I completely understand the puzzlement that comes over people when I declare myself a believer and an atheist. It’s not something that comes up all the time of course but occasionally there’s no avoiding it and you just have to come clean. Once it went like this: “I was a Christian, then I became an atheist.” It was sad for some people to hear. But at least it was neat and they knew where I stood. Now it’s: “I still don’t believe in the God the atheists don’t believe in, but I pray every day.” And that’s just messy. Explain it and it gets messier.
People aren’t good with messy. While I’m obscenely comfortable in this paradoxical pigeon-hole I’ve carved out for myself, I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that on questions like this people prefer ‘either-or’ to ‘both-and’, and so it’s felt like something of a solitary little niche. That said, you can imagine my delight when I stumbled on the totally messy title of Frank Schaeffer’s latest book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Well, okay, I didn’t exactly stumble on it: those clever people over at Amazon must have figured out from my browsing history that my interest might be piqued if they sprinkled enough breadcrumbs around. It was. I downloaded it and never put it down til it was good and read. Here’s why.
Back when I was a fresh-faced kid trying to find my way as a hopeful gospel singer-songwriter and somewhat reluctant Pentecostal-evangelical pastor, Francis and Edith Schaeffer were evangelical luminaries and members of my league of heroes, which also included musicians John Michael Talbot and Keith and Melody Green. An entirely incongruous group now that I think about it, I guess what inspired me about each was their attempt to live and share the faith in their own way, and their commitment to living in community. With each there was also an underlying appreciation for the aesthetic domain, and that attracted me too.
In the 1950’s the Schaeffers had founded L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, which, over the next couple of decades, became something of an oasis for young intellectually minded spiritual seekers. Reading Frank Schaeffer’s memoir I get the impression that the view I had formed of his father through his books and videos, and of the L’Abri Fellowship, was perhaps a little romanticized. Why I Am an Atheist paints a more human picture than the one I’d imagined, an enigmatic picture of an intelligent man sincerely devoted to a faith he held with unjustifiable certainty, locked into an archaic view of gender roles, and often defeated by an unresolved battle with anger: a man, in these respects at least, like my own father.
And that brings me to why this meld of personal narratives and musings had me from page one: in it I can’t help but see reflections of my own experience. I see my father. I see my mother too, and the other women in my life. I see my children and grandchildren. And I see myself. And that’s the magic Schaeffer conjures, a little trick he does with mirrors that I’m sure will have its effect on many exiles from fundamentalisms of both the theistic and atheistic varieties.
An autobiography of sorts, Why is, of course, not so much about Francis as about Frank, (of whom I was only peripherally aware twenty or thirty years ago). Then, it’s not so much about the past as it is about the present. It is a deeply personal perspective on the present, the continuous present, the ongoing “becoming” that is the “now” of our collective and individual evolution. To re-appropriate something Frank Schaeffer observes concerning the Garden of Eden myth: “Maybe the point is not what did or did not happen, but what is always happening.”
The narrative, and there is a loose narrative thread, begins on a plane trip from Switzerland to the U.S. with Frank returning home after his mother Edith’s funeral. He strikes up a conversation with the woman in the seat beside him, who turns out to be the Swedish lyric soprano, Camilla Tilling. The retelling of this delightful encounter and, in fact, the entire first chapter, has the feel of an overture, with motifs introduced here that will appear again and again: life, death, marriage, family, guilt, forgiveness, learning and unlearning the faith of our parents, and the spirituality of art.
Quietly intoned beneath playful references to Edith’s hand in orchestrating the Camilla encounter from the other side is the ever-present question of parental approval. “Mom would not have been so happy that Camilla and I compared notes on our spiritual journeys out of the evangelical religion we were raised in,” Frank observes, “but she would have loved our conversation about art, music, and the children who brought joy to our lives.” Not that parental approval comes over as an issue for Frank, but there is a sense that as much as the writer rejects his parents’ theology he still wants to honour those who nurtured him, particularly his mother.
Women feature prominently in Why. Along with Camilla the opera star, and the author’s mother, are Genie, his teen bride and the enduring love of his life, Holly Meade, an artist friend who died of cancer a few months after Edith’s death, and Lucy, his granddaughter and muse. Moments with each of them form the backdrop for Schaeffer’s reflections and occasional rants. There is a reverence in the way he renders his women, each having something of the goddess to evoke admiration, even adoration at times. That said; there’s an earthy and at times downright sexual honesty in the descriptive passages. Is it the artist in the man or the man in the artist who noticed the crimson splash of colour move from Camilla’s neck to her cheeks “like fire racing along the edge of a piece of paper”? And what makes a compliment about Frank’s writing significant because it comes from a woman with “thick, long, wavy, sandy-blond hair tied back loosely with a silver clasp, large bright gray eyes, high cheekbones, finely wrought features, and flawless, pale skin”? This is a man describing women and his relationship to them, not some elevated evangelical saint. This is real. Schaeffer talks lovingly of experiencing a “flutter of anticipation” as wife Genie walks out of the airport concourse and he sees her again. In the next breath he admits, “while waiting for her there I’ve been casually watching a flight attendant’s ass.” The sinner and the saint are both there in the same moment. This is humanity, messy, enigmatic, and gloriously paradoxical.
Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God sounds deceptively like an answer to some question, like an apologetic for some novel theological position. It’s not. Schaeffer doesn’t give the reader a clean and tidy explanation here, just another messy paradox. “These days I hold two ideas of God simultaneously: he, she or it exists and he, she or it doesn’t exist. I don’t seesaw between these opposites; I embrace them.” Schaeffer doesn’t even claim that his is the right position, likening his reasons for preferring it over the “American evangelical experience” to the same sort of reasons that he prefers “swimming in the ocean to a swimming pool”.
There is no clear indication of what he means by God either, although it’s reasonably clear that it’s not what his Dad meant by God. And it’s reasonably clear that for him to “believe” is not to give intellectual assent to the truth of some idea. It seems to be more about trust and faithfulness than assent. But trust in what exactly, is never made clear. Something occupies the category once filled by the evangelical God, and Schaeffer “believes in” (he, she or) it and still wants to use that word to denote (he, she or) it, but he’s not going to tell us what (he, she or) it is. This may well leave some readers frustrated. Some in both camps, evangelicals and atheists, will doubtless prefer that he left “God” for the true believers and found his own word. Thank God he didn’t.
Professionally, Frank Schaeffer is an artist, a writer, and a public commentator, pursuits he says are significantly less lucrative than his time on the opulent American evangelical gravy train. He flies economy like the rest of us. There are those who see him as a traitor and a mercenary who abandoned his parents’ theology yet is still prepared to trade on their name in order to scratch together an income. I don’t know, and I don’t care. A man’s got to put bread on the table. In any case I certainly can’t see Jesus taking up a stone against him, at least not the Jesus this believing atheist is trying to follow.