Repentance Backed Up With Action Can Change Reality

Repentance Backed Up With Action Can Change Reality June 24, 2014

Mom and Dad (Edith and Francis Schaeffer) in L’Abri 1979

“The very fabric of the universe is unknowable and stranger than we can imagine and has a message for us: climb down off that high atheist, religious or agnostic pedestal!” CHAPTER 4 FROM Frank Schaeffer‘s NEW BOOK is a writer-WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace

“The new book, ‘Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God,’ is [a] distillation of wisdom.” Washington Post (June 12, 2014)


Genie and I drove to Sedgwick to visit Holly the week before she entered the hospital for the last time. We didn’t know it was our final visit. Surrounded by her art, her two cats and her books, Holly looked vibrantly alive. Her hair had grown back from the last chemotherapy protocol. The short-cropped look suited her, although her sandy blond hair had turned Arctic fox silver.

Holly held my hand while she described her plans for the art gallery she’d recently added to her home. Her grip was vise-strong from years of cutting woodblocks and printing by hand. When we said goodbye, Holly, Genie and I clung to each other. But our last embrace didn’t feel like a final farewell. I thought that she had more time.

A few days later we were shocked to hear Holly had died. Holly would not have shared my view of her death as tragic. She would resent her experience of illness being described as sad, though she suffered horribly. Holly was uncompromisingly hopeful.

Holly had declared that she was done “with more chemo craziness” and wanted to die “with my eyebrows on.” So Genie and I were relieved that she died without another round of treatments.

In his eulogy, Holly’s son Noah said, “My mother’s creed was ‘create beauty, give love, find peace.’” That’s the best description of the point of living I’ve ever heard. In fact my mother proved that point with her life, too. After Mom died, I received hundreds of notes from people who read my tribute to her, the basis of a top-of-the-page-big-picture-included-world-leader-dies New York Times obituary. Mom would have been thrilled. The Times’ book section editors ignored her many books, never reviewing any of them. So Mom would have loved that she finally made it into the “paper of record.” It might have been worth dying for!

The notes, emails and texts I received included an email from a hotel maid Mom had talked to over forty years before when my mother found her crying in a hallway. Mom stopped to help, changed her schedule, missed an important book event at a big bookstore in downtown Manhattan and then invited this stranger to visit us. Another note came from a successful woman who had once been a pregnant teen whom Mom took into our home. A jilted wife, contemplating suicide until Mom gave her new hope, wrote that Mom saved her life. And there was a text message from an African-American couple my mother had sent money to almost fifty years before when she learned they couldn’t pay their bills, and so on and on and on…

Mom would have said she did these things because she was following Jesus. She thought that to follow Jesus meant declaring that every word of the Bible is literally true. My mother affirmed this belief again and again, as if endless repetition that “the Bible is without error” would make it so. Her belief in a perfect Bible was a paradox, because Mom knew that the Bible was written by men. She knew that no men are perfect, not even her famous preacher husband, who hit her from time to time.

Luckily for the people she helped, my mother was gloriously inconsistent. She lived according to the more enlightened parts of the Bible and ignored the rest. For instance, no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human. She provided refuge, love and compassion to many gay men and lesbians at L’Abri, long before the secular world began to acknowledge that gay people are normal and healthy.

Dad and Mom had a lesbian couple living in our chalet for several years in the early 1970s. One was Dad’s secretary, the other Mom’s helper. They shared a room. Fortunately, my parents were hypocritical and acted as if, no matter their official religious absolutes, the higher call was to ignore what the Bible said in favor of what they hoped it meant. Thus, without ever saying it, it seems to me my parents were affirming that the Bible should be read as if Jesus was the only lens through which to see God. The result was that Francis and Edith Schaeffer were nicer than their official theology.

I never say “I’m sorry” to Genie without remembering who showed me how words of repentance backed up with action can change reality. Mom proved by her actions that an individual can behave as if another million years or so of ethical evolution has already happened. She’d stumbled onto a Jesus-motivated shortcut to a higher state of moral consciousness. She’s taken charge of her own ethical evolution.

My parents stayed married because my father tearfully apologized for hitting Mom and then worked to curb his violent dominant male temper. The redemptive message or fairytales in which Mom and Dad believed were their path to a life infused with hope and light. Their theological certainties, delusional or otherwise, motivated them to provide many people with meaningful real-life encounters with goodness and mercy.

So who is actually delusional? Who is actually following Jesus: fundamentalist Christians rejecting gay men and lesbians’ right to marry, or atheist humanists treating men and women with love and dignity? Fact-based, enlightened atheists sometimes treat people like shit, and delusional fundamentalists sometimes miss a book event in order to help a lonely hotel maid. Labels don’t mean anything. Who cares about labels when someone is slapping you in the face? Who cares about labels when someone is saving you from drowning?

Who someone is and what they do is all that matters. This is especially true because who we are changes as we grow and as we change our minds. Furthermore, we are never really of one mind about anything. Belief is never the point—actions are. We can be of two minds about biology or God but treat everyone around us with kindness.

If we wait for correct ideas to save us—theological or otherwise—we’ll never be saved, even from ourselves. Why? Because we can never have a fully correct idea. Why? Because however we label ourselves, we are still only half-evolved primates in two or more minds and multiple moods.

All we have is our stories. Today’s great art is tomorrow’s joke. Today’s joke is tomorrow’s great art. Today’s atheist is tomorrow’s ardent convert. Today’s preacher is tomorrow’s atheist author. I can’t objectively describe reality because I’m trapped in the moving target we call time. That’s what the word “evolution” means. The very fabric of the universe is unknowable and stranger than we can imagine and has a message for us: climb down off that high atheist, religious or agnostic pedestal!


“The new book, ‘Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God,’ is [a] distillation of wisdom.” Washington Post (June 12, 2014)

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