What If You Don’t Come Back?

 

512px-Handwritten_letter_by_Descartes_December_1638

Dear Russell,

If it felt like an ambush, it wasn’t meant to be.  We had our fourth détente on Friday night.  Howie and Mrs. Howie joined us.  Two new friends rounded out the eight at the table.  Vance and his bride couldn’t attend and we all missed them.  Toward the end of four fruitful hours of conversation I looked at J (CC) and said, “I think it is unlikely that Russell will return to faith.”  And then the slow motion began.

Why would I say such a thing about you after meeting regularly for over a year?  What did I mean by it?  Did I realize the effect it could have on your best friend?  She likened it to a cancer diagnosis.

Why say it?  I didn’t say it out of despair, disregard, disdain, or hopelessness.  I’ve spent over a year trying to learn your language – – one that I don’t naturally speak.  I tend to speak and think narratively.  You tend to speak and think paradigmatically.  They are both valid and can complement each other beautifully.  After a year of reading what you read and reading what you write, I think it is unlikely that your criteria to come back to faith will be met.  And that’s okay.  We can continue to model a friendship going forward.  I said it largely in support of the theme I come back to frequently in our conversations – – be truthful.  It is better to declare where you are and who you are than to keep a tenuous tally on who knows what when.  There is less cognitive burden, and I argue, less internal strife.

What did I mean by it?  I certainly did not mean that I can or will judge your soul.  The God who made you knows you in a way that I never could – – knows you in a way that you can’t even know yourself.  That God loves you and my love for you is a faint reflection.  But I do love you.  I want the best for you and for your family.  I want you and J to thrive and for your girls to be able to face the world honestly and with hope.  You are very quickly approaching the honest questions of a precocious child – – and evasion is not the best path.

Did I realize the effect this could have on your best friend?  I think that I did.  One of the first things we talked about one-to-one, then with J at the détente table, was your fear that she would take the girls and leave when you first expressed your doubts.  I don’t think that is in her character.  If she stays a believer there is a clear scriptural imperative for her to stay. But your very reason for doubt centers on the unreliability of scripture.  So I did understand your worry and promised you both that Mrs. Pascal and I would stand for your marriage.  I loathe divorce (not the people broken by it).  I felt that your bride introduced us and in part encouraged this blog in an effort to bring you back to faith so that you both could regain that point of shared experience and strength.  I felt that she experienced your doubts through the lens of a wife who loved and through the words of a husband who loved.  You have never been antagonistic to believers in your doubts – – especially not to the believer with whom you share your life.  Was it my place to speak this to you both?  Only you can answer. I waited for two and a half years and dedicated hundreds of hours of thought, reading, writing and prayer – – tens of hours in face to face conversation.  I hope that I earned the trust to speak truth.

What if you don’t come back?  I’m your friend and will stay.  I stand for your marriage and for your loyalty as a husband and father.  I count you as evidence that one can love deeply while not believing that God is in his heavens or that Jesus walked the earth as his sign of compassion.  I will continue to listen and to write with you and will try to stand on the bridge between those who follow Christ, follow other gods, or follow none at all.

Pascal

–1:16

20 comments

  1. Dear Pascal, while I appreciate your honesty with Russell and others I will say that I believe it was wrong for you to make such a pronouncement out loud. Your year (or more) of being a faithful friend by walking through another’s doubts is commendable and it is perhaps a healthy thing to admit where things actually stand and to accept Russell just as he is. But God’s love is tenacious and never gives up. So, whose to say if Russell will never come back to faith? And whose to say what that would even look like? I’m not sure how your words could be interpreted by Russell and J for anything other than “I give up.” Don’t give up. Be realistic, but don’t give up.

