Pa­tience With God:

Faith for Peo­ple Who Don’t Like Re­li­gion (or Athe­ism) by Frank Scha­ef­fer, Da Capo Press, 230 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

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 and 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 JudeoChris­tian 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?”

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