Thursday, July 31, 2014

No Faith Without Doubt

...She said there can be no true faith without doubt.
"It's the dissenting voice that's most worth preserving."
- Archer & Armstrong #3
by Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry with Pere Perez

James infamously wrote that faith without works is dead. I contend that faith without doubt is dead. I wrote before about Archer & Armstrong concerning how our contact with the other might challenge our faith. But here I believe that doubt in general is beneficial to faith. Indeed, doubt is necessary to belief, lest it be stagnant.

Greg Boyd writes, "Doubt isn’t a problem that needs to be overcome; it’s an invitation that needs to be explored. It is not the enemy of faith, but a friend."1  I will heavily cite Boyd's book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty in this post, mainly because this issue of Archer & Armstrong inspired me to read his book. I figured if I was going to write about faith and doubt in a comic book, I should read a theological work about faith and doubt. Is there higher praise for a comic book than it led me to read a theology book?

Well, maybe an Eisner.

So faith and doubt seem to conflict, right?  Yet, I assert they are complimentary.  How is that for yet again another contradictory idea?  I think Boyd would agree with me.  "Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think it applies to faith as well," he writes.2  If you are truly going to examine and reflect on your faith, you must be willing to doubt it.

But this doubt doesn't automatically mean you have to throw your whole belief system out the window.  I think it would rarely come to that.  I think it is as simple as having the courage to ask, "What if I'm wrong?"  Or, better yet, just asking, "Why do these people believe something different than I do?"  But, please, be sincere with this question and don't immediately follow it with the answer of "because they are stupid" or "because they are heathens."  Those people with different beliefs are probably more intelligent and more devout than you are.  That doesn't mean their beliefs are right, but it means your initial argument against considering their beliefs and doubting your own is dismantled before you can even hide behind it.

If you are fervent in your beliefs, wouldn't you constantly seek to refine and improve them?  But instead we all too often simply hold and cradle our beliefs, protecting them from any possible voice of dissent or objection.  That is not a strongly held belief at all, but one that is too weak to face even the simplest criticism.  "Look," says Boyd, "what it means to believe in something is that you believe it is true. But if you’re really concerned that what you believe is true, then you can’t leave this belief to chance. The only way to determine if a belief is true is to rationally investigate it. Which means you have to doubt it."3

If you are passionate about your faith, then you should constantly doubt it.  That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?  I would think at this point you would expect nothing else from Wednesday Theology.

Let me illustrate with some personal stories from college.  I suppose, in a way, this whole theology fascination began when I enrolled in some religion courses merely to fill some electives.  I was a good, smart, Christian lad.  I knew that what I knew was correct.  I was certain that my beliefs were the truth.  And nothing any liberal college professor could say would sway me.  But then one day a professor said, "The Bible is like a hot dog, everybody likes it, but nobody wants to see how it is made."  After that, for the first time in my life, I fell in love with studying the Bible.  I love to see how the hot dog is made.

That reaction was all because the subject material covered in that Introduction to Old Testament course went against what I had been taught growing up in church, yet it did not change, nor even threaten, my core faith.  Basically, what we studied was the post-exilic theory, which is the idea that the Old Testament was compiled and written down by priests and scribes after the Babylonian exile.  I was led to believe, more or less, in a divine dictation theory of biblical composition, following the idea that God spoke to people and they essentially wrote those words down verbatim.

And that bored me.  Because if Scripture is the perfect words of God, dictated exactly, how am I supposed to study it?  How do I study something I can't question?  How do I ask what a verse means if it is the perfect word of God that can't be questioned?

But if it is stories, amazingly preserved stories, compiled and masterfully woven together into a beautifully coherent document, well that is just a giant invitation to dive right in and pull it apart.  And I can get so gleefully lost in studying, exploring, and questioning Scripture from this mindset.  Who wrote this part?  Why did they write it?  Who did they write it to?  How does that audience differ from the audience reading it today?  These questions are endlessly fascinating, and, at least for me, far more gratifying than being immediately shut down with the answer, "God said it so that's exactly what it means.  End of discussion."

Doubt didn't crush my faith.  Instead, it was was the milk jug full of gasoline tossed upon the fading embers of the campfire of my faith.  I am not good at maintaining spiritual disciplines.  I habitually fail at keeping any consistent schedule of prayer, or reading the Bible, or worshiping in any traditional sense.  But, in college I remember walking home from that class and my mind just racing as I pondered what we had covered in class and how that interacted with my already held beliefs.  I could not stop meditating on the Bible.  Sometimes I would walk right past my residence just so I could keep thinking these thoughts without interruption.

