Letters to a Young Doubter

By William Sloane Coffin

As most Reflections readers already know, Bill Coffin, former Yale Chaplain and mentor to so many of us over the years, is not well. His body has been weakened by a stroke and terminal heart disease, but his mind, wit, and spirit still soar. Credo, a compendium of fifty years of his sermons, speeches and writings, was published to great acclaim in the winter 2004. A major biography by Warren Goldstein titled William Sloan Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience came out in the spring of 2004. But leave it to Bill to have the last word!

The texts printed below are excerpts from his latest publication, Letters to a Young Doubter, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press. Inspired by the premise of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bill has written a series of twenty-eight letters to “Tom,” a bright college freshman. Though separated in age by nearly sixty years, an engaging correspondence sparks the thinking of the energetic student and the Emeritus Yale Chaplain. As with the letters of Paul, we do not see the letters to which Bill is replying. But each one leaves us wanting to read more as well as know what prompted those available to us. His responses remind us what a gracious pastor as well and great preacher Bill has been for so many generations of students and for those of us who want to think of ourselves as lifelong learners.


Dear Tom,

As your answer for narcissism you offer humility defined as objectivity—being objective about your strengths and shortcomings. I like that. The only drawback is the one noted by Thoreau: a man can no more see himself than he can look backward without turning around.

And now you ask “How did you get religious?” (Long day ahead!)

I will tell you how I became a Christian. By similar paths I could as easily have become a Jew or Moslem. I say this because the instinct to love God and neighbor is equally at the heart of Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. All three faiths are different, but not different up or different down—just different with a lot to learn from one another.

I’m tempted to say I lost the battle to be anything but religious. The first reason was four years in the military during and right after World War II. The brutalities I witnessed made short shrift of my boyhood innocence, any naïve idealism I might have had. In Europe I found out that Nazis could spend their days gassing Jews and their evenings listening to Beethoven’s Razoumovsky quartets; the heroic adventures of the Soviet armies were accompanied by pillage and rape; and I heard more than one Frenchwoman confess, “I hate to say this but it felt safer when the Germans were here.”

I didn’t grieve my lost innocence. In the sullied stream of human life, innocence is not an option. Endearing in kids, it’s a lethal form of denial in adults. As Graham Greene was to write in his ’50s novel, The Quiet American, innocence should wander the world wearing a leper’s bell.

So I came to college in the fall of ‘47 primed with the right questions, which is important because few things are more irrelevant than answers to unasked questions. I wanted to know how humanity could be so inhuman. Conversely, why does a soldier fall on the grenade there is no time to throw back? 

(Among other questions there was none about joining Zeta Zeta Zeta. I may sound old and crabby, Tom, but I continue to view fraternities as monuments to irrelevance. To put a prejudiced person in a fraternity and expect him to become broad-minded is about as realistic as putting a wino in a wine cellar and expecting him to lay off the bottle.)

Once in college I searched hard for answers. I read the French existentialists—”crisis thinkers”—Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Malraux, and especially Albert Camus, all professed atheists. Also I steeped myself in Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, all profound theologians. My mind went toward atheists but my heart was pulled towards the theologians. They too knew what hell was all about but in the depts of it they found a heaven which made more sense out of everything, much as light gives meaning to darkness.

Sensing a troubled soul, a small band of Christian students came to convert me. But their answers seemed too pat, their submission to God too ready. It occurred to me that as with parents, so with God; too easy a submission is but a façade for repressed rebellion. Besides, they didn’t look redeemed!

Actually I was right about their repressed rebellion. When I told them it was time for us to part company, their leader said with a sweetness that thinly veiled his hostility, “Well, Bill, you’ll always be on our prayer list.” I couldn’t help but ask, “And how does your prayer list differ from your shit list?”

More helpful was singing in the University Chapel choir, two anthems every Sunday. And I listened to what was said in the sermons and prayers. I remember well the first Sunday I really heard the Episcopal invocation that begins: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid….” Who in the world, I wondered, would want to believe in a God that saw that much?

Then the prayer goes on: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit….” Why the thoughts of our hearts and not our minds?

For a good week, I worried that question. Then I realized that while the heart may have its reasons about which the mind knows nothing (you remember Pascal?) the mind has hardly any thoughts that are not in some way connected to the heart. If you have a heart of stone you can dissect bugs but you can’t understand, let alone enter deeply into, human relations. But a heart full of love has a limbering effect on the mind. Faith is not a substitute for thinking; it should help make good thinking possible. In fact, love calls for the utmost in clear-sightedness, all of which I later found out was well understood by Roman Catholics who called prudence the first of the four cardinal virtues. Prudentia really means “damn good thinking.”

The upshot of all this puzzling was positive. I started, à la Rilke, “to love the questions” and “to live into the answers,” waiting patiently for the disclosure of more. Following the advice of Alcoholics Anonymous I decided to commit as much of myself as I could to as much of God as I believed in. That struck me as an honest way of proceeding.

