Does God Exist and Does He Care?
In April 1997 Reynolds Price received an eloquent letter from a reader of his cancer memoir, A Whole New Life. The correspondent, a young medical student diagnosed with cancer himself and facing his own mortality, asked these difficultQuestions. The two began a long-distance correspondence, culminating in Price's thoughtful response, originally delivered as the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at Auburn Theological Seminary, and now expanded onto the printed page as Letter to a Man in the Fire.
Harvesting a variety of sources -- diverse religious traditions, classical and modern texts, and a lifetime of personal experiences, interactions, and spiritual encounters -- Price meditates on God's participation in our fate. With candor and sympathy, he offers the reader such a rich variety of tools to explore these questions as to place this work in the company of other great tetsaments of faith from St. Augustine to C. S. Lewis.
Letter to a Man in the Fire moves as much as it educates. It is a rare combination of deep erudition, vivid prose, and profound humanity.
In April 1997, novelist Price (Roxanna Slade) received a letter from a young medical student, Jim Fox, stricken with cancer, whose comments implied two simple but powerful questions: "Does God exist?" "If God exists, does God care?" Price responded to the letter immediately with a phone call, and he followed this call with a long, thoughtful letter on the nature of suffering and the justice and righteousness of God. Price admits that he is no theologian or regular churchgoer. He tells Fox that he is compelled to answer the letter because of being a "watchful human in his seventh decade who harbored a similar killing invader deep in his body a few years ago and who thinks he was saved by a caring, though enigmatic, God." Price's eloquent letter to Fox courses through the Bible, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, Dante, T.S. Eliot and Milton as it attempts to offer solace to a suffering fellow soul. Through his reading, Price concludes, "I have no sense whatever that God chooses to notice individuals who look especially 'noticeable'... the stinking wretch on the frozen pavement, the abandoned orphan... may be of no more concern to God than I and all my social peers." The "steady notice of God" is likely to cause suffering, he says, and points to the lives of Joan of Arc and St. Francis as examples. Price also explores briefly some of the classic explanations of God's part in allowing suffering and finds inadequacies in every one. In the end, Price can simply say to Fox, "I know I believe that God loves his creation, whatever his kind of love [Price's italics] means for you and me." In an afterword for "further reading, looking, and listening," Price provides a nicely annotated list of classic works, from Dante and Milton to Bach, Mahler and Mark RothkoApoetry, music and art that raise the questions of God's justice and evil. Price's letter offers more wisdom and eloquence on this topic than many of the traditional theological writings on the subject.
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October 15, 2000
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Excerpt from Letter To A Man In The Fire by Reynolds Price
One especially fine afternoon in April 1997, I received two letters, both unexpected and each with contents that complicated the pleasures of the day. The first I opened was from Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. It invited me to give the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at the Seminary sometime in the coming autumn. Their only specification was a lecture on a freely chosen subject of interest to the students of such an institution. Lately, obliged to concentrate, I've declined opportunities to speak in churches or other religious institutions of whatever creed; so I folded the letter from Auburn and thought I'd surely decline it.
The second letter of that afternoon, however, was as compelling a communication as I've ever got. It was a blunt inquiry from a young man named Jim Fox -- a stranger to me -- who'd recently been forced to withdraw from medical school because of the recurrence in his body of an avid cancer. He had read a book of mine, A Whole New Life, published in 1994. It's a book that recounts my ordeal in the 1980s with spinal cancer. The young man's letter was of such a brief and un-self-pitying eloquence that -- despite my inadequacy in the face of its enormous questions about the existence of God and the nature of God's care, if any, for his creatures -- I knew I had no choice but to answer it.
Haste was plainly called for, so I responded quickly and no doubt helplessly in a single telephone contact. That helplessness left me feeling, before the week passed, that I should take the opportunity of the Rudin lecture at Auburn and make myself face the young man's questions more thoughtfully and at greater length. I'd write the lecture as a longer reply to my young correspondent. I accepted Auburn's offer then, began to read and think; and I continued sporadic correspondence by e-mail with the young man through the summer as his health seemed to worsen. We were hundreds of miles apart, had never met; and our brief exchanges were unconcerned with his first big questions. But I hoped that these simple exchanges might say the better part of what I meant on the matters that troubled him.
In the summer he sent me the manuscripts of a few short stories he'd written. They expressed a watchful eye and a patent intelligence, but I was unable to think they were publishable. I suggested instead, and honestly, that I suspected his fruitful subject would be his ordeal. There is still a very slender body of readable witness from the endurers and survivors of the kind of scalding he knew so intimately. His next note seemed to take my suggestion in good spirit. All the while, I was reading and making notes for the letter I intended for him and for Auburn. Unsure that I'd have even the scaffolding of an interesting response, I delayed telling him of my plan or its progress.
In the early fall, he wrote to say that he'd decided against returning to medical school for the coming term. A new form of treatment was proving hard. That news hastened me forward in my plan. It seemed better that he see my letter than that Auburn get its lecture. Midway through the fall, then, when I'd finished what felt like a presentable draft -- and before I risked intruding on a man in more trouble than I knew -- I wrote to my correspondent. No answer. Soon I tried phoning again, in the attempt to invite him to New York for the lecture and the dinner that would follow. At the very least, I hoped to send him my manuscript; but though his pleasant taped voice still spoke on his answering machine, he made no contact in return.
Since his home was far off, and I knew no one among his family and friends, I saw no other immediate choice; and on November 3rd 1997, I read that initial draft of my letter at Auburn Seminary to a courteous audience of students, faculty, and guests. In a brief introduction, I told the audience of my correspondent's April letter; and when I'd completed the reading, I replied to a question about his present condition by saying that I honestly feared he was dead. Once home, I phoned again. No reply beyond his taped calm voice.
Saddened that a stranger -- who for months had been so near the midst of my thoughts that he'd come to seem a friend -- should have vanished, I resolved to return to work at once, expanding and clarifying the letter in the hope that, failing to reach its original aim, the text might find some use in the hands of others. Additions have more than doubled the length of the draft I read at Auburn. It's longer now than anything I'd have risked volunteering to send to a gravely ill person. But its shape, its tenor, and its steady concern for two large questions remain unchanged. Its title is the merest acknowledgment of my friend's hope and the failure that I must have added to so many others he experienced.