Tag Archives: doubt

Questions, Doubt, and Faith: Reading Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

Faith UnraveledRachel Held Evans is a bit of a controversy in Evangelicalism these days.  She’s on Christian-world radar because of her posts that challenge commonly held opinions about gender roles in the church, Christian responses to homosexuality, the creation-evolution debates, and universalism.  I’m pretty sure I could go type her name into my status Facebook status bar right now and spawn about 15 comments.  I’d guess that at least half would be negative, and of those, 2 or 3 would be downright derogatory and dismissive without even considering whatever point I was bringing up.

RHE is a lightning rod.  No argument from me.  So I picked up her 2010 spiritual memoir Faith Unraveled and read it today. Straight through, one sitting.

I may not agree with everything Evans believes. I strongly doubt that I do.  But I applaud her journey through doubt, her willingness to ask hard questions without accepting pat answers, her desire to seek faith in the midst of ambiguity.

Faith Unraveled is a book about doubt and a book about faith.  Both-and, not one supplanting the other.  Her narrative about leaving the intellectually-driven Evangelical world-view Christianity and wandering in a desert of uncertainty doesn’t match my story, but it resonates with me.  We’ve asked many of the same questions; it’s just that mine came in a different order.

Rachel’s Christian faith unraveled when she smacked hard into the Problem of Evil but couldn’t swallow the easy answers — that we should overlook hard questions about genocide in the Old Testament, about hell and the afterlife, about the horrors of war or rape or abuse because God’s plan turns evil to good.   It’s easy to flip out that answer as if it makes rape not rape, or genocide not genocide, or Hurricane Katrina not horrible. (I created my own dust-up about this topic after reading N D Wilson’s book Notes from a Tilt-a-whirl.)

And Evans’s doubt-story centers in the heart of the painful, terrifying question — what kind of God does Evangelical Christianity offer if He destroys 200,000 humans in a tsunami or entire Canaanite cities without a pang of sorrow?  “They were going to Hell anyway” is hardly an appropriate response, but it’s what Evans heard from many of her Christian friends. And I’ve heard it too.

And all of my years of seminary coursework taught me there’s more nuance and ambiguity in the biblical texts than many of the hot Christian authors or preachers are willing to live with.

I could hand Rachel Held Evans’s book to my friends who are searching, doubting, agnostic, uncertain, wounded, or even hostile and I believe her words would open doors to good conversations about the difficult spaces within my Christian faith.

I’ll leave you with a few passages that stuck out to me, and a recommendation to read for yourself, whether the book or the controversial blog.

From Faith Unraveled (I read on Kindle, so I don’t have page numbers):

My friend Adele describes fundamentalism as holding so tightly to your beliefs that your fingernails leave imprints on the palm of your hand.

We would all like to believe that had we lived in the days of the early church or the Protestant Reformation, we would have chosen the side of truth, but in nearly every case, this would have required a deep questioning of the fundamental teachings of the time. It would have required a willingness to change. We must be wary of imitating the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets, they would have protected the innocent (see Matt. 23:30), but who then plotted against Jesus and persecuted his disciples.

Evolution [as a believer] means letting go of our false fundamentals so that God can get into those shadowy places we’re not sure we want him to be. It means being okay with being wrong, okay with not having all the answers, okay with never being finished.

To Jesus, “by faith alone” did not mean “by belief alone.” To Jesus, faith was invariably linked to obedience.

Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.

What if I’m wrong? It was a question loaded with uncertainty, possibility, and hope, and it was a question to which I often would return. To be wrong about God is the condition of humanity, for better or for worse.

In the end, it was doubt that saved my faith.

God’s ways are higher than our ways not because he is less compassionate than we are but because he is more compassionate than we can ever imagine.

I can never open my Bible without being aware of my own presence beside it. It reminds me that I’m always there, that I cannot read a word of this glorious, God-breathed book without bringing myself along, baggage and all.

Perhaps our love for the Bible should be measured not by how valiantly we fight to convince others of our interpretations but by how diligently we work to preserve a diversity of opinion.

I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.

Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people.

Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter a virtue

Sometimes Christians worry that if we don’t provide bullet-point answers to all of life’s questions, people will assume that our faith is unreasonable. In reaction to very loud atheists like Richard Dawkins, we have become a bit too loud ourselves. Faith in Jesus has been recast as a position in a debate, not a way of life.

Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them.

Yes.  The Truth is big enough to handle your questions. Your hard, agonizing, terrifying doubts and what-if’s about God and the Universe and How Things Work.

A difficult question: religious thought, academic freedom, and dinosaur DNA

I am terrible about starting a new blog series before finishing the last one.   Or the other one.

