The Common Good

The God-Believing Atheist: A Q&A with Frank Schaeffer

One phrase comes to mind, time and again, when I think of Frank Schaeffer: “THINK AGAIN.” Any time I think I have a handle on things theological, he seems to find the thread, hanging from the edges, and gives it a good, solid yank.

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Such is the case once again with his newest book, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. Just when it seems the delineations between theism and atheism, between believers and nonbelievers, is sufficiently clear, Schaeffer blurs even those lines, leaving us to wonder what it is any of us actually believes and why.

Frank Schaeffer is not one to deconstruct theology (or even the lack thereof) with some kind of sadistic joy, leaving us to sort through the pieces. Rather he explores what I might call trans-theism, offering us practices, a vocabulary, and a worldview that take us far beyond belief toward a deeply human – and yet inexplicably transcendent – experience.

I asked Frank several questions about his new project; here is what he had to say.

Q: The title of your new book is obviously controversial. Why did you choose it?

A: I'd like to change the debate on religion, actually I'd like to finish off BOTH the New Atheist movement and the religious fundamentalists! I think by introducing a note of paradox, both sets of absolutists can be vanquished. After all this is supposed to be the postmodern age. Certainty is so has been!

Q: Who is the audience for this book? Christians? Atheists?

A: All of the above, especially people burnt out on both religion and the hubris of some atheists.

Q: What do you see as the primary takeaway from this book?

A: I do not always believe, let alone know, if God exists. I do not always know he, she, or it does not exist either, though there are long patches in my life when it seems God never did exist. What I know is that I see the Creator in Jesus or nowhere. What I know is that I see Jesus in my children and grandchildren’s love. What I know is that I rediscover hope again and again through my wife Genie’s love. What I know is that Mother Maria loved unto death. What I know is that sometimes something too good to be true, is true.

Q: You talk about grief in this book. Do you find that difficult moments, or even suffering, help you feel more in tune with the spiritual, or less?

A: Christ’s love unto death and resurrection — however we interpret those words — is a means of freeing us from the anguish of mortality. Our desire for some sort of guarantee of eternal life and all fundamentalist attempts to describe it are self-defeating. Trying to nail down theological certainties is putting faith in our imagination rather than in God’s.

A: The "God" you refer to in your book is found in both creative and natural beauty. Is this different than pantheism?

A: Yes. Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism, or agnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account. I believe that life evolved by natural selection. I believe that evolutionary psychology explains away altruism and debunks love and that brain chemistry undermines my illusion of free will and personhood. I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in, and through me calls me to love, trust, and hear the voice of my Creator. It seems to me that there is an off-stage and an on-stage quality to my existence. I live on-stage, but I sense another crew working off stage. Sometimes I hear their voices singing in a way that’s as eerily beautiful as the off-stage chorus in an opera.

A: Do you find the same "God" in ugly places? Like where?

Q: There would be no Holocaust museums chronicling horror unless there was a sense that horror is abnormal and, therefore, preventable. Yet, if we insist on a material-universe-only view of ourselves, we have to admit that the story of evolution proves that suffering, death, and extinction are inevitable. Yet, we impose a human ethical standard on the material world. This imposition is not fact-based if we insist on understanding that facts relate only to the material universe.

Most people don’t really want to live only according to narrowly defined material facts. Most of us try to direct our human primate evolutionary process along ethical non-material lines. We impose standards that do not come from nature. Nature is cruel, yet we try not to be. We prosecute people for war crimes that are no more destructive than what happens every day in the churning cauldron of life where everything is eaten and where death is the only incubator of life. We call murder wrong although it’s the most natural thing on earth.

We’ve decided to let an imagined utopian ideal, a future Eden if you will, rule our present despite this being a spiritual non-material-universe-based choice that flies in the face of natural selection. We impose ethics that exist only in our heads upon the material universe. We are part of nature yet we have decided to be nicer than nature. There would be no war crimes trials unless our ethically evolved selves questioned the method of evolution itself.

Q: Do you hope for believers and nonbelievers to engage in more constructive dialogue, and if so, what might that look like?

A: We need to accept the fact our brains did not evolve to do theology or philosophy! We evolved to find patterns in reality to survive. This isn't truth. Less certainty, more humility. A spiritual non-material-based way of life turns out to be the actual way we live no matter what we say we believe. We live by ethics not found in nature and we enrich our lives with art. That says something to me. Maybe a purely material view of the universe and of ourselves is not in fact a fact.

Q: You're a painter; do you see your artwork as the byproduct of a spiritual practice?

A: Yes. I sell my work as a vocation. We need art. We need beauty. I need to paint. I want to share that, sort of like saying "I'll pray for you." I say, "I'll paint for you." It’s all about the soul. The humanities are about one thing: the soul. Declare the soul dead or mere brain chemistry and the humanities die. Declare culture nothing but a contest between men and women or all about politics or elites and you suck the life out of human aspiration.

So what are we left with? “It all comes back to stories,” says Schaeffer. “We are living a story.

“Art, like religion, is harder to kill off than the religiously dedicated secularists of the twentieth century imagined.” And yet, perhaps, rather than seeking God principally in our sanctuaries and holy books, Schaeffer suggests we should be haunting galleries and museums seeking to rebuild our art literacy amid the ashes of detached artistic irony.

“Camille Paglia,” who Schaeffer notes is a self-identified atheist, “writes that ‘a culture can only be dismantled once. Then something must be built or art falls silent.’ Irony about irony is a dead-end, she says. Parody has led to (in Paglia’s words) ‘a narcissistic art form that could be mistaken for a prank.’ I'm trying to do my bit of rebuilding.”

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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