The temptation of life, of course, is to move from place to place on cruise control, which for me means focusing on past failures or worries about the future. So how, some questioners would persist with Buechner, do we begin to get into the habit of fully inhabiting our experience? “Pay attention to the times,” he said, when “unexpected tears come to your eyes and what can trigger them.” He was talking about those sudden surges of emotion that we get from the sublimity of nature or art, when we see a whale breaching, or are emotionally ambushed by a line in a movie or a poem. We are led to truth and beauty by a lump in the throat.
I felt that kind of ball when I heard about Buechner’s recent passing. At first it was not the evidence of sorrow. What better way to die than at 96, in your own bed, after a life full of meaning and honors? My spontaneous tears were triggered by gratitude to the mentor I had never met. More than anyone in recent literary history, he showed how a modern person, educated in skepticism, dogged by appropriate doubts, could find the frequency of grace, as if tuning up an old radio.
We were encouraged to listen to our lives because Buechner allowed us to listen to his. His model of ministry was heroic vulnerability. All it took was for him to rip out his own heart and expose it. It would be difficult for anyone, but especially someone with a reluctance that wasn’t just a protective bark, but found, ring by ring, right to his heart. In his brilliant and moving memoir, Buechner tells us about the 10-year-old boy, playing indoors with his brother, while his business-failing father kills himself with carbon monoxide in the garage. The sensitive child had perceived that “something had gone terribly wrong with his laughter”. On the last page of the family copy of “Gone with the Wind,” her father had written a suicide note: “I adore and love you, and I’m no good.”
Buechner recounts being a writer whose first novel is receiving rave reviews. “I had written a book”, he wrote, “which was compared to Henry James and Marcel Proust and, more capriciously still, was labeled decadent.” After moving to New York with high expectations, he finds he can barely write a word. Although of secular background, he found himself almost inexplicably drawn to Presbyterian ministry. “In the midst of our freedom,” he writes, “we hear whispers from beyond time” and “feel something hidden at work in all our work.” Someone asked him if he had ever considered using his talents to serve God, which he did not. And then his whispers organized themselves into a faith. “Something in me is reluctant to use such language,” he said, “but here, at the end, I have no other way to say it than to say that what I finally found was Christ. Or was found. It doesn’t matter which one.
Rather than coming to faith on the sawdust trail of American evangelicalism, Buechner came via Princeton University and, ultimately, Union Theological Seminary. And when he first met evangelicals, the cultural contrast was evident. He accepted modern levels of doubt about the historicity of scripture and understood the reasons for skepticism of organized religion. But over the decades, Buechner has come to find enduring popularity in evangelical circles. He taught at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1985, and his public papers now reside there.
Buechner’s warm reception among evangelicals indicates a telling fact. Their literary heroes tend to be decidedly non-evangelical. Neither CS Lewis (a traditional Anglican) nor GK Chesterton (after his conversion, a tireless Catholic apologist) nor JRR Tolkien (a devout Catholic from childhood) would be comfortable within the theological and aesthetic confines of conservative Protestantism. Which means that these limits are too narrow. Evangelicals prove by appropriation that they are missing the power of myth, the sacramental nature of reality, what Graham Greene has called “the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy.”
Buechner corresponded to this company. He understood that faith and doubt are not opposed but are an integral part of the human journey. He knew that openness is ultimately a more important virtue than certainty. He presented, especially in his powerful novels, the mixture of the sacred and the profane at the heart of humanity, even at the heart of holiness.
Now he rests, if there is any justice in the world, in the grace that has pursued him so long.