Books

Frank Schaeffer, the Atheist Who Believes in God

The son of an evangelical intellectual who galvanized the religious right, Frank Schaeffer has been searching for years for a coherent religious identity after fundamentalism—and he keeps getting closer.

Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times via Redux

Well-known defectors from fundamentalist Christianity—musicians,writers, preachers—sort roughly into two categories. First there are those whobecame agnostics, and who think Christians are misguided at best. With varyingdegrees of sympathy and anger, they like to rehash silly lessons from Sundayschool and congratulate themselves for being skeptical. Then there are the salvagers,who sift through the Christian teachings of their youth and decide the mostbasic parts are worth preserving. They promote a sort of not-your-parents’Christianity, where it’s okay to doubt God’s existence and reject the oldteachings on homosexuality and gender roles.

Neither side has contributed much to the literature onreligion and belief, though they have revealed a lot about the evangelical subculture.The New Agnostics seem to retain a cartoonish notion of God as a Homeric beingwho created the universe in a single temporal event. As for the New Christians,instead of arguing about God’s existence, they mostly try to atone for theprevious generation’s mistakes by creating a more hospitable church environmentwith a more transparent leadership. However noble their intentions, both groupsare for the most part intellectually shallow, and neither is much inconversation with spiritual traditions outside the ones they grew up in.They’re self-styled rebels who define themselves against Billy Graham’s breedof Christianity.

Then there’s Frank Schaeffer, the black sheep amongpurported black sheep. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, probably didmore than any other author to give the nascent religious right an intellectualbacking. The older Schaeffer was a hippie-ish evangelical intellectual who movedto Switzerland and founded a haven for young philosophical seekers, andpeppered his writings with honest engagement with existentialist philosophy and70s drug culture. Later in life, he returned to the U.S. and got increasinglymixed up with conservative political causes. As Schaeffer grew more stridentand political, his son was his right-hand man.

Where his peers have walked a relatively straight line awayfrom fundamentalism, Frank Schaeffer has taken hard twists and turns since hisfather died in 1984: from directing slasher movies, to extolling Greek OrthodoxChristianity, to writing a political column centered on denunciations of the TeaParty. Demonstrating that old fundamentalist habits die hard, he’s made each ofthese shifts with an almost violent conviction that he was right and mosteveryone else was wrong. But if this restlessness has eroded his credibility, it’salso shown him to be more intellectually curious than most other evangelical apostates.

His new book, Why I Aman Atheist Who Believes in God,shows Schaeffer trying to drop this sectarianism and make peace withuncertainty. At age 62, he shows a self-awareness here that might surpriseanyone who’s read his Huffington Post columns or his 1990s books on Orthodoxy;he admits he’s changed his mind many times and may change it again. It’s messyand inelegant—he self-published it, even though some of his previous titleshave landed on the bestseller list—but it exhibits a wisdom rare for thismilieu. At its best, the book resonates with religious traditions older anddeeper than the ideas of David Hume or John Calvin, let alone Richard Dawkins:think of Taoism or Sikhism or ancient Christianity. In last year’s much-laudedbook The Experience of God,the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote that real debate over belief andunbelief isn’t even possible with the two sides entrenched as they are inrespective grammars of belief. Schaeffer is at least trying, if somewhatclumsily, to put them into conversation.

Schaeffer was a product of his parents’ unusual vocations.He grew up at L’Abri, the Christian commune the Schaeffers founded in southwestSwitzerland. His father’s book How ShouldWe Then Live remains the definitive Bible-thumper diagnosis of what wentwrong with Western society, from the Renaissance to Roe v. Wade. To its credit, it’s widely known for convincingevangelicals it was acceptable to engage with secular philosophy and the GreatBooks. As Schaeffer recalls in his 2007 memoir, Crazy for God, his father took him to art museums and blastedclassical music all day, and his sisters played Handel’s “Hallelujah” choruswhenever someone converted at their commune. He often listened to his fatherdebate theology into the night with visiting college students. Later his fathergrew out his hair and beard and took a serious interest in Bob Dylan. Hisfather could be temperamental and misogynistic, but the family was neverplagued with major money-laundering or sex scandals.

