Most of us have doubts. However, many of the questions where doubts arise have answers that are easily found. Will I’ll ever attain my trim college look of 150 pounds and a 32″ waist? I doubt it. The answer, however, is much clearer. That’s not going to happen. Period.
But you probably have harbored doubts about things that you can’t really know, yet suspect matter in the greater scheme of things. Questions such as the existence of God. You are not alone. “If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Not exactly stuffy theological reflection, there.
Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC * (1973) by Frederick Buechner is filled with witty and unconventional insights and asides. Buechner, who passed away in August, wrote this book — a “dictionary for doubters and restless believers” — from his experience as school minister and theology teacher at the Phillips Exeter Academy. Wishful Thinking, he noted, arose from a desire to reconsider and return to the meaning of well-used words.
Words like doubt.
The frame is like that of a dictionary, starting at A (agnostic) and going through Z (Zaccheus). Some of the words he explores are expected. When considering grace, Buechner writes that while some religious words become shopworn and meaningless after centuries of handling and mishandling, that isn’t true of grace, for some reason. “Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.”
Most of us know that grace is something you can only be given.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
Other chosen words are surprises for a book on theology. Take, for instance, feet.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings,” says Isaiah (52:7). Not how beautiful are the herald’s lips which proclaim the good tidings, or his eyes as he proclaims them, or even the good tidings themselves, but how beautiful are the feet — the feet without which he could never have made it up into the mountains, without which the good tidings would never have been proclaimed at all….
Generally speaking, if you want to know who you really are as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.
Buechner is something of a quote machine. Here are a few examples:
- Anger — Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past…The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.
- Bible — To read the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or The Brothers Karamazov for its punctuation.
- Children — Jesus was not playing Captain Kangaroo. He is saying that the people who get into Heaven are people who, like children, don’t worry about it too much.
- Envy — Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you are.
- Questions — On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein is said to have asked “What is the answer?” Then, after a long silence, “What is the question?” Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.
- Sex — Contrary to Mrs. Grundy, sex is not sin. Contrary to Hugh Hefner, it’s not salvation either. Like nitroglycerin, it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts.
Wishful Thinking is equal parts thoughtful, spirited and entertaining. My men’s book group just finished reading this work and found it uneven at best. Some got tired of Buechner’s attempts to create pithy sayings. The book also has a bit of its era imbedded throughout (as in the Captain Kangaroo and Hefner references). So, it is imperfect but can still be useful.
We live in a world today where a sizable minority from all different faith traditions wants us to believe that they have religion figured out, they know who is going to heaven (and they are always in that cohort), and — by God — they are going to make the rest of us follow their beliefs whether we like it or not. They don’t have any doubts.
Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beekner) has written this uneven yet generally accessible work for many of the rest of us: the doubters and the restless believers.
More to come…
*The books subtitle was changed in a later edition, so you may find it as Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.
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