Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church (Hardcover)

The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church

By Dan Cryer

St. Martin's Press, 9780312599430, 368pp.

Publication Date: October 25, 2011



One of the year's Top Ten Books on Religion and Spirituality (Booklist), Being Alive and Having to Die is the story of the remarkable public and private journey of Reverend Forrest Church, the scholar, activist, and preacher whose death became a way to celebrate life.  

Through his pulpit at the prestigious Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York, Reverend Forrest Church became a champion of liberal religion and a leading opponent of the religious right. An inspired preacher, a thoughtful theologian and an eloquent public intellectual, Church built a congregation committed to social service for people in need, while writing twenty five books, hosting a cable television program, and being featured in People, Esquire, New York Magazine, and on numerous national television and radio appearances.   

Being Alive and Having to Die works on two levels, as an examination of liberal religion during the past 30 years of conservative ascendancy, and as a fascinating personal story. Church grew up the son of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, famous for combating the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the CIA in the 1970s.  Like many sons of powerful fathers, he rebelled and took a different path in life, which led him to his own prominence. Then, in 1991, at the height of his fame, he fell in love with a married parishioner and nearly lost his pulpit. Eventually, he regained his stature, overcame a long-secret alcoholism, wrote his best books–and found himself  diagnosed with terminal cancer. His three year public journey toward death brought into focus the preciousness of life, not only for himself, but for his ministry.

Based on extraordinary access to Church and over 200 interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, Dan Cryer bears witness to a full, fascinating, at time controversial life. Being Alive and Having to Die is an honest look at an imperfect man and his lasting influence on modern faith.

About the Author

DAN CRYER is the former book critic for Newsday. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. A long-time member of All Souls, he lives in New York.

Praise For Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church


“The book critic Dan Cryer ably captures the theologian who was the son of a United States senator and became a champion of liberal political causes in religion. In this inspirational biography, Mr. Cryer, a member of the All Souls congregation, recalls Mr. Church’s ups and downs (two decades ago, he fell in love with a married parishioner; he also overcame alcoholism) and his legacy…In his typically ‘aphoristic’ style, Mr. Church wrote, ‘The goal of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.’ Mr. Church accomplished his goal, as does the book.” ―The New York Times


“One of the most  intriguing people I have met as a journalist,  Forrest Church was publicly popular but privately inscrutable.  He thought long and hard about religion and politics, was at home in both spiritual and secular spheres, wrestled to live an ethical life yet proved as flawed as any of us,  and struggled to  cope with the shadow of a famous and once-powerful father.  But I knew him only in passing, and longed to know more. Now, thanks to Dan Cryer's prodigious reporting, I understand more deeply the source of his eloquence and the agony of his search.  Even if you never heard of Forrest Church, you will find this man's pilgrimage worth your time.” ―Bill Moyers 


"A biography as winning and smart as its subject." ―Booklist


"This book will appeal not only to Unitarians and religious seekers, but to anyone who cares about the role of faith in American life." ―The Boston Globe

"A sensitive and insightful biography.”

“Dan Cryer's compelling biography of Forrest Church limns a quality liberal religion archetypically misses -- struggle.  Cryer's beautifully wrought account of Church's remarkable rise as a major Unitarian-Universalist minister, and more importantly as a person, melds politics, family, and theology into a riveting account of Church's joys and tragedies.  This is a moving, even transforming book about the central issue Church struggled to clarify -- the very human meaning of life.” ―Jon Butler , Howard R. Lamar Professor of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies and Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University


“This splendid biography is worthy of its sparkling, accomplished, and inspiring subject, capturing the life and bountiful spirit of Forrest Church in rich detail.”Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University

“Forrest Church pulled no punches when it came to his own foibles.  Dan Cryer doesn’t either.  By virtue of his candor, Forrest made himself far more accessible to people while he lived.  Cryer has done the same thing for us now that Church is gone.”William F. Schulz, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA and current President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

“Forrest Church was a great prophetic voice and grand public intellectual.  This book helps preserve his precious legacy!”  Cornel West, New York Times bestselling author of Democracy Matters, Race Matters, and many other books

“Dan Cryer’s penetrating, fair-minded  biography of the prominent New York Unitarian pastor Forrest Church offers a portrait not only of a fascinating religious intellectual constantly confronting his own demons but of  the best traditions of liberal American Protestantism, which uphold the separation of church and state and liberty of conscience for all. It was Church’s fate to live out his ministry during the decades when the religious Right has attempted to convince the public of the lie that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Church stood against that lie and Cryer presents  a compelling analysis of both the man and his times, with much to offer atheists as well as religious believers more interested in questions than answers.”Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason

"Cryer's quietly moving biography affirms the enduring power of Church's liberal religious creed, which urges us to find God all around us and in the hearts of our fellow human beings, whatever their religions." Wendy Smith