Michelle Bachman talks to God, and she is audacious enough to believe He both listens and heeds what she has to say. She knows His will. She is a change agent for righteousness. For all this I admire her and I envy her. My universe is, and remains, silent. It does so even though I spent time at a place she wishes she had visited. You see, I spent the summer of 1997 at Francis Schaeffer’s retreat in Switzerland. I wanted to know God. I wanted to set the world afire for righteousness. I suppose it is safe to say I also wanted to be president.
Nothing in my life has ever worked according to plan. I was conceived in a union made convenient by my father’s flight from Detroit after shooting another man. He ran to Chicago with the woman he was seeing. She became my mother. When he tired of fatherhood, he left us. My mother groped her way to a new sense of self, shipping me off to live with relatives for a while, then inviting a mean drunk of an ironworker into our home when she returned to Detroit. I fled Detroit as soon as I was able, attending night school to accelerate high school graduation.
I ended up in college thanks to a vice principal who spotted my high test scores on standardized tests and marveled at my poor grades. Sensing trouble at home, she opened doors for me. Now I am a lawyer, not just the first from my family to leave high school with a degree, but the first to accumulate all sorts of degrees. The path from there to here has been anything but straightforward.
I started as a forestry major in college -- I’d seen enough in Detroit to crave the silence of the woods, and I had discovered Walden one day in a city bookstore. I then migrated to biochemistry, and ended up in political science. By my junior year, I had found my footing, and soon won awards for writing and straight A’s. I was stunned after college to win a full-ride to a Ph.D. program in political philosophy at Columbia. Before leaving for New York, however, I packed my bags and headed to Switzerland. I decided I wanted to study with Francis Schaeffer.
You see in junior high school and high school, I discovered the Bible, or should I say it discovered me? I sought solace in prayer. I believed there was a God who could be known. Adults around me in church youth groups encouraged that belief. Other adults, including Raya Dunayevskaya, a disciple of Trotsky’s, encouraged a different belief, a belief in the inchoate create powers of man. Dunayevskaya once had several of us to her home in downtown Detroit. We talked about the young Marx, about revolution, about alienation. Two worlds dawned: a world of faith and a world in which faith was unnecessary.
I stumbled on Francis Schaeffer somehow in college. I read his book, He is There and He Is Not Silent, several times. Was the hound od of heaven hunting me? I wished it were so. At about the same time, Michelle Bachmann claims she discovered Schaeffer's work.
I read all of Schaeffer’s books my senior year in college. He promised a world of moral absolutes. He was engaged in the larger world of ideas. Could it be that the years I spent as a young teen reading the New Testament, memorizing the Psalms, might be more than a young man’s idiosyncratic longing for meaning? As soon as I finished my last exam in college, at Purdue, I packed a backpack, hitch-hiked to New York, and hopped a flight to Luxembourg, and foregoing commencement. I then hitchhiked to L’Abri, clustered in a set of chalets and an old pension east of Montreux. I had read he welcomed students from around the world. I was a student. Therefore I would be welcome.
And I was welcome. I didn’t see much of Schaeffer that summer. I lived with Udo Middelmann and his family in an pension with a sweeping view of the Alps. Udo’s wife, Debbie, is one of Schaeffer’s daughters. Students in their home spent half a day studying, half a day working in gardens and endless hours debating things at lunch and dinners that stretched late into the night. From time to time, I would walk over to the chalet in which Schaeffer lived. I made less than a stellar impression on him. He sized me up either as a fool, a lightweight or an agnostic -- perhaps all three. I was invited to remain at L’Abri, the shelter, as long as I liked. But my fellowship at Columbia beckoned. We asked the university to hold it for a year, but that deal did not hold.
I struggled that summer. I wanted to know God. As a child I would hear people claim to know God’s will. God was in their lives. God spoke to them. If them, then why not me?, I asked. I was persuaded then as I am now that the world is tragic: our aspirations conflict with the reality of our lives. We are broken vessels. Original sin made sense to me. It was grace I could not comprehend. I wanted some sign, some token, some sound of God’s voice. I envied Joshua the hip he broke wrestling with the divine.
I left L’Abri to study with Herbert Deane at Columbia. He was one of the world’s foremost Augustine scholars, having written a seminal book on the saint’s social and political thought. By the time I got to Columbia, he has sunk into depression. He supervised a lengthy project of mine tracing the concept of original sin from the third to the fifth centuries. But I could not talk to him about my longing to know God. Columbia was turning out intellectual historians who regarded ideas at arm’s length. Ideas were fire to me; I was consumed with a need to know, to know God, if that made any sense at all. So I returned to L’Abri the following summer.
It was a private kind of Hell I lived for a couple of years. During the academic year, I sought to master the classic texts of political philosophy in preparation for a career as a professor -- Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Marx, the list goes on. I taught these texts for a couple of years to undergraduates, dizzying years, at least for me. By summer, I longed to hear God’s voice. Schaeffer’s disciples told me I could find it in the Bible. So I read, and read, and read.
But the Bible was not self-authenticating. There were propositional truths that could orient me in the world, they said. But these truths were proven by the world at large. They were accepted on faith and then verified in interpretive leaps that amounted to faith. These folks claims to have more than faith. I wanted what they had. I toyed with divinity school, rooting around at Union Theological Seminary for a spell, until Cornell West told me one day that a good part of the faculty there was “outside the Christian tradition.” No God there, I concluded.
The extravagant claims made about the Bible’s truth, its foundational character, its ability to right what was wrong in the world, all tenets of fundamentalism, did not persuade me. I read Walter Lippmann’s book on the Scopes trial, American Inquisitors, and was overcome with just how bad William Jennings Bryan, and Schaeffer, looked. Taken literally, the Bible doesn’t liberate; it merely confuses, or so it did, and does, me. I am a man of unclean lips, singing a sad song of disappointment. Clarence Darrow may not be much of a saint, but to the man-child still in search of a hero, he suffices.
I am therefore startled to see Michelle Bachmann take the world’s stage claiming to be a disciple of a man, a school, I loved but found wanting. And I am startled to see Schaeffer’s writings turned to such blatant political use as a call for what amounts to theocratic fascism, more benevolently called dominionism, an effort that comes down to the bizarre conclusion that Jesus was, at least in spirit, one of the Founding Fathers. (These are difficult claims in some quarters. My first wife, the daughter of a medical missionary in Africa, told a judge in our divorce trial 10 years after the fact of my walking away from a dinner table in disgust when one of her friends held forth with great, and ignorant, earnestness on why law was based on the Bible. It was a sign of my cruelty, I suppose.)
It looks as though the wars of religion are returning. We’re a long way in time from the trial at Dayton, Tennessee. But we’re not so very far away in matters of the heart and mind, the only place that really matters. Michelle Bachmann is a true believer. For a time, I wanted to be just like her. But I lost my faith. It broke my heart, and this heartbreak makes me wary of those who wave their faith as a rallying banner. If God is there, He most certainly is silent. The Bible doesn't speak; we read it, and find in it those truths that serve our interests. That's a long way from grace abounding.