“Contrary to widespread religious belief,” he wrote in a 1994 essay for The Times, “I don’t think God goes around changing things in the sense of making bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, or of giving one side victory over the other in wars, or of pushing a bill through Congress to make school prayer constitutional.”
Mr. Buechner said he believed that chance largely ruled the universe, but also that “through the chance things that happen, God opens up possibilities of redemptive human change in the inner selves, even of people who wouldn’t be caught dead believing in Him.”
Emerging from a chaotic childhood in which his family moved constantly as his father, an unsuccessful salesman for industrial chemical companies, drifted from job to job during the Depression and committed suicide when the boy was 10, Mr. Buechner attended a private boarding school and his father’s alma mater, Princeton, and taught for a few years before starting his writing career in New York City.
His first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying” (1950), about conflicts among a college student, his widowed mother, his grandmother and his mother’s lovers, appeared when he was 23. It won both lavish critical praise and commercial success. “All in all, this is a work of real art, fine sensitivity and uncanny human understanding,” David Daiches, a Cornell English scholar, wrote in The Times Book Review.
It was not until after publication of his less-successful second novel, “The Seasons’ Difference” (1952), which explored the moral vacuum in a group of sophisticates, that Mr. Buechner had his spiritual awakening. Attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, he heard a sermon by its celebrated pastor, George Buttrick, that inspired him.