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At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once. What happened once may be no more than a child falling sick, a thunderstorm, a dream, and yet it made for the face and inside the face a difference which no theology can ever entirely convey or entirely conceal. But for the theologian, it would seem, what happened once, the experience of flesh and blood that may lie at the root of the idea, never appears substantial enough to verify the idea, or at least by his nature the theologian chooses to set forth the idea in another language and to argue for its validity on another basis, and thus between the idea and the experience a great deal intervenes. But there is another class of men at their best they are poets, at their worst artful dodgers for whom the idea and the experience, the idea and the image, remain inseparable, and it is somewhere in this class that I belong. That is to say, I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real.
Let me illustrate by quoting a passage from a novel. A young clergyman away from home stretches out in the grass near his father's barn where certain thingshappen and do not happen.
He closed his eyes in the warm sunlight...and the earth beneath him seemed to tilt this way and that like a great disc. There was the smell of oranges, his arms heavy as stone on the grass. He could hear the buzz of yellow jackets drifting over the compost. Death must come like this. The Reverend Nicolet found behind his father's boardinghouse, no sign of struggle....Only it was not death that was coming, whatever else. His heart pounded, and he did not dare open his eyes not from fear of what he might see but of what he might not see, so sure now, crazily, that if ever it was going to happen, whatever it was that happened joy, Nicolet, joy it must happen now in this unlikely place as always in unlikely places: the road to Damascus, Emmaus, Muscadine, stuffy roomful of frightened Jews smelling of fish. Now, he thought, now, no longer daring not to dare, but opening his eyes to, suddenly, the most superbly humdrum stand of neglected trees with somebody's shoe in the high grass and a broken ladder leaning, the dappled rot of last year's leaves.
"Please," he whispered. Still flat on his back, he stretched out his fists as far as they would reach" Please..." then opened them, palms up, and held them there as he watched for something, for the air to cleave, fold back like a tent flap, to let a splendor through. You prayed to the Christ in the people you knew, the living and the dead: what should you do, who should you be? And sometimes they told you. But to pray now this other prayer, not knowing what you were asking, only "Please, please..." Somewhere a screen door slammed, and all the leaves were still except for one that fluttered like a bird's wing.
"Please come," he said, then "Jesus," swallowing, half blind with the sun in his eyes as he raised his head to look. The air would part like a curtain, and the splendor would not break or bend anything but only fill the empty places between the trees, the trees and the house, between his hands which he brought together now. "Fear not," he thought. He was not afraid. Nothing was happening except that everything that he could see the shabby barn, weeds, orchard had too much the look of nothing happening, a tense, selfconscious innocence that one startled leaf. He listened for "Feed my sheep...feed my lambs..." the old lambs, faces where children lay buried, his children's faces where the old women they would be lay buried: Cornelia, bony and pigeon-breasted at eighty, boring some young divine with memories of "My father..." her eyes blurred behind the heavy lenses. "I believe that once by Grandpa's barn he said he saw ...."
Two apple branches struck against each other with the limber clack of wood on wood. That was all a tick-tock rattle of branches-but then a fierce lurch of excitement at what was only daybreak, only the smell of summer coming, only starting back again for home, but oh Jesus, he thought, with a great lump in his throat and a crazy grin, it was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. just clackclack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world's tongue at the approach of the approach of splendor.
Like most theology, most fiction is of course also at its heart autobiography. In the case of this scene I, as the novelist, was being quite direct. In just such a place on just such a day I lay down in the grass with just such wild expectations. Part of what it means to believe in God, at least part of what it means for me, is to believe in the possibility of miracle, and because of a variety of circumstances I had a very strong feeling at that moment that the time was ripe for miracle, my life was ripe for miracle, and the very strength of the feeling, itself seemed a kind of vanguard of miracle.Alphabet of Grace copyright © by Frederick Buechner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.