I HEAR THE CREAKING of a chair being tipped back on its hind legs. "Sir, this is all fairly effective in a literary sort of way, I suppose, but since you have already put most of it in a novel, I'm afraid it's a little stale."
My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I've ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. "You know, you were just getting down to the one thing people might be interested in," he says, "because it is always interesting to hear why a man believes what he believes. But then instead of giving it to them straight, you started paraphrasing from a work of your own fiction. I've heard you do the same sort of thing in sermons. Just as you are about to reach what ought to be the real nub of the matter, you lapse off into something that in the words of one of your early reviewers is either poetry or Williams' Aqua Velva. I would hesitate to use the phrase "artful dodger" if you hadn't already used it artfully yourself. Why don't you really tell them this time? Give it to them straight?"
God. Jesus. The ministry, of all things. Why I believe. He cannot possibly want me to give it straight any more than I want myself to give it straight, get it straight once and for all. For my own sake. I tell him this, and he brushes his hand over his mouth to conceal the glimmer of a smile.
"A question then," he says. "Have you ever had what you yourself consider a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience?"
There are these things I have already mentioned—the monastery visit, the great laughter sermon, the apple tree branches. They all really happened, I tell him, and I don't see why just because I've used them already in a novel I shouldn't use them again now. And the dream of writing the name on the bar. I really dreamed it. God knows I know what he means about artful dodging, but what can be straighter than telling the actual experiences themselves? What more can he want?
"I just told you," he says, "what I want."
Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.
- Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace