An interview with Frank Schaeffer, author of Patience with God
What do you mean by patience with God?
I believe that the ideological opposites -atheism and fundamentalist religion-often share the same fallacy: truth claims that reek of false certainties. I also believe that there is an alternative that actually matches the way life is lived rather than how we usually talk about belief. I call that alternative "hopeful uncertainty." Patience with God is taking the time to discover hope in paradox, not demanding answers but rather finding God in ordinary life.
Why do you think people aren't more patient with God?
Because of the people who speak in God's name basically being our national village idiots. The Religious Right has seduced millions of Americans with titillating hatred and lies: The earth was created in six days and is not warming; Obama is a secret Muslim (perhaps even the Antichrist!) and wants women to have more abortions; gays are trying to take over America; the United Nations (and/or Obama and/or the president of the European Union) is the Antichrist; an unregulated market economy is Christian; guns keep people safe; taxing the rich is "communism"; capital punishment is good; immigrants are the enemy, national health care is "communist." Some or all these paranoid fantasies are accepted as truth by a whole substratum of "Christians" determined to judge their country as "fallen away from God." They believe America is "doomed" because they don't agree with their fellow citizens' politics or because, as their signs routinely proclaim, "God Hates Fags!" They call people like me "abortionists" because I and others say that maybe the best way to reduce abortion is to keep it legal but to also help women escape poverty, educate young people, and provide contraception rather than trying to reverse Roe v. Wade (realistically an impossibility, on which profilers have wasted almost forty years of effort and untold tens of millions of dollars).
Appeals to facts get nowhere with these folks because they don't trust any sources but their own and listen only to what emanates from an alternative right-wing universe. Thus arguments become circular. The more impartial the source, the more suspect it becomes. Propaganda, fulminating (and fund raising), and hatred of gays, women, our government, big-city folks, black people, the educated "elite," everything-not-like-us-Real-Americans supplant compassion and even common sense.
THIS is why people aren't patient with God. With "friends" like these God needs no enemies!
What do you see as the similarities between fundamentalist Christians and the New Atheists?
My definition of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, is the impulse to find The answer, a way to shut down the question-asking part of one's brain. Fundamentalists don't like question marks. Fundamentalists reject both Christian humility and postmodern paradox. In that sense an atheist too may be a fundamentalist. And a fundamentalist wants to convince others to convert to what fundamentalists are sure they know. The New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists do and say the say things the same way--they just use different catch phrases.
Are you saying we need to save Christianity from the Christians?
Take Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback "megachurch." He's the star in a cult of personality that fits the celebrity-worshipping temper of our times. Ask yourself: What will happen to his church when Warren dies, leaves, or is thrown out? Will it remain as successful? Are people there for each other and their community? Are they there for Jesus? Or are they there for Rick Warren?
Fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning can be found only in "understanding and doing what God placed you on Earth to do," writes Warren. But Warren's message turns out to be less about God than it is about trying to convince his readers to become American-style evangelicals. In other words, to find purpose they have to join the North American individualistic cult of one-stop born-again "salvation" to which Warren belongs. Warren's Christianity (the leftover residue of the simplistic frontier Protestantism we call "evangelicalism" that broke most connections theological, aesthetic, and liturgical to the historic Christian churches of both the East and West) is not to be confused with what Christians through most of t he 2,000-year history of their religion would have recognized as even remotely familiar. According to traditional Christianity, a person was not "saved" or "lost" in a one-stop magical affirmation of "correct" doctrine, but, rather, the process of salvation was lived out in a community. Salvation was a path toward God, not a you're-in-or-out event, as in "At two thirty last Wednesday I accepted Jesus." Just as Hillary Clinton said about child rearing, the process of redemption took a village.
These days the Christian community is really a series of personality cults and/or big business. Moreover it has been dominated by the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson; empire builders with political power ambitions. The Religious Right they (and my late father Francis Schaeffer) spawned has deformed not just faith but the Republican Party, now the exclusive preserve of loopy nuts and/or far right theocratic abmition to "bring America back to God."
How have the New Atheists transformed atheism?
They have turned it into a no-God version of right wing hucksterism. For instance, what no one knows, including (I suspect) Hitchen s, is whether Hitchens is serious, or just a Brit former-lefty version of Ann Coulter, cashing in on the American market and dedicated to entertaining (and making a great living off) those of the godless middlebrow of the American left who will still tolerate him, instead of entertaining (and making a good living off) the Godfearing even-lower-Neanderthal-brow Americans of the right who mistake Coulter for a serious (or even decent) person.
Or take Dawkins. One doesn't have to buy Richard Dawkins's books because he's found a way to offer his wisdom to passersby. Just hang around New Atheist gatherings and you may read Dawkins's writings on T-shirts worn by his disciples or emblazoning their sweat shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers. Go to his website and you could be looking at any flake egomaniac televangelist minus God. Anyone serious would be embarrassed by the merchandising.
