May 5, 2006 Episode no. 936
Read Bob Abernethy’s April 5, 2006 interview with writer and preacher Frederick Buechner:
Q: You have a new book of some of your sermons over the last 50 years [SECRETS IN THE DARK: A LIFE IN SERMONS, HarperSanFrancisco]. What do you see as the most important theme, the most important thread running through everything?
A: In various places, explicitly, I think the phrase “listen to your life.” Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase “religious observances” means, among other things, just what it says. Observe religiously. Observe deeply. Don’t just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything.
Q: And then what comes from that?
A: Who knows? Who knows? That’s the mystery of it. Maybe nothing much, but maybe the secret of all secrets you need to hear may come through some event — something happens or fails to happen.
Q: Has that proved productive for you as you’ve lived?
A: Well, it’s really been my life. I’ve been a listener in that sense. I’ve written, in addition to sermons, a lot of fiction. I’ve written a lot of autobiography, which also involved listening. I’m trying to listen to my past, listen to what’s most deeply going on inside myself, my creative set of fictional characters, a fictional world — to listen to that world, to search. It’s not as if I knew answers which I am going to set down in the form of a novel or a memoir or a sermon. It’s, rather, I’m going to search myself for what I might have to say in this area.
Q: What have you heard as you’ve listened to your own life?
A: Who knows? I mean, you hear as many things as you would imagine. I hear voices of people I loved once. I hear moments that took place. I hear silences.
Q: I was thinking about patterns and a sense of what’s most important.
A: No words come easily to my lips. I think ultimately — what I like to think is that I’m in some sense hearing the mystery itself, what William James called “the More” with a capital M. Hearing not in words, not even in images, maybe, but hearing a sense of, maybe, feeling, being in touch with something vastly beyond my own power to express or to seize.
Q: If you could preach to everyone in the country right now, what would you say?
A: I think I might be inclined to say what I’ve just said to you: don’t let your life just go in one eye and out the other.
Q: I’m thinking about these particular times in this country. What is it that you think we most need to hear?
A: I don’t know that it makes any difference whether it’s at this time or a hundred years before or a hundred years later. I think always it’s a matter of simply listen[ing] to what is going on around you and in your own experience. Try to understand what’s happening, or if not to understand it, at least to appreciate the reality of it. Get a feeling for it, to see where it’s trying perhaps to lead you or what it’s trying to lead you away from.
Q: How do you keep your faith in spite of so much suffering in the world?
A: Well, it is in spite of it. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t somehow theologize it away, as people have tried to do. I think of Christian Science disposing of the problem of evil by saying it’s just an error of mortal mind. Nor can I imagine myself saying with the Buddhists that it’s just the result of bad things we’ve done in the past for which we now have to pay a price. None of those things works for me. I think you simply have to say this is in spite of faith. This is the shadow side. [There is] that great remark of [Paul] Tillich: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith.” You can’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God and look at the horrors that are going on in the world — and never more so, as far as I’m concerned, than right now in this world and in this country — without saying, “How can I hold these two things together?” I have no formula for doing that. But my answer to myself is, don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope. God is in all those things. The holier, “the More,” transcends all of the wretchedness that goes on in the world.
Q: There’s a lovely phrase you have used someplace comparing death next to life. What is it?
A: It’s from a novel I wrote called GODRIC, told in the voice of an 11th-century English monk and mystic named Godric — at the end of his days, in words he speaks that I in a sense put into his mouth, but in another sense heard from his mouth (some mysterious thing in the process of creating a character). He said as an old, old man who had lost almost everything, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.” If I do say so, marvelous words, not because I invented them. This is an answer I wanted to give the world — but because in searching whatever dimension of myself I was searching at that moment in writing the book, they are the words that came out of the depths of me. And who knows? I may even get sort of spooky about it. Who knows? Maybe Godric himself was involved in it. I hang on to those words: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.” I love that. I’m so glad you reminded me of that.
The other day, the way people [do] who are approaching their 80th birthday, I was thinking about all the last business — funerals and where do you want to be buried — and I thought if anything were to be inscribed on my tombstone, I said let it be that. “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found.” Very important words.
Q: You have described yourself as a skeptical old believer and a believing old skeptic. What makes you the believer? What makes you the skeptic? And how do you keep the two going at the same time?
A: What makes me a believer is that from time to time, going back almost as far as my memory will go back, there have been glimpses I’ve had. Sometimes literally a glimpse which made me suspect the presence of something extraordinary and beyond the realm of the immediate. That’s what I think a lot of what my writing has been, my preaching has been — trying to listen to that voice again, to see those moments again. I wrote a book called THE SACRED JOURNEY, the title meaning each one of us could describe his or her life as a sacred journey. You are journeying from the beginning to the end, and what makes it sacred is that in the process of this journey you encounter the holy in various forms which, unless you have your eyes open, you might not even notice. They are so subtle and so elusive. That is what I spent my life trying to track. I remember as a little boy in Bermuda at the age of 11 or so, not long after my father’s death, walking up a long hill. Bermuda as it was in those days [was] just paradise. No cars, no combustion engines. Horses and carriages and bicycles. I was walking up the hill, and coming down the hill towards me was an Anglican priest in gaiters, all in black like something out of Laurence Sterne, a flat, low-crowned hat. I have remembered that all these years, with no verbal message attached to it. But just why has that stuck with me forever? And I could name you other moments like that.
Q: And the skepticism?
A: I think that just comes from having a mind. I mean, if with part of yourself you believe in this reality that you [feel] you have in these various subtle and elusive ways encountered, which is, above all things, loving, healing, creative. Because you read the newspapers and listen to the radio and watch what goes on next door or upstairs — there’s a lot of horror in the world. Sadness and brokenness and disappointment. So how do you put these two things together? You cannot help, if you are honest with yourself, say[ing], “Well, maybe this whole holy business is just a lot of hogwash. How do I know I’m not just trying to keep my spirits up? How do I know I’m not just inventing it for my own comfort?” But I have never come out on that side. I’ve never given up this conviction, faith, profound sense that all ultimately is well. Beneath the worst the world can do, there is always the glimmer of the best.
Q: What do you say to people who can’t come out that way?
A: You might be right. You might be right. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But don’t write it off too easily. Don’t write off the possibility of the holy too easily. Keep looking. Keep listening. Don’t just decide. It’s very easy in a way, horrible in some ways, but simply to give up the whole thing, to say, “Well, the hell with it, as far as I’m concerned life is pointless and [so] live the fullest, most successfully self-fulfilling life you can and let the rest go hang” — I’ve never reached that point in my life.
Q: As you look around, do you see a struggle between skepticism and belief, and how do you think it is going?
A: To me, that’s not the big divide. I don’t want to get political, but we have a president who says he follows the philosophy of Jesus. In that sense, he is a believer. But that does not put him in the same camp I am in, because the Jesus I follow is the peacemaker, is one who says forgive your enemies, who worries about the poor, who worries about the poorest of the poor instead of the richest of the rich. The difference to me is not between the believers on one hand and the nonbelievers on the other hand. It’s between people who carry in their hearts some sense of what the word “God,” at least to me, means, which is a loving, creating, everlastingly renewing presence deeply concerned with the well-being of the earth and all its creatures. You can do that whether you believe anything about anything. Marcus Borg makes the point that the word “believe” comes from the same root as the German “beliebten.” To believe is to “belove.” To believe is not intellectual assent: “Yes, I believe in Jesus. I will sign my name to the Nicene Creed. I believe it all” — which you could do, [but] it would have no effect on who you were or what you did. It is, rather, to give your heart. To believe in God is to give your heart to God. To believe in Christ is to give your heart to Christ, which means not to affirm things about Christ, but it’s like what you mean when you say, “I believe in my friend.” I mean, I believed he was going to Princeton as I did or was born in 1926 as I was. I believe in him in the sense that I trust him. I affirm him. I need him.
