So let others admire and extol him who claims to be able to comprehend Christianity. . . . I regard it then as a plain duty to admit that one neither can nor shall comprehend it. The Sickness Unto Death, Søren Kierkegaard
When I place my five-month-old granddaughter Lucy on a blanket on my kitchen table, and I help her stretch by rubbing her feet, legs, and arms in what my wife Genie calls “Lucy’s Grandpa spa,” everything fades away—bills, the economy, who got elected, even the background “sound track” of my impending doom, that ticking clock of aging, never too far below the surface these days. Lucy loves stretching after her naps. She smiles and looks into my eyes with such contentment that I feel transported to a place beyond time and reckoning where nothing exists but my hunger to reward this little girl’s love.
I find myself praying, “Lord, may none but loving arms ever hold her.” That prayer has nothing to do with theology. I’d pray it whether I believed there is a God or not, for the same reason that on a lovely spring morning when I’m looking at the view of the river that flows past our home I sometimes exclaim, “That’s beautiful!” out loud, even when I’m alone.
Genie and I offered my son John and his wife Becky a place to live while they got on their feet financially. It has been a long haul since John unexpectedly volunteered to serve in the Marines right out of high school, was deployed to war several times, returned home, concluded his time of service, went to the University of Chicago, married Becky, graduated from U of C with honors, had Lucy, and started a new job. This is the son I was on my knees praying for while he was being shot at. He came home! My son’s baby daughter Lucy is in my arms! Life is sweet! When I hold Lucy, belief in God seems natural.
Why do I write about faith and/or include religion and religious people in so many of my books? What’s it to me if I disagree with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists? First, one writes about the life one has experienced. I’ve lived religion. Second, I don’t like to be forced to choose between lousy alternatives. Third, I think that I keep writing about faith because my faith needs affirmation.
One person running around shouting “Jesus saves!” or throwing stones at the Devil while circling a large black rock, or proposing that science is the alternative to religion sometimes appears crazy, even to himself or herself. Fill a church with a thousand people moaning, “Lord have mercy,” or pack a million pilgrims on their hajj around that rock, or fill a classroom with students applauding someone’s declaration of atheism, and each member of the group can say to himself or herself, “So many of us can’t be wrong! There must be something to this!”
Speaking of God, there are thousands of books hanging around in my house worrying me. In those books are tens of millions of words. None of those words (including these) explain why the greatest pleasure that I experience during any given day is when I lose myself in the small yet overwhelming presence of my granddaughter. Caring for Lucy feels as if I’m diving through warm, crystal clear water above some shimmering Mediterranean reef. Body temperature and water match. Everything is stunningly beautiful. I disappear. The usual selfish “me” that is the sum total of my genes and/or God/Mom/Dad/whatever–induced worries, is temporarily forgotten.
The experience evokes the fondest of childhood memories, of being once again truly carefree, as I was when my family traveled by train each year from our home in Switzerland to Portofino, Italy, where we vacationed, where sand and sea, freedom to wander, and the blood-warm water and languid pace of life left such a lasting impression of joy that the childhood memory of “my” Italy defines happiness for me fifty years later. So it is with Lucy; I stop worrying when I hold her, and simply am.
Thanking someone for Lucy seems natural to me. I pray even though I’m a “faith person” who often wishes he weren’t. I’m sick of religion for the same reason that I’m tired of my body, how it’s getting old, how every morning when I wake up, the dreary realization crashes in: I’m still me. Sick of being me or not, I still brush my teeth, take a daily vitamin, stick to my low-dose aspirin regimen, drink red wine because I like it and it’s better for me than white wine, and get colonoscopies from time to time. I still go to church, too, regardless of the fact that I get dumb hate emails signed “in Christ,” blasting me for everything from my support of President Obama to my having fled my evangelical/fundamentalist roots and
the Republican Party.
