Thursday, January 3, 2013

Frederick Buechner and Wingfold’s Wager

Frederick Buechner’s memoir Telling Secrets, which I wrote about Tuesday, ends with a moving and very open avowal of Christian faith. “In the midst of a suffering world and of our own small suffering,” the Protestant minister and novelist writes, “we have tried to believe in a God of love and power, the highest power beyond all others. Have we been right? . . . This side of Paradise, who can say with absolute certainty?”

From the old books that surround him in his Vermont farmhouse, Buechner (who was young in 1950, left) pulls out an old novel: Curate by George MacDonald, about a minister, published in 1876. The fictional minister, Thomas Wingfold, says:

Whatever energies I may or may not have, I know one thing for certain: that I could not devote them to anything else I should think entirely worth doing. Indeed nothing else seems interesting enough, nothing to repay the labor, but the telling of my fellow-men about the one man who is the truth, and to know whom is the life. Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths; and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the Garden of the Lord. 

I will go farther, and say I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those that deny him.

There is something here of Pascal’s wager, I suppose. My friend Frank Weathers could analyze that. But also something more, I think.

Wingfold’s wager says that there is nothing “entirely worth doing” except a life in Christ. “Nothing else seems interesting enough.”

Wingfold’s wager is not just a bet on the hereafter like Pascal’s (right, Frank?) but a bet on the here and now: to “live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if is not.”

Wingfold’s wager says that there are facts, yes, but also truth, and the two are not the same.

Wingfold’s wager says that there is something “lofty” in our nature that corresponds, as the CL-ers like to say, to revealed Christian truth, and without the latter, “the loftiest part of our nature” is “a waste.”

Wingfold’s wager says he will “fall into nothingness” with Jesus and the saints if, in fact, there is no hereafter. They were “lovely in their lives” (wow) and “with their death” made “even the nothingness into which hey have passed like the Garden of the Lord.”

Good stuff for a cold winter morning in New England, when my garden lies under snow and ice (fact) but I believe that it is still there, hidden, waiting to be revealed (truth).


  1. Thanks for reintroducing me to Frederick Buechner. Some years ago, I read a quote of his referring to identifying one's vocation, as the " place where one's deep gladness meets the the world's great need." I have never known anything about him until you posted about him.

  2. very nice article. I am a Buechner fan as well - did you know that he now has a new website where you can view recordings of him speaking, see all of his books, sign up for a quote of the day, etc. - here it is:


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