The Role of Doubt in the Journey of Faith—Living with Unanswered Questions, Part 4

My first two posts in this series addressed some of the unanswered questions I have; and my last post focused on what it takes to embark on the quest for truth. Here I want to suggest that doubt can have a positive value in the life of faith.

When I think of my own life, a prime example of unanswered questions concerns God’s guidance (or seeming lack of guidance) at crucial junctures in my faith journey.

A Faith Crisis

My most significant faith crisis came when I was around thirty, during a time of great difficulty in my life. Many external supports had failed (it’s a long, complicated story) and I was in the throes of a personal and vocational crisis. I wondered what I was living for, and why God had (seemingly) placed me in such an intractable situation—or, at least, why God had allowed me to get into such a situation. It was as if my life had hit a dead end.

I didn’t doubt God’s existence, but God’s rather goodness. I found that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to pray when you don’t, in your bones, believe that God really has your best interests at heart. So over a period of time I found that I simply stopped praying.

The Lament Psalms

What started me praying again was my discovery of the Psalms, particularly those psalms known as the psalms of lament, or complaint, or protest. These psalms make up about one-third of all the Psalter; they’re the largest single group of psalms in the Bible. These psalms honestly challenge God with the suffering the psalmist is going through, often even accusing God of doing terrible things (like Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). And they forthrightly ask God to intervene and change the situation of suffering.

It was only when I was able to pray that darkest of all lament psalms, Psalm 88, and then preach a sermon on that psalm at the memorial service of a young woman who had just died of cancer, that I found I was able to pray again.

A New Understanding of God

And now, I have a very different view of God, as one who is willing to hear us out fully when we’re honest about our difficulties—including our doubt—and who accompanies us in our sufferings (even in our doubt).

Through the psalms of lament I was brought back to the core truth of the Christian faith that God—through the cross—has suffered with us and for us, more than we can ever imagine. This is not a God above the fray, but one who knows the depth of human evil and suffering—from the inside. And this God is willing to graciously host our honest questions.

Loving the Questions

Beginning in those dark times, when no clear answer was in sight, I learned to “love the questions themselves,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke pleaded with the young man to whom he was writing (back in 1903) “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”

Been there; done that.

Rilke goes on to suggest to the young poet that he not even try to search for answers yet.

I’m not sure I would (or even could) follow that particular advice.

But Rilke is surely wise when he continues: “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

I’m not sure I’ll ever get all my questions answered. But the asking of them has been significant for the person