Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Atheist Who Believes in God

Frank Schaeffer is an interesting guy, and I’m looking forward to hearing him again tonight. He has come to Kansas City to promote his new book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.”
The other time I met Frank was when he was in town promoting a previous book, one with an even more arresting title: “Sex, Mom, and God” (2011).
Frank’s “Mom” was Edith, who died last year at the age of 98. And his father, Edith’s husband, was the widely known conservative/fundamentalist theologian and author Francis Schaeffer (1912-84).
Frank is a complex man. You see that in the title of his new book. Some may even say his thinking is perhaps a bit schizophrenic.  
But rather than being schizoid, he just has a paradoxical view of reality. That is one reason I appreciate his views so much. (One chapter in my as yet unpublished book, “Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs To Know Now,” deals with the significance of paradox.)
Early in his book, Frank avers, “Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure (p. 13). I like this, for I too often feel negative toward religion but positive about faith.
“With the acceptance of paradox,” Frank writes, “came a new and blessed uncertainty that began to heal the mental illness called certainty” (ibid.).
Later on, Frank advises his readers to “flee from exclusionary certainty.” Then he asserts,
There is only one defense against the rising, worldwide, fear-filled fundamentalist tide engulfing all religions (including the intolerant religion of the New Atheists) which once engulfed me: the embrace of paradox and uncertainty as the virtuoso expression of love (p. 90).
Frank seems to be a very honest man. He shares himself, “warts and all,” quite freely. (I do wonder, though, if the title of his new book was chosen more to sell books than to express accurately his real belief about God.)
Frank is not so much an atheist as he is an afundamentalist. That is, he is not a nonbeliever in God. Rather, he is a nonbeliever in the God of his fundamentalist past.
Actually, he is quite a good apologist for Jesus—and for Christianity as it should be: a religion of love and grace.
While his rhetoric is perhaps exaggerated at times (as was that of the One who spoke about camels going through eyes of needles), his is a vibrant spirituality that probably Jesus would have been, and is, delighted with.
“Jesus’ co-suffering love,” according to Frank, “is the best lens through which to reconsider God” (p. 127). A little later he writes, “Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is “ (p. 138).
So it is because of Jesus that Frank is “an atheist who believes in God.” Blessings on him and his highly significant writing and speaking!
Frank Schaeffer is in Kansas City this week thanks to the efforts of Thinking Friend Charlie Broomfield. Frank will be speaking at the Community Center in North Kansas City this evening from 7:30 and at the beautiful downtown Kansas City Public Library from 6:30 tomorrow (Thurs.) evening. There is no charge for attending either gathering. 


  1. Thanks for the post, Leroy, and for the informative comments about Schaeffer's book. Western religions suffer a great deal, it seems to me, from the imposition of Greek rationalist thinking, which is why Schaeffer's paradoxicality is so problematic, and why we're so typically ambivalent about our mystics since they, too, affirm paradoxicality, although not by that term. We would probably do well to read the writings that came out of Taoism, Buddhism, and medieval Confucianism, especially during the period of the West's late Middle Ages. It seems to me they were affirming paradoxicality (although it can read like contradictions to Westerners) while our theologians were rationally parsing out the differences between faith and reason and what could and could not be logically stated.

    1. Of course there have been a lot of Christian theologians who have talked a lot about paradox also--especially Kierkegaard and the neo-orthodox theologians influenced by him.

      I know a little bit about this, for it was the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

    2. Well put. It seems this western push for rationalism has led to much schism within the Church. Probably beginning with Augustine and the emphasis on Magisterial Rome, then a cacophony of reformation and protestantism in lieu of ecumenical councils.

  2. I periodically cause a stir in my Sunday School class by suggesting that we make too much of the difference between atheists and believers. There are far more variations within each group than there are between the groups. This is especially true once we get out of the divisive world of fundamentalism. Within that world, as ISIS has most recently illustrated, there are almost no limits to the scope of division.

