FREDERICK BUECHNER's fine attainments as a novelist do not need a theologian's imprimatur or commendation. His lively theological essays are "irregular," a characterization a gifted practitioner of that religious genre applied to his own work years ago. In neither case is "irregular" to be understood as a pejorative; it marks a significant contrast with systematic-academic.

Now Buechner has given us a sterling fragment of an autobiography. Its beauty and power do not rest on the proposition "that all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography." In respect to fiction the proposition is contestable. In respect to theology, systematic or irregular, it is simply wrong. In both cases its intelligibility is a function of "at its heart."

The heart of this book is a series of encounters for which "epiphany," overworked though it may be, is entirely appropriate. The persistent core metaphor is "journey": in his case a life-process defined, not merely punctuated, by revelations of what he comes to acknowledge of divine goodness and power.

Here the spatiality conveyed by the metaphor is far less important than the temporality. Buechner's treatment of Time--the three sections of the book are called "Once Below a Time" (a phrase borrowed from Dylan Thomas), "Once Upon a Time," and "Beyond Time"--is both theologically and poetically rich, and it is entirely free of pedantic posture and parade. This is an advantage irregular theologians have over fully licensed practitioners of the theological sciences. Buechner makes the most of it.

His evocation of the a-temporal (below time) aspect of a favored childhood is entrancing; his account catches some of the magic in childhoods far less favored than his. As children we knew that time was there. It became formidable and dreadful, imperiously real, when it laid corrosive hands on places and persons who defined the security and happiness of a child's self-centered world.

Appropriately, Part II, "Once Upon a Time," is rather less charming than Part I, and it is considerably more powerful. His father's unspoken and unheeded farewell, and suicide, mark an altogether new sense of time:

"How long it was from the moment he closed that door to the moment we opened it, I no longer have any way of knowing, but the interlude can stand in a way for my whole childhood up till then and for everybody else's too, I suppose. . . . And that moment was also the last of my childhood because, when I opened the door again, measurable time was, among other things, what I opened it on. . . . From that moment to this I have ridden on time's back as a man rides a horse, knowing fully that the day will come when my ride will end and my time will end and all that I am and all that I have will end with them."

There are allusions to the time of the great world, that is, to historic events. His evocation of national sentiment in 1940, and on into our participation in World War II, is certainly effective. It would be hard to fault his conclusion: "For people born since, it must be hard to imagine a time when this country seemed so much on the side of the angels or a cause so just." But his main business in this piece is with the inwardness of the journey, the search for love, erotic and otherwise, the coming-to-be of the artist--in all, self- recognitions developed here with great candor and remarkable reticence as well. The reticence is not dictated by embarrassment or by self-protectiveness; Buechner is not the hero of the tale. Decorum, I suppose, is a factor here. A more decisive one is a will to discriminate between the essential and the trivial when one's encounters are not with Id or with socializing forces, benign or otherwise, but with power, beauty and goodness essentially beyond time and creatureliness.

"We are always free as in a way the characters in novels are also free --free to run away with the story . . . free to be what they want to be no matter how hard the author may try to make them be something else-- but in the midst of our freedom, we hear whispers from beyond time, I think, sense something hiddenly at work in all our working whose plot it is either for our sakes to make us truly and everlastingly human before it is done or, failing that and perhaps no less for our sakes, to let death be the merciful coup de gr.ace to our less-than-humanness."

Here the context is the time when he was writing his first novel, A Long Day's Dying. The larger intent is clearly theological.

The Sacred Journey ends with his decision to enter Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was 27.

The book is a singularly graceful synthesis of memoir and theological-metaphysical explanation. I hope "metaphysical" does not give unforgivable offense. It is used to suggest a reality medieval thinkers called "remote cause." In more recent terms, God is bodied forth in Buechner's journey as one who lures rather than compels. Buechner is not intimidated by the lively prospect that part of his audience will prefer lower-order explanations--Freudian, sociobiological, class-structure-ideological, etc. There is something inspiring, who knows, perhaps something sacred, about that nonchalance. May it go from strength to strength when he resumes the telling of his own story.