Posts filed under ‘doubt’
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town, which does a remarkable job of delving into issues of doubt and faith with intellectual honestly. Evans grew up thoroughly immersed in the evangelical culture, but was compelled to honestly examine it with open eyes. I think that is extremely difficult to do for someone who grows up within evangelicalism’s “biblical worldview.” Evans seems to be representative of a number of younger evangelicals who are not comfortable accepting the culture wars and dogmatic beliefs and doctrines of early generations.
Evans writes pointedly about the problems that arise from a literalistic, inerrant reading of the bible, and tells candidly how her faith changed through this process of examination. The book uses the motif of evolution to describe what both Christianity has done over the years, and what has happened to the author’s own faith as well. Her home town was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, thus the analogy to evolution. It describes how skeptics and Christians alike can experience these problems, and indeed Evans has the same questions herself.
This vision of Christian faith offers something of an acceptance of the tension between belief and unbelief, believer and unbeliever, rather than assuming a rigid and vast divide separates the two. Which in turn seems to offer the opportunity for greater dialog and understanding in discussing issues, rather than hostile debates and attempts to convince others to change their beliefs. Reading the book very refreshing in this way.
I think the book can help encourage Christians who are compelled to ask hard questions of their faith, as Evans describes what it was like to face the disapproval of other Christians. It is a tough path to walk alone. Even without sharing the same experience of faith as the author, an unbeliever could walk away from the book with a better understanding of who evangelicals are, and how their religion has come to the point it is at today.
Reading this post over, it sounds a lot like the technical paper I wrote the same day. I’ll try to revisit the subject soon to give a more personal take, time and emotional energy allowing.
For those interested, Evan’s blog provides a good taste of her writing. She recently responded to an Answer’s in Genesis review of her own work. She also has a couple of good posts on doubt -here- and -here-. Mark of christiandoubt.com reviews it here.
And I included some more thoughts on the book in a follow up post here.
This American Life is a wonderful program on National Public Radio featuring essays and interviews about people’s lives. Describing the show on their website they say, “There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but, like we said, it’s sort of hard to describe.” I have listened to maybe a half-dozen episodes and have found each one impressive, often moving. Podcasts of the episodes are available free, I think each one is an hour.
I recently listened to this episode, a fascinating and haunting story in its own right, which also provides insight into the way people hold beliefs. I will not include too many details to avoid spoiling the story for anyone who might want to listen.
The episode is introduced on their website as follows:
In 1912 a four year-old boy named Bobby Dunbar went missing in a swamp in Louisiana. Eight months later, he was found in the hands of a wandering handyman in Mississippi. In 2004, his granddaughter discovered a secret beneath the legend of her grandfather’s kidnapping, a secret whose revelation would divide her own family, bring redemption to another, and become the answer to a third family’s century-old prayer.
People can experience a very real sense of trauma when long and deeply held beliefs and convictions are challenged, which can create both internal and external conflict. The granddaughter conducting the research in this story experiences both. At one point a character in the story tells her, “Nobody wants to know,” about her research. Meaning that the granddaughter should stop prying into the past, even though it is her own personal family history she is investigating. But learning about the truth is more important to the granddaughter than remaining comfortable or making people happy. Sometimes the truth hurts.
Perhaps the person’s complaint, “Nobody wants to know,” does contain a grain of truth. Some or many people in the story likely will not deal with the turmoil well. Living in denial might maintain a degree of comfort, but is it best for him? What will really bring him peace? Will the truth set him free? Sometimes the answers to questions like those are not as clear as we might think.
But peace and happiness can be found in searching for truth even when it hurts, as this story beautifully demonstrates. Introspection into human nature, a mystery, truth, history, redemption… What more can one ask for in a story? Please let me know your thoughts if you find the time to listen (so there may be spoilers in the comments section). Warning before you get sucked in, the episode is an hour long and is devoted to this one story. Got some time on your commute? Need to turn the TV off for a bit? Enjoy!
A little while back I found out I had been used as a sermon illustration by a pastor I had recently become friends with (a pastor at a different church than the one I attended). Quite a surprise ! I was able to download the sermon to see what it was about.
