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In April of 1997, the novelist Reynolds Price received a letter from a young man, Jim Fox, who had recently been forced to withdraw from medical school because of a virulent cancer.  Fox had read Mr. Price's memoir of his own struggle with spinal cancer and the resulting paralysis and of the role that his faith in God had played in his survival.  In that book, A Whole New Life, Mr. Price had shared his personal experience of several "demonstrations" of God's existence and His direct intervention in the healing process.  This prompted Fox to write :

    I want to believe in a God who cares ... because I may meet him sooner than I had expected. I think I am at the point where I
    can accept the existence of a God (otherwise I can't explain the origin of the universe), but I can't yet believe he cares about us.

Mr. Price renders the two questions implicit in this statement as follows :

    1.    Was our universe created by an intelligent power; and if so, is the Creator conscious of its creatures and benignly
           concerned for their lives?

    2.    If the answer to both halves of that question is Yes, how can a gifted young human being be tormented and perhaps
           killed early?

In the wake of his revelations, Mr. Price had apparently received a number of letters from people interested in his religious views and a number of invitations to speak about them, but had generally avoided such offers.  As it happened though, on the same day that he received Fox's letter, he received an invitation to deliver the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture, on a topic of his choice, to the Auburn Theological Seminary.  He accepted this offer and crafted his address around an answer to Jim Fox's questions.  He expands upon those answers in this book.

Mr. Price makes no claim to being a theologian or philosopher nor to being particularly holy :

    What I do claim to be is a watchful human being 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.

Perhaps inevitably, considering the notorious difficulty of the questions he's taking on here, Mr. Price is most sure-footed and powerful when he argues for God's existence from this personal experience.  He says that throughout his life :

    I've experienced moments of sustained calm awareness that subsequent questioning has never discounted. Those moments, which
    recurred at unpredictable and widely spaced intervals till some thirteen years ago still seem to me undeniable manifestations of the
    Creator's benign, or patiently watchful, interest in particular stretches of my life, though perhaps not all of it.

These kinds of epiphanies, especially if we define them broadly enough, may well have occurred to all of us, certainly to most of us.  But Mr. Price had a couple of even more remarkable moments during his illness, including one which he describes thus :

    [I]t took the shape of an utterly real dawn encounter with Jesus on the shore of the Lake of Galilee and then waist-deep in its water.
    As his disciples lay sleeping around us on the shore, Jesus silently beckoned me into the lake and, with handfuls of water, washed
    my ugly spinal wound and said 'Your sins are forgiven.'

I assume, perhaps wrongly, that there are a good number of people like myself--people who were raised in believing families, who have an intellectual faith, and who desire some kind of certitude, in order to transform that faith and move it from our heads to the depths of our hearts--for whom such an experience would seal the deal.  But while I have no doubt that Mr. Price's experience was real, it remains a personal matter, which we can not truly partake of, despite his willingness to share.  We are left instead with a series of familiar, though well expressed, ideas and feelings, about God's existence, some of which readers may find compelling, but which are hardly likely to convince skeptics.

When it comes to the question of whether God actually cares about us--Man in general and each of us specifically--his arguments are even thinner.  But this is hardly surprising; after all, if the answers were easy, we wouldn't still be asking the question after thousands of years.  The great benefit though in reading Mr. Price's reasoning may simply be that it gets your own mind working; you can't help but grapple with the issues that he raises, even if you arrive at slightly different, or wholly different, conclusions.  Personally, one notion really reached me, it comes during his discussion of the Book of Job :

    [T]he sheer exuberance of God's sublime account of his own creative delight in his creatures is a very odd but unexpected form
    of offered solace--See the splendor of all I have made and savor that, for the time you have.

I have to admit, I find the idea that God takes cognizance of each of us, never mind of each moment in each of our lives, to be more than a little self-centered, in fact,  almost egomaniacal.  But here Mr. Price is talking about an "offered solace" that I do believe in.

It seems to me that modern man, with our touchingly naive belief in reason and science and our delusion that we can understand existence, has lost sight of how miraculous existence truly is.  Science, with button-bursting pride, offers us explanations for the history of the universe, but has not even begun to dream of what might have preceded the Big Bang.  Science assures us that we are not unique, that there must be myriad planets with intelligent life on them, intelligence that is similar or even superior to ours, but can not answer the Fermi Paradox : "where are they?"   Science assures us that Darwinism explains away the rise of humans and that had this or that element of evolution been just slightly different, we may never have existed, and that there must be other planets where life is quite different.  And yet, with all of these scientific explanations, the fact remains that to the best of our knowledge : we exist; alone among the creatures of creation, we can comprehend our existence; and our creation seems to have been a goal of the universe.  I know, I know, that's far too anthropomorphic, yadda, yadda, yadda...  Well, there's an old saying down South, maybe it's even popular down near where Mr. Price lives and teaches : if you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, it's safe to assume he didn't get there by himself.  You can, of course, concoct all kinds of theories, maybe even prove some of them scientifically, that'll show that the turtle got there naturally, but, as for me, I'd tend to assume that someone placed him there.  As you look around the universe, we damn sure seem to resemble that turtle.

Thus do I arrive at my personal assumption that we were created by God.  As to whether God cares about us or about me, let me resort to another analogy, turning metaphysics even more pedestrian.  Mr. Price spends some time discussing the notion of God as Father to us all, but ponders the question of how such a father figure can be so remote.  As it happens, I come from good old New England WASP stock, where we are infamously reticent about showing our emotions and remote fathers are a given.  But, if your Dad takes you to Disney World, do you really need him to also say : Hey, I care?  For me, it suffices that God allows us to partake of the "splendor" of his creation for the time that we have.  That is enough to show us that he cares.