This is a book for those of us who have faith in God in the same way we might have the flu, less a choice than a state of being in spite of doubt, in spite of feeling wounded by past religious contagion, in spite of our declared agnosticism or even atheism, in spite of the sorts of idiots like me who are attracted to or, more accurately, bred to, religion and run around defending and /or criticizing it. This book is part of a conversation, not a sermon. I’ve written it the way faith in God, and everything else, happens, to me. Happens is the right word. In Hollywood when I used to work as a movie director, the producers always wanted an “arc” to the story. The worse the script was, and the more formulaic, the more obvious the arc. There was a beginning, a middle and an end; good guys and bad guys; first, second, and third “acts” leading to the conclusion. But faith in God, and great movies made by the greatest directors (of whom I certainly was never one) such as Bob Altman and Federico Fellini, don’t string along like cars of a train or come in tidy packages. They are a slice of life, not a story about life.
My only promise is that I’m trying to tell the truth about my slice of life as I see it, even when the best I can do is to say that I don’t know the answers. So there are ideas here but also stories memoir and memory of what shaped the person writing down the ideas. That means we jump from ideas to stories that could be from a novel about the person writing the essay. Don’t be surprised by these twists and turns. This is how conversations go. This is what life, rather than false “arcs,” is like.
In Part I, the first chapters are a critique of the New Atheists. The next chapters are a critique of the religious fundamentalists. Then in Part II, I write about my experiences related to faith or lack of faith in God, and the evolving nature of what I describe as the catalysts that may take us to whatever the next stages of our personal and communal spiritual evolution may be.
Bob Altman said of his movie directing that “accidents are what push the ‘truth button.’” I’ve tried not to edit out those accidents, even in the parts of this book that tend to essay style. In other words, this book is for those of us who are stuck feeling that there is more to life than meets the eye, whatever we call ourselves or say we believe. Or put it this way: If an angel showed up outside my office window and explained “everything” to me, I’d simultaneously question my sanity, be scared as hell, and feel mightily relieved, because
believing in invisible things is tough.
I’m not the only person wrestling with issues of meaning, religion, and purpose. You will find a small sample here of the several thousands of emails from my readers who have been responding to my writing, radio, and TV interviews and lectures about religion, politics, and society. Their emails, including the following note, inspired me to write this book. (I’ve omitted names to protect privacy and have indicated trims by ellipses. And each email represents many similar to it.)
Hello, Mr. Schaeffer. I watched your Princeton lecture. I found it interesting, but I learned nothing of your new religious beliefs, except that you enjoy Greek Orthodox liturgy. I presume you still avow some form of Christianity.
I do still avow some form of Christianity in spite of my doubts, the attack on faith by the New Atheists, and the “certainties” of the religious fundamentalists who claim their way is the only truth, which is another way to attack faith because it drives people away from experiencing God. I believe that the ideological opposites I’ll be talking about—atheism and fundamentalist religion—often share the same fallacy: truth claims that reek of false certainties. I also believe that there is an alternative that actually matches the way life is lived rather than how we usually talk about belief. I call that alternative “hopeful uncertainty.”
My hopeful uncertainty will either resonate with you eliciting a “me too” and “been there” or not. I am not trying to make converts. If what I write resonates, it will be because we’ve shared certain experiences, for instance your own childhood stories and your own love for a friend, lover, or a husband or wife, children, and grandchildren, not because I convince you of anything. I offer no proofs. There are none. When talking about the unknowable, pretending to have the facts is about as useful as winning a medal from the Wizard of Oz. In this game—the meaning game—it’s all about intuition, hope, and the experience of life, a letting go of all concepts, words, and theologies because they can only be metaphors and hinder our experience of the truth as it is—not as we desire, believe, or hope it might or should be, but as it is.
Before continuing I have several disclosures to make. To begin with, I have a vested interest in keeping faith in God relevant. Also, I’ll be talking about religion but concentrating on Christianity. That is the tradition I know a little about, having been raised by evangelical/ fundamentalist American missionaries.