(My “how you work at work” profile says I’m better during the early parts of a project but fade away during implementation. Can I use that as an excuse?  “I’m a Clarifier! And a Developer!  I’m not responsible for failed promises to finish my thoughts about vocation and calling and higher ed and food and sin and school rules and the meaning of life!”  BOOM.  Excuse acquired.  -1 to Guilt, +1 to Justification)

I gotta be honest though, I’m just gonna lob this question out there and then run away.  It’s a hot potato for everyone.  If you’re worried about my soul, stop worrying. I’m firmly a theist and a Christian and have no intent to change. If that disappoints you, then let’s keep thinking together.

Is it possible for critical, honest academic freedom to co-exist alongside fervent religious belief?

Or did Sid Meyer get it right when he set up his Civilization games so that you can’t follow a religious pathway with your civilization if you also choose rationality?

See? This poor lackey chose the Piety tree for his civ, so he's out of luck when it comes to Rationality.
See? This poor lackey chose the Piety tree for his civ, so he’s out of luck when it comes to Rationality.

I’ve pondered this question for years. Probably since college.

Most recently, Ken Ham’s really ridiculous blog post about why there can’t be alien life anywhere else in the galaxy sparked my thinking.

See, it’s hard to actually THINK ABOUT this question because people on both sides are writing dumb-ass crap in the name of their belief system.  In Ham’s case, it’s putting words in God’s mouth and then calling them holy:

Jesus did not become the “GodKlingon” or the “GodMartian”!  Only descendants of Adam can be saved.  God’s Son remains the “Godman” as our Savior.  In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we see the Father through the Son (and we see the Son through His Word).  To suggest that aliens could respond to the gospel is just totally wrong.

An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.

Many secularists want to discover alien life hoping that aliens can answer the deepest questions of life: “Where did we come from?” and “What is the purpose and meaning of life?” But such people are ignoring the revelation from the infinite God behind the whole universe. The Creator has told us where we came from: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” Genesis 1:1; Nehemiah 9:6. And He told us what life’s purpose is: “Fear God and keep His commandments” Ecclesiastes 12:13.

The answers to life’s questions will not be found in imaginary aliens but in the revelation of the Creator through the Bible and His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to die on a Cross to redeem mankind from sin and death that our ancestor, Adam, introduced.

We need to start proclaiming the authority of God’s Word from the very first verse—even on the subject of alien life! For more information on the supposed existence of ETs and other common questions about a biblical worldview, I encourage you to order The New Answers Book series from our bookstore. Or for witnessing purposes, we have a booklet that can be ordered in bulk with special pricing to help teach people the truth about aliens and UFOs and promote the gospel for your local church or youth programs.

Ken Ham, I’m calling bullshit on your decision to 1) link your interpretation of Genesis 1-3 to what God Himself actually thinks (because truth is, you cannot KNOW that you’ve gotten it absolutely 100% correct); 2) linking that leap of assumptions and induction to what the Gospel says; and 3) using both to peddle your books. That kinda burns me, actually, but we’ll focus on problems #1 and #2.

This passage I quoted is such a mixture of orthodox theology and Ham’s personal (biased) viewpoint that it’s hard to unwind the two.  Absolutely I agree that Jesus Christ came to earth to save sinners. However, that does NOT demand the corollary concept that God can’t do any other work in this vast universe except what we deduce He’s been up to.

When we put our words in God’s mouth and call them His, usually something or someone (hello, Gallileo?) shows up to prove us idiots. And then the good of Christianity gets laughed out of the room because we weren’t careful with what we said, how we said it, and how much certainty we claimed for what is – at the core – an interpretation of a complex text.

Truth is, I have no idea if there’s alien life in outer space. Neither do you, and neither does Ken Ham if he’d stop taking his own assumptions so seriously.  And thoughtful people read this stuff and decide Christians must be a special kind of stupid.

Christianity has been linked to Modernity for a long time, and Modernity craved certainty in its epistemology.  The scientist is driven by the desire to KNOW.

Here’s where I depart from the secularist, the rationalist, the empiricist:  I think relying on human observation or reason to provide reliable and unbiased “truth” or even certain data is just as crazy as they think I am for believing in a literal Adam & Eve. (I do think they existed. I’m not willing to stab you over this point, however.)   Our perceptions are crafted by our own viewpoints, our experiences, our very humanity.

"Nature will find a way."  Yup.  Plus, I do wonder if we can make that mosquito thing work on the cloning front.....  and if so, will things just play out like a weird reworking of the film? Maybe that's true of all sci-fi? Maybe fiction writers are actually writing our future??  AAAAAAH
“Nature will find a way.” Yup. Plus, I do wonder if we can make that mosquito thing work on the cloning front….. and if so, will things just play out like a weird reworking of the film? Maybe that’s true of all sci-fi? Maybe fiction writers are actually writing our future?? AAAAAAH

Science shouldn’t get all smug up in here about what it knows or the idea they’ve identified all their biases. They haven’t.   Cue Jurassic Park as one of my favorite novels on the limitations of science to recognize what it does and does not know.