I'm still thinking these thoughts.  I'm just writing them down and calling them Wednesday Theology.

However, doubting or suspending your own beliefs does not mean at all that you will abandon those beliefs.  But it does mean you will at least have the audacity to contemplate them.  "Learning requires students to be willing and able to allow their beliefs to be challenged and to experience cognitive dissonance. Learning requires students to at least hypothetically suspend their beliefs to objectively consider other points of view. And learning demands that students sincerely consider the possibility that they’re wrong when assessing perspectives that conflict with their own," writes Boyd.4 

Allow me to regale you with another story of my college days (I sound like an old man right now).  While my classes were challenging my faith on one front, I had a group of friends that challenged it on another.  These were very smart and very devout Christians, far more devout than I ever was.  But they had this one belief that they pushed to the forefront of their faith, and it contradicted a belief that I held, though I had never really investigated or really considered it before.  So I doubted, and I explored, and I really wrestled with this.  Though they were incredibly enthusiastic about this belief, it never sat right with me.  I could not get on board with it.  I could not adopt that belief as my own.  My wrestling with this belief actually produced a short story starring the wonderful Angle the Angel.

Whenever I tried to incorporate it into my own belief, it just set off so many red flags for me.  I think some of those warnings stemmed from the attitude of a few of these friends.  They were of the mindset that they were entirely correct in their beliefs.  If you doubted one of those beliefs, you were completely wrong in your faith.  The arrogance of their certainty pushed me away nearly as much as my disagreement with the actual belief I wrestled with.  "While we should of course always be on guard against intellectual pride," says Boyd, "and while we are to aspire to trust God like little children (Matt. 18:3), why would God want his people to aspire to believing as uncritically as children? The all-too-common model of faith that makes a virtue out of certainty and an enemy out of doubt has the effect of making critical thinking a supreme liability."5

In both cases, my faith grew because I doubted.  Faith is not static.  It is, or at least ought to be, constantly changing to some extent.  Boyd says that "this is how it should be. Any faith that is alive must evolve. As my dearly departed friend Clark Pinnock used to say, theological reflection is a pilgrimage in which change should be celebrated, not feared."6  But too many of us get comfortable in our faith.  It is so much easier to believe that my beliefs are right and be done with it.  Content faith is so much less stressful than a crisis of faith.  But it's in the crisis where we can grow stronger.  I have actually learned to enjoy that.  I would describe my faith as a continuous series of crises of faith.  I'm always wrestling with something.  I'm always questioning something.  If you've read Wednesday Theology for any length of time you've probably seen how often I tackle the problem of evil and know that I have yet to come up with any satisfying answers.

Why God would let bad things happen, especially to good people, provides a great cause for doubt.  I wrote very recently that I've come to accept that God will not spare me from my troubles, but he at least will be with me and provide some sense of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.  I believe that doubting the regularly taught idea that praying to God automatically cures all of life's ills can be rather healthy.  It will at least help us cope with the reality of life.  Boyd concurs with this reality, writing, "To anyone who is not wearing Eliphaz’s magical glasses, it’s obvious that godly people who trust God have their children abducted, just as ungodly people do. It’s obvious as well that Christians have their marriages fall apart as regularly as non-Christians, that disciples lose their jobs and lose their savings and possessions in catastrophes just as people who aren’t disciples do. And to all who simply open their eyes, it’s obvious that the righteous suffer debilitating and fatal diseases the same way the unrighteous do."7 

However, this acknowledgment of the disconnect between faith and reality can be rather demoralizing.  That's probably why we are usually urged not to acknowledge it.  In fact, we may become so frustrated with God's perceived inaction that we express our anger at God in a volatile manner.  People would tell you that you shouldn't yell at God.  I am going to go ahead and tell you that, if you feel the need, go ahead and yell at God.  I think such honesty can be refreshing, both for you and for God.  I believe that honest blasphemy is preferable to dishonest praise.

