Brown on Buechner and Faith

Today's blog post features an article by the late W. Dale Brown, Founding Director of the Buechner Speaker Series at King Univeristy and author of The Book of Buechner.

As long as religious folks persist in frightening their young with notions of a faith that brooks no doubt, there will be a place for a writer like Frederick Buechner. In my own book on Buechner, the indexer found 25 references to this theme in Buechner's work. In Wishful Thinking, doubt is "the ants in the pants of faith." In Alphabet of Grace, he says, "If there's no room for doubt, there's no room for me." In The Magnificent Defeat, he says that faith "defies logic and reason," and argues that "God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him."  Such lines lace the more than 30 books of Buechner's career-the memoirs, the sermons, the fiction, and he rest. For me, the theme rings true and works as points of consolation. They assure me that living with the uncertainty, the mystery, is part and parcel of the business of our lives.

I suppose it is true that speaking of doubt has become fashionable in our time. "Lord I believe; help my unbelief" has become a mantra of sorts. But Buechner always adds something like, "Thank God, it is enough." Enough to keep faith alive. Emily Dickinson says, "We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour. It keeps believing nimble." Those of us who discovered Buechner as we struggled with the black and white backgrounds of fundamentalist teachings needed to hear that God was not offended by our doubts anymore than He was put off by our waffling inconsistencies. Buechner's entire career rests in this middle ground between abject secularism and shrill fundamentalism.

One might especially explore the fiction for such ideas. Look at the very early novel,The Season's Difference, for example. Often excluded from studies of Buechner the Christian writer because the book comes before his famous conversion experience in Buttrick's church, his seminary years and eventual ordination; the novel nonetheless circles on the cynic versus the mystic, the doubter versus the believer. And the conclusion is that "maybe" there is miracle indeed. Such pondering is everywhere in Buechner from the Bebb novels to Godric, from The Son of Laughter to On the Road with the Archangel, the question resonates: "Is there a God who cares who walks along beside us?" And the answer is "maybe." Just "maybe." And the "maybe" provides enough light to live by.

Give the final word to the venerableSaint Godric who grouses, "Nothing human's not a broth of false and true." Buechner is deadly honest about the "false," the suffering, the blindness, the missteps. But we are going back again and again to Buechner's work because of the way he also foregrounds the "true," the possibility, the happy ending. As he puts it in Telling the Truth: "The frog turns out to be the prince, the ugly duckling the swan . . . . There is no less danger and darkness than in the brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome."

Dale Brown, Founding Director of the Buechner Speaker Series at King University and author of The Book of Buechner