Letter to a Man in the Fire* is a brief meditation on the question of God’s existence and God’s goodness in the face of inexplicable suffering in the world. (Really brief. I read it in about two hours.) Reynolds Price’s letter, written in response to a young man dying of cancer, is suffused with an unusual mix of uncertainty and devotion. Price spends a lot of time agonizing over whether it’s appropriate to even write a letter recommending the existence and—in some sense—the goodness of a Creator to someone whose present suffering directly calls those views into question. Price’s reluctance is appropriate especially because so many people who write answers to theodicy questions forge ahead with affirmations of God’s goodness without dwelling long with the sufferer in their very real pain. He wants neither to “diminish for an instant my sense of the grinding wheel you’re presently under” by offering weak platitudes, nor “burden you further with darker thoughts than you’re otherwise bearing”—a frighteningly acute description of the strange negotiations comforters must make as they go along trying to “mourn with those that mourn” as well as “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (80; Mosiah 18:9).
Humility, for Price, is the best characteristic a comforter can possess, his letter amounting “to no more than a stumbling guess,” “one long surmise [which] comes from as deep in my mind and nature as I know how to go” with regard to the love of God and suffering (86). Price’s success with undoubtedly vary according to the individual reader.
In response to the two main questions (does God exist and does he care about us), Price offers a “troubled Yes”—troubled because he senses no good way to prove this answer to anyone else (26). Although Price isn’t directly involved in any organized religion, he describes experiencing a handful of “private intensities” and “demonstrations” throughout his life which have convinced him that there is some sort of benevolent Creator overseeing this world (26-7). These moments of holistic connection to creation itself have come over him while wandering in the woods alone or in a dark hospital room where, in response to his existential question borne of his own cancer as to how much more he must suffer a voice answered, only, “More” (28). His understanding of these moments has been justified and bolstered by similar experiences of friends and acquaintances and people throughout history, a long line of witnesses to God.
What’s striking here, though, is that rather than dwelling on accounts of these witnesses, Price immediately turns to acknowledge that there are perhaps just as many people who have not experienced these “personal openings” to the divine, even in the midst of “troubled straits” (30, 33). What should such a person do? Price declares his answer, albeit a somewhat absurd and perhaps not all-too-convincing one:
I’m afraid I could offer little more than a proposal which you may feel you’ve already exhausted: the shamefaced suggestion that you go on waiting as long as you can at the one main door, requesting entry from whatever power may lie beyond it (34).
But even if a glimpse of “reliable light” seeps through a half-opened window, or a sudden flood of assurance such as that received by Paul of Tarsus comes through after all, the rest of Price’s letter insists that troubles and mysteries still await the one who has come to a conviction that God is in some way there for them.
Informed by a Calvinistic background, Price wonders whether God is really there for everyone or whether some are elected to special notice. He wonders why it seems like those whom are especially holy seem to be singled out for suffering, as though God’s notice itself brings torment. He speaks of the Dark Night of the Soul and periods most believers experience when God seems to absent himself at the most crucial of moments—as when Christ called out for abba in the midst of his suffering and seemed to receive no reply (41, 62; consider also Joseph Smith’s “Oh God, where art thou?” in D&C 121:1**).
In fact, Price finds Jesus’s declaration that God is our father (a benevolent gift-giver) to be the most difficult thing to believe of all his teachings. Despite coming from Jesus himself, declarations of the fatherhood of God have “always been as doubtful as they are welcome among realistically wary believers”:
No theological learning is required, after all, to stand in the ashes of one’s private hopes or beside the literal ashes of an innocent loved one—a five-year-old son, say, who has died before our eyes in the torment of leukemia—and to wonder, from that point in human time and place, just where abba is to be found…In an unbroken note of the most serious eloquence, from the known beginnings of sacred poetry, the cry of humankind has begged to know how the hand that made us has likewise struck us down or has let some other force destroy us (41-2).
The rest of the letter discusses possible solutions to this dilemma as articulated in traditions as diverse as Hinduism, Hebrew scripture, and by authors ranging from Aeschylus and Milton to T.S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor. Price briefly discusses one possible Mormon answer to this problem: the existence of a suffering God who joins us in the midst of this, his created and imperfect world, but he sees that resolution as “insubstantial” because any suffering experienced by an “omnipotent and omniscient” being would be a walk in the park (57-58). Of course, the Book of Mormon sees things otherwise. One of the most striking and crucial passages of all the scriptures Joseph Smith revealed is Alma 7:11–12, which almost single-handedly justifies the very existence of the Book of Mormon.***
Still, in the end Price opts for a view of God that works harder to incorporate the darker elements of the human experience (the same being who created flowers created the AIDS virus) in order to conclude that “the Creator is far more mysterious than we can suspect or than human organs will ever prove capable of comprehending” (81). Sufferers should work to become paradoxically “hopeful stoics” (77). Mormons who are more inclined to put on a happy face, or to expect each other to do so, in the face of inexplicable tragedy may find useful reason for pause here. They’ll also find much good advice in the book’s appendix, “Further Reading, Listening, and Looking,” which will point them in the direction of a number of excellent resources for meditating on the problems confronted here.
In the end, Price’s letter is best directed to sufferers who find comfort through better articulation of questions about God’s love more than they do from simple assertions of that love. (While editing this post I discovered that Amazon reviews strongly bear this out.) As the result of a life in which a deep and abiding faith is brought face to face with a deep and abiding suffering, Letter to a Man in the Fire belongs on the shelf alongside the book of Job and C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (leagues better than his The Problem of Pain).
With T.S. Eliot (following Julian of Norwich), Price concludes that
…all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one….(85, from Four Quartets)
But just how he knows this, or why you ought to agree, Price can’t ultimately say. And for some readers, his reluctance will be a strength.
*I thank Kristine Haglund for recommending this book during my family’s own recent troubles. The post’s title is from Reynolds Price, Letters to a Man in the Fire (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 38.
**The editing of D&C 121 after the death of Joseph Smith actually curtails the drawn out nature of Joseph’s wrestle. His “where art thou” was not so quickly answered, as a look at the original letter from which the section was edited reveals. For a fascinating study of D&C 121 see Kathleen Flake, “Joseph Smith’s Letter from Liberty Jail: A Study in Canonization,” The Journal of Religion 92, no. 4 (October 2012): 515-526.
***Two excellent Latter-day Saint treatments of the problem of suffering are James E. Faulconer, “Rethinking Theology: In the Shadow of the Apocalypse,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 175–199 and Jacob Baker, “Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children: From Theodicy to Lament,” Sunstone 168 (June 2012).