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Frank Schaeffer's new book explores paradoxes of faith and doubt

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Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God

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"With the acceptance of paradox came the came a new and blessed uncertainty that began to heal the mental illness called certainty," writes Frank Schaeffer in his new book Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. "Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure."

Schaeffer's groundbreaking autobiography Crazy for God chronicled his early years a poster child for the religious right —when he lived under the sway of his father, evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer — and his personal journey out of that mindset. For "recovering" Christian evangelicals, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God serves as a helpful sequel that reveals what Schaeffer's spiritual life has been like in the years since he left the illusive path of certainty.

Using the death of a dear friend and his experiences playing with his grandchildren as a framework, Schaeffer explains why belief systems, either sacred or secular, are inadequate to explain the mysteries of existence: "Humans latch on to one-size-fits-all frameworks and use our catch-all truths that we label as science, Hinduism, Christianity or whatever, to explain everything.

"There are no objective facts, just personal histories and coincidences of time and place seen through the lenses of short lives. Deal with it. When we try to extend our narrative into unrelated areas — theology into biology or science into art — we create stories that explain everything and mean nothing."

The central figure in Schaeffer's belief and unbelief is the rabbi Jesus, who quoted the Torah often, but didn't treat it as inerrant. Jesus frequently undercut the scriptures with his own teaching, beginning with the phrase, "But I say," recasting them in compassionate and nonjudgmental terms.

"Jesus didn't take the Jewish scriptures at face value," Schaeffer writes. "In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn't even 'saved,' according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn't."

Schaeffer prays every day, and faithfully attends a Greek Orthodox church without buying into all of its doctrines. He's not certain that God exists — in real terms, he's more of an agnostic than an atheist — but he does these things for pragmatic reasons: they make him a more loving and creative person; a better husband, father, and grandfather.

"The message of Jesus' life is an intervention in and an acceleration of the evolution of empathy," Schaeffer writes. He argues that Jesus built an "empathy time bomb" that has reverberated through the centuries, often outside of institutional religion — for example, in the humanist Enlightenment and the writings of Karl Marx.

Schaeffer's day-to-day life is expressed in the subtitle of the book: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace. He doesn't live this way in spite of uncertainty, but because of it.

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