As a young man in the early 1970s I did a really stupid thing and stopped painting, drawing, and sculpting, thus truncating what was becoming a promising art career. I’d had successful shows in New York, Geneva, and London by the time I was twenty-two. I got greedy for a faster track with a steadier income, and I became my parents’ (Francis and Edith Schaeffer) sidekick. I then became a leader in my own right on the big-time evangelical/fundamentalist circuit after we Schaeffers got famous—famous within the evangelical/ fundamentalist ghetto, that is.
By the early 1980s, at the height of my involvement in the evangelical/ fundamentalist religious right, I was invited to preach from Jerry Falwell’s pulpit, appeared many times on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson, and met privately with many of the top Republican leadership of the day. In the midst of these heady experiences I began to change my mind about what I believed, and not just about religion but about politics too.
By the mid-1980s I began the process of escaping my family’s literal-minded religion and the political causes that had become indistinguishable from it. I went to Hollywood, directed four indifferent to- pretty-terrible R-rated feature films, quit the movie business, and then started to write novels in the early 1990s. I received encouragement from the critics and my readers. I’ve been a “secular” full time writer of both fiction and nonfiction ever since.
Although I’m no longer proselytizing, I’ve profitably (in every sense of that word) mined the divine mother lode of my background through my Calvin Becker trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma and also in Baby Jack (where God shows up as an African American Marine drill instructor
on Parris Island), not to mention my memoir Crazy for God. As my religion-preoccupied writing demonstrates, one can run from a religion but can never entirely escape.
I not only grew up in the fevered atmosphere of an American religious commune—L’Abri Fellowship (located in Switzerland of all places)—but at age ten I was sent to an evangelical British boys boarding school called Great Walstead, where I encountered an easygoing and refreshingly new to me, Anglican-derived faith that embodied a level of religious tolerance I wasn’t familiar with. Later in life the memory of that encounter shaped my sense that there might be better alternatives to the strict fundamentalism I was raised on. It may also be one reason why, much, much later when in midlife, I discovered that sacrament-based liturgical worship was a comfortable fit for me and I joined the Greek Orthodox Church.
So please note, as I conclude this disclosure, that my only “qualification” for meditating on faith in God is no more than the better part of a lifetime spent thinking about faith and reading about religion (and a few other things) and then living among, and then fleeing, the faithful. I’m with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he says of Christianity that “one neither can nor shall comprehend it.”
Kierkegaard’s view was closer to many of the early Church Fathers— in other words, to the first leaders in the early Christian Church (during the first to sixth centuries) than it is to today’s fundamentalists. Until I was on my way out of my evangelical/fundamentalist subculture and actually read a little church history and some of the writings from the earliest Christians, I assumed that older is always stricter. In the case of the Christian religion, this is not so. It’s mostly the later eras of Christianity that produced the most rules-based approach to faith, something like the transition from the sixties and early seventies to the “Reagan eighties,” as hippies got haircuts and put on suits and turned out to be more middle class and “bourgeois” than their parents.
So for people who think that Christianity was strict, literalistic and fundamentalist and filled with nothing but rules and regulations from the beginning and that a more “mystical,” “tolerant,” “progressive,” or “liberal” approach to faith is a lax modern phenomenon, the writings of some of the most important early Christian figures are a startling wake-up call. For instance, one fourth-century ascetic—Evagrius Ponticus—was a revered spiritual leader. He led by example rather than by official standing because he was not a bishop. Writing in The Gnostikos, he made this anti-fundamentalist statement: “Do not define the Deity: for it is only of things which are made or are composite that there can be definitions.”
Speaking of “the Deity,” I have a love-hate relationship with God—well, actually not with God (as Evagrius said, who knows anything about that?) but with the people who have tried to define God in ways that the more tolerant earlier Christians didn’t. My love-hate relationship is with fundamentalists who say they believe in God and with people who are so sure there is no God that they’ve turned atheism into just another brow-beating religion. That means I have a love-hate relationship with myself, because I find both sides of the faith/no faith debate coexisting within me. Those “sides” are expressed well by juxtaposing the following emails from two men with very different viewpoints:
Frank: Any religious faith is nothing more than an adult fairytale. . . . Now I admit that I may be wrong . . . you may enjoy Orthodox liturgy for its own sake. . . . Still, I find it perplexing. . . . My question to you is: Why do you, a very smart person, continue to hold to a fairy-tale? Respectfully, T.
