There’s nothing like a hand-written letter. I’m a glutton for words in any medium, but letters are my favorite. I can have a lengthy phone conversation and never really say anything. Small talk and idle chatter can fill up hours, but they cannot fill up hearts. When I filter my thoughts through a fountain pen, the marks on the paper are intentional and purposeful and meaningful to the one person whose eyes will fall on them. The recipient has what few people in my life ever have—my undivided attention and my deepest thoughts. I cannot write a letter while I clean my house or change a diaper, and I would not write a letter if my words did not require my focus, thoughtfulness, and time. Why waste ink and good stationery if I’m not saying anything that matters? Letters demand action—will they be read and re-read, or stuffed in a drawer or a book? Will they be preserved or destroyed? They can’t be minimized from a computer screen as these words can. Letters take up space in homes and in hearts. The letters that hold the greatest area of real estate in mine were written by a man named Paul.
Yes, I am a skeptic—but I don’t spend much time doubting that Paul wrote the words that have been attributed to him. Just as I could recognize a van Gogh painting or my mother’s potato soup recipe, I recognize Paul’s meter and content without having to watch him pen the words I have treasured for most of my life. On the other hand, I am honest enough with myself to know that I have been wrong in letters. I have written about events I misinterpreted and about subjects so steep that I should not have attempted to scale them, and I realize that Paul could have done the same. Maybe that’s why his words still move me—they bear my reflection; they are the beautifully imperfect words of a human passionately interpreting his world. Paul may or may not write about reality, but no one could argue that his perceptions were not real to him.
I follow a blog that is co-authored by a Christian and an atheist who write under the pseudonyms “Russell” (the atheist) and “Pascal” (the Christian). They have moved painfully slowly and have brought up many topics of discussion without really delving into them, until recently. This week, Pascal said in a post that he wishes to explain scripture as he understands it, with an open ear to criticism. Scripture is one of Russell’s (and my) greatest obstacles against accepting Christianity. Pascal is starting with Romans, and I’m delighted with his choice to begin with my favorite letter-writer, as well as his courageous attempt to discuss beloved words with those who don’t believe in them. He has a goal: “to reveal how a modern Christ-follower understands and applies scripture to his life and relationship with others.” Now we can talk.
So, I’ll start at the beginning of the book that Pascal discusses. The book opens with what might be one of the longest sentences ever written. Paul is a magician with punctuation, since his sentences flow well despite their length—but he is not a fan of periods. He describes himself as a servant of Christ, called and set apart for the gospel. He writes to promote the obedience of faith among those in Rome who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. He offers a context of grace and peace before he begins. Interesting. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Next, Paul includes in his letter words that I have often included in my own—thankfulness and prayers for the recipients, as well as a longing to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” This is harmonious with chords in my heart. I get it. In many ways, it explains so much of my journey. As humans, we long for validation. How easy it is to hold on to belief when bound to others within that belief by mutual encouragement. How affirming it is when a sister or brother’s prayers for me echo my prayers for myself, or when they battle my doubt with an insistence that they see Jesus in me, and that it is a blessing to them. How could I ever leave? I’d be like a fish out of water—but not really. Fish out of water die, so it’s a weak analogy for being in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, yet not-quite-deadly situation. It should really be “like a fish in different water.” If the transition happens slowly enough, the fish might be in some brief shock, but it will acclimate. So did I. For me, affirmation in faith with one group of people waned about a year ago during the exact time that fellowship with doubters increased. The degree of mutual encouragement shifted from one group to the other, and after a period of intense discomfort I one day realized I had more of it from the doubters than from the believers. A fish in new water. And I survived.
Paul continues. He is not ashamed of the gospel. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” I’m not sure of what the wording means here, and I don’t like to use concordances. Maybe that makes me a bad Bible student, but I prefer to interpret scripture on my own instead of relying on someone else’s opinions. Ideally, I would understand the original languages so I could form my interpretations based on the exact original words—but I’ll be realistic and say that’s never going to happen. So bear with my extremely personal interpretation, and feel free to point out where it is inevitably flawed. You probably won’t offend me. “Revealed from faith for faith.” To me, this is saying that because of faith we can understand the righteousness of God in the gospel, and an understanding of the gospel’s presentation of the righteousness of God is also necessary for our faith. From faith, for faith. My head hurts already. Regardless of where we find ourselves in this circle, Paul reaches a conclusion: The righteous shall live by faith.
What of those who do not have faith? The unrighteous “suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them […] so they are without excuse.” I wouldn’t call myself unrighteous, but I don’t have the faith that the righteous live by. I suppose that by that definition, I am unrighteous. I do not suppress the truth; I seek it. What is my excuse for not acknowledging what Paul acknowledges as truth? God has shown me nothing. Attributing the created world to him allows for more complexity than assuming it just happened, and he did not leave his signature anywhere.
And then the heartbreaking part—“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” At least it doesn’t say that God forced them into a life steered by dishonorable passions. At least it implies that God allowed them to go where they were headed anyway. But still, it sounds as if God gave up on them. I don’t believe in God, but my heart hurts as if I did. Why would he give up on me for doubting when he never even revealed himself (or if he did, it is only in a code I can’t seem to crack)? I don’t commit the crimes Paul writes about—the only thing that applies to me is my failure to acknowledge God. That’s something I would enthusiastically do if someone would give me a solid reason to. Why would he give me up instead of convincing me, instead of pursuing me? So much for leaving ninety-nine…
…and where is the grace? Where is the peace? Why must we endure the wrath of God for “suppressing” a truth that was unrecognizable and no more believable than anything else that claims to be true? It’s not like I saw a blinding light on the road to Damascus and chose to ignore it. How is anything about this God appealing? How does this God reflect Pascal’s two favorite words (mentioned in his second post on Romans), love and grace? Is love conditional? Is grace only for those who have found favor by already being everything the gracious God commands? It doesn’t seem so “unmerited” after all.
I don’t want to invade Russell & Pascal’s blog with my own lengthy thoughts, so I write here instead of there. So far, I have agreed with almost everything Russell has said–the only reason I say “almost” is because there are a few arguments so complex and over my head that I simply haven’t figured them out enough to say that I agree. But while I agree with Russell, I can relate to Pascal. He reminds me of who I used to be; he is familiar to me. As a doubter, I appreciate the love and respect he shows Russell. Although we disagree, I admire his love for the skeptic (something I have not yet seen in my own church), and I extend a hand of e-friendship to Pascal–and all others willing to walk through areas of disagreement with gentleness and respect.