Here’s where I’d like to stop circling the drain of rationalism vs belief and restate the question:

Is it possible for someone to “question everything” and “have faith like a little child”?  I’d really like to know.

Sometimes questions are more important than answers

A friend on Facebook wrote a few months ago, “Faith is not the opposite of Doubt. Hope is.”

I have pretty strong opinions about the way I see Christians reacting to doubt. Generally, I think we suck at it.

Certainty lures us with a promise of safety and emotional stability. Doubt wears a DANGER sign, by contrast.  Skeptics and Agnostics inhabit the land of Doubt, a place no Believer ought to be found, we say. So we rush past the questions, head tucked down and coat collar up.

Maybe if we move fast enough, the hard questions will stop chasing us.

This is Easter week, and today is the dark Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  If Easter were a musical composition, this is the part where the the dramatic negative music continues a little more quietly for a page or so before the score explodes into the joy and celebration of a Risen Lord.

In the biblical narrative, Doubting Thomas has already walked off after the events of Friday to simmer in his own disappointment. The women haven’t been to an empty tomb yet to understand what it means when we say “Christ conquered death.”  It’s bitter to think you had the answer and then have that ripped out of your hands by a Roman governor who would rather execute an innocent man than face the political backlash from making the better choice.

Christianity is crazy.  You either need to grasp that and own it in faith, or walk away.  The Norse used to deride the English monks for their worship of “the nailed god.”  Ha.  What good is a god nailed to a tree?

Either Christianity is robust enough to step into the shitty places of life, or it’s irrelevant.  If this truth hasn’t hit you yet, well…. wait.  The crisis will come.

I could move from here into a complex discussion of the Problem of Evil across a variety of philosophical and religious systems.  Truly, this is where the questions punch us in the gut and leave us on the mat, bloody and gasping.

Nobody has a clear answer there. The systems of belief (and non-belief and anti-belief) duke it out to prove their answer is better or more fitting or less harmful.  On this side of Glory, we aren’t given the answer to the question of how a God who says He is both Good and Powerful exists in a universe so marred by Evil.

And most of us don’t sit back with a cup of tea to politely discuss the situation; we are thrown into the ring by personal tragedy (ours or someone we love).  It would be weird if doubt didn’t show up in the small still hours of the dark to suggest perhaps this whole Jesus thing is a crock.

In my experience, people who doubt are met with quick answers. Too quick.   A good teacher knows you have to let students stew in a problem before they’re ready to to grasp an answer. Sometimes you just have to walk beside them until it “clicks” and the answer is clear.

Life is a lot more about walking beside people through the valley of shadows than it is about delivering them packaged answers, like pills popped from dispensaries for troubled souls.

Our proof texts and pre-packaged answers for doubting souls interrupt the very important process of growing to love God on our own within the context of a personal journey.

Worse, sometimes we jump in with arguments that God Himself never made.

This really bothers me.  I’ve seen a lot of young adults walk away from the “faith” they were raised in because adults taught them “truths” that weren’t so clear.  In our rush to explain, we deceive.  In God’s name.

Galileo proved that the Church’s interpretation of Joshua’s long day, which locked them into a geocentric astronomy as the only valid interpretation of the Bible, could never match the observations through his telescope.   The Church loses followers when she insists that God said something He didn’t actually say.

Here’s where you’re going to get offended. 🙂 But I can’t make this point without listing a few examples.   The  raging debates over how the universe got here (young age creationism) turn away scientists who assume they’d have to check their scientific training at the door to become a Christian.  Doctors understand that the beginning of life isn’t a clear-cut moment, but strident anti-abortion rhetoric shuts down any real discussion of just how difficult it is to “prove” that life begins at conception. The debate over homosexuality has devolved into two sides, one that uses the Bible as a club and the other which mocks Scripture as an irrelevant, judgmental, bloody book of vastly outdated cultural practice.

Christians can’t conceive of a public policy divorced from their personal moral codes, so they talk a lot about being “persecuted” while rarely understanding alternate viewpoints on the political and social issues they feel like they’re losing.

When Christians harden our rhetoric over issues not central to the definition of the Gospel, we run the risk of linking our own interpretations and fallible opinions to the eternal Word of God.  Instead of seeing Scripture and preaching as witnesses to Jesus, the fully revealed Word of God, we present stances that are locked in our cultural and political contexts.

