For more than a decade Bill and I enjoyed a flourishing friendship. Most weeks he and I sat in his solarium over drinks and visited—about everything.
We discussed life, love, politics, religion, God, literature, our professions, philosophy, writing, family. Deliberately meeting to talk each week for a litany of years means no subject was left unexamined.
As I mentioned in my introduction to last week’s “Letter to My Atheist Neighbor,” Bill and I didn’t spend much time on small talk. At times “the weather” greased our transitions, but that was that. We were far too interested in exploring the profound in each other’s interests. Never mind that Bill was an atheist and I an ordained, Southern Baptist minister.
Bill’s wife died during our friendship. It was a tragic loss due to complications from routine surgery. As time does, the loss was recovered and a new woman entered Bill’s life. And as new loves sometimes do, Bill and his bride relocated to some place called, Massachusetts, that does not appear on a map of Texas.
My friend could be categorical. I appreciated this in him, but it was a hard edge. He was honest, but he could be brutally honest. When he determined to move, he left and I haven’t heard from him since.
I suspected this would be the case when he announced his intention. Thus, the letter that follows. It is the final letter to my atheist neighbor. I sent it to his new address three years after my first letter.
I’ll tell you at the outset, this is an odd feeling letter.
The future is unpredictable—you may well be back in Fort Worth soon—but I couldn’t help but wonder when I shook your hand last Friday evening if it was the last time. I sincerely hope not, but do wish you all the best regardless as you shift gears in life.
I have enclosed Francis Thompson’s, “The Hound of Heaven.” It is one of my favorite pieces. I was not familiar with Thompson or his work, but heard the actor, Dean Jones, mention him during a speech where I was present a number of years ago.
God. Does He exist? Can you gain His favor? Is He knowable? If so, upon what basis?
As I mentioned on the phone, I read an introduction to the poem by James Daly. I don’t know enough about the literature of the time to form an opinion, but Daly says, “My belief is that Francis Thompson has a richer natural genius, a finer poetical equipment, than any poet save Shakespeare.” Whether entirely accurate or not, that is high praise. Knowing your love for Shakespeare, I hope you will enjoy the quality of Thompson’s work.
But in addition, it is obvious that the author is expressing a religious conviction, and when read closely, a religious conviction opposite the norm.
Most people, Christian or otherwise, feel that man pursues God. Does He exist? Can you gain His favor? Is He knowable? If so, upon what basis?
You know the questions as well as anyone. What is interesting is that the Bible’s perspective about man and God is opposite this norm. It teaches that man does not pursue God, but that God pursues man.
This is a critical misperception.
If man pursues God that gives mankind the right to establish some of the rules of engagement. In truth, the only rule of engagement is what CS Lewis calls “divine humility.” God condescends to accommodate human constraint—and the only possible reason for this divine humility is God’s hope of winning us over to his view.
But that God condescends to man’s presuppositions and biases on occasion does not indicate this is his preference or inclination. The Bible purports to give accurate expression of God’s character, and in those pages, God is not portrayed as the pursued but as the pursuer.
He was a great poet and a practical rebel.
Thompson took the liberty, a freedom I appreciate but that garnered him intense criticism in his day, of typifying God as a hound on the human trail. Whether sacrilegious or not, I appreciate the author for determining to write in a way that more accurately conveys what is true of God than the character portrayed by those well-meaning but incorrect.
Thompson was a great poet and a practical rebel. Once this reality came into focus, I thought of you. I awoke this morning with you and this poem converging at the top of my list of priorities for the day. Thus, these pages.
As you and I have noted over the years—indeed celebrated—we share amazingly different background, political persuasion, and social viewpoint while treasuring a friendship. For all our differences, I believe friendship is unlikely unless there is fundamental similarity.
The opening lines of Thompson’s work articulate my story—my ongoing story, believe it or not—and yours as well, provided I understand what you have entrusted to me over time.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
I respect your conviction of atheism. As proximity has allowed our paths to cross, I have endeavored to tread graciously where our paths of belief and unbelief have diverged. However, with your change of life and location, I realize that in all probability I will not see you often, perhaps not again, and that awareness gives rise to the persistence in this letter.
You once said, “Preston, you took a leap of faith. I took a leap of unfaith.” You are correct. My question is how you and I quantify “leap.” When you leapt, how far did you jump? And given my propensity to distrust and doubt, I wonder also how far I leapt.
My honest assessment is that my faith is not as strong as it might appear, otherwise I would trust more readily. Likewise, my observation of you is that your leap into unbelief is not as filled with conviction as the words you use to describe it. In matters of faith or unfaith, you are prone to overstatement. Hyperbole can be the pattern of one trying to convince himself through the declarations he makes to others. I surmise the chasm separating your unbelief and my belief is not as great as the monikers used to describe us: atheist and convert.
It is my conviction that the Bible and Thompson are correct: God indeed pursues us, not vice versa. Further, it is my belief that no matter how quick the glance a man might give God, that is enough for God to acknowledge, for in his pursuit, he is watching for such in our darting eyes.
Which leads me to this, my friend: You and I both know your atheism is not rooted in profound doubt of the divine—the type of doubt that is cast upon the likes of thin ice or sweeping assertions. Rather, your atheism, and my belief, are about willfulness. You chose unbelief because you resist the implications that believing would have upon your independence, i.e. if there is a God, then by definition the honest person must bow his knee.
Both are variations of you pursuing God, one aggressive, one passive, both based upon the misconception that you can find God.
Given the boldness I’m taking given your relocation, let me say: I find much about what you believe regarding the idea of God to be fallacious. In fact, if I believed about God what you believe about Him, I would cross the narrow divide separating us and choose atheism as well. Surely the type of god you have considered—more of a Greek personage and character—must be the figment of a bad dream or a capricious deity conjured up by nuns in the Episcopal school!
I am not writing to try and convince you of God. I’m seeking to point out a discrepancy.
You have defined God utilizing two sources: a) what others have said and done, and b) what you have thought and experienced. Both are variations of you pursuing God, one aggressive, one passive, both based upon the misconception that you can find God and define Him, i.e. comprehend him, understand him, grasp his ways, and patterns with the intelligence granted you.
Bill, I am writing as your friend to ask that you make a single adjustment in your unbelief—a trial more accurately—based singularly upon the premise that God is on your trail and that he wishes to define himself versus leaving that to you or anyone else. Would you dare state in your head, to the void, into the wind, with bowed head, or clinched fist—however you wish: “If you are there and in pursuit of me, would you make this evident to me?”
That’s it. That’s the trial—my request. Either God exists and pursues and will make himself known or he doesn’t and won’t.
I would not write this letter, risking your offense and fearing to tread upon the sacredness of your choice, if you were not my friend and if I were not concerned about the misconception I feel you labor under. I don’t take it upon myself to tread where angels do not go… except for a friend.
And so, with the awareness that I am asking a favor of our friendship, I ask that you test God—put to trial the thesis of this letter. I realize you will feel foolish. However, I would be fooling myself regarding friendship and faith if I did not pour my heart out to you as your life takes this turn.
“If you are there and in pursuit of me, would you make this evident to me?”
Thank you. Your friend,