A few years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s online version of the paper. I did it not only to read Faye Flam’s column “Planet of the Apes,” my weekly spiritual challenge workout, but also for sentimental reasons and that New Hope is in the greater Philadelphia area. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography will be able to infer why one might feel nostalgic for New Hope. The setting of most of that book is New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place near Philadelphia and nearer and dearer yet to my heart. If you have been there, you may have at least a general impression of why that might be the case. If you have not been there and you happen to have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a town of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is a very modern place, avant-garde is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. Most of the folks who live there are progressive, inclusive, sometimes open-minded to a fault; that fault, of course, is that sometimes an open-minded person becomes quite close-minded if the person with whom he or she is conversing is not as receptive to new ideas.
On the other hand, it is a very old place, a place not simply steeped in tradition but equally as much in the history that undergirds that tradition. New Hope is itself a stone’s throw away from Washington’s Crossing State Park, a place the records and preserves the memory of a vital moment in our country’s history. The Fourth of July and that holiday’s incumbent fireworks are serious things in New Hope—the entire Delaware River that separates that hamlet from Lambertville lights up with them, and they’re set off, to this day, I believe, from the bank parking lot. Never mind that the bank is now a Starbucks. It serves the same purpose as the bank, for it’s a place to bump into friends. Those would now likely be folks who used to live there and are back in town, like you, for nostalgic reasons, as the locals have all changed from the old days—well most of them. I think I saw James Martin, our famous woodworker, downtown walking his dog the last time I was there. But perhaps I did not. Perhaps that was just a vision of the old days, when I would see him nearly every day, completely unaware of the depth of his learning under the Japanese master Nakashima, or even the heights to which he had taken that learning.
Indeed, many of the old locals who still abide have migrated to Solebury, which has its own particular quaintness. Some have always lived there, but come downtown less frequently than they used to. “It’s the crowds,” Brad Livzey told me when I last saw him and asked him how often he went into town. “There are just too many people. I get down to Fran’s Pub every once in a while, but honestly, it’s just too crowded—too much traffic.”
And he’s right, all that quaintness makes for a lot of traffic. But to come back to my discussion of that series in the Inquirer to which I alluded earlier. I read it along time ago now, but it is more or less the same as all the others she has written since; in fact, I think she now longer writes it, but rather only a variation on it for another venue, eschewing, even barring God from any aspect of our existence. That article was by Faye Flam, who I imagine still writes a column on how science has solved humanity’s problems and religion and spiritual things are stuff and nonsense. But Faye is really refreshingly honest about it. I actually love that column, because in it she touches upon the question of what is a choice, when it comes to faith, and what is not. And yes, as she says there, “People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.” I think she’s exactly right. I think I respect my friends who are atheists sometimes more than those who are believers, because I don’t know how they get through the day, indeed.
That said, I thought I’d close this week’s blog with a poem, one written for none other than Faye herself. Now I am not the first to have responded to Faye’s positions, as some have done so with reasoned and passionate prose, but I may just be the first in verse. It’s a playful ditty, meant not just for her, of course, but for us all, calling us all, if we can hear the call—Faye suggest we can’t, though I suspect at some deep spiritual level (concerning the idea of free will) she is wrong—to rethink our positions. But that’s the progressive child of New Hope in me, calling on all of us to rethink our assumptions. We could be wrong, and we must admit that. Indeed, the person of faith, the normal, boring churchgoing Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic knows that; they fight some battle for some minor doctrinal point, about which they could have it round about and upside down. But they also know one more thing: God can’t be wrong and won’t be restrained by our faith or lack thereof. And that is, to the believer, a great comfort. That is faith.
A Letter (or Two) for Faye
Ah, Faye, it will not go away,
No matter what you say, it’s here to stay—
Faith, I mean. And like your name, Faye,
You’re almost there, but need just two letters to complete
What comes in a gentle whisper. And wouldn’t it be neat,
If you knew which two, and could do that feat,
Could make your name and all your ideas whole?
Aye, from your tongue rich and raucous laughter would then roll;
And yet, without those two, what you write is just another way to extol
Empty science, which like empty faith, is void
Of all meaning, and just gets you annoyed
and makes you feel like Sigmund Freud.
On a overcast day, when everything’s symbolic
And the best arguments are simply vitriolic
So you (and I) drink like an alcoholic.
But that’s off topic, Faye, you know,
And I just want to tell you so
About those letters—were they ‘e’ and ‘o’?
No, no, one was an ‘H’, an ‘H’ for the ‘Here I am,’
That Abram heard from the Lamb that made the ram—
The very letter that completed AbraHam.
That’s the same voice, small and still
That spoke to Moses on the holy hill
That does not compete with science but by its will
Completes it, Faye, you see. Or do you see?
The other letter’s like what St. Peter calls a tree,
But means a cross, that is, a “T”.
For on that cross, dear Faye, a bridge was built
Over the river of sin, and past the mire pits of guilt
That makes those insipid disagreements over evolution wilt
By comparison. For to compare God and science, Faye,
You know, it’s silly, really—not to take away from what you say,
Or how strongly your readers feel when they repay
Your invitation to relate their strong opinions, some “for God”
Some “against.” And don’t you find it strangely odd,
That whether we shake our head or nod,
At the end of the day, Faye, He is, like science, here to stay,
And just like science, has much to say to our tomorrow and today?
But with this difference: his is the small still voice that can add, merely with two letters, true life to Faye.