His sermon generally spoke of being friends with someone who questions the bible, being gracious and understanding, really listening and respecting. It was a good message. I had previously met with this person while still in the process of leaving my old church and had spoken about some of the difficulties I had working through things there. The part where I came in was to illustrate how someone can be ostracized by Christians when they voice their questions.
The illustration needed a bit of clarification about how people treated me at the old church. I was afraid the pastor (at the new church) believed people had treated me badly at our old church (they had not). I tried to clear things up by sending the email below (minimally edited, and names have been changed):
I heard through the grapevine that I was an illustration in a recent sermon of yours, which I just downloaded. On one hand, it is a bit embarrassing to be a sermon illustration, but on the other hand I’m honored, and deeply appreciate the way you care about these issues. And to be sure I have no objection with what you said in the sermon, you did an excellent job of conveying the need for compassion and care.
But after listening to your sermon, I do want to clear up something which I believe I miscommunicated to you, because I don’t want to misrepresent the church I just am leaving (Conservative Evangelical Church) by making it seem I was ostracized by them. The members of Conservative Evangelical Church do respect believers who question the faith, just as you taught in your sermon, and showed me nothing but love and charity. Working through my understanding of the bible there was difficult for me because in general the people there lack a framework to deal with those who question the bible.
I recently had a conversation with my pastor [at my old church]. He didn’t seem to be able to engage the questions I had, though I think tried to. For whatever reason, he couldn’t answer a question I thought was straightforward with a “yes” or “no,” it seemed to me he was dancing around the issue.
So while *feeling* ostracized, it has been more of a functional separation than an unwillingness of people to want to care for me. I wasn’t kicked out, but there doesn’t seem to be room there theologically for questions about the inerrancy of the bible. I see it as something built in to the fundamentalist/inerrantist view of the bible that prevents people from engaging in those kinds of questions, other than to seek to reinforce their own perspective. On top of that, there were certain dynamics in my relationship with my wife, and her relationship with the church, which certainly compounded those problems. And on top of that, I am sure my own anxiety and discomfort working though this whole process has contributed significantly.
Again, I have no problem with the sermon illustration personally. I just want to clear up any misconception I may have caused about Conservative Evangelical Church. Thanks for taking the time to read all this.
Listened to The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis with the kids on a roadtrip recently, and this section caught my ear, an interesting bit of reasoning and apologetics. Need to go back a couple of pages to supply some background first though.
The book is part of the Narnia series, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wordrobe fame. Two children, accompanied by a Narnian creature, a Marsh-wiggle (read the book) are on a mission to rescue a prince (the Prince of Narnia), whom they have now found. He had been held captive by a witch (a different witch than the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe witch). After they find the prince, the witch makes her appearance, and is trying to beguile them into disbelieving their mission. In fact, she is trying to convince them that their understanding of reality is completely wrong.
The witch has enchanted the company into a stuperous state with song and magic incense. She is trying to convince them they have made up everything they think is true, including the world they have come from (“Overworld”, the witch’s realm is underground). As they struggle to perceive reality, they grasp at memories of their world and mention things they “know” to be real, like the sun:
“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldy and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.” “Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch… “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this *sun* must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your *sun* is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the *sun* is but a tale, a children’s story.” “Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone, “It must be so.”
The group is obviously falling for the witch’s deceit. The children’s companion Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, musters the strength to grasp at a fragment of reality. He brings to their minds a memory of Aslan, the lion symbolic of Jesus in the series:
“There’s Aslan,” he said. “Aslan?” said the Witch, quickening ever so slightly the pace of her thrumming. “What a pretty name! What does it mean?”
Ha, she knows very well what it means! As the group struggles to remember Aslan, the Witch continues to play her game of feigned ignorance and spreading of confusion through her lies:
“I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your *lion*, as you call it, then we did with your *sun*. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the *sun*. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a *lion*. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger.”
