the lives and works of figures (among hundreds) such as Francis of Assisi, Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Schweitzer, Simone Weil, W. H. Auden, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor.
Second, considering that your family will have reared you in a world deep in the knowledge and the resonance of the arts, I’d urge you and others to immerse yourself in the lives and works of the great believing musicians and painters — such witnesses as the preservers of Gregorian chant, Giotto and Michelangelo, Palestrina, Rembrandt, Bach and Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, Van Gogh and Rouault, Messiaen and Pärt. None of those believers was a fool nor a mere hired hand of the pope nor some prince with an idle and unadorned chapel.
On the contrary, the inspiration of their work, the craft it employs, the makers’ surviving personal statements, show them to be intellectually and emotionally tough-minded and trustworthy — and I’ve omitted the whole world of poetry, which is, if anything, even more bountiful than music and painting. The same advice can be given for virtually all the world’s religions, freighted as they are with glorifications of the mystery and presence and the dreaded absence of God, though the artists of Judaism and Islam (because of their prohibitions against the portrayal of living things) have brilliantly concentrated their findings in such nonvisual forms as prophecy, poetry, and music.
While you’re reading and listening, you might want to try — if you never have — speaking short sentences to the air around you (be sure no one is watching; people have been carted off for less). Call the air God if you can, though it’s not a god; and state as honestly as possible some immediate need, some hope for guidance. With luck and further effort, your sentences will grow less self-obsessed. They may even begin to express occasional thanks. For long months you may get no trace of notice or reply. In time, however, you may hear answers on the same scale as that on which we measure the masters I’ve just named. And if an answer comes, you can be almost sure it wasn’t simply the air that answered.
There are numerous possible next steps. You might want to begin frequenting spaces that have a natural benignity for you — whether it’s the lobby of Grand Central Station or a quiet corner church or a one-man fire-watch tower high above some primal forest. You might begin to talk about your findings with some friend whom you suspect of having similar curiosities. You might commit some part of your time to working with the wretched of your neighborhood or town — the homeless, hungry, abused, the unloved whom most religions insist that we comfort. You might want to try attending some regular religious ceremonies. If they fail you, go back to yourself and the ambient air.
Soon or late, you’ll likely get some response from that space to which you first spoke. It may say what it’s said to many good people: “There’s nothing here but atoms of air. Get a life.” It may also say what it’s said persuasively to even more of the earth’s human beings: “Keep talking. Learn how. You’re listened to. One day you may hear me, should I need or want you.”
You may, in short — and finally, my valued young friend — have begun to speak with and to hear from the truth, some form of the truth that wears many masks for its likely sole face.
Yours in hope,
Reynolds Price, a Rhodes scholar, is currently James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University. His novel A Long and Happy Life won the William Faulkner Award in 1962. He wrote “The Unbeatable Lightness of Keyboards ” for Big Issue III.