The Rev. Frank Schaefer (author of “Defrocked”) meets Frank Schaeffer (author of “Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God”) at the Wild Goose Festival June 2014 I mean how confusing is that?!
Here’s the passage from my new book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace I read to open my talk at the Wild Goose Festival.
My youngest grandchildren Lucy and Jack are still comfortable with a paradoxical way of seeing reality. For them make-believe and the material universe merge in a poetic non-literal way that mirrors the scientific finding that one particle can instantaneously affect another particle light-years away or even be in two places at once. Schrödinger, the Austrian physicist who developed the field of quantum theory, called this idea “entanglement.” Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” Lucy and Jack just accept that life is weird, wonderful and defined by imagination.
Lucy and Jack seem to accept that something may never have happened but can still be true. They take Bible stories we read at face value and yet I see a flicker in their eyes that tells me that they already know the stories are not true in the same way boiling water is true and can be tested—it’s hot!
When they’re older, maybe my grandchildren will embrace apophatic theology, the theology of not knowing. Maybe they will look for ways to make the irrational rational by hiding behind words like “mystery” in order to sustain their faith. Apophatic theology teaches that the divine is ineffable and recognized only when it’s felt. In contrast to the literalistic evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims and Orthodox Jews, some of the earliest Church Fathers were closer in their thinking to Wettstein. They said that scripture was to be read through an apophatic approach. Tertullian said, “That which is infinite is known only to itself.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem said, “For we may not explain what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him.” In other words, the word God was to be understood by not understanding it.
The words objective reality are just a metaphor for something I’ll never encounter. Lucy’s and Jack’s universe is more dependable and predictable than mine. They still think that what they observe is what is there. Their world is a safe place where parents stay married and there’s no need to justify clinging to a sustaining myth by embracing fancy terms like apophatic or mystery. My son John and his wife Becky come home after work each day and routines are kept. Ba (that’s me) and Nana (that’s Genie) are always “at Ba and Nana’s house.” And Jack and Lucy still believe that Genie and I can answer their questions, even guarantee the future.
At the ripe old age of five, Lucy was pondering death. She asked why my mother had died and I told her it was because “Mom was very old.” Then Holly died. A few weeks later as we walked up the drive, Lucy took my hand and quietly said, “Ba, when you pray in the morning, please ask God to make you grow old slowly.”
“Okay, I will,” I said.
A few days later we were walking up the drive again and I said, “How long do you want me to live?”
Lucy thought about it for a long moment and then answered, “I want you to live until my children are… twelve years old.”
“Okay, I’ll try,” I said.
Of course, I have no idea what the right age is to die, just as Lucy thinks that twelve is old. She also told me, “The sun is really big, even though it looks small.” I asked her how big, and she said, “It’s really big, as big as a tree!”
Lucy’s sense of time, place and scale is no more or less misinformed than mine. The only things in life I have fairly complete information about are minor household appliances. As for when to die, what to believe, whom to marry, where to live, whether or not God exists, when to have children, and what work to do, I think all this big stuff—stuff as “big as a tree!”—is best left to chance. My illusion of control over my life is long gone. I am part of a story; I am not the story. I’ve given up on planning. Rather, I plan while hoping that my plans won’t work. I’ve experienced the serendipity of my plans failing. Then my failures sometimes open doors to things better than those I’d wished for. I was pissed off with the Swiss national airline for bumping me to a center seat. Then I met Camilla.
Anyway, since no one is ever just one thing, who are we planning for? Which “me” should be running the show? We’re all in the closet, so to speak. We barely come out to ourselves and never completely to others. I’ve never met an unequivocal atheist or religious believer. I’ve only met people of two, three or four or more minds—people just like me. Atheists sometimes pray and eloquent preachers secretly harbor doubts. The evangelist Billy Graham preached certain salvation and heaven guaranteed yet privately told my dad, a friend and fellow evangelist, that he feared death and had many doubts.
We’re all of at least two minds. We play a role and define that role as “me” because labels and membership in a tribe make the world feel a little safer. When I was raising my children, I pretended to be grown-up Daddy. But alone with my thoughts, I was still just me. I’m older now, and some younger people may think I know something. I do! I know how much I can never know.
Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Christian, you are that because of where and when you were born. If you are an atheist, you are that because of a book or two you read, or who your parents were and the century in which you were born. Don’t delude yourself: there are no good reasons for anything, just circumstances.
Don’t delude yourself: you may describe yourself to others by claiming a label of atheist, Jew, evangelical, gay or straight but you know that you are really lots more complicated than that, a gene-driven primate and something more. Want to be sure you have THE TRUTH about yourself and want to be consistent to that truth? Then prepare to go mad. Or prepare to turn off your brain and cling to some form or other of fundamentalism, be that religious or secular.
You will always be more than one person. You will always embody contradiction. You—like some sort of quantum mechanicals physics experiment—will always be in two places at once.
This has been an excerpt from Chapter 3 of my new book. TO READ MORE OF THIS BOOK PLEASE GO TO AMAZON AND ORDER THE PAPERBACK OR THE E-BOOK (ONLY $3.99)
“The new book, ‘Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God,’ is [a] distillation of wisdom.” Washington Post (June 12, 2014)