At age 17, Schaeffer impregnated a young woman visiting thecommunity. He married her, and while they raised their family, Frank startedproducing films for his father’s ministry. His disillusionment withevangelicalism occurred in the early 1980s, in the period when he and hisfather were riding around in Jerry Falwell’s private jet and hobnobbing withRepublican politicians. His memoir recounts Billy Graham’s tips for solicitingdonations: telling a rich businessman his father was fighting the socialists;talking slowly to the Southerners and avoiding the word “intellectual.”Schaeffer remembers his father squirming when Pat Robertson talked aboutburning a reproduction of a nude by Modigliani. Schaeffer concluded thatFalwell was an “unreconstructed bigot reactionary,” Graham was a “very weirdman indeed,” and Robertson “would have a hard time finding work in any jobwhere hearing voices is not a requirement.” Schaeffer says his fatherultimately agreed they were mostly “psychopaths” and “lunatics.”

After his father’s death, Schaeffer severed ties with thatcrowd and tried to break into Hollywood. He made several low-budget films,including the violent sci-fi movie Wired toKill. Crazy for God describes adark period after Schaeffer finished editing his fourth movie, when he wasliving in a rented room and subsisting on extra-thick pork chops he shopliftedfrom a grocery store. (He put them in his pants to smuggle them out even thoughit hurt his testicles.) Seeing street preachers and Christian TV ads made himquestion his career choice, but he decided nothing would be worse thanreturning to the evangelical world. Everything changed with the success of hisfirst novel, Portofino,in 1992. In 1990 he also converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity. Tellingly,the book he wrote on his conversion, called Dancing Alone,was more a hostile denunciation of Protestantism than a love letter to hisnewfound faith.

Schaeffer heightened his hostility in 2008, when he turnedagainst John McCain and started a liberal political column at the Huffington Post. He garnered media attention by accusing Christians whowere voting against Obama of outright racism—“everything else is an excuse,just another smokescreen.”Sometimes his anger seemed to veer on pathological. In another entry he accused evangelicals of glorifying violence against children and linked to avideo of a man beating his daughter. “That video of a weeping child begging formercy is what our country will look like if the Religious right ever gets theirway,” he wrote. “And if that's how they think God wants them to treat theirchildren just imagine how gays, liberals and anyone else of the ‘Other’ will doin their theocracy.” In 2011, Schaeffer denounced several high-profileevangelical Christian leaders—particularly Rob Bell, founding pastor of the hipMars Hill church in Michigan—for publishing their books with companies owned byRupert Murdoch. They “worry about gay marriage between responsible lovingadults,” Schaeffer wrote,“while they perform financial fellatio on the mightiest and most depraved/paganmedia baron to ever walk the earth.” The column seldom mentioned hisinvolvement with Orthodoxy, and it would be easy conclude from reading it thatSchaeffer felt contempt for Christianity in any form.

But that would be mistaken, and Schaeffer clarifies some ofthis in his newest book. He still lives near Boston with Genie, his wife ofsome 45 years. He spends a great deal of time painting and playing with his twograndkids. He continues attending a Greek Orthodox church, but he’s no longeran Orthodox triumphalist; it’s simply part of his routine, and he loves theByzantine liturgy. Likewise, he reflexively prays an old Orthodox prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy onme—throughout the day. But he vacillates between believing in a personalGod and thinking theism is just an absurd fabrication: “Depending on the dayyou ask me, both statements seem true,” he writes in his new book. In anotherpassage, he says he holds two ideas about God simultaneously: “He, she or itexists and he she or it doesn’t exist. I don’t seesaw between these opposites;I embrace them.” He doesn’t see this paradox as tantamount to agnosticism, butrather the truest way to describe reality—even if, as he says in anothersection, he has “no idea what the word true means.”

