He gave me a look, then covered his eyes with his hand. There were elements of grief and frustration in the gesture, and of weariness as well. And I knew what it meant. I said, “I’m afraid I offend you.”
“No, no,” he said. “But I do wish we could speak more -- directly.”
There was a silence. Then he said, “But I thank you for your time,” and stood up to leave.
I said, “Sit down, son. Sit down. Let’s give this another try.”
So we were just quiet there for a while. He took off his necktie and wound it around his hand and showed it to me as though there were something amusing about it and slipped it into his pocket. Finally he said, “When I was small I thought the Lord was someone who lived in the attic and paid for the groceries. That was the last form of religious conviction I have been capable of.” Then he said, “I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Why would that happen, do you think? I mean, that I could never believe a word my poor old father said. Even as a child. When everyone I knew thought it was all, well, everyone thought it was the Gospel.”
“Do you believe any of it now?”
He shook his head. “I can’t say that I do.” He glanced up at me. “I’m trying to be honest.”
“I can see that.”
He said, “I’ll tell you another strange thing. I lie quite a lot, because when I do people believe me. It’s when I try to tell the truth that things go wrong for me.” He laughed and shrugged. “So I know the risk I’m running here.” Then he said, “And in fact, things also go wrong when I lie.”
I asked him what exactly it was that he wanted to tell me.
“Well,” he said, “I believe I put a question to you.”
He had every right to point that out. He had asked a question, and I had avoided responding to it. That’s true. I couldn’t help but notice the edge of irritation in his voice, considering how earnest he seemed to be about keeping the conversation civil.
I said, “I just don’t know how to answer that question. I truly wish I did.”
He folded his arms and leaned back and twitched his foot for a minute. “Does it seem right to you,” he said, “that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or who will? Granting your terms? That between us and you there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”
“I am not sure those are my terms. I would speak of grace in that context,” I said.
“And never of the absence of grace, which would in fact seem to be the issue here. If your terms are granted. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”
“I understand that,” I said.
“So,” he said, after a silence, “you have no wisdom to share with me on this subject.”
I said, “Well, I don’t know quite how to approach it in this case. Do you want to be persuaded of the truth of the Christian religion?”
He laughed. “I’m sure if I were persuaded of it, I would be grateful in retrospect. People generally are, as I understand.”
“Well,” I said, “that doesn’t give me much to work with, does it?”
He just sat there for a while, and then he said, “A friend of mine -- no, not a friend, a man I met in Tennessee -- had heard about this town, and he had also heard of your grandfather. He told me some stories about the old days in Kansas that his father had told him. He said that during the Civil War Iowa had a colored regiment.”
“Yes, we did. And a graybeard regiment, and a Methodist regiment, as they called it. They were teetotalers, at any rate.”
“I was interested to learn that there was a colored regiment,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought there were ever that many colored people in this state.”
“Oh yes. Quite a few colored people came up from Missouri in the days before the war. And I think quite a few came up the Mississippi Valley, too.”
He said, “When I was growing up, there were some Negro families in this town.”
I said, “Yes, there were, but they left some years ago.”
“I remember hearing about a fire at their church.”
“Oh yes, but that was many years ago, when I was a boy. And it was only a small fire. There was very little damage.”
“So they’re all gone now.”
“Yes, they are. It’s a pity. We have several new Lithuanian families. Of course they’re Lutheran.”
He laughed. He said, “It is a pity that they’re gone.” And he seemed to ponder it for a while.
Then he said, “You admire Karl Barth.” And I believe it was here he began to speak out of that anger of his, that sly, weary anger I have never been able to deal with. He was always smart as the devil, and serious as the devil, too. I should have known he’d have read Karl Barth.
I said, “Yes, I do admire him. Very much.”
“But he seems to have very little respect for American religion. Don’t you agree? He is quite candid about it.”
“He has been very critical of European religion also,” I said, which is true. And yet even at the time I recognized that my reply was somewhat evasive. So did young Boughton, as I could tell by his expression, which was not exactly a smile.
He said, “He takes it seriously, though. He thinks it’s worth quarreling with.”
“Granted.” That is certainly true, too.
Then he asked, “Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?”
“Not really,” I said, which surprised me, since I have wondered about that very thing any number of times.