    A book my class read recently is the very "Sex, Mom & God" mentioned above by Leroy. Its subtitle hints at the same subject as Schaeffer's new book, "How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway." Schaeffer had to find his way out of the twin perils of fame and fundamentalism, which was quite an accomplishment. Just lugging his book around a Baptist church felt subversive!

    My second son is a natural-born secular humanist. I say this because, one, he says he NEVER believed in God, and, two, his childhood arguments sounded so much like secular humanism that I gave him a stack of old Free Inquiry magazines to read, telling him that if he is going to be a secular humanist, he ought to be a good one. Later he came back for more issues of the magazine. As he got older (he made what I call his public confession of faith in atheism in the fourth grade) and started trying to figure out what strange things I was thinking, he decided I was a "closet atheist." Well, that was not absolutely wrong, because I am a religious humanist. On the other hand, I am a Baptist and I very much believe in the experience of God (for most people). I just laid aside the heavy burden of metaphysics, and took the religious experience on its own terms. I believe in faith, hope and love, and I experience that in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I just experience that without accepting any metaphysical baggage. If I did, I would sink like Peter into the lake of doubt. As it is, I call what I do, walking on water. Now this frequently freaks people out, so I do not spell it out too frequently. However, when confronting the boundary line between atheism and theism, I do not see a way around it.

    When Schaeffer says he is an atheist who believes in God, I suspect he is saying something quite similar to what I am saying when I say I am a religious humanist. We both love Jesus, even as we admit there would probably be some great surprises if we all could meet the historical Jesus. Indeed, the very flexibility of this theology may open the way for seeing what some scholars are now suggesting, that the true historical Jesus may have been hiding in plain sight all of these years. What if the historical Jesus really was famous for loving his enemies, but not as a Jew? What if the gospel Jesus is an attempt at a purified form of an all-too-human historical Jesus? What if Christianity was a syncretistic religion from its very foundation? As a religious humanist I am free to explore such questions.

    It sounds like Frank Schaeffer has found a path to freedom as well.

    1. Craig, thanks for your thoughtful response.

      Frank S. basically identifies himself as a Christian humanist, and that is the main topic of the book he is currently writing.

      I hope you will be able to go to hear him speak this evening (at the downtown KC Public Library beginning at 6:30). I'm sorry you missed hearing him last night. (There were a couple of people from 2BC there.) It was a great talk, and I'm sorry I can't hear him again this evening, but my first class of the new semester at RU is at the very same time.

  3. I went last night, on your recommendation (saw June there, but didn't get over to say "hi"). I enjoyed his talk. In addition to his interesting spiritual journey he revealed some of his political views, which are consistent with mine and it always feels good to be affirmed.

    One thing I thought you'd find interesting is that he talked about the nontraditional publishing route he had to take for this book. With past books, he used traditional, big-name publishers, but he didn't this time. He used social media and other promotional outlets and self-published.

    Those publishers who would be inclined to publish the New Atheist view wanted a final chapter with a clear statement to that effect, that he had landed in that camp. Those publishers who would publish a Christian perspective wanted him to make a statement to that effect: essentially, that he'd seen the light. He refused both. The whole point of his discourse is that the enemy is zealous certitude. And yet they were insisting that he take a position of zealous certitude. Isn't it interesting that even an established author cannot be allowed to write what he wants (unless he wants to write something divisive), if he wants a "big name" publisher? Yeesh. Like I said before, self-publishing is where most of the books with integrity are found.

    1. Debra, I was glad you were able to go hear Frank speak. (June was sitting near the front, and she didn't see you.)

      Thanks for writing about self-published books again. Frank talked about that some on Wed. eve. as well--and there is also a bit about that in his book. I certainly found what he said about that to be interesting--and encouraging. And I also much appreciate your last sentence.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed Frank's presentation at the KC Public Library. An assortment of excellent questions and answers. Although he can be a loose cannon on any topic, he is well worth reading - including his early works, which he now rejects. Most refreshing is that he encourages his readers to question and think. But one must still find a firm foundation to build on, rather than shifting sand - sometimes a difficult proposition when there is much to question from all sides. Maybe there is still some truth in his earlier works - don't throw it all out just because Frank is no longer Franky.

