After a conversation with a Catholic friend the other day, I got to thinking about the nature of revelation. My friend and I believe the same exact good news—that God orchestrated his son’s human birth and death and coming back to life so that we humans could live forever—but we come to it so differently: my friend through tradition mainly, beliefs passed down and solidified over the centuries since Jesus’ time, and I mainly on the basis of what Jesus’ friends and their followers wrote down long after he left them.
If my friend and I were to argue the superiority of our respective views—which we do not, being content to share the essence of our faith, if not the minutiae of how we came to embrace it in the first place—we would soon reach an argumentative impasse. My friend’s sources are certainly older, since the passing down was already happening when Jesus still walked among us and words still dropped from his tongue and people around him were still being amazed by the miracles he performed in their midst. I would argue that, while my sources are centuries younger, they were surely more authoritative for having been written down rather than left to a millennia-long game of telephone, in which the message changes, often comically, every time it’s passed from mouth to ear. He would surely counter that mindless adherence to an ancient book produces its own, often comical, misunderstandings about God, and I would have to agree. And so it would go. If, that is, we lowered ourselves and risked our friendship to argue in this way. But, as I say, we don’t.
It struck me in thinking about this non-argument, though, how crucial a role words and books do play in my faith—even though, as the apostle Paul rightly asserts, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Even small children, incapable of reading, can know God—as I did when I was little—just as non-literate believers have throughout the centuries.
Faith, in other words, does not have to depend on written words. And yet, for many of us—for me—it does. Or, perhaps not faith itself but faith growth.
And although my friend might argue that my dependence on specific words and passages of scripture surely limits my capacity to believe, I am confident that, in the main, the Bible enlarges my faith, challenging me to see and hear and inhabit the world differently than is my wont and to recognize God in it more readily. So, too, do other books. Something about words, written down, demands reflection.
So, it seems to me, we writers of books have a significant role to play in the furthering and nurturing of faith. And, though God is bigger than anything we or the biblical writers of old can convey, bigger indeed than the Bible itself, we have a rare responsibility. We govern unseen cities already, through our words, and tutor the very children of God.