Frederick Buechner, one of America’s most famous theological writers, will be honored at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Washington Cathedral with a panel discussion on the impact of his writings and sermons on American religious life.
An ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister and author as well as a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Buechner splits his time between winters in Hobe Sound, Fla., and summers in Vermont. The following are excerpts of a telephone interview:
Question: You turn 80 on July 11. What would you like to be remembered for?
Answer: For the books I’ve done and the people I’ve helped, at least according to the people who’ve written me letters telling me so. Godric (a character in one of his novels) said he wanted to be remembered “not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I have dreamed.”
Q: Your newest book, “Secrets in the Dark,” which is a collection of your sermons over the years, makes it sound OK to have doubts about God.
A: I try to be honest about my own experiences, which includes doubt. I think for some people it’s a relief that faith doesn’t mean being 100 percent certain. When someone in the religious trade can admit there are mysteries and uncertainties, that is nourishing to them.
Q: What do you hear from people?
A: I do not have e-mail. I would not let it into my house. I get 300 to 400 letters a year. I’ve never been a big seller, but Harper San Francisco has kept my books in print for years and years so that books written 30-plus years ago are still selling. They are still chattering away to the world. I think mine is a voice people can trust, a voice that does not make things sound easier. I try very hard not to be boring. I try to be truthful, honest, imaginative and not argue for something I do not believe in.
Q: What’s the most important truth you’ve learned about life?
A: Pay attention to your life. It is so easy to live your life on the surface and not pay attention to what’s happened. Your life is speaking to you. Paying attention is to keep your eyes open, look at peoples’ faces, listen to their voices, smell the smells in the air. I’ve gotten a richer sense of what goes on in the world than if I had lived my days on automatic pilot.
Q: Have you ever been depressed or in despair?
A: Clinically depressed? No. John Updike says God saves His deepest silence for His saints. I’ve never believed there is no God but I’ve wondered if it can be true, considering all the wretched things in this world, that it is presided over by a loving and powerful God.
Q: What is your greatest regret?
A: That I have not been braver, stronger and wiser. I regret that I’ve not been a saint. A saint is a life giver. To be in the presence of a saint is to be more aware of the richness and the depth of life. I have tremendous admiration for Nelson Mandela, a saint who came out of 30 years of imprisonment unembittered. That is a saintly thing.
Q: What is your biggest concern for the church today?
A: A lot of what goes on in churches bores me out of my wits. A lot is barren and by rote, unnourishing, too much talk and not enough silence or listening. But powerful things have happened to me in church. Were it not for a particular church I wandered into in New York, I might not have gone to seminary.
Q: What is your biggest concern for America?
A: The best thing we can do in this country right now is bring to heel this crazy administration we have, led by you know who. This utterly meaningless war, this “evil war against terror,” as he says, doesn’t take into account those insurgents are people who basically want us to get … out of there and let them lead their own lives. It’s a war against shadows, not like a war against a country that might capitulate at some point. Gore Vidal had a great phrase: “It’s a war against dandruff.” There’s nothing there you can put your finger on.
Q: What would you like to say to the next generation?
A: Again, pay attention to your lives. So much is happening to the young that is immediate, so it is hard to step back from it.
Q: What is your favorite Bible text?
A: The 23rd Psalm and isolated sentences here and there. I like Jesus’ comment about “Come unto Me all ye who are heavy-laden and distressed” — that means all people, believers and others — “and I will rescue you.” Jesus is not boring, although people talk about Him in a boring way. People have been told the Gospel so often, they see the characters as stained-glass figures with no human reality to them, like icons on a church wall. I try to imagine the marvelous moment after the Resurrection when the disciples were gathered on the beach. Then they see this figure on the beach and it’s Jesus. As a preacher, I try to make those wonderful moments not seem so remote.
Q: Is there a time when you became a Christian?
A: No. When I was very young, I got a glimpse of a priest walking up a hill. Then I saw a sketch of Jesus at the Last Supper that moved me so much. But there was no moment that I said I was a Christian. When my first book, “A Day’s Dying,” was published in 1950, I was 24. It sold well. I was reviewed in Time and Newsweek. But then I got identified as a minister, which was a literary critic’s kiss of death. After it became known I’d been ordained, my books became known as “religious publications,” which was too bad.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: I am not writing anything. I cannot do it. I have not written in three years. After 32 books, maybe I’ve said all I have had to say. Maybe my being is exhausted and I am just tired out. I keep on trying, wondering what I can write a book about, but what I get is already a version of what I have already written and there is no life to it. So, I wander around, stare into space, play some terrible tennis and some even worse golf and lead a happy life except for that one big hole in the middle of it. Maybe it comes with age. Maybe I have outlived this gift.