So the way the New Atheists have transformed atethism is the same way the American evangelicals have transformed religion: turned it into a sereis of very lucrative personal ego-driven empires.
How has your evangelical past shaped your current view of religion?
As a young man in the early 1970s I did a really stupid thing and stopped painting, drawing, and sculpting, thus truncating what was becoming a promising art career. I'd had successful shows in New York, Geneva, and London by the time I was twenty-two. I got greedy for a faster track with a steadier income, and I became my parents' (Francis and Edith Schaeffer) sidekick. I then became a leader in my own right on the big-time evangelical/fundamentalist circuit after we Schaeffers got famous-famous within the evangelical/ fundamentalist ghetto, that is.
By the early 1980s, at the height of my involvement in the evangelical/ fundamentalist religious right, I was invited to preach from Jerry Falwell's pulpit, appeared many times on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson, and met privately with many of the top Republican leadership of the day. In the midst of these heady experiences I began to change my mind about what I believed, and not just about religion but about politics too.
My only "qualification" for meditating on faith in God is no more than the better part of a lifetime spent thinking about faith and reading about religion (and a few other things) and then living among, and then fleeing, the faithful. I'm with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he says of Christianity that "one neither can nor shall comprehend it."
How do you feel when you look back on the time you spent with your father founding the religious Right?
I understand that I was just one more self-made nepotistic side kick. Above all we were a Schaeffer personality cult. A Rick Warren, a C. S. Lewis, and a Francis Schaeffer are the essence of evangelical/fundamentalist success, but they also represent the Achilles heel of American evangelicalism. Personality cults with no accountability and no tradition and no structure to fall back on when the "Dear Leader" dies, or is found to have "fallen"-whatever-are no better than the men and women they're built on. The "something bigger" you thought you joined just turns out to just be some smooth-talking guy named Rick, or maybe Franklin Graham. I was just a player in that game. So I look back with gratitude that I got out while I was still young enough to make another life as a writer. But I also feel shame. For instance when I see the h ate leveled at Obama I know we helped build the army of willful ignorance that shouts that he isn't a "Real American" or is the "Antichrist" and all that nonsense. We were the ones that stated comparing America to the Nazis because of legal abortion and now that is something you hear spoken about the President.
What made you first question your beliefs?
I discovered I was part of an anti-American crusade based on lies. Bad news was good news to us. If things went wrong for America it "proved" we were right. But the America I discovered when I actually came to live here as an adult in 1980 wasn't this declining evil place we were saying it was.
What is the Church of Hopeful Uncertainty?
It is the place people go who know that life is too short to know anything. It is the place we meet where we believe that the revelation of God is evolving and found in love, not doctrine. To me the secular and religious contenders seem to miss the reality of our actual condition: We are specks on a tiny planet and our concept of truth, time, and space is related to our limited perspective. It strikes me that postmodernism possesses a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to grand theories. Truth is, if not only "in the eye of the beholder," nevertheless always seen through an opaque filter. And whatever solutions we embrace had better be on a human scale and reflect something of the paradoxes we encounter in real life.
You're a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and you voted for Obama in the last election. How do your religious beliefs relate to your political beliefs?
There have been literalists and fundamentalists shaping religion through a hard-edged fundamentalist "thread" running through Jewish and Christian history. Yes, many Jews and Christians following this literal-minded thread have done terrible things. Yes, the Jewish and Christian faiths are full of such people today. But there has been a parallel tradition, another thread, running alongside the literalistic tendency he caricatures. The open and questioning thread weaves another and more tolerant and nuanced color into the tapestry of faith. This too has been there from the beginning of the Jewish and Christian traditions. It represents the compassionate, mystical approach to faith in God- in other words, enlightenment. So I guess how I'm shaped by that thread found in some parts of the Orthodox Church is that I see politics not in terms of black and white absolutes but also as a mixture of many things where perfect solutions escape us. I'm more willing to lay aside differences for the common good. For instance take the issue of abortion.
I am both pro-life and pro- Obama, given that I believe that his social programs might help reduce the numbers of abortions, just as he said that he hoped they would, and that, conversely, the Republicans have been cynically using the "life issue" to drum up votes while cutting funding for health care, contraceptives, sex education, and child care.
You once described yourself and other members of the religious right as being anti-American during the 1970s and 1980s. Do you think current members of the religious righ t are anti-American?
Yes. They want the President and Democrats in Congress to fail, hence they'd rather see America go down than be a loyal opposition. And consider the lies. Obama wants "death panels" he is not American on and on. There were even clips of right wing organizers cheering because America didn't get the Olympics, all to snub the President. This isn't politics it's hate of one's own country. They hate America because most Americans are rejecting them. We're mostly tolerant of gays, women, diversity and immigrants--all things the right hate. And so they are turning their hatred on America. Add the people waiting for Jesus to come back and judge all of us into the mix and you understand that what these folks want isn't prosperity and peace but Armageddon.