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    1. Hi Quixie – just wanted to let you know that Pascal wasn’t saying that Russell for sure will never return to faith. In fact I even clarified this with him at the dinner table when he said it – I told him even I leave the possibility open for myself though I have been an atheist for 20 years. He confirmed that he meant “unlikely” and that is what he wrote in this post. I believe Pascal is simply “being realistic” which is what you are suggesting he do.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s funny that you say that Quixie—Pascal actually turned to me right after he said those words and said, “J, this doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Do you understand the difference?” I told him I did. I wrote this in my reply to Howie below, but I’ll say it here too. I don’t think Pascal was wrong—I understand the “odds”. And I know his intentions were in no way cruel. I was just caught off guard. His calm reassurance has meant a lot to me over the past 2+ years—at least someone believed I would return to faith, and maybe he was right. Maybe that has partly been what has kept my heart open. Would I be where I am if he had said in the beginning that he didn’t think I would ever return to faith? I don’t know. I had never heard him speak with a negative expectation. I had heard him speak more of a God with a tenacious love, just as you said. I don’t think his words will affect my husband’s outcome (he is less impacted than I am by assurances or expectations of any kind)—I just didn’t see that those words would be helpful to anyone. Honestly, it’s been hard to hear almost everyone tell me “Maybe you needed to hear it”—even if they’re right. My husband hasn’t said that at all. You haven’t either, and I appreciate your comment. Just know that Pascal was trying to be honest and still made it clear that he wasn’t giving up and that he would love Russell no matter what. I was hurt, but that’s in my pink circle, not his. I saw you’re a new follower of mine (thanks!) so read my Pink Circle post if you need help understanding that reference 🙂

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      1. Thanks for your comment and clarification CC. I figured there was more to the story, but had a visceral reaction to the idea that Pascal might be giving up on his friend. You guys are SO awesome for blogging about your honest exchanges. It gives me so much hope. I really appreciate it. I will check out your Pink Circle post.

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        1. Quixie,

          I’m so glad you’re here and very glad that you share my heart for a dear friend. I can’t really put it better than J or Howie even though I said it. I share your belief that God pursues and I’ll never stop being Russell’s friend or praying for him (usually when I run). I’ll address my friend J (CC) below.

          Pascal

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          1. Thanks Pascal for your response. I just couldn’t fathom you giving up on your friend! The thought broke my heart. Although to be honest I didn’t fully believe that was the case but I wanted reassurance. Thanks for giving it. By the way, I absolutely love that you write about your friendship and journey through faith and doubts together. It really does give me a lot of hope. 😊

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  2. There’s trouble ahead, if a man based his friendship with another man solely on a shared faith, and is willing to hang in there and hope and pray when that other man enters a “dark night of the soul” because if that man never comes back to faith, then nothing remains as a basis for the friendship, so constituted, to continue. It becomes as shallow as the notoriety of the Kardashians, who are famous only for being famous. So I would counsel that man that if he prayed for the other man to come back to faith, that he do it in his prayer closet, and not tell that man, for it might give him the impression that the friendship is based only on being “brothers in Christ”, and I would counsel that man to cultivate the friendship in other ways, or to be truthful and break it off.

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    1. Thankfully we heeded your counsel before you offered it. Our friendship is based on much more than being brothers in Christ. Russell had declared himself an atheist before we met. That said, I believe in deep friendships with human beings. Russell and I share a moral code and many things in common even our shared faith never returns.

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  3. Hi Pascal,

    I hesitate to write here as this is such an emotionally charged issue for everyone, and I am not immune to those emotions myself. While I struggled to write it, I stand by my comment I wrote on J’s blog, and Tammy really said much of what I think in this comment of hers.

    I have too many conflicting thoughts/emotions to really write anything coherent here for you, Pascal. When I spoke with Russell on Saturday morning I think the only thing I said correct was “this is so difficult and I hate it that it has to be this way”.

    I’ve even thought about gathering up the very best apologetics to help my friends return to belief, but given previous face to face conversations to that effect I don’t think that will help. And I also wonder about how long we want to subject Russell to all this – pardon another medical analogy, but it almost seems like he’s on the operating table. Oh, I know he can handle pretty much anything, and I know you guys don’t see it as an operation, but he’d likely much prefer to be reading science fiction novels instead. And at the same time I see how painful this is for J, so I’m quite conflicted about all of this.

