My Kind of Atheist

Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace
by Frank Schaeffer
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014

Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.

– Wallace Stevens, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman (1922)

By now Frank Schaeffer’s critique of crazy right-wing Christianity is sufficiently well-known that he didn’t need to write that book again. We are much the richer for the book he chose to write instead: a book that expresses a very wise person’s irreducible double-mindedness in relation to things of the spirit.

Schaeffer was once a shining star in the conservative Christian firmament—an iconic figure in part because of his late parents’ high standing in evangelical circles, and also because of his own contributions to the formation of “movement” Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then he dropped out, turned his back on that kind of power and glory. He produced low-budget movies for a time, wrote some decent autobiographical fiction, and finally returned to writing about the thing he knows best: the damage wrought by hard, doctrinal religion.

One senses from this book that Schaeffer is at last free of the need to strap on his sword and buckler in order to go out and do battle with the oh-so-smug conservative Christers. While he still lobs a few choice zingers (“religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure”), He is now very much a man at peace with his own past—and even at peace with his righteous despisers.

Schaeffer is superb storyteller, and this is a good thing inasmuch as he believes that our stories are what most ennoble us as humans. (In one chapter deploring the reductionism of the New Atheists, Schaeffer writes: “I feel significant when I tell my stories, therefore I am.”)

The book is thronged with revealing vignettes about persons who have touched Schaeffer deeply: his dear sweet mother most of all, but also a family friend who finally surrenders to a merciless cancer, and even an opera singer he meets and befriends on a transatlantic flight. Much of the book is centered on the small loving universe that is peopled by Schaeffer’s immediate family members—his two young grandchildren in particular, whose startlingly perceptive utterances put me in mind of that venerable line in the Bible (Jesus, but quoting Psalm 8): “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise.”

The writing style is refreshingly blunt, even salty in places, and it’s very clear that if Schaeffer still struggles with anything in the last third of his life, it is the paradox of refusing to believe in any kind of traditional God and yet still perceiving what feels very much like God’s presence in beauty and in human love (hence the book’s title). He confesses candidly that his “brain is not evolved enough” to be able to reconcile a deep commitment to evolutionary biology and an equally deep feeling for the numinous in human experience.

Schaeffer prays and goes to church because these practices provide comfort and structure and beauty, not because he’s able to say that anyone is listening to his prayers and certainly not because he expects to receive any transcendent “truth” inside of a church. He writes, “Liturgy is about providing a silent space inside me where words are replaced by an experience of another dimension where I may sense the love of God.” And again, “Church is one of the places I may offer my grandchildren a vision of life that is about more than status, stuff, education, and money.” And still again, “If there were no spiritual side to us, there would be no sense of loss when the material universe intrudes on our happiness.”

Although this book is very much about Schaeffer’s own journey to freedom, there’s enough of the good theologian and good biblical scholar in him to delight those of us who can never get enough of that kind of thing. He does a lot with the figure of Jesus as the only lens through which to grasp what God might be like, if God existed (the key God-marker in Jesus, according to Schaeffer: “non-judgmental co-suffering empathy”). He notes that Jesus violated every religious taboo of his time and place: touching dead people, touching lepers, touching women and letting women touch him.

Schaeffer teases out Jesus’s remarkable proto-feminism, noting that “the impact of Jesus’s feminism has yet to be fully realized” and that “Jesus built what I think of as an empathy time bomb.” From there he segues into a revealing consideration of the Enlightenment as a “blessed Christian heresy,” even quoting Voltaire to the effect that everything abhorrent about oppressive religion was likewise abhorrent to the Galilean prophet. And although he remains unsparingly contemptuous of the church and all its works, Schaeffer cannot resist observing that, in an odd and largely unrecognized way, Jesus values are slowly prevailing—albeit not so much among the self-proclaimed Jesus followers as among the secular saints working for human rights and for the full inclusion of the very kinds of people Jesus liked to hang out with: the outcasts and the reprobates, the broken in body and the wounded in spirit.

The closest Schaeffer comes to issuing a clarion call reminiscent of the old “Fighting Frank” is this piece, coming near the book’s end:

Those of us raised in the Christian tradition need to choose to either see God in Jesus or to continue to let the Bible define God. Our tradition says that Jesus is God. Maybe we should act as if we think he is instead of worshipping a book. Maybe we should also be brave enough to admit that we are compelled to either become ideologues or need to forthrightly pick and choose as to what we want to follow in the Bible. Most Christians do that anyway, many just don’t admit it.

As I say, absolute candor is this book’s main calling card. Candor in openly embracing an apophatic theology (you can look it up). Candor plus deep good humor arising from a finely-wrought humanism. To quote Frank Schaeffer (quoting no one in particular), this is about as good as it gets.