When I read this title, my first thought was that people are going to think this is a kitchy attempt to evangelize atheists or to teach people how to evangelize atheists. However, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at a conference with the author, Frank Schaeffer, last fall, and I know that he is the kind of man who comes at you straight on, full frontal, with no guile, with his understanding of the world or politics or life, not like a breath of fresh air, but like an ocean breeze that just blows the blinds open and clears out all the cobwebs! I read this book in two sittings. It is that wonderful. I did have to come up to take a look around and check in with my family, once.
This book is not about the debate between theists and atheists and it is all about the debate between theists and atheists. Frank takes us to a different space in that debate, however. He reveals why this is so emotional for so many; why it is so “hot button.” It is really a debate within each of us. What Frank is doing in this deeply personal book of self-examination is calling us to stop shouting at each other long enough about what we claim to believe, whether that be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or whatever, to listen to our own doubts and insecurities; then look honestly at the inconsistencies in our own systems of belief. All of the world’s religions have changed over the centuries, and evolved. Just read the words of Jesus to see how radically he changed the Israelites’ religion. Paul tried to walk back some of Jesus’ more revolutionary ideas by silencing women in the church after Jesus encouraged them to speak. So we are whatever religion we are, or are not, mostly by accident of birth. Let’s be humble about that. If we read the words of Jesus, we are not supposed to judge, so let us not put other people in hell, not even for a little bit. Sometimes atheists make the best Christians. Sometimes Christians don’t know where God is. “My God! My God! Why has thou forsaken me?” “Lord I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
The words “objective reality” are just a metaphor for something I’ll never encounter. …
Anyway, since no one is ever just one thing, who are we planning for? Which “me” should be running the show? We’re all in the closet, so to speak. We barely come out to ourselves and never completely to others. I’ve never met an unequivocal atheist or religious believer. I’ve only met people of two, three or four or more minds—people just like me. Atheists sometimes pray and eloquent preachers secretly harbor doubts. The evangelist Billy Graham preached certain salvation and heaven guaranteed yet privately told my dad, a friend and fellow evangelist, that he feared death and had many doubts.
We’re all of at least two minds. We play a role and define that role as “me” because labels and membership in a tribe make the world feel a little safer. When I was raising my children, I pretended to be grown-up Daddy. But alone with my thoughts, I was still just me. I’m older now, and some younger people may think I know something. I do! I know how much I can never know.
Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Christian, you are that because of where and when you were born. If you are an atheist, you are that because of a book or two you read, or who your parents were and the century in which you were born. Don’t delude yourself: there are no good reasons for anything, just circumstances. Don’t delude yourself: you may describe yourself to others by claiming a label of “atheist,” “Jew,” “evangelical,” “gay” or “straight” but you know that you are really lots more complicated than that, a gene-driven primate and something more. Want to be sure you have THE TRUTH about yourself and want to be consistent to that truth? Then prepare to go mad. Or prepare to turn off your brain and cling to some form or other of fundamentalism, be that religious or secular. You will always be more than one person. You will always embody contradiction. You—like some sort of quantum mechanics physics experiment—will always be in two places at once.
It came home to me personally on a number of levels. I have always loved church. I have been ordained four or five times in five or six churches. (The disparity is due to whether you accept my infant ordination at my baptism in the Episcopal Church. The bishop gave me the laying on of hands of Peter. No one knows why.) I currently cannot attend. I suffer PTSD from being bullied and having my life threatened by clergy. I have also discovered that I have a developmental defect in my brain, and subsequent strokes in my right parietal lobe. Limited blood flow and damage to that part of the brain tends to make the ‘victim’ more religious. So the fact that there is such a defect effect could be considered evidence for the existence of God as this is all part of the design; or it could be an explanation for my quixotic quest to find the church that would not betray me, all my life. Christian me believes one. Atheist me believes the other. Simultaneously.
The one thing I know for sure is that I need to serve the poor in Jesus’ Name. I don’t care who joins me as long as they are not there to save anybody but themselves.
Thank you, brother Frank, for letting me know I am not alone in this insanity we call human life. Let us dare to “create beauty, give love and find peace!”
God, whoever he, she or it may or may not be, bless you, Frank and Genie Schaeffer!
Cranford Joseph Coulter