    However, through all of this I am still confident that better days are ahead no matter what worldviews they land on. Partly because time heals, partly because I know there are many ways to skin a cat, and maybe most of all because I know they are surrounded by so many good friends who are willing to help.

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    1. Howie,

      I’m so glad that you overcame your hesitation. Your words to J on her blog and those of Tammy were a healing balm. I read every word of J’s post and every comment. Twice. I think you (and Russell and J) get what I meant. My love for Russell is not based on his following Christ, and I think that J needs to seriously consider a world where he doesn’t come back to faith, but remains a faithful husband and engaged loving father. One test of true friendship is this – – can you say something the other does not want to hear, then stay with them if they never become who you dream them to be? Russell’s responses to me offline have been gracious and we’re meeting again on Thursday morning. We plan to talk about science fiction.

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  4. I don’t really see this as an operation, Howie. I don’t think Russell does, either. Russell can at times grow weary as Pascal does, especially when the conversation is the way it has been for the past few weeks. That’s okay—the conversation can take a different turn. Russell can read something just for fun or to gain knowledge in a different area—it doesn’t have to be N.T. Wright. Pascal can read something he wants to read—it doesn’t have to be Bart Ehrman or David Fitzgerald. I currently have 20 pages left in The One World Schoolhouse by Sal Khan, and then I’m moving on to Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen—so even I’m taking a break from my inner conflict. We’re all going to be okay.

    Pascal didn’t seek us out to evangelize us. We chose him, and we still do. His goal was never to convince Russell—just to learn to understand and love the skeptic. Many in the church have failed, if they have even cared to try. Pascal isn’t doing this to convert us, and Russell isn’t doing this to somehow appease me or convince Pascal to abandon his faith. He does this for the sake of anyone who might desire understanding, both now and in the future. He does it because he’ll never stop seeking and exploring truth, wherever that takes him.

    I hope they keep writing (and according to Pascal’s post, it sounds like they will). I would love to see Pascal walk (crawl?) through Romans. I would love to see Russell write about raising our children and about living well even without faith. Détente is important to us, too. It brought you into our lives—even though we met you privately before it, I only ever reached out to you in the first place with the intent of someday having you there. We want to keep meeting there, if Pascal is willing. Last Friday was hard for me near the end—but last month energized me and gave me two new friends I have kept up with since then (I wish you had met them!). Either way, our schedules demand a break for the summer.

    So don’t worry—Russell doesn’t feel subjected or operated upon in any way. I was honestly more worried about Pascal when we argue with the scripture he loves. And how painful can things really be for me? I’m married to Russell, and he loves me. I have friends—you and Pascal included. I have the honor of demonstrating my love and loyalty to my husband even though we may disagree on one of the most important matters. Even if I never have a faith that could convince him, I hope I can develop a faith that he finds beautiful even at the end of my life when youthful beauty is gone.

    I’m sorry for shutting down on Friday night—I hadn’t expected those words (at least not in that setting). They don’t change what is, though—they are simply Pascal’s interpretation, and he has earned the right to share that. His saying that he doesn’t expect it to be so does not mean that it will never be so, and the hope that Russell and I have can continue just the same. Pascal can have that hope too, even if he doesn’t think it’s likely that anything will change. His words were not wrong, by the way—I’m just surprised that he said them.

    One thing I want anyone in our circle to know: Even if all hope is lost (which I don’t really believe is ever a possibility), I will love my husband as long as we live.

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    1. Yeah, the word operation wasn’t right at all. Dang medical metaphors – I should have known better than to use one when I’m an engineer. Kind of hard to think up a computer chip metaphor though. 🙂

      J, I think you know by now I’m here to offer any support you two need. I keep telling myself to be more of an ear than a mouth, but my mouth (or fingers) won’t listen. But I’m still sticking with the part I wrote that I said I was correct about in my second paragraph of my previous comment. 🙂

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      1. Howie, you’re awesome. But please, no computer chip metaphors. Save those for Russell ;). We’re thankful for you.

