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Sincerely Yours

NEARER, MY GOD: An Autobiography of Faith.\o7 By William F. Buckley, Jr. Doubleday: 314 pp., $24.95\f7

April 12, 1998|MARTIN GARDNER | Martin Gardner is the author of many books about science, mathematics, philosophy and literature. "The Night Is Large," a collection of his essays, was published last year by St. Martin's Press


I've often wondered: If, on the unlikely chance I had the privilege of interviewing William F. Buckley Jr., what questions would I ask? I decided I would ask not a single question about his political or economic views because I would know in advance how he would reply. For decades, Buckley has made his opinions on such topics abundantly clear. The questions I would ask would be about his faith.

I put down "Nearer, My God" with unbounded admiration for Buckley's courage and honesty and the depth of his piety. There is not a trace of hypocrisy in his book. I also came away with the sad realization that Buckley is guilty of what has been called the sin of willful ignorance. He has never considered it worthwhile to learn much about modern science or recent biblical criticism, much of it by Catholic scholars. He has made little effort to think through the implications of his beliefs in the light of such readily available knowledge.

This, regretfully, is a position common among many Christians today. We live at a time when most people, famous or otherwise, are extremely shy about revealing their religious beliefs. It has long been true that if someone tells you he or she is a Protestant, that tells you nothing about what the person believes. Today, a Protestant can have opinions that vary from the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell to the pantheism of Paul Tillich.

In recent decades, this has become increasingly true of Catholics. There may be unity in the Vatican, but among the church's theologians and priests, as well as among laymen around the world, there is a widening spectrum of conflicting opinions.

On the right of Catholicism's continuum are the orthodox. They take the Bible to be the inerrant word of God when properly interpreted. They believe their church is the one true faith, its popes tracing back to Peter. They are certain that the great miracles of both testaments took place as described, and that miracles continue to occur although, for reasons known only to God, less frequently. They believe that God continually reveals new truths to his church, and that popes are infallible when they announce new doctrines.

On the far left of the spectrum are the liberals. The most radical see the Bible as swarming with historical errors. They deny papal infallibility, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth and other doctrines that have long been central to Catholic faith. On most religious questions, they have little disagreement with liberal Protestants and Reform Jews. One wonders why they choose to remain Catholics. Their response is that the church they love is capable of change and they wish to remain in order to help change it.

In between these extremes are moderates with all shades of belief. In past ages, Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, held a surprising unity of opinions. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin had few disagreements with the pope over basic doctrines like the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Today, the certainty that members of a particular church share the exact same views applies only to fundamentalis or evangelical Protestant churches, or to such sects as Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. But a typical mainline Protestant church today is like a box of tacks pointing in all directions. This is slowly becoming true of Catholic congregations. Many attend Mass from force of habit. Having been raised in their faith, they find it comforting to practice the old familiar rituals, smell the incense, enjoy the music, and even to recite creeds they no longer take seriously.

Everywhere on the Christian front there is this infuriating vagueness. Consider, for example, Christianity's fundamental belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus: not his appearance in visions, but the actual vanishing of his corpse from the tomb--a risen Christ so real that doubting Thomas could put a finger into the holes in the Lord's palms. We know that Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell believe this. Did Norman Vincent Peale? Does Robert Schuller? Do Father Andrew Greeley and Garry Wills?

Life beyond the grave was at the heart of Jesus' teaching. Did Reinhold Niebuhr, our nation's great Protestant theologian, share this belief in an afterlife? Amazingly, nobody knows. I once tried to find out by writing to his widow. She refused to tell me. Perhaps even she didn't know. She advised me to read her husband's books and let them speak for themselves. Alas, they give no hint of what he believed about immortality.

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