The universe, after all, would still be an amazingly cool place even if we weren't here to observe it, but we are.  Doesn't God seem less remote when we realize that he was so proud of the universe that He wanted other sentient beings to share it with Him?  Since He invited us all to this infinite Disney World and he lets us run around and explore every nook and cranny, do we really need Him to tell us He's sorry every time something bad happens to us?  Maybe we do, maybe all that WASPy emotional reserve is unhealthy too, but maybe we can understand His remoteness a little better if we can appreciate that some of us are similarly reserved.  If our biological parents, who raise us, are such mysteries to us, why would we expect to understand the ways of a Father who gave birth to the entire universe some five billion years ago?

Rather than tormenting ourselves with the knowledge of our own mortality, our capacity for evil, and the suffering in the world, mightn't we look around us, at the miracle of our existence, at our infinitely fascinating fellow men, at the great complexity and frequent beauty of the universe, at the art, literature, music, etc. that we've created, and contemplate the extraordinary good fortune that allows us to be here, for however short a time, and to comprehend all this?  And doing so, mightn't we say to ourselves that neither does mere coincidence explain the awesome confluence of events and forces that brought us here, nor would someone who doesn't care be inclined to share it all with us?  I don't know.  I have no better answers to these questions than Mr. Price.  I'm just grateful to him for asking and answering them in such honest and interesting ways.

Unfortunately, Jim Fox died in 1998, at age thirty-five.  I hope that he too had a dawn encounter by the Lake of Galilee, but, if not, I hope that he found some comfort in the letter that Reynolds Price sent to him.  I hope that he did not die thinking what a rotten deal he'd received.  I hope that somehow, despite the pain, both physical and emotional, that he must have felt, he had at least moments where he realized how extraordinary it is that he lived at all.  I hope that at the end he was thankful for that life and not regretful.  I hope this for us all.  I hope, and against all hope, I pray.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Religion
Book-related and General Links:
    -FACULTY : Reynolds Price (Duke University) (erp@duke.edu)
    -BIO : Reynolds Price (Duke University)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "reynolds price"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : price, reynolds
    -Featured Author: Reynolds Price (NY Times)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Letter to a Man in the Fire
    -TRIBUTE : James Dickey, Size XL (Reynolds Price, March 23, 1997, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Paradise Imagined : In Which You Awaken In A Space That Seems Entirely Strange, Though Not Alarming (Reynolds Price, 12.03.01, Forbes)
    -ESSAY : Dear Harper (Reynolds Price, 10.02.00, Forbes)
    -ESSAY : The Unbeatable Lightness of Keyboards (Reynolds Price, 11.30.98, Forbes ASAP)
    -ESSAY : Speaking of Books: A Question of Influence (Reynolds Price, May 29, 1966, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Men, Creating Women (Reynolds Price, November 9, 1986, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Residential Colleges Hold Key to Fostering Intellectual Life (Reynolds Price, Duke University Chronicle)
    -ESSAY : The Great Imagination Heist (Reynolds Price, 1999)
    -PROFILE : Photographer: Sally Mann : In both family scenes and rural landscapes, she views the world with singularly naked candor (Reynolds Price, CNN/TIME : America's Best)
    -REVIEW : of Pontius Pilate By Ann Wroe (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Secular Mind By Robert Coles (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST : Personal Best : A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone (Reynolds Price, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Welty in Person (Reynolds Price, May 7, 1978, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : with Reynolds Price (Phyllis Meras, March 27, 1966, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : THE MIND ROAMS FREE : Reynolds Price was dying of cancer years ago. But he, and his writing, have endured and thrived. (WILLIAM A. HENRY III, May 23, 1994, TIME)
    -PROFILE : A Writer at His Best (MICHAEL RUHLMAN, September 20, 1987, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Through the Fire : Reynolds Price receives Wide Acclaim for New Book Based on 1997 Rudin Lecture (Autumn 1999, Auburn Views)
    -PROFILE : The Gospel and Reynolds Price : Healed and Forgiven, North Carolina's Literary Lion Looks to the Future with Optimism (Rick Smith & Miranda Kossoff, Metro Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Honing His Craft : Duke Press publishes the journals of novelist Reynolds Price (Laura Argiri, 12/05/98, Spectator Online)
    -Reynolds Price Page
    -ARCHIVES : Price, Reynolds (Medical Humanities, NYU)
    -ARCHIVES : Reynolds Price (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "reynolds price" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "reynolds price" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Edward Hirsch, Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (James Wood , New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Marvin J. LaHood, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Hal Crowther, Ace Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Rozanne Epps, Richmond.com)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Jon Nilson, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW : of Letter to a Man in the Fire (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Health)
    -REVIEW : of Three Gospels (Robert Alter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Three Gospels (Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners)
    -REVIEW : of Kate Vaiden (Rosellen Brown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Whole New Life (Robert Kelly, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Whole New Life (Lolita Lark, RALPH)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : of A Whole New Life (Louis Borgenicht, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of Roxanna Slade (Janet Burroway , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Roxanna Slade (David Templeton, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of The Collected Poems (Victor Strandberg, Duke Alumni Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Feasting the Heart (Chris Sweet, CultureDose)
    -REVIEW : of A Perfect Friend (JAMIE WHITFIELD, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Conversations with Reynolds Price (Commonweal, Madeline Marget)
    -BOOK LIST : Strictly Southern : THE AUTHOR OF "SOPHIE'S CHOICE" PICKS FIVE GREAT CONTEMPORARY SOUTHERN NOVELS : Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price (William Styron, Oct. 25, 1999, Salon)

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