Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism), by Frank Schaeffer

If you’ve ever struggled to explain the concept of white Christian privilege to a white Christian fundamentalist who earnestly believes she values religious freedom on one weekend and the next weekend tried to convince an atheist why the higher-power-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous is still worth a shot if it means getting sober for her kid, then this book might be for you. Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism) is the middle ground between Rick Warren and Christopher Hitchens, a measured alternative to what has begun to feel like strictly black-and-white arguments that conflate religion with politics, assume all Christians have identical beliefs, and seem to require all Americans to make a dichotomous choice between moral tradition and Godless progress.  

Frank Schaeffer grew up in L’Abri Fellowship, an American religious community led by his parents, headquartered in Switzerland. He was ineptly home-schooled until he was 10 years old and then sent, as a functional illiterate, to boarding school in England, which turned out to be a mind- and soul-expanding experience that he writes about at length in Patience With God. He spent his early adulthood as an evangelist but eventually lost his fundamentalist faith and broke with his family’s business. He has written in more detail about his upbringing and personal transformation in his other books, Keeping Faith and Crazy for God. Now he explores the concept of faith by discussing what he sees as the hypocrisy and repression inherent in fundamentalism, which makes salvation exclusionary, and the privileged condescension of “new atheism”—as espoused by such writer-personalities as Richard Dawkins and the aforementioned Hitchens—which reduces existence to a series of accidents and denies the psychological necessity of cosmic mystery. The book is heavily weighted toward Judeo-Christian ideology, but Schaeffer’s method of exploration doesn’t rule out other religions or worldviews. He is not concerned here with religion as a tool of political oppression, and he makes it clear that, in that context, he prefers the outlook of the New Atheists because, with a few exceptions, this school of thought doesn’t generally advocate for the eradication of other human beings. His main theme is the vastness of the universe and the hubris of people who profess to have definitive answers to life’s biggest unanswered questions. In the prologue, he writes, “I believe that the ideological opposites that I’ll be talking about—atheism and fundamentalist religion—often share the same fallacy: truth claims that reek of false certainties.” He says there is an alternative that “actually matches the way life is lived rather than how we usually talk about belief. I call that alternative ‘hopeful certainty.’” But he isn't trying to make converts. “I offer no proofs. There are none. When talking about the unknowable, pretending to have the facts is about as useful as winning a medal from the Wizard of Oz.”  

Schaeffer’s voice is casual but firm. You don’t have to agree with him, but he isn’t easily dismissed. He is intimately familiar with evangelical fundamentalism as a way of life (and lucrative career track), and he has spent decades on what feels like a rigorous questioning of his own beliefs as well as why so many people—even atheists themselves—turn to the idea of a “something” behind the creation of the universe, whether the god in question is God or Science. Each chapter begins with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard and takes on a different argument or aspect of fundamentalism or atheism, though in the book’s second half Schaeffer uses stories from his life to illustrate the largeness of God and the ineffectiveness of reducing God to an all-or-nothing proposition. His views on the New Atheists are scathing: he equates Dawkins with the worst of the self-aggrandizing televangelists, noting that his followers buy merchandise worth thousands of dollars from his website, including wearable items designed as conversation starters in order to witness to strangers—a tool often used by evangelical Christians. He has no patience for Rick Warren, either, founder of the mega-church Saddleback. “His church is very much about him,” Schaeffer writes. “He’s the star in a cult of personality that fits the celebrity-worshipping temper of our times.” 

My fundamentalist friend withdrew from our conversation after realizing I advocate for mystery over finite answers, and my atheist friend has begun to see science as a power possibly greater than herself—but before I read Schaeffer's book, I was unable to articulate my frustration. Schaeffer identifies the place where so many of us sit, rim-rocked between the hard and fast beliefs of the people we love the most: “As a person of faith—both chosen and inherited—where do I fit as a writer? ... Where do love and mystery and mercy fit in the literalist-minded armed camp of atheist against believer, when the whole debate is tinged with a deadly fear of the other?” 

Da Capo Press, 230 pages  

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 12/03/2010