  5. I'm happy to post, with his permission, the erudite comments of Thinking Friend Patrick Crews in Arizona:

    "I'll not let Frank Schaeffer have all the fun. You know, God's not real. God's Imaginary. Bear with me just a moment as I make a crazy mathematical metaphor.

    "The set of Real Numbers includes Negative Numbers, -2, for example. You should be able to perform any mathematical operation on Negative Numbers that you can on Positive ones, right? Yes! But there's an interesting surprise.

    "The square root of 1 is 1. That's because 1 times 1 equals 1. But what about the square root of -1?
    It's not -1, because -1 times -1 doesn't equal -1. It equals 1. And the square root of -1 isn't 1, because 1 times 1 doesn't equal -1.

    "This makes an impossible situation. Mathematicians could just outlaw square roots of negative numbers the same way dividing by 0 is forbidden. Except it turns out that this impossible operation is a necessary part of solving some very important equations in Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Electrodynamics, String Theory, and the Standard Model of Particle Physics. The equations involve numbers created by operations on the square roots of Negative Numbers.

    "These numbers, not being 'Real' are called 'Imaginary' or 'Complex.' It's paradoxical to use these 'impossible' numbers, but Science would be at a very big loss without them.

    "You get the drift. The subject of the Divine is complex. Simple Theism and Simple Atheism aren't nuanced enough to address the necessity of the impossible.

    "The Set of Real Numbers also contains both the rational and irrational numbers. Pythagorean Mathematicians who aspired to Absolute Rationality tried to ban the irrationals. But that was very irrational of them. The Catholic Church tried to ban the concept of infinitesimals upon which Calculus is based.

    "Paradox is in so many ways fundamental to reality that it's like a lumpy carpet. You push it down one spot and it pops up somewhere else. Theism and Atheism try to roll it out of sight, under the sofa.

    "But good luck, because the Divine is that Paradox at the Heart of all things."

  6. Here is part of a later email received from Patrick:

    "For Frances Schaffer in his book, 'How Then Shall We Live,' was just another piece in a vast cultural trend abandoning reason and with it faith. His point was that we need God to anchor Rationality.

    "This was a popular book among the Theology majors at Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University) my final two years. Of course I had to weigh in and some found my views quite odd.

    "I didn't see that knocking down some walls in The House of Reason was a threat to Faith. I celebrated it as an opening to Reality beyond the limitations of rational idolatry. Where Schaffer looked for the demonic in Existentialism, I saw spiritual depth in Kierkegaard's assertion that 'Truth is Subjectivity.'

    "I smile that Schaffer's son is now embracing the Mystery."

    1. In the 1970s I read Francis Schaeffer's book "The God Who is There" (1968) and then saw the video series "How Then Shall We Live" in 1977. I was originally quite impressed with Schaeffer, but soon became a critic of him, largely (at that time) because of his rejection of Kierkegaard.

  7. I find Frank's perspective far more attractive than Francis' overly, and somewhat condescending, rationalistic "packaging of God."

    "I know WHOM I believe - and am persuaded ... ." is far more alive for me than putting my faith in what I believe about whomever/whatever.

  8. I just reread your reply, Leroy. My "somewhat condescending, rationalistic" refer to my response to "How Shall We Live" movie. (It was shown during Church Training at Walnut Street Baptist Church soon after it was released.

    It took a while for some of the implications to get deep into my consciousness. It seemed, and still seems, to me that Francis turned Existentialism - at least in its pop forms - into a sort of Boogeyman; and straw-man that he found easy to knock down. Now, come to think - again - of it, it strikes me that he was more in the tradition of Jesus' critics than in the tradition of "the sick" who hung around Him to receive healing of their - very real - angst!

    It's good to see that Frank may be on the path of healing of his inner self - that formalism, and rational formulations, can't fully address.