Puddleglum comes through again though. He quenches the enchanting fire with his bare feet, and then makes the following statement (this is the money paragraph):
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we *have* only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of akingdom of yours *is* the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the yong lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
At which point the spell is broken in a dramatic fashion.
It seems like the story offered here is trying to take two approaches for reasoning towards belief. First, it is worth believing even if it is not true, because life is so much better that way. Belief has benefits apart from whether or not the belief is accurate. Second, living as though something were true can actually lead to real belief that it is true. What starts as a way of life can become a belief. In the end it is Puddleglum’s act of faith itself which enables them to escape the doom of unbelief and life imprisoned in Underworld. It just takes faith.
Pascal’s Wager states that “a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.” (from wikipedia). Win-win, right? Even if Aslan does not exist, you spent your life with such high aspirations and hopes that there wasn’t anything to lose. And look what you stand to gain.
But is that a valid way of thinking in the modern world where, by the very nature of living in this age, we reason and understand things based on evidence, not just feelings and intuitions alone?
It just sounds too much to me like the statement, “just have faith,” which I have heard too many times. Maybe that is my conservative Christian background, tending towards seeing things in black and white. Or my rejection of conservative Christianity which makes it hard to see the good in Lewis’ story because I view it as a fundamentalist exhortation rather than a lovely liberal story. Regardless, I need another way, one that looks at evidence as well as benefits and wagers. Or maybe I’m in the grip of a dark power; drugged, deceived, confused, hopeless to choose my own way… Where have I heard that story before?
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Hebrews 6:4-6 (NASB)
I attended church this past weekend. I was not initially unhappy to go, but walking into the service I realized I was not as happy to go as I had thought. As I sat unmoved by an actually lovely sounding song, I thought about what it means to have a hardened heart. And tried to consider if my heart could really be hardened, my conscience seared to the truth of the gospel…
I am frequently warned by Christians to guard against hardening my heart to God. They feel that though I may be in a dangerous place spiritually, things will turn out OK as long as I don’t harden my heart. The problem is this tricky definition of hardening my heart. What is hardening of the heart? How can one believe differently than what orthodox Christian doctrine teaches? I think a lot of unorthodox thoughts now, so my heart must be hard, right?
And there are signs of my hardening everywhere. If I don’t spend time with my Christian friends, it couldn’t be because I make them uncomfortable and they make me uncomfortable, I must be hardening my heart towards them. If I don’t want to read the bible during my “quiet time” in the morning, it couldn’t be a due to a rational decision about its content, I must have hardened my heart to God. And if it would be as difficult for me to believe the bible is literal history as to believe Aesops’ fables are literal history, well, that might be OK, as long as it doesn’t affect my belief in the “essential core doctrines” of the bible. But if I question those core doctrines? Right, hard hearted…
What other reason could there be to reject the clear and obvious revelations God has provided? I think that is the only logical conclusion left for conservative Christian doctrine. That’s why Christian doctrine equates disbelief and doubt with moral failure. If the bible really is all true, and you are going to hell if you don’t believe it, rejecting it it couldn’t be a rational thought process. Could it?
I do not think it really is a process of hardening my heart. Rather, it is a process of allowing my mind to rationally process things on my own, not being forced to interpret things through the lens of certain presuppositions. Conservative Christians maintain it is essential to have the presupposition that the bible is all true, and that presupposition must supersede and dictate all other thought, any examination of evidence. They can be quite proud of maintaining that presupposition without wavering.
Over time, as I have cast off that presupposition, yes, I have become more convinced of what I believe. But it is not accurate or fair to call it a hardening of the heart. If it is the only way conservative Christians allow themselves to think, it would appear they have hardened their hearts (or minds) by making a choice to only consider themselves correct.
For a OneSmallStep’s take on a cold, dark heart, click HERE.
For a while almost a year ago, when I became an active skeptic, or began struggling with my faith, or whatever one might call it, I started reading compulsively. I was not sleeping, anxious, which afforded me many “bonus” hours for reading. Looking back, I see a sense of looking for something to prove Christianity false, something I could rest on to justify my disbelief in the faith I was leaving. A silver bullet that would by itself, once and for all, prove that Christianity is not true.