        I will be fine—I’ve had some time to process what Pascal said, and I’m okay.

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    2. Hello friend. I’ll visit your blog and post too. The choosing was mutual and I stand by it. You don’t need to apologize for shutting down. I’ve also been processing what I said, why I said it, and what to do next. I believe that Russell is the most respectful person that I’ve met. I do think that he’ll find your faith beautiful and acknowledge that while your intellect is singular, it is in no way inferior to his. He can do differential calculus. You can read Proust. He and I will meet Thursday and I plan to join him at the table next week for support. Even though the circle is yours, I grieve that I broached it. I know you know that I pray for and work for your family’s good.

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  5. I think I’m with Pascal on this. Not that I am particularly well qualified to offer this opinion as I don’t know any of the regular contributors to the blog and comments.

    It’s possible to be friends without seeing eye to eye, but endless debates make life unbearable when it’s just a back and forth, eventually just going through the motions. Some people love it but it can become wearing for others.

    Christians are never, to my knowledge, directed to save people, either friends or strangers. We may be given a part to play, as in 1 Cor 3:6 “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase”. We should speak the truth, preach the Gospel, be unwavering in doing what’s right, but salvation comes from confessing Christ and believing in your heart (Rom 10:9).

    We can argue and debate, dig deep, play on words, and joust verbally, but faith isn’t an intellectual state and God won’t be found simply through intellectual reasoning. All that we rely on has to be stripped away to show there’s only Christ.

    I wonder if it’s possible to be saved and then unsaved? Or is it most likely that a person wasn’t quite saved. The first part of Romans 10:9 “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus” is a place many people get to and they say the words, change their lives and play the part. But the second part “and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead” is too difficult for some to truly embrace. This is the acid test – the go/no go gauge – leading to the final part “thou shalt be saved”.

    Be friends, discuss belief if it pops up, but don’t strive, Pascal, because the journey is Russell’s. Be there when Russell needs support but avoid involvement in intellectual stuff. 2 Tim 2 says:

    22 Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

    23 But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes.

    24 And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,

    I wish all well and encourage Russell to seek God and not proof, and Pascal to be supportive and spend more time with like-minded followers of Christ.

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    1. Hello nljs,

      I appreciate your comment, but I do think we disconnect a bit. I love the intellectual stuff – – I just have a differently constructed intellect than Russell. I love the science stuff – – truth is truth – – he and I just draw different conclusions from the data. And I love him – – a very tall, quite unique brother.

      The purpose of my comment was not to announce my decampment back to the flock. Jesus left the 99 to seek the 1. No – – my purpose was to offer the same incisive analysis to him that he offers to me not in retaliation, but in preparation. I’ve read many de-conversion stories since we began this journey and the logic is strikingly similar to Russell’s and understandably resistant to deconstruction. Yet I’ve seen Christ followers and skeptics in faithful marriages with kids who understand the different ways that Mom and Dad see the world.

      You are right about striving. Our time was more precious when I learned his mind and heart and encouraged him to be an engaged father and husband. That is where we’ll return. I never meant to neglect that in favor of convincing him, but I’m afraid that to some extent – – I did.

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      1. Your friendship for Russell, Pascal, is highly valuable (I would have said “worth its weight in gold” but I’m not sure that makes sense in this context). Perhaps I lack patience or distrust intellectual intercourse because it rarely clarifies anything but seems to tie things up in ropes and knots and what-ifs.

        You are most certainly a better friend to Russell, and very probably a better testimony to the love of God, than I think I could be.

        Walking away (from friendship, marriage, children) because of differences wasn’t what I had in mind. Once we’re in, we’re in. I just feel that, having said something, it’s best to leave it there and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Sorry if it seemed otherwise.

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        1. We have connected again. Thank you so much for reading and writing with us. It is hard to do this in public, but somehow, we both think this discourse is needed in our generation.

          Blessings,
          pascal

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