Q: One of the realities in this country, increasingly, is the prevalence of many different religions side by side. What do you make of that? Is that a problem, do you think, for some Christians?
A: It isn’t a problem to me. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one cometh to the Father but by me,” which, in one sense, seems to be exclusive: unless you’re a Christian, you’re not on the inside. You’re on the outside. But Jesus doesn’t say, “The religion founded in my name is the way, the truth, and the life, [and] what people say about me is the way.” “Our way of worship, the Christian structure, is not the way,” [he would say,] “I am. I am. If you want to know what life is all about, what it’s supposed to be, where it’s supposed to go, where it’s supposed to derive its strength from, don’t look at anything people say about me. Don’t look at the faith that’s been created. Look at my life, which is a life ultimately of sacrificial love.”
Q: What happens when you say that to a Jew or a Muslim or anyone who is not a Christian?
A: I suspect many of them would probably agree. You don’t have to mention Christ to them at all. I don’t think Christ would give a hoot whether you mentioned Christ to them or not. What matters — I’m speaking arrogantly and absurdly — to him is, are you living the kind of life that I embodied? Whether you believe in Christ or don’t, who cares?
Q: Some people say they have to choose which religion is true, or which religion is the truest.
A: What would “true” mean in that sentence? I’m not even sure. Which religion seems to speak most eloquently, most vividly, in images most meaningfully about what I take to be the heart of reality, which is ultimately — I have to use the word — love? That is the one that is for me the closest to being “true.” It is true to what I think the reality of things is.
Q: It seems there is a battle going on and perhaps worsening between extremists within Islam and also extremists here.
A: Oh, no question. No question, and not just terrorists in Islam, but terrorists here. Who is more terrifying as a nation at this moment than this nation — the strongest, most aggressive, most out to show the world the right way? The phrase that’s used again and again is, “Our war is a war against evil, against terror.” [Those are] almost meaningless words.
Q: Evangelicals are convinced they are commissioned by Christ to preach the gospel to all the world. Some feel they need to do what they can to convert others. Where do you come out on the question of evangelizing?
A: Paul Tillich, who was one of my teachers at Union Seminary in his golden years, in the ’50s, has a wonderful sermon called “The New Being.” He says, don’t let’s compare your religion and my religion, my way of understanding and your way of understanding. There is a reality alive in the world which I will call “the new being” which is marked by reconciliation and reunion and ultimately resurrection, where people come together and love, and wonderful things happen. That’s the only thing that matters. I don’t care what your religion is. I’m not going to try to convert you to my Judaism or my Islam. I’m just saying: This has happened. This is available. In some measure, I participate in this new kind of being. It has changed everything for me, and may it also, by the grace of God, change everything for you in whatever way you can find your way to it, without having to sign some religious party line.
Q: Should Christians who feel a duty, a call to evangelize, give it up in the name of respect for another person’s religion?
A: I don’t know. I’d have to hear the person who was doing the evangelizing, so it’s hard to answer that. If part of the message of this evangelist is to say all other religions are wrong, I’d say that is so wrong. I’d say, “Give it up. You are not working towards reunion, reconciliation, and resurrection. You are working towards divisiveness and war and horror. Give it up. You are barking up the wrong tree.”
Q: What do you make of people who say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious”?