The book suffers from lack of the editing Schaeffer receivedat major publishing houses. His prose is choppy, and besides a generalrepetitiveness, the book has unhelpful excursions into subjects like The Big Lebowski and House of Cards. But it also hasendearing moments. Schaeffer dwells at great length on the subjects ofclassical music and art, which, he says, he’s finally learned to celebrate fortheir own sake without marshaling them into arguments or trying to start amovement, as his father might have done.

More importantly, Schaeffer is almost onto something withhis faux-agnosticism. Much of his doubt seems to be rooted in an awareness ofmodern scientific advancements. He believes brain chemistry undermines hissense of free will and personhood and that psychology explains away love and altruism.And as he ages, and copes with the deaths of more friends and relatives, theeasy comfort he once took from believing in eternal life seems increasinglyfoolish. So sometimes he tries to reconcile his thoughts within an emptypantheism: “Maybe saying ‘evolution teaches’ or ‘God says’ is more or less thesame thing: just another way of summing up what we know about ourselves fromour collective human primate experience of what works.” But ultimately he won’tretreat from his conviction that there’s something beyond the material, beyondthe scope of empirical observation. He has a sense of a “spiritual realityhovering over,” calling him to hear the voice of his creator. “It seems to methat there is an off-stage and an on-stage quality to my existence. I liveon-stage, but I sense another crew working off-stage.”

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This is where Schaeffer gets beyond the theologicalcategories of evangelical Christians and their detractors. Rather than theimage of God as a “cosmic craftsman,” in David Bentley Hart’s language—a God ofthe gaps, a supreme being among other beings, who created the universetemporally and exists alongside it—Schaeffer’s words evoke the God of variousmystical traditions. As the Tao Te Ching famously declares, “The Tao that canbe told is not the eternal Tao”—and nor is the Tao that can be marginalized byquantum physics. The Hindu chant “neti, neti”—“not this, not this”—is a way ofexpressing that whatever the divine might be, we limit our experience of itwhen we try to describe it. The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonidessays we can only describe what God is not: not ignorant, not impotent, nottemporal. The seventh-century Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius goes evenfarther, insisting that God isn’t good, isn’t love, isn’t existent. A17th-century Catholic priest described God as “a pure nothingness.” God is thesource of being and life, and so can’t belong to the realm of being as such.The mystics say God is only knowable through experience.

Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox bishop who died in 2003,gives a beautiful and profound treatment of doubt and belief in his 1971 book God and Man. Past a certain age, whencritical thinking sets in, Bloom says, belief in God usually has to rest onsome utterly convincing experience, an encounter that the believer interpretsas God’s presence. It’s like hearing notes from a violin and knowing that it’smusic rather than simply noise. Bloom says we ought to think of truth asresembling a scientific hypothesis that helps us hold together our bits ofknowledge. It’s always limited and inadequate. Just as the scientist doubts hismodel while knowing there’s a stable reality behind it, the believer truststhat God is there, however ridiculous and anthropomorphic our notions of Godmight be. Theology is a deliberate falsification that points toward a deepertruth.

Schaeffer is confronting the inadequacy of the model, thoughhe lacks the philosophical background to navigate the relationship betweenscience and faith.

On the other hand, he has retained an attribute reminiscentof the other ex-fundies. He hardly spares any codified religion from his angrydenunciations, including Orthodoxy. He mostly portrays them as retrograde anddogmatic. “Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism oragnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account,” he writes. It’snaive and arrogant to think the great spiritual traditions haven’t taken theseinto account for centuries. Prayer and belief don’t preclude unknowing. For allhis newfound comfort with uncertainty, Schaeffer has yet to embrace the equallygreat virtue of solidarity. Like those other defectors, he’s still trying toblaze a new path.