Just as I was about to try and come to the defense of the “fairytale,” I received an email from an Orthodox priest. Unlike a lot of the emails I get, at least this one was signed—but for current purposes, let’s just call the sender Father X.
The email questioned my Christianity because I supported a prochoice candidate like Obama. Since Fr. X believed that Obama represented everything Christianity does not stand for, where did I get off calling myself a Christian? Not to mention that I blogged on the Huffington Post, that internet portal to damnation. OK—comes with the territory. But here’s the kicker. The sender signed what was a very insulting note: In Christ, Father X.
(Rant starts here:) When I got this email I thought it might be a joke, because my long experience with Orthodox priests and bishops has been almost uniformly positive. I googled the name and found that this man was an actual priest. Father X badgered me for several weeks since I chose not to answer him.Then I began to receive emails that Fr. X had been sent a copy of, as had a growing list of others whose names showed up from then on in my email letterbox. It seemed that Father X had “introduced” me to his far right friends. Abortion was their big issue, as were Obama’s “communism.” Several people accused me of “supporting the Antichrist.” Nearly all of them told me I was due for a severe punishment from God. None of these prolific email writers seemed to bother to read my replies, to which I attached articles I’d written for the Huffington Post explaining in some detail why I was both pro-life and pro- Obama, given that I believed that his social programs might help reduce the numbers of abortions, just as he said that he hoped they would, and that, conversely, the Republicans had been cynically using the “life issue” to drum up votes while cutting funding for health care, contraceptives, sex education, and child care. Of course I could have been wrong about all my political ideas on the subject, but I certainly hadn’t become a “leading abortionist,” as three of my email correspondents said I had.
I can only imagine the steady diet of junk ideology that must have been spewing from right-wing websites, evangelical/fundamentalist leaders, talk radio, and bizarre newsletters into the heads of these email writers to have pushed them—including a priest no less, supposedly a confessor, shepherd, and comforter—to put politics ahead of faith and berate a complete stranger and question his faith on the basis of who that stranger voted for and what websites he writes for and because of a disagreement over tactics regarding how best to
reduce the number of abortions.
The Religious Right has seduced millions of Americans with titillating hatred and lies: The earth was created in six days and is not warming; Obama is a secret Muslim (perhaps even the Antichrist!) and wants women to have more abortions; gays are trying to take over America; the United Nations (and/or Obama and/or the president of the European Union) is the Antichrist; an unregulated market economy is Christian; guns keep people safe; taxing the rich is “communism”; capital punishment is good; immigrants are the enemy; national health care is “communist.” Some or all these paranoid fantasies are accepted as truth by a whole substratum of “Christians” determined to judge their country as “fallen away from God.” They believe America is “doomed” because they don’t agree with their fellow citizens’ politics or because, as their signs routinely proclaim, “God Hates Fags!” They call people like me “abortionists” because I and others say that maybe the best way to reduce abortion is to keep it legal but to also help women escape poverty, educate young people, and provide contraception rather than trying to reverse Roe v. Wade (realistically an impossibility, on which prolifers have wasted almost forty years of effort and untold tens of millions of dollars).
Appeals to facts get nowhere with these folks because they don’t trust any sources but their own and listen only to what emanates from an alternative right-wing universe. Thus arguments become circular. The more impartial the source, the more suspect it becomes. Propaganda, fulminating (and fundraising), and hatred of gays, women, our government, big-city folks, black people, the educated “elite,” everything-not-like-us-Real-Americans supplant compassion and even common sense. And one is guilty by association. Write for the “wrong” people “these people,” in the words of Fr. X or vote for the “wrong” president, or make the “wrong” call on a practical way to reduce abortions, and it’s off to the stake.