As soon as those contexts shift, the flaws in our thinking are exposed.  We said “thus saith the Lord,” and people took us at our word.

When we focus our energy on fighting for a specific political cause — banning abortion or gay marriage, keeping tax breaks for churches, condemning food stamps and welfare as “stealing” the income of holy middle class taxpayers (never mind the complicated American history of race, poverty, and social mobility and opportunity), keeping a small federal government, refusing to listen to anyone who might be a “socialist” — we blur the lines between witnessing to the Truth of the Gospel and witnessing to our own personal viewpoints.

And because we failed in our preaching and practice to differentiate God’s thoughts from our human attempts to understand Him, when people reject our preaching or practice (whether they’re right or wrong to reject), they reject the Faith as well.

I realize that conversion is a complex theological topic.  We are all unbelievers; our only hope is in the work of Christ to renew our hearts.  But Scripture speaks of not placing stumbling blocks in front of people coming to know God — in front of children, in front of the world.

My decade in the high school classroom taught me this:   even teenagers can understand complicated, nuanced arguments if you take the time to explain them.  Questions need not be a moment for panic and alarm.  Answers are rarely as important as the process of deriving those answers.  A troubled soul needs a caring listener, not a sermon.

And a God who can weave the story of Redemption through His entire creation and all of human history truly is “big enough” to calm the doubts of His children. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His job of illumination.  Trust the Word to bear witness to the truth of God and His ways.

He is risen!
He is risen indeed.

Quotable: A Taxonomy of Doubt

This is an incredible post about the relationship of doubt and faith.  Loved every word of it.

A Very Brief Taxonomy of Doubt, by Zach Terrell

My favorite bit:

Cynicism expresses itself as wisdom, a better-than, a way above the unholy canards of certitude, but it is an epistemic and experiential straightjacket. It’s built like doubt, but tangled in itself, and refuses any forward motion. It’s sexier than radical certainty but no less myopic.

A Culture of Questioning

Today’s Sunday School discussion about the “watchman” passage in Ezekiel 3 frustrated me.

For one thing, Sunday School classes provoke some kind of odd warping of the time/space continuum. If the teacher is boring, time freezes in the presence of a black hole of active learning.  Give me an interesting teacher, and time runs past like a sprinter, carrying far more than his allotted share of minutes from the clock. One or two questions in, and it’s time to go.

Coart is teaching on Ezekiel & Daniel this quarter, two widely misunderstood and ignored books. Heck, I figure Ezekiel was the first fringe kid, sporting an odd hairdo and some kind of funky robe back in the 6th Century…. who else would be drafted into such an odd ministry of puppet-sermons, play-acting, and weird behavior?  hehe  [Calm down. I’m just kidding.]

The ‘Watchman’ passage in chapter 3 is difficult on a good day. In what sense is Ezekiel responsible for the deaths of both wicked or righteous men if he fails to warn them of coming judgment? And how do we reconcile all of that with the paradox of free will vs. God’s sovereignty?

But I’m not here to discuss THAT question. (Good luck. Call me when you figure it out.)

I was frustrated that people jump so quickly to pat answers instead of allowing themselves and (more importantly) other people to wrestle with these difficult passages. Lest you prick yourself on a thorn of interpretation, a self-appointed ‘thought-police’ lurks nearby, ready to offer the standard formulaic answer.  Poke the answer a little, however, and its veneer of certainty rubs away.

I wish we cultivated a culture of questioning, instead of idolizing “answers.”

Truth is, even the best explanations of some Bible passages fail to satisfy.  I’m not a Christian because the Bible nailed me with some airtight defense of its own reliability.

I’m a Christian because one day, inexplicably and without remedy, God mashed into my life and drew me to Himself as a child of redemption.  I trust Him, first and foremost.

The questions in my head cannot be answered by black letters dancing on a white page. God Himself is the Truth, a personal Truth who can be questioned.  David paved our way in the Psalms as he pounded on the doors of heaven seeking answers to life’s crap.

Job questioned too, but his hard-headed self-righteousness provoked a response from the Almighty that I don’t care to ever experience. Then again, Job is one of the few to hear God’s actual voice … and he lived to praise God for His goodness. [God protects children and fools….?]

We think that a question unanswered is somehow a mark against us, as if God were administering the SAT of LIFE and we won’t make it into the next heavenly course without a good score.

Instead of wrestling with the Being Who Is Truth or inhaling the scent of paradox – a mysterious answer that somehow quenches our indelible thirst – we are too easily satisfied.  Satisfied with the simple answer, with a cardboard, staid, predictable image of God.

Answers are well and good, but you need to soak up the question first.
Douglas Adams was right — knowing the answer to the Life, the Universe, and Everything is irrelevant unless you understand The Question.