Patience with God: For People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism), by Frank Schaeffer, Da Capo, RRP£9.99, 256 pages
If you want to infuriate the so-called “new atheists”, taunt them with this quote from a Dostoevsky novel: “If God does not exist then everything would be permitted.” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens vehemently denounced this sentence in their anti-God books (The God Delusion and God Is Not Great), because they resent the inference that without religion there can be no morality – and rightly so.
Frank Schaeffer is no atheist but he believes people can be good without God, and they can have “faith” without religion. Since Schaeffer doesn’t quite get around to defining what he means by religion, his point is somewhat elusive. But this beguiling ramble of essay and memoir is worth the effort: childhood in Switzerland, boarding school in Sussex, early adulthood as a born-again evangelist in America’s Bible belt, director of Hollywood B-movies.
Schaeffer eventually became a writer of novels on spiritual themes and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Now he has joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. I found this perplexing. The Orthodox Church is surely a form of organised religion; hence his real quarrel is not so much with religion per se, any more than with atheism per se. Rather he hates fundamentalism, whether religious or atheistic.
His argument becomes manifest in a discursive reflection around the public spat between Christopher Hitchens (atheist), and his brother Peter Hitchens (Christian). The brothers are, in Schaeffer’s view two peas from the same pod. Western Christianity and militant atheism, he argues, are both characterised by logic, rationality, dogma.
The Christianity of the East, which separated from Rome and western thinking a thousand years back, is marked by imagination, mystery and non-judgmental love. Eastern thinking does not seek to combat militant atheism with knock-down proofs, but rather with what Pascal calls “the reasons of the heart”.
Schaeffer insists, moreover, that the eastern church is a religion of Easter, the Resurrection, forgiveness; whereas the western churches are religions of Good Friday, sacrifice, punishment. I’m not sure that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who links Orthodox spirituality with Anglicanism, would agree; but I sympathise broadly with Schaeffer’s point. And I liked his citation of the early eastern Christian writer St John Chrysostom on the story of the prodigal son. When the prodigal returns and gets the big feast and reconciliation, the goody-goody stay-at-home brother is seething.
“You must remember,” writes Schaeffer, “that many Christians prepare for Easter by fasting, or at least we’re supposed to … Yet Chrysostom declares that those who have not kept the fast – in other words, people like me – are equally welcome.”
The depressing thing about Schaeffer’s gentler Christianity, sans sin and Hell, is that the liberalising impetus in all three religions of the Book tends to incite conservatives to greater extremes of fundamentalism. The fear of the Christian west, and of rigorous Islam, is that liberalism means relativism: that one religion is as good, or as bad, as any other. And there lies apostasy, the decline of religion, and its eventual oblivion. The eastern Orthodox tradition, however, has fostered extensive pluralism, mainly based on ethnicity and local culture. The Russian Orthodox church, nevertheless, survived the long persecution of Soviet atheism to flourish anew after 1989.
Schaefer’s quiet endorsement might well signal a trend towards an eastern Christianity whose God is non-judgmental towards its doubting, erring prodigal children. Be that so, Schaeffer’s title, Patience with God, does not quite fit his thesis. His drift is more in praise of a God who is patient with us, rather than the other way around.
John Cornwell is author of ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint’ (Continuum)