How Will We Have Faith?
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The Christmas holidays are always a nice time to reflect on the meaning of faith in our lives and our society. When we can take some time out from the frantic rounds of shopping and a respite from the constant feasting on the repasts of our youth we have a chance to recharge our souls and spirits and ponder some of the mysteries of life. What better place to turn but to books for our sustenance.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the quintessential feel-good parable for the greediness of our times, of course. Dickens balances beautifully the ugliness of human selfishness with the innocence of human goodness. Reading A Christmas Carol or Dr. Seuss’s version, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, reinforces numerous ancient philosophical notions about the innate goodness of the human soul. In both of these cases, at least, Scrooge and the Grinch realize their capacities for goodness and the blackness of their hearts melts to reveal the light within.
As much as these stories of the season warm our own hearts (although I confess to being simply entertained and not so warmed by either one these days) and help us to reflect on the paradoxes of our humanity, one our best-loved novelists, Reynolds Price, more helpfully leads us to consider the meaning of faith in our lives and world with Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith (Scribners; $15.95).
In 1999, Reynolds Price received a letter from a young medical student dying of cancer. The student, Jim, sought out Price after reading in A Whole New Life (1994) about Price’s own devastating experiences with spinal cancer and the religious experiences the cancer sparked. Jim’s letter stated plainly two questions: Does God exist? and Does God care? In Letter to a Man in the Fire, Price eloquently responds to Jim and concludes that “surely God works and watches, in some sense, from love or from some barely imaginable intensification of the ideal lover’s feeling for the beloved.”
Price’s sets down even more of his reflections on religious matters in this elegant little letter to his godchild, Harper Peck Voll, on the occasion of Harper’s baptism in 2000. Although Price says that his letter is a “substantial communication from a family friend to a child who may someday wish, or need, to read it,” this book is surely another installment in the spiritual autobiography that Price began almost thirty years ago in his graceful little book on narrative and the Bible, A Palpable God (1978).
Price records here for Harper his own spiritual journey, reflecting on topics ranging from the nature of God, the mystery of immortality, the authority of sacred scriptures, the character of faith, and the enigma of Jesus and the power of love. He thinks of himself as a renegade Christian, and Price recounts for Harper his own decisions to live what counts for his religious life outside of the church. Price is also not keen on proselytizing his readers or Harper. “The particular shape of my beliefs formed itself so gradually . . . as to be almost incommunicable to others.”
Price recalls the powerful religious vision he had when he was six or seven: “In a single moment, I was allowed to see how intricately the vast contraption of nature . . . was bound into a single vast ongoing wheel by one immense power that had willed us into being.” This vision doesn’t comes with the news, however, that the “Creator of such a harmony was best contemplated in a church or on some especially holy day.”
Price offers practical advice to Harper that Harper can draw upon when he seeks to whet his religious curiosity. Price advises him to read the sacred texts of his native culture—in Harper’s case, the Bible—and to immerse himself in the lives and works of the great believing composers and painters. The Bible itself offers numerous worlds to its readers, and the art and music of Bach, Botticelli and others reveals their struggles with the profound issues of faith and doubt. Price encourages his godchild to work with the poor and hungry, attend some regular religious ceremony and to search ardently for the truth.
Price’s later novels such as The Tongues of Angels (1990), The Promise of Rest (1995), and The Good Priest’s Son (2005) implicitly deal with many of the questions he raises in this letter. Read alongside his novels, poems, essays, memoirs and his writings on the Bible (A Palpable God, Three Gospels, A Serious Way of Wondering), this graceful letter to his godchild reveals Price’s strong wisdom and his grateful and gracious heart in matters of the human soul.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at