Growing up in the evangelical heartland of America, Grand Rapids, Michigan, I came to believe that the highest calling to which one might aspire was apologetics ninja. That is to say, I thought that protecting God from the predations of the faceless hordes of the godless through the proper application of a badass theological smack down occupied the most enviable sphere of Christian vocation. I so wanted to be Batman with a bullet–a suitably cross-shaped bullet, to be sure, but a bullet nevertheless.
There was, of course, Josh McDowell, who criss-crossed the country applying the intellectual hammerlock for Jesus, beating atheists into submission. Evidence that demands not only a verdict, but a frightened cry of “uncle” from those people who’d been giving God such a difficult time with their fancy scientific and philosophical trickery.
And while every self-respecting frontline warrior for Jesus had a dog-eared copy of Josh McDowell’s books, the real gold standard was Francis Schaeffer. I had a library of a couple thousand volumes by the time I was in Bible college, but my prize possession was the rainbow colored five volume Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, the sub-title suggesting its comprehensive ambitions: A Christian Worldview. Francis Schaeffer didn’t just give “pithy ripostes for every occasion”; he talked about art and culture, about Kant and Kierkegaard. In many ways, I considered Francis Schaeffer’s work the apotheosis of Christian intellectualism, largely because I thought he met the atheists on their home turf … and pwned the pretenders.
I’ve changed over time. I no longer recognize Evangelicalism’s claims of theological coherence when it comes to so many issues -- Biblical inerrancy, the exclusion of LGBT people, the lack of focus on issues of justice and poverty, and so on. Moreover, I’ve long since abandoned any pretense that God needs my protection from the heathen forces of the irreligious, which would necessitate a branch of Christian knowledge called “apologetics.” (In fact, I’ve long since abandoned the idea that there could even be a taxonomy of knowledge rendered intelligible by the use of “Christian” as an adjective rather than a noun.)
Which confession of my own departure from Evangelicalism brings me to the departure of another one of Evangelicalism’s favorite sons--Frank Schaeffer. Yeah, the Schaeffer boy. Francis A. Schaeffer’s son.
Frank Schaeffer talks about his exodus from the spotlight of the Evangelical center stage as a young man in his memoir, Crazy for God. But his latest book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, focuses on, what appears at first blush to be, the opposite ends of the spectrum: Fundamentalism and the New Atheism. In these two traditionally opposing forces Schaeffer sees shocking similarities.
Now the idea that the stridency of the New Atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins appears to many as merely an instantiation of Fundamentalism without the benefit of God isn’t a new claim. Terry Eagleton, for example, makes this case in a pointed and witty way in his book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. But instead of spending much time on the grating nature of totalizing claims, Schaeffer paints a softened watercolor picture of the mystery of a universe that eludes the stark primary colors of either the Fundamentalists or the New Atheists.
In his newest book, Schaeffer argues that he’s not an agnostic -- which suggests a level of uncertainty about the existence of God--since he maintains that he simultaneously believes that God does and does not exist. He’s much more content in the apparently irresolvable tension between certainty and doubt, believing that both exist within each of us to a greater or lesser extent. This embrace of paradox shouldn’t surprise us, though, since Schaeffer has long made his home among the Eastern Orthodox. Like two old men on a park bench arguing over a fifty year-old bar tab, Eastern Orthodoxy is a religious tradition comfortable with allowing for seemingly incommensurable ideas to sit side by side in all their conceptual awkwardness -- confident that the tension is part of the relationship, and not some unpleasant interruption of it.
It is this relative comfort with a lack of certainty that allows Frank Schaeffer to leave behind contentious arguments about “fact vs. opinion” -- not as unimportant, but as ultimately unsatisfying; it is what separates him from the apologetics of both our Evangelical formative years. He understands that the living Jesus he longs for will never be found in received formulas that seek certitude over mystery, and doctrine over presence. One cannot argue God either into or out of existence. Fundamentalism as an orientation to God and to the world God inhabits leaves very little room for doubt -- the creative tension necessary for art.
On the other hand, the materialism of the New Atheists also too easily forecloses on the mystery necessary for art. In Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God Schaeffer chooses story as the most appropriate form of inquiry into the question of belief and meaning. While at home with the truth science uncovers, Schaeffer believes strongly that such matters as being and purpose, creativity and transcendence, compassion and music, love and art aren’t reducible to data that can adequately be accounted for by scientific investigation. What brings meaning to life doesn’t come from under a microscope or from within the pages of a systematic theology.
The beauty of the life Jesus points to cannot be reduced to a personal piety that will one day be rewarded with some divine stamp on a heavenly bus pass. Instead the flourishing life God intends can be found in old friends and well-worn liturgical rituals, in sunsets and opera, in loving the dying and feeding the hungry, in prayer and the Eucharist, in great love and great sacrifice. But, according to Frank Schaeffer, it can also arise from the quotidian adventure present in watching your grandkids open up to the possibility of an amazingly communal drama in which they are not the only actors, or from something as simple as the Proustian experience of eating a sun-ripened tomato, allowing the juice dribbling down your chin to transport you in time and space to worlds you have already inhabited, while providing the building blocks of worlds not yet called into existence.
In a world determined to “get to the bottom” of everything--especially religion--it’s refreshing to find a voice like Frank Schaeffer’s, one content to let the wonder and inscrutability of life and of the divine wash over him--and through his writing--over us.
Because in the end, God doesn't need the protection of black belt theological defenders. But to the extent that God gets a kick out of anything, I suspect it has to do with the love we show one another and the awe with which we behold the universe.