In his book, Greg Boyd shares a story of how frustrated he became after becoming a Christian.  He tried so hard to conform to the strict moral expectations of his church and repeatedly failed.  He tried and tried to be a "good Christian" and inevitably would fall short of what he had been taught that meant.  This sequence of events repeated itself until Boyd finally broke down one night in a parking lot and started yelling directly at God.  "But as blasphemous as my outburst was, and while I certainly needed to repent of it, I believe God applauded it, for the same reason he applauded Job’s tirade. My tirade was straight. It came from my gut. It was honest."8  I'm going to quote Boyd's entire outburst here, because I think it needs to be shared.  I imagine most of us have felt this way at some point, though few of us would be willing to acknowledge it, let alone express it.  The censorship is Boyd's own.
"You say you love me, but it’s a f***ing lie—and you know it! You know it!! You don’t love me! You don’t really love anyone! What you love is your G** d*** rules! Well guess what? I’ve never been able to keep your f***ing rules! You stacked the deck against me! You gave me a personality you knew wouldn’t be able to meet your stupid standards. Then you took my mom and gave me that abusive b**** instead! A little wiggle of your little finger and my mom lives, and I get raised by someone who actually gives a s*** about me instead of someone who beats the s*** out of me! But you had something else in mind with your wonderful cosmic plan. You were laughing every time she took a two-by-four after me, weren’t you? God of love, my a**! I never had a chance! I’m not the one who packed my body so full of hormones I can’t handle it. That’s you! And I didn’t choose to be born in a home with a dad who thinks porn is as normal as breathing! That’s you! You rigged the whole f***ing thing against me! But now I’m the guilty one and you’re supposedly without blame. So I’m going to go to hell while you enjoy the bliss of heaven. This f***ing game you play with eternal lives is a mile-high mountain of pure, undiluted, steaming bulls***!! Total bulls***!! But you’re the Supreme Being, so you get to give and take whatever mom you d***-well please and get to save and damn whoever you d***-well please. It’s your demented game, so you, of course, get to win. And I, of course, get to lose . . . and that’s no f***ing surprise to anyone. I’ve always been a loser at your game."9 
That may be hard to read for some.  It may seem far too harsh.  It may make you squirm in your seat and feel wholly uncomfortable for someone to address God using so many f-bombs.  But, it was helpful for Boyd and resulted in him gaining a better understanding of God's love for people that wasn't necessarily contingent on how many moral codes they abide by.  Earlier Boyd compared his outburst to the biblical Job's, and I agree with that assessment.  And I will use this as an opportunity to break out my favorite quote from David Burrell's book on Job: "Job is commended in the end because he dared to address the creator-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One."10

One more note on faith and doubt.  I doubt that I am completely right.  I have spent enough time with people so arrogant of their certainty that I make a conscious effort to confess that I very well could be wrong about things.  That's not admitting that I am wrong, just admitting that my viewpoint is very subjective to my own life and experiences.  Plus, I believe everybody is wrong about something.  No matter what branch of Christianity you adhere to, some of your strongly held beliefs are inevitably wrong.  That doesn't mean you should throw out your entire faith.  Instead, it means you should engage your faith.  You should refine your faith.  You should doubt your faith.

And know that in the end the core beliefs that we mostly all agree on matter a whole lot more than the minute details of a certain belief.  Sadly, though, it's those minute details that Christians have gone to war against each other over.  Even today in our world of bombastic social media we have made it all too clear that we value the minutia of a person's belief more than the actual person who happens to hold that belief.  This treatment of others stands in stark contrast to the words of Jesus concerning how we should treat our neighbors.

As Boyd says, "for the God revealed on the cross is a God who loves people more than right doctrines."11  That hurts me.  That hurts my pride and my ego.  That hurts my impressive track record of digging my feet into the ground for decades and holding my (supposedly) right beliefs over everyone else and scoffing at those silly people who believed wrongly.  "God loves people more than right doctrines."  Holy crap, that statement is like stabbing a dagger straight into the heart of the modern American church.  Holy crap, that's like cutting the head off the main arguments of the Christian Right and the Moral Majority.  Holy crap, just imagine if we as Christians loved people regardless of what they believed.

We often think of religion and Christianity as clean and sanitary.  Indeed, modern American Christianity goes to great lengths to promote itself as "family friendly."  But that ignores the harsh truth that faith is difficult and fraught with countless unpleasantness.  When you truly explore your own faith you are going to find a lot ugly things.  And if you conjure up the courage to wrestle with the ugly aspects of your faith it will only get more ugly.  But that is how your faith will grow: by daring to be honest with yourself, with God, and with your faith.  "It’s not a faith centered on right beliefs and pious language", writes Body. "And it’s certainly not a faith that focuses on feeling secure and worthwhile by convincing ourselves that we’re right. It’s rather a faith grounded in authenticity that is therefore unwilling to sweep questions, doubts, and complaints under a pious rug to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance. It’s a faith that is not afraid of going to the mat with God."12

1.Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), kindle location 4103.
2.Ibid., 679.
3.Ibid., 181.
4.Ibid., 628.
5.Ibid., 484.
6.Ibid., 2469.
7.Ibid., 3612.
8.Ibid., 1671.
9.Ibid., 1599.
10.David Burrell, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), kindle location 1052.
11.Boyd, 1073.
12.Ibid., 1383.

No comments:

Post a Comment