Sunday by Sunday Jesus became more and more real to me. I loved the way he relied on narrative and example rather than on precept and principle. What he said, what he did, struck me as words and deeds of “breathtaking rightness.” In the sullied stream of life, not innocence but holiness was the option he offered. And holiness didn’t mean being upright (read “uptight”) but rather knowing such a joy that could absorb all sorrow, a hope that could surmount despair, and that caring is the greatest thing in life (read: tough-minded unsentimental love).

But while I could converse with Jesus I still couldn’t pray to God, mostly I think, because in a world of pain I simply couldn’t believe in a God immune from it.

One Sunday, however, I was brought up short. If what was so admirable about Jesus was the fact that from the outer periphery to his inner core creed and deed were one, who would know more about the existence of God—Jesus or myself? It was a little hard to say, “Naturally I do.” 

Gradually the dazzling truth dawned on me—although it was not high noon for a few more years. Finally in seminary I saw that Jesus was both a mirror to humanity and a window to divinity, the modest amount given to mortal eyes to see. God was not confined to Jesus but to Christians at least essentially defined by Jesus. When we see Jesus scorning the powerful, empowering the weak, healing the hurt, always returning good for evil, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. So as regards the divinity of Christ, what’s finally important is less that Christ be God-like, more that God is Christ-like. That means that in the world of pain God is anything but immune from it. “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Maybe it’s the pain and not the peace of God that “passes all understanding.” And to think that the magnitude of human malpractice notwithstanding, there is more mercy in God than sin in us. How have we confidence in that knowledge? “Through Jesus Christ our Lord,” the proper way to end all Christian prayers.

Now my question to you, dear Tom, is: “Do you think God is too hard to believe in, or too good to believe in, we being strangers to such goodness?”

Love the question!


PS: This was a long letter. Your fault!


Dear Tom,

Your response was terrific. I could see your mother, father, and you in the midst of that crowded room in the fancy restaurant, and your dad snuffling away saying, “He loves us, he loves us.”

What a landmark moment! Why were you embarrassed and not elated? How many sons get to see their father cry, for any reason, let alone for the continued love of a son?

I hope you’re not as those who never cry. Listen. A short time ago I asked a friend, an 85-year-old retired Yale professor, “What makes you cry?” He answered, “Whenever I see or hear the truth.”

All wise people think tragically because tragedy teaches us less to indict and more to reflect. And reflections, particularly on personal sorrows, which should include the sorrows of the world, stir deep emotions. At such moments tears are God-sent to cleanse the heart of bitterness, rage, and grief. If you read The Fountain you’ll find Melville’s comment that “rainbows do not visit the clear air, they only irradiate vapor.” Put differently, the heart would see no rainbow had the eye no tear.

I know you are far too deep to be a chirping optimist, but in being courageous stay clear of the stoicism which stunts your emotional growth.

As I recall, January is the time to bone up for the first semester finals. May you happily reach a peak of knowledge and may each exam spark a new insight.

Bonne chance,



Dear Tom, 

I’m glad that you have started going back to church “with a profound and critical humility.” That will allow you to question all things earthly while being open to intuitions of some things heavenly! 

At the wedding of my beloved stepson, his mother said a wonderful thing: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” By going to class, you’re putting yourself in the way of information and thought, and by going to church you are putting yourself in the way of gorgeous music and spiritual truths concerning yourself, the world and God. Taking it all in is not of course automatic. Some people go to church to make their last stand against God. They don’t worship God, they deify their own virtue. (Those damn idols again!)

My own advice for church going is to experience first, soak in the hymns and anthems, the prayers and sermon—then only later, analyze.

Never become dogmatic. Dogma’s fine—being dogmatic isn’t. Just as doctrines can be fine, being doctrinaire, never.

Allow your imagination free reign. Don’t be as some American jurists who carp constantly about what they call “original intent,” about what exactly our forebears had in mind when writing the American Constitution. They remind me of a magic hour I once spent with an original copy of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas. All the dynamics were there, even some fingering. Still, no two pianists play the sonatas alike. Interpretation is inevitable, and more than that, desirable. So it is with the Constitution and the Bible: we have both to recover tradition and to recover from it. Only so can the laws of our land and our religious beliefs remain meaningful.

Elie Wiesel once noted that “words can sometimes in moments of Grace, attain the qualities of ‘deeds.’” I think he meant that words can truly empower us. This is true of biblical stories, of the Psalms, of the words of the prophets and the Gospel, not to mention St. Paul. And the stories don’t all have to be literally true. “A myth,” said Thomas Mann, “is a truth that is, and always will be, no matter how much we try to say it was.” The truth of a myth is not literally true, only eternally so. The Bible is full of wonderfully imaginative myths like the one of Adam and Eve, and the story of their sons Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel—the first recorded murder in the Bible is a fratricide! (Go interpret!)

The Bible dares my imagination to do more, more even than do Shakespeare and Blake. May it do the same for you in church and in the first-rate Bible course you say you intend to take.

I was moved by your telling me that while God is still a mystery, “Jesus is my kind of guy.” Then let me end as did St. Paul his first letter to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 



From uncorrected proofs of William Sloan Coffin’s forthcoming Letters to a Young Doubter, which will be available in bookstores nationwide July 2005. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.