Bill Buckley comes forward to speak for faith, providing expected surprises

October 12, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

You can rail and rage at his politics. Fair enough. People have been doing that since he wrote his first book just after his graduation from Yale in 1950. You can find his manner insufferably mid-Atlantic. You may indict his immortal savaging of Gore Vidal as unforgivably celebratory bear-baiting. You may sniff at his harpsichord technique. (I did so myself once at the end of a most generous meal in his house and as a consequence have given up sniffing at harpsichords entirely.) But it would be extraordinarily hard to cite anyone writing today in the English language who more prodigiously combines civility, prolificness and versatility than William F. Buckley Jr.

Still at full gallop as he approaches a 72nd birthday next Nov. 24, Buckley has completed his 39th book - "Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith" (Doubleday. 313 pages. $24.95) - and it is very different.

Near its end, he writes of himself: "I am one of many millions who attend church on Sundays, receive the sacraments, say every day a prayer, particularly when a friend is ailing or gone; and yet I shrink from any religious communications that could possibly be thought intrusive."

My assessment of Buckley is hardly detached. I have known him since I met him when I was an adolescent. Subsequently - through professional affinity, friends in common and increasing personal fondness - we have become friends.

Power, humility

We have argued from time to time, and I have witnessed him in dispute often, usually joyfully and occasionally in pain. Never in all that time have I heard coming from him a hint of the voice of a proselytizer.

I am a lifetime unbeliever. I have no reason to think that Buckley is aware of that. Such is the nature of his civility; I have never raised the point. But on reading this breathtakingly powerful book, a work of Olympian humility, I now know he cares.

It is an autobiographical work, as the subtitle advertises, though not an autobiography. Its scene is a life that will seem enchantingly antique to the susceptible and enragingly privileged to those already enraged by Buckley. He grew up - and has largely managed to live - in a state of high, if not quite supernal, material comfort. (I believe the only effect of reading Buckley's work that I dread is that for ensuing weeks I find myself writing words much like "supernal." And "ensuing.")

Much of the book is very personal, in that it recounts Buckley's lone and individual religious experiences, explorations and conclusions. Many are intellectual adventures, but not solely: Lourdes and the authenticity of miracles are palpable.

There are passages that readers who are less than passionate about theological enterprise will slide over entirely or inattentively. But the core of the book is a rollicking adventure story of the spirit, an elaborate trek around and about the lofty peaks of belief and conviction, replete with stomach-churning slaloms among hazards of illogic and doubt.

Finally, it is its sincerity and ardor that make it compelling, and profoundly informative. For the book does not make - or seek to make - a case to bring the unbeliever to the fold. But it presents a fascinating, intelligent and deeply humane demonstration of belief in the face of the most rigorous intellectual tests and challenges. Belief emerges unshaken, and with it a profound sense of peace and purpose.

Buckley confronts doubt and doctrine with an extraordinary intensity of clarity. What is the core of faith? The only answer I've ever been able to work out is that faith is faith. And though I find that a useful, if resigned, declaration, I can understand that others might dismiss it as less than helpful.

I have spent my life in an age and a general culture that have questioned religious belief quite methodically. The majority of my acquaintances have liberally tended to dismiss faith as either stupidity or hypocrisy.

Faith with reason

Facing that, Buckley doesn't need my aid. But here is what I found the most useful articulation of his answer: "What I do is accept - or try to - the burden of a finite mind incapable of comprehending an apparent paradox. ... The challenge remains to discover a perch from which the perspectives permit an understanding of a God that cannot (will not?) heed His own impulses to discreate evil."

And, later, to nail the point to the wall: "In agreeing that such a God can do such things, I am engaged in an act of faith but not in an act of unreason."

Pursuing further the phenomenon of divine omniscience and omnipotence confronting the concept of free will, he cites an insight offered by Msgr. Ronald Knox: "The [question] teases out of all of us who have pondered this mystery of Christianity something we'd almost certainly not have volunteered ... namely, our inner conviction that if we had been given the job of creating the world, we'd have done the whole thing better."

Buckley's response will not set great masses of unbelievers marching to the sanctuary. "This singular invitation to imagine the world as reordered by you," Buckley writes, should force any thinking human "to experience the awful thinness of air at the Summit of Hubris."

This is funny, in its confessorial evasion. The point: Here and throughout the book, Buckley maintains a respect for and

attentiveness to skepticism. He does that with clarity and indomitable civility, while never flagging in his faith and its

profound importance to his life. He neither proselytizes nor dodges. People - smart or stupid - simply don't write or talk about religion this way. Buckley's book is wonderfully exciting - whether you are a believer or a skeptic.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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