Ever look for one of those? Guess what, I still haven’t found one. Because for every evidence something in the bible is not true, there is an apologetic argument showing a logical possibility as to how it could be true. Not necessarily showing it likely to be true, just showing a logical possibility that it could be true. If only one wants badly enough to believe. Christianity has had literally thousands of years to work on them. Just learning that took me an inordinate amount of time and was extremely frustrating.
Over time, the shear number of these explanations for difficulties with the conservative Christian faith, and the intricate, convoluted arguments apologists weave to justify their beliefs, provided me with evidence to my satisfaction. The preponderance of evidence got me to the point where I became comfortable with what I did and did not believe. That’s about where I am today.
I recently realized that at some point during that process something odd happened. I stopped looking for a silver bullet to prove Christianity false and I started searching for a silver bullet to prove Christianity true. I know I won’t find it, it doesn’t exist either. And the Christianity I read about now is much more amorphous, less defined, messy. It doesn’t need the same kind of proof to exist. So what am I looking for?
I realized I am still trying to prove myself to the Christians in my life, to demonstrate faithfulness, that I have fought the good fight, turned over every stone, left myself open to what they believe, even if I still don’t believe it. Mostly that is craziness, I still want to justify my moving on. But I think partly it is a desire to maintain relationships with people, when it is my set of beliefs that changed, not their’s. Maybe that’s the price I feel I have to pay.
I also want to be able to provide some direction for my family, not ceding that area to religion that would work to drive us apart. And I want to have knowledge and language to articulate the Christian faith better than others who would hint to me at other ways of viewing Christianity. I want to have been there already, done my homework, understood the arguments ahead of time, done due diligence.
While this new quest for the second kind of silver bullet has not been as frantic as the first one, I do recognize some of the same obsession in the search. I reassure myself that this time won’t last forever. I am still growing into my new beliefs, and I am still enjoying reading and learning in ways I have not in a long time. But I yearn for a freedom from this searching. It feels oppressive at times. Life is so hard to get through as a husband, father, employee, apart from worrying what other people think and about other people’s faith. I’m looking forward to just being myself.
Quick follow up to the last post, concerning the evidences Christians see in answered prayer. I know this theme has been written about in any number of places before, but this is my fresh experience.
This week my 3 year old was hospitalized overnight for an illness. He’s completely fine now, having rebounded quickly following the treatment he received. But before the hospital stay he was very badly off, and going downhill. A Christian friend remarked to me afterward, “Just think of what might have happened if we didn’t live in this day and age.” Which were my thoughts exactly, not only in this day and age, but in this modern country. He very likely would have died without the care he received.
Now I am infinitely thankful to have a happy and healthy little guy this week, and cherish each moment with him more than ever. And to the Christian it is an answer to prayer. I’m fine with that, a Christian being thankful to God for his renewed health makes perfect sense to me, and we can rejoice in that together. But to see it as answered prayer, what does that say for children (and their parents) in other ages, in other countries, has God shown no care for them, has God rejected their prayers? How many of those parents prayed in faith for healing for their children that never came?
I guess Christians desire to see it in a simpler sense, just be thankful for what God does and leave the big picture to him, whatever happens is done in his infinite wisdom. Of course people in the modern west need to bear sorrows as well, Christian and un-believer. And maybe that is a poverty of the Church in the west, where life is comfortable and death can seem so distant; God can seem more the God of prosperity than the God of comfort for the poor in heart.
But it still seems to me like a slap in the face to those who do not see the same “results,” God healed my child but not yours. And the reason is not that I live in the most modern age in one of the most modern countries, it is because God answered my prayer and not yours. God provided me with a healthy child, and God will provide you with the grace to endure your sorrows.
I am not ungrateful to God, it is a matter of belief in his existence, not a matter of ungratefulness. If God were to show himself to me to be real, I would have no reluctance to give him thanks. Be thankful for the health of your child, be thankful to God if you choose, or find solace in him in times of sorrow. But do we have to believe it demonstrates the reality of God’s existence?