The Common Good

'Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion': Interview with Frank Schaeffer

In my ongoing quest to find a third way between the extremes espoused by the Religious Right and their secular counterparts, I came across the Frank Schaeffer's latest book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). His insights afforded me considerable food for thought.

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How do Rick Warren, C.S. Lewis, and your father represent the Achilles Heel of American evangelicalism?

A Rick Warren, a C. S. Lewis, and a Francis Schaeffer are the essence of evangelical/fundamentalist success, but they also represent the Achilles heel of American evangelicalism. Personality cults with no accountability and no tradition and no structure to fall back on when the "Dear Leader" dies, or is found to have "fallen" -- whatever -- are no better than the men and women they're built on. The "something bigger" you thought you joined just turns out to just be some guy named Rick, or maybe Franklin Graham.

How come you were unable to write novels until you left the evangelical/fundamentalist world?

The problem is that evangelical/fundamentalist faith revolves around two directives: Be successful and evangelize. That leads to bad choices. For instance, if you are trying to get people "saved" through your writing instead of writing the best and truest books you can write, you are nothing more than a propagandist. Combine this with commercial interests, and not only are you just a propagandist, you are a gutless wonder who doesn't want to offend your market. Translation: no F-word in the dialogue please, because the Christian Booksellers Association bookstores won't stock your book. Oh, and no expressions of doubt either, or embarrassing questions about God, let alone the truth about evangelical leaders.

So if you're writing a story about, say, a Marine brigade in combat, you'll have to lie when it comes to dialogue. And if you are writing a memoir, please leave out anything about the flaws of the believers you've known (or your saintly parents) and skip the truth about yourself too, if it's embarrassing.

You say that those involved in full time ministry end up living a lie. How so?

I can't prove this, but I think that any person who remains a "professional Christian" in the evangelical/fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially any pastor, risks becoming an atheist and/or a liar. Such individuals put on an act of certainty. Sooner or later they become flakes faking it, or quit. Worse yet, some just stop asking questions. The very fact that a preacher can fool others when he or she has so many doubts makes the self-appointed mediator of faith the deepest cynic of all if, that is, he or she doesn't embrace paradox. If you have to be correct all the time, while knowing that you are wrong most of the time, you become an actor. Been there, done that. If you think that to "be a Christian" means you have to identify with a club you loathe, you'll have to choose to redefine your faith or lose it -- even if it costs you a paycheck and your "good" life.

Making my final break with my evangelical/fundamentalist past was like turning on some sort of creative tap.

Any advice about how one can be a professional Christian without losing one's soul?

At its best, faith in God is about thanksgiving, shared suffering, loss, pain, generosity, and love. The best religious people and best secular people learn to ignore their chosen (or inherited) religions' nastier teachings in order to preserve the spirit of their faith, be that faith in secular humanism, science, or in God. It's the tediously consistent fundamentalists -- religious or atheist -- who become monsters. They are so sure they have the truth that they dare claim that only the members of "my" religion will be saved.

What is the same fallacy shared by New Atheism and religious fundamentalism?

It seems to me that the various New Atheist priests, prophets, and gurus have one thing in common with religious fundamentalists: They are old-fashioned literalists. There must be a better way than navigating between an indifferent universe and a Disney "god" of canned, happy evangelical endings or the angry hate-filled god whom my aunt followed and who "told" her to trash her family in favor of a simplistic purity that no one can or should ever attain. Rigid purity is the ultimate denial of paradox. And that denial is the only blasphemy there is. It's the blasphemy committed against God by all fundamentalists with every false certainty they mouth about him.

Finally, can you define what you mean by hopeful uncertainty?

I believe that we'll get to a point in our evolution when atheist and religious people abandon the habit of taking things so literally. Liberated from that narrow perspective, we will perceive the overarching truth: The sum of our parts adds up to something altogether unexpected, a spiritual animal whose existence doesn't make sense but -- nevertheless -- here we are! There are two ways to see this contradiction. We can regard it as an urgent problem to be solved or as a paradox to be celebrated. I choose the latter.

I think that atheism and fundamentalist religion as we know them will last barely a geological eye-blink just a few hundred or a few thousand years more. Then we will begin to understand that we are spiritual beings and animals; that the universe is impersonal and love preceded it; that we believe and we doubt; that a particle may be in one place and in another place at the same time; and that love is a chemical reaction and a revelation. Above all, I hope that we will someday understand that paradox is the blessed, creative, and freeing nature of reality, not a "problem."

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison is featured in the documentaries The Ordinary Radicals and Nailin' it to the Church.

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