A: I’m never quite sure what “spiritual” means. I think what they mean is maybe something along the lines [of]: I’m not religious in the sense that I do not subscribe to any particular set of religious dogma. I don’t go to church. I don’t read the Bible. But I believe that the word “Spirit” with a capital S points to an ultimate reality which I give my heart to, marked by all the things that Paul says are the gifts of the Spirit — love and compassion and all that kind of thing. In that sense I understand the difference, and I can appreciate somebody who says, “I am spiritual and not religious.” I had a mother-in-law whom I loved who was a terrific Republican. And she always said of Eisenhower (whom I came to admire in many ways, but he seemed a sort of do-nothing president to me), “He’s so spiritual.” And I said, “What do you mean, he’s so spiritual?” She said, “He has such a wonderful smile, like God.” In that sense of spiritual and not religious — well, maybe so.
Q: Do you think people who want to find “the More” you spoke about need to do that within traditional religion?
A: Often within a particular tradition there’s some way of talking about holy things and evoking them through sermons. Maybe this could be very helpful, as becoming a Christian was terribly helpful to me. I can’t imagine finding my way without it. I think it can be very crucially important to ally yourself with some religion.
Q: How do you account for the decline over the last generation or two in the numbers of mainline Protestants?
A: I don’t go to church all that regularly, and one reason I don’t is very often when I go I am bored out of my wits. I find myself being addressed by preachers who, I assume, were led by some initial passion for Christ, for the truth, for God, for “the More.” That’s what got them there. But that has gotten buried under all the debris of having to run a church, of concerns. It comes through to me as something that simply has no living conviction to it anymore. They are not telling me anything I haven’t heard before. They’re not moving my heart. They’re not touching me. And I think, what am I doing here? It’s all so verbal in the Protestant church. You’ve heard these words a million times before. Maybe people are leaving the church because they find the church has nothing that they’re looking for. There is that wonderful passage in a book by Karl Barth called THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF MAN. As a preacher Barth said, “When I look out at the congregation, I realize they are here with one question: Is it true? Can it be true that there is a God who is loving and wise and powerful? Answer that question.
That’s the one thing they want to know.” Barth says that’s the one question to which most clergy do not address themselves. If they are not answering the one question — I mean, [there are] good words and encouragement to be charitable. You can’t write that off. Of course, that’s important. But I don’t think that’s what the heart of it is all about.
Q: When you preach, how do you answer that question — is it true?
A: First of all, I try not to just take it for granted that everybody in the church has already said, “Oh, yes, of course it’s true. That’s why we’re here.” I think even in the most churchly, the most convinced Christian or whatever, there is beneath the level of that the question is it really true, is it really true? Every congregation I address I always try in some way or another to answer the question, maybe not directly, but to answer in the sense of saying, “Yes, I think it is true and this is why.” Maybe not putting it in quite such clear structural terms, but describing something in my own life which left me — often the sign of it is tears in your eyes. When something happens, or you see something, [or] somebody says something and tears come to your eyes, it means you’re in touch with something profoundly important, profoundly human, profoundly holy. That’s what I try to do in my preaching, I think — to expose them to that.
Q: Sometimes, at the level of popular culture, it seems there’s not much religion anywhere. Yet people still say overwhelmingly they believe in God.
A: I think a lot of people who say, “I believe in God” — and I’m one of them — that belief doesn’t go down deep enough to change the way they conduct their lives most of the time. I believe with the best of who I am in God, but I sometimes think if anybody would watch me and [they] didn’t believe a damn thing, they would have a very hard time deciding which of us is which. It’s an unprofitable question. I wouldn’t know how to answer it to begin with, nor am I quite sure what evidence you could educe to support either view. We live in a very rural part of the world. We don’t see all that many people. We’re not part of any church in any ordinary sense. In New England, especially, [faith] is like sex. It’s very personal. You don’t bring it out and talk about it. I think most people, if I asked, would say, “Yes, of course I believe.” But I think for a great many of them it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of either what they do with their lives or with their own inner well-being. They believe because so did grandfather, and that’s the same church they’ve been going to all these years. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.
Q: Evangelical Christians have become more and more prominent, more and more public, more and more powerful.
