Frederick Buechner, the author of more than thirty books, both fiction and non-fiction, and also an ordained Christian minister, writes in his memoir, Telling Secrets, about the time he taught preaching at Harvard Divinity School. He found the students in his class a diverse bunch, including some who were atheists. This is how he described them.
“A number of them were Unitarian Universalists who by their own definition were humanist atheists. One of them, a woman about my age, came to see me in my office one day to say that although many of things I had to teach about preaching she found interesting enough, few of them were of any practical use to people like her who did not believe in God. I asked her what she did believe in, and I remember the air of wistfulness with which she said that whatever it was it was hard to put into words….. I felt somehow floored and depressed by what she said. I think things like peace, kindness, social responsibility, honesty were the things she believed in… it was hard for me to imagine giving sermons about such things. I realized that if ideas were all I had to preach, I would take up some other line of work.
I had never understood so clearly before what preaching is to me. Basically, it is to proclaim a Mystery before which, before whom, even our most exalted ideas turn to straw. It is also to proclaim this Mystery with a passion that ideas alone have little to do with. It is to try to put the Gospel into words not the way you would compose an essay but the way you would write a poem or a love letter – putting your heart into it, your own excitement, most of all your own life. It is to speak words that you hope may, by grace, be bearers not simply of new understanding but of new life both for the ones you are speaking to and also for you. Out of that life, who knows what ideas about peace and honesty and social responsibility may come, but they are the fruits of the preaching, not the roots of it. Another Unitarian Universalist student said once that what he believed in was faith, and when I asked him faith in what, his answer was faith in faith. I don’t mean to disparage him – he was doing the best he could – but it struck me that having faith in faith was as barren as being in love with love or having money that you spend only on the accumulation of more money. It struck me too that to attend a divinity school when you did not believe in divinity involved a peculiarly depressing form of bankruptcy, and there were times as I wandered through those corridors that I felt a little like Alice on the far side of the looking glass.
Harvard Divinity School was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism – feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians all pursuing truth together – but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way that I have never forgot. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I had tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes. It was at that point that a black African got up and spoke. ‘The reason I do not say anything about what I believe,’ he said in his stately African English, ‘is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.’
At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost.”
These are important words for us to ponder on as we engage one another in argument and debate about what we believe or do not believe.