Saturday, May 31, 2014
A Review: WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: HOW TO GIVE LOVE, CREATE BEAUTY AND FIND PEACE by Frank Schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty, and Find Peace, is a celebration of paradox. Through his masterful storytelling and insightful expository writing, Frank demonstrates how he has learned (and continues learning) to give love, create beauty, and find peace by embracing the paradoxical nature of reality.
I sense a far greater peace in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God than I do in Frank's earlier books: Crazy for God; Patience with God; and Sex, Mom, and God. This present book seems to be the culmination of the intriguing exploration that I sense going on in the earlier books.
To receive the full impact of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, it is helpful to understand that Frank Schaeffer was not raised to embrace paradox. Frank was born into a Christian evangelical missionary family, where he was taught certainty about God and an either/or view of eternal salvation. Frank's earlier books describe his growing discomfort with this worldview and his movement toward a worldview where God is seen as mystery and salvation is seen as a process - a worldview that Frank now finds in the Greek Orthodox Church.
One important paradox described by Frank in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is an amazing paradox at the heart of his own parents' faith. While expressing belief in the direct inspiration of all parts of the Bible, Frank's parents actually practiced a far more loving faith than some parts of the Bible advocate. For example, Frank tells how his parents welcomed and loved gay and lesbian couples who came to their mission, despite the Bible's curse upon those who practice homosexuality. Frank says that "no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human." (The italics are Frank's.)
This paradoxical story about his parents is just one of many wonderful life stories with which Frank fills the pages of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Many are stories of love: stories of the lifelong love of Frank's wife Genie, the forgiving love of Frank's daughter Jessica, the trusting love of Frank's grandchildren Lucy and Jack, the barbed love of Frank's film director friend "Sam," the creatively expressed love of the late artist Holly Meade, the sacrificial love of Mother Maria of Paris. There are stories, too, of sorrow: stories of a friend's sudden death, of a friend's struggle with Parkinson's disease, of a relative's diminished life due to a brain tumor, and most poignantly of Frank's deep regret for his own failures to love. And there are stories of awesome beauty: the breath-taking beauty of the stars, the austere beauty of mathematics, the glorious beauty of the Angel's aria in Handel's Le Resurrezione sung by lyric soprano Camilla Tilling, the life-like beauty of John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the delicious beauty of a warm ripe tomato from Frank's home garden.
These and many more compelling stories provide the context for Frank's wonderfully clear exposition of what he believes (hopes) lies at the heart of the universe. Here is the nutshell version: "My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang, the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love." I love this succinct sentence, and I love even more the beautiful way that Frank unwinds his reasoning, particularly in Chapters XXI, XXII, and XXVI.
So, what does Frank Schaeffer mean when he says that he is "an atheist who believes in God"? Here is Frank's explanation: "These days I hold two ideas about God simultaneously: he, she or it exists and he, she or it doesn't exist. I don't seesaw between these opposites; I embrace them." (The italics are Frank's.) What I myself understand after twice reading Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is that Frank recognizes that there is evidence for God's existence and evidence against God's existence - and that he chooses to place his hope (not his certainty) on the side of God's existence, recognizing that God may not exist while living as though God does.
A precious gift that I receive from Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is a wonderful opening within myself to embrace BOTH/AND in more and more areas of my life. I can almost feel Frank putting his hands on my sometimes tense shoulders and saying, "Relax. It's not a question of right and wrong, of either/or. Let it be BOTH/AND."