A: H. L. Mencken said nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. It’s a wickedly cynical thing to say, but I think that’s true. A lot of the televangelists that I hear — as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a lot of chatter. I mean, it’s nothing to me. It’s vulgar. It has nothing to do with any faith that I have anything to do with. And if their numbers are growing, I don’t know what that signifies except that maybe Mencken was right. People will buy snake oil from anybody who seems to be selling it in a persuasive way.
Q: Do you think what is preached typically in a white Protestant evangelical church is snake oil?
A: You’re asking the wrong man. I don’t go to churches enough to know that. I just know every once in a while, by mistake I might add, I get a religious thing on the radio or on television, and I’m so appalled that I turn it off.
Q: A lot of mainline people say these folks don’t speak for them, but I don’t hear mainline people saying what’s most important to them.
A: I don’t either. I don’t hear it in church because I don’t go to church that often. And I don’t hear it in New England because people in New England don’t talk that way.
Q: Is preaching the only thing that keeps you from going to church?
A: That stops me in my tracks. It’s certainly a good deal of it. I am such a person of words. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to get it right, say it right, say it eloquently, say it truthfully, say it honestly, that when I hear it said in ways that none of those adverbs would describe I find myself so repelled that it almost shuts my mind off. It gives birth to the worst of me. I keep thinking how much better I could do it, and what a terrible thing to go to church and come away thinking, “God, I wish I’d gotten up there. I could have really told the way it is.” So the preaching is part of the reason I don’t go to church. Plus, I don’t know, it was never part of my tradition. For some people, going to church is going home. In a very profound sense, I would say the same thing. Home is where Christ is. But that building on the corner with that particular preacher and that choir — I’ve rarely had a church that felt — well, I have had moments, by good fortune, of feeling that it is home. But it’s basically not what gets me back to church. What gets me back to church, I think, is thinking maybe this time that question “Is it true?” will be answered, not just in terms of somebody saying, “Yes, it’s true,” but something will happen in a sermon or maybe shuffling up to the Eucharist, or in the old lady who’s sitting beside me with a Bible — maybe something will happen which will show me that it’s true. So I go back thinking, maybe this time I’ll be lucky.
Q: Some people say we create our own meaning in our lives. Others say there is such a thing as “the meaning of life.” Is there anything there you could talk about?
A: There was an Indian holy man who had the answer to that question. But to get to him was a long voyage up into the Himalayas — snow and ice and sherpas and days of hardship. Finally [the pilgrim] came up to the rock where the holy man sat, and the snow and the ice were coming down, and he said to him, “What is the meaning of life?” And the holy man said, “One size does not fit all.” There is the meaning of life.
Q: What are your everyday spiritual practices?
A: Nothing in the sense of some ordered prayer life. My prayer is spasmodic, occasional, desperate. It has a great deal to do with my children’s physical well-being — that when they’re traveling in the air the plane not crash, things like that. I pray for people I love when they are sick. I pray that way. Ad hoc prayers. Prayers out of, very often, not the most religious part of me, but the most anxious part of me, the most desperately loving, fearing part of me. But at another level, I[‘ve] spent my whole life writing one thing or another, and I think that is a kind of praying in the sense that, both in writing and in praying, what I’m really doing is listening, listening to the deepest level of myself for what of truth, for what of hope, for what of beauty, for what of meaning may be there. In that sense, I like to think, despite this ragged, inadequate, ludicrous nonprayer life that I am a — I’m a hopeless pray-er. I think somewhere in there I spend a great deal of time at it.
Q: What do you say to people who don’t believe much in prayer?
A: I say, “You may be right, but don’t knock it until you’re tried it. Don’t say, ‘I think it’s worthless; therefore I’m not going to spend any time looking into myself the way one who prays does.'” Maybe that’s an even worse mistake than praying might be.
Q: What do you think about the ability of prayer to heal?
