Respecting Atheism While Believing in Jesus

I’ve been reading Frederick Beuchner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a short book that details Buechner’s transition from college to teaching to Union seminary to chaplaincy and then to full time writing. As someone who shares Beuchner’s faith and who also lives on a boarding school campus and who is also trying to figure out what it means to have a vocation as a writer and, perhaps, with students and faculty on this campus, this book has spoken to me in countless ways. But the passages that encouraged me the most had to do with being an evangelist, an unapologetic apologist for the tenants of Christianity, and yet giving other perspectives the credence and respect they are due. I will quote him at length:

the war I fought was to convince as many as I could that religious faith, even if they chose to have none of it, was not as bankrupt and banal and easily disposable as most of them believed.

He later goes on:

Atheists were what most of them thought of themselves as being, but their seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old atheism was apt to be as superficial and threadbare as the form of Christianity that they had abandoned in its favor. Their atheism was less a denial of God, it seemed to me, than of people telling them what to do and what to think and who to be…SO I had them read from the great existentialist atheists too, some of whom were their heroes already, and who, unlike themselves, did no dance on the grave of God, but whose voices, even at their most strident, were often full of mourning. “The existentialist,” says Jean-Paul Sartre in one of the essays I assigned, “finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. . . . Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. . . . We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. . . .

What I tried to do was let these writers speak for themselves out of their own extraordinary courage, concern, and honesty, and, for all my deck-stacking, to leave open to my students–as, if we are honest, it must always remain open to us as well–the possibility that just maybe Camus and Sartre were right.


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