The late Neil Postman, author, New York University professor, and prophet, predicted how and why people such as today’s members of the evangelical/fundamentalist movement and other right wingers would be living in a dream world cut off from reality. Postman is best known for his 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he wrote
Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. . . . What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there
would be no one who wanted to read one. . . . Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.
Postman is not the only person to have accurately predicted where we are headed and the sort of society that our disjointed news-media-as-entertainment, texting as “writing,” blogging as “news” would produce. RoboCop (1987) was a mediocre (and nastily sadistic) little movie, but director Paul Verhoeven got one thing right: the “news” shows on TV in his futuristic dystopia. His parody of glib, cheerful trivia clips as news has come horribly true, even more so with the advent of the ideologically divided
Web, wherein people have their “information” filtered by likeminded ideologues and rarely encounter views they disagree with. As Postman predicted, Huxley’s prophetic vision came to pass: We are “a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies.”
We have become a nation of not terribly bright children who essentially have a collective learning disability manifested by an inability to concentrate or defer gratification, to hold one thought long enough to see it through to a conclusion, or to contemplate making real sacrifices for the sake of long-term benefits. The Father Xs of this world are one result.
Just in case you think that Father X’s excesses let atheists off the hook—and also to capture a little of the tone of the atheist/religion debate these days—here is another email I got from a reader objecting to an article I wrote criticizing the New Atheists. (Misspellings
n the original)
Sir, You had an insolence . . . to call the brightest people of our time “the fundamentalist Atheists.” These people: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris are the great Heroes of our time. . . . These heroes are withstanding to the thousands and thousands of years of corrupted, filthy religious fanaticism. . . . We would avoid many,
many deceases if not for religion. Religion is the opium for the masses. It was said by a smart man. I completely agree with this comment. You are, Sir, brainwashing people and are filling your deep pockets with the dirty money using people’s stupidity. Shame on you! Sincerely
No, I didn’t make that up. Though I was tempted to forward Y’s email to Fr. X, feeling that these men would understand each other quite well!
(End of rant!)
Okay, about that “fairy-tale” of religion. I discovered from the emails I’ve been inundated with since my memoir was published that there are more of us perplexed former (or currently) religiously inclined or religiously raised folks on a journey from past certainties to points unknown than I’d been aware of. We want to have faith in God in spite of our bad experiences with religion, oppressive family relationships, and/or doubts and questions. We too worry that we’ve been hoodwinked by a fairy tale. I hope that this book will
provide a meeting place for those of us who count ourselves among the scattered members of what I’ll call the Church of Hopeful Uncertainty in the same way that this man’s email helped me feel less alone.
Frank: Growing up, I attended a private Christian school which was started by a very conservative religious right church connected with Bob Jones University. . . . I have studied to be a preacher, and seem to have no desire to be one but have no experience to do anything else. . . . Truth be told, I have more questions than answers. . . . I have broken through the false, religious right, closed minded doctrine of hate that was my past. However, I have not found any answers from the religious left. The left is good at saying what the right has done wrong but not at giving me anything to hold on to. Thank you, K.
This book is a search for that “something” to hold on to. I don’t know if my up-and-down, hot-then-cold-then-hot-again faith in God persists because I was conditioned by my parents to see everything in spiritual terms or if faith is a choice. Either way, whatever I believe or feel, or think I feel or think I believe, it’s flawed at best. Like most people, I’ve changed my mind before about the so-called Big Questions and will again. Opinion is a snapshot in time.
Because I belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, there are parts of this book that reflect my personal experience with one form of liturgical worship. In those Orthodox-oriented parts my aim is to offer an example of one approach, knowing that other people take other religious paths (or none) and find spiritual comfort. And I certainly do not speak for the Orthodox Church. Nor has being in the Orthodox Church answered all my questions. Far from it. And I know that some of what I say here may be a departure from what some Orthodox (especially to the political right) think is true. But I believe that my journey is worth describing because my life experiences have led me to believe that there are better choices than being asked to decide between atheistic cosmic nothingness and fundamentalist heavenly pantomimes.
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