A: I was deeply influenced by an Episcopal laywoman named Agnes Sanford, who in her day was quite famous as a faith healer, which is a term I’ve always distrusted, because it conjures up charlatanry. She was not a charlatan. She was the real thing, and she had had remarkable healings. She would gather ministers together — I was one of them. She said her idea of church was Jesus standing with his arms tied behind him unable to give anybody anything, because nobody dared ask him for anything, especially the minister, for fear that if the minister prayed for the healing of old Mrs. Smith who is dying of lung cancer in the hospital and she wasn’t healed, what would that do to his faith, and what will that do to the faith of the congregation? So the prayer is not prayed. [Agnes Sanford] said forget all that. Pray anyway. Pray anyway. Who knows what God can do through your prayer? That made a tremendous impression on me. So I continue. She said anybody who prays — there will be a little voice inside saying, “Oh, come on, who are you kidding?” She said that little voice inside is the product of generations of skepticism, of materialism, of not paying attention to that kind of reality. Ignore it. Just keep doing it. Just keep on praying “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Wonderful insight.
Q: You wrote a famous line about one’s own deep gladness and the world’s deep need. What is your advice to a young person trying to find out what to do in life, trying to figure out a vocation?
A: I never got my own quotation quite straight. There was a little piece I once read on vocation or all these “voices” — “vocare,” to call, “vocation,” calling you to be this or to be that. Which one do you answer? I said the vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet. When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done. In other words, if what makes you happy is going out and living it up and spending all your money on wine, women, and song, the world doesn’t need that. But on the other hand, if you give your life to good works — you go and work in a leper colony and it doesn’t make you happy — the chances are you’re not doing it very well. Those for whom you were doing it will recognize that this is not an act of love. It’s a good work and they are the object of it. Just the other day somebody my age in some sort of a crisis said, “I don’t feel I’m being what I ought to be.” And I said, “What makes you happiest? That’s the clue.” I struck him dumb. He said, “I never thought that. What makes me happy?” I think he was thinking, what makes me useful? What makes me religious? No, no, no. What makes you, in the deepest sense of the word, happy? That’s what you should be doing, if the other part is also met — if it is something the world needs.
Q: What is that for you? Preaching or writing?
A: Well, writing. I don’t make a distinction really. Preaching and writing — it’s the same. Whether I’m writing to speak or writing to be read in a book, it’s the same thing. Yes, it’s what makes me happiest. One can only hope that the world needs me to do it. I’ve never been a great best-seller, so it’s not as if millions of people have taken heart from what I’ve written. But I get enough letters, after all these books I’ve written over all these years, from people saying, in one sense or another, “You saved my life” that I have to take them seriously, always with tremendous embarrassment. I don’t know how to save my own life, so anything they’ve found in what I’ve written that saved theirs — I can’t take responsibility for it. But something that’s touched me, and through me them, has saved their life. That’s something I love more than anything else to do. I mean, the world needs people who save lives.
Q: What does it feel like when you’re preaching, when you’ve written something and you like it, you like the way you put it down, and you hope it’s something people need? What does that feel like?
A: Oh, it’s a wonderful feeling, marvelous feeling on those occasions when I’m saying it right. And you can tell, even though the congregation by the rules of the game never says anything, but you can get a sense that they’re truly listening or that they’re truly not listening. That’s the other side. It doesn’t always work by any manner or means. Some of my great moments have been in church where I started out as a preacher, the most regular preacher you have. It was at a boy’s prep school, Exeter, where a great many of the congregation were adolescents who were rebelling against everything — this is the ’60s — against the war, against the government, against the school, against their parents. They were in school against their own better judgment. They didn’t believe in a damn thing, and all the people they hated said it was good for you. They came in, you know, just making a show — not all of them, but many — of not paying attention. Once in a while you could tell, in spite of themselves they were paying attention. I thought, how wonderful. At least for a few moments they are listening to a proclamation of greater or less value — that something they had never thought of as important was important. And maybe, you know, what that little seed might produce.
Q: When a young pastor asks you for advice about how to preach, what do you tell them?
A: I say learn how to speak in your own true voice, which is so hard for preachers and for writers generally. When you are starting out as a writer or as a preacher, you’re trying to sound like writers you admire, to speak in a way that you think is going to gain you adherents so that where it will make people prick up their ears. The important thing is to speak in your own voice. And then also to speak out of your own experience. If you are going to proclaim the Christian faith, speak about those dimensions of it which you[‘ve] had some experience with. If you talk about sin, you don’t have to use the first person singular, but speak out of that part of yourself which knows what it means to become estranged from people you love. Speak in your own voice about things that you in your own life have in one way or another experienced. I’ve given a three- or four-day seminar, and I said this, and a young woman who was a lawyer said, “You mean you’re telling preachers to be a credible witness.” I said yes. Be credible. Speak in a way that people listening to you can believe might even be true. And the way to test that, I always say to preachers, is try reading your manuscript to somebody who knows you very well and say, “Is this me, my own voice?” And if they say, “That’s as phony as a three-dollar bill,” that’s not who you are. Speak in your own voice and speak about things that you have in some sense witnessed, not just things you read about or have been taught about in seminary. To talk about the resurrection, think about those moments where in some way you have been resurrected. You don’t need to put it in the first person, but speak out of the kind of passion that is given rise by your simply thinking about those moments in your life.
Q: George Buttrick was an important mentor for you.
A: Yes. Years ago, before I had any notion that I was going to be a minister, I went to a church where this great preacher named George Buttrick was preaching. And he said when Jesus was offered a crown by Satan, who said at the time of the temptation that all the kings of the earth will be yours if you’ll only kneel down and worship me, Jesus turned the crown down. This is just about the time that Queen Elizabeth II had been crowned at Westminster Abbey. Buttrick said, “Unlike Elizabeth, Jesus said no.” But, he said, despite that, Jesus is crowned again and again in the hearts of people who believe in him, “belove” in him, amidst confession and tears, predictable things, but then “and great laughter.” And that phrase “great laughter” was my Damascus road for reasons I to this day can’t altogether understand. I think part of the laughter is the laughter of incredulity. Can it be true? Can it be true? Can it be true what they say? That there really is a God and that he was in Jesus and he loves us and forgives us and will make all things right again? That he really made the world, he loves the world, he will save the world in the long run? Can that be true? I can only laugh. Or maybe the laughter is divine relief: “Oh my God. After everything, it’s true. I can only laugh. I can weep at the absurdity and beauty of its truth.” I don’t know. [Those are] just two possibilities.
Q: Where do you think you found it in yourself to speak the language of faith?
A: I ask myself that question. How did somebody who grew up in a family to whom religion was nothing — they weren’t against it, they weren’t for it. This was in the Roaring ’20s. People weren’t thinking religiously, at least not that particular world I grew up in. How did I ever find my way into this world, where I was asking these questions and trying to speaking this language? As I began to think about it, to look back over my life, beginning with the very beginnings of it. I found all these little signs along the way. Hints, whispers, a smell in the air. The priest I talked about in Bermuda walking up the hill. I remember once when I was teaching at Lawrenceville, the school I went to, the fellow who preached that morning asked me to lunch. I thought, why is he asking me to lunch? I don’t know him. He has no interest in me particularly. I don’t to this day know really why he did. But at some point rather casually he said, “I just had a rather successful book published.” He said, “Have you ever thought of putting your gift for words to work for Jesus?” And I was quite embarrassed by the question. The name Jesus was a little bit embarrassing, especially to people who aren’t religious. But I remembered that all the way — [he] just planted a seed. So how did I get to where I could — despite being in a world where people don’t talk about religion because it’s too private – [I] think these little bits of things along the way pushed me more and more in the direction … I began at least talking to myself about it. And then because I’m a verbal person, a writing person, I started [thinking], this is so important to me. This is what I want to write about, put into words.