"Cultured Despisers"

After his ordination, Buechner was invited to join the faculty of Phillips Exeter.

I WAS ORDAINED as an evangelist, but apologist, I suppose, would have been, and continues to be, the more appropriate word. My job, as I saw it, was to defend the Christian faith against its "cultured despisers," to use Schleiermacher's phrase. To put it more positively, it was to present the faith as appealingly, honestly, relevantly, and skillfully as I could. In this sense my more skeptical faculty colleagues were of course justified in suspecting my lack of objectivity. The deck I used was as stacked as the deck of any teachers who want their students to catch fire from whatever subject they are teaching. Tillich, Barth, C. S. Lewis—I had my students read the most provocative and persuasive theologians I knew. And on the grounds that, even in the hands of masters, such ideas as sin and salvation, judgment and grace, tend, as ideas, to sound cerebral and remote, I tried to put flesh on the theological bones by having them read also works of fiction and drama where those same ideas appear in human form—where grace, for instance, is the power by which Graham Greene's whiskey priest becomes a kind of saint despite all his shortcomings and seedy ineffectuality; where King Lear is saved in the sense of being made aware of the poor, naked wretches of the world, made compassionate, alive, and human at last through his sufferings on the stormy heath; where sin more than Smerdyakov's villainy is what destroys the father of the brothers Karamazov as a human being, that old buffoon estranged by his own self-loathing not just from his sons but from everybody else including both himself and God. Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Miller's Death of a Salesman, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lagerkvist's Barabbas—they were so bright and so verbal, most of those boys, that there was almost no reading that I couldn't assign them. My frustration was, rather, in discovering that although many modern writers have succeeded in exploring the depths of human darkness and despair and alienation in a world where God seems largely absent, there are relatively few who have tried to tackle the reality of whatever salvation means, the experience of Tillich's New Being whereby, even in the depths, we are touched here and there by a power beyond power to heal and make whole. Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar and because, too, it is of the nature of grace, when we receive it, to turn our eyes not inward, where most often writers' eyes turn, but outward, where there is a whole world of needs to serve far greater than the need simply for another book. I was too occupied with my job to think much about the next novel I myself might write, but it occurred to me that, if and when the time ever came, it would be the presence of God rather than his absence that I would write about, of death and dark and despair as not the last reality but only the next to the last.

-Originally published in Now and Then

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