For What It’s Worth


David Mitchell


I’ve never met Frank Schaeffer but I think I understand him. Having read Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism), I believe he would understand me, too. In Patience with God, Schaefer tackles a lot of significant theological and philosophical issues: Why are we here? Why do so many people have to be so certain that their answer to that question is the best answer? How can anyone know anything about the unknowable? In short, he considers why we humans have such a great need for faith and such divergent views on what faith means.

Schaeffer grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the household of a evangelical fundamentalist preacher. Eventually, after fathering a son at age seventeen and inducing his now wife of forty years to leave her family and move to Europe, Schaeffer followed in his father’s footsteps and became a preacher as well. He was not in any way a small town preacher. He preached to the multitudes from pulpits, including Jerry Falwell’s church and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. When one considers the levels of success that a television evangelist can enjoy, Schaeffer had indeed risen about as high as one can rise.

Having achieved such grand status, Schaeffer then gave up on all of it. He does not really tell us why he abandoned his status as an evangelical minister. All he admits is that by the early 1980s he had started to change his mind about what he believed. I believe that Schaeffer realized that faith was not supposed to be about him and that it certainly was not something that he should be defining for the thousands who followed him. At the same time, Schaeffer never lost his faith and he didn’t stop going to church either. He just found a church that he could better tolerate.  As he explains it:

This is a book for those of us who have faith in God in the same way that we might have the flu, less a choice than a state of being in spite of doubt, in spite of feeling wounded by past religious contagion, in spite of our declared agnosticism or even atheism, in spite of the sorts of idiots like me who are attracted to or, more accurately, bred to religion and run around defending and/or criticizing it.

Wow. In a few short lines, Schaeffer captures the angst at the core of my existence, my religious experience and my outlook. I suspect that if I could get inside the heads of most of the people at my church, I would find much the same perspective even though many of the members of the parish would not admit it publicly or even recognize it in themselves. 

I think the real strength of Schaeffer’s perspective, however, is not that he recognizes that there is uncertainty in faith but that he acknowledges that there is uncertainty in not having faith, too, and he takes issue with zealots on both sides of the faith argument. As Schaeffer sees it, there is an arrogance in proclaiming that any faith is the one true faith and that the same arrogance pervades the denial of faith just as profoundly. Moreover, that the battle between the two sides undermines our experience as human beings.

It is time for religion to go—intolerant, politicized, ugly religion as we know it, that is. I agree with religious people, too: Atheism has killed many more millions of people, specifically in the name of godless ideologies, than all religions combined ever killed in the name of God or any gods. Or put it this way: The atheist yells, “Crusades!” The religious believer counters “Stalin!” The atheist says “Faith in science!” The believer answers “Faith in God!” Are we stuck trading catchphrases like school children taunting each other on the playground, or is there a better way to discuss what boils down to just two issues: the quest for meaning in our lives and the search for an answer concerning the origin of everything.

Why am I here? How can we be here at all? These are questions that we all have encountered. Indeed, I suspect that most of us have wrestled with them. If you have not, you have been hiding from the fundamental debate that largely defines who we are as individuals. Is life ordered or random? Is there a plan for you, divine or otherwise? Do you control your destiny or are you a puppet on a string? We all answers these questions differently, based on what we want to be true or, more specifically, what we hope to be true. Unfortunately, for too many people, the uncertainty of living on hope results in the religious and sectarian strife that Schaeffer observes and at which he lashes out. Thus, because we cannot know truth, far too many of us become zealous believers who feel the need to enforce their belief, in the absence of knowledge, on others. Schaeffer lashes out at such zealotry and at such defenders of the Faith (in the  context of any belief system), in favor of promoting personal faith, or what he calls “hopeful uncertainty.”

I like that. “Hopeful uncertainty.” I think those two words probably define the course of human existence from this point forward better than any two other words I could link together. Coincidentally, I think those two words also capture the main reason that the human species has advanced as far as it has. We are hopeful so we can get up in the morning and move through our daily lives without despairing, but we are also uncertain so we do everything we can to prolong those very same lives as long as possible.

Schaeffer goes on to note, however, that being a good person is separate and distinct from being a believer in God. He thus bifurcates the issues of goodness and faith. We can all be good, whether or not we have faith in God. We can all be good even if we do not believe in anything. Schaeffer writes, “If there is no God, or if he does not care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality based needs, which also ‘teach’ that a good life depends on the ‘Do unto others . . .’ ethic.”

Ahhh! There I think is the crux of Schaeffer’s thesis. “Do unto others . . . .” It is a very simple rule but one that should be embraced by every one of us. Faith is wonderful. It is comforting. It guides our personal direction. It gives us a sense of order. Whether that faith is faith in an almighty God or faith in a purely scientific basis for our existence, faith does all of those things. Faith in something gets us through the lonely nights and the long hard days. It is personal and it should not be challenged by anyone uninvited. “Do unto others . . . .” however, is not about faith. It is about love. It not about why we are here, but what we should be doing while we are here.

Schaeffer beautifully describes the difference between faith and morality in his tribute to Marc Chagall:

Standing outside the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center at night and looking through the glass front of the building at Chagall’s huge paintings The Triumph of Music and The Sources of Music, the viewer is transported into a mind within which a loving humane vision of God of Judaism and Christianity finds a home. Chagall didn’t paint theological or political “statements” but cut to the heart of the redemptive message of all faiths.

Chagall didn’t claim he had the truth but saw himself as a servant of beauty and a practitioner of grace-filled thanksgiving. His art was a doorway to reconciliation among three bloody and often inhumane faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Secularism.
Chagall gave us a spiritual way of seeing that is opposite of paranoid victimology and evangelical/fundamentalist and/or Zionist rage.

For Schaeffer, as for Chagall, faith in God and organized religion are also separate and distinct concepts. God is love. Religion often is not. Whichever path one follows to God and to embrace the love that God represents is a worthy path, regardless of the doubt that might cloud personal faith on that path. For Schaeffer, “God’s revelation is the gift of love” and more importantly, that revelation “makes the gift of eternal life [seem] possible.” 

I fully understand the personal quest that Schaeffer has taken from evangelical fundamentalism, to atheism, to agnosticism and to the informed faith of his elder years. I’ve taken a similar journey. I have no doubt that Schaeffer knows what it means to love and to be loved and that the love he feels is neither judgmental nor qualified. He has traveled a very long and at times arduous road and he shares that with us in Patience with God. I am glad he did, because it is always good to be reminded that it is okay to love one’s fellow man.

Books mentioned in this column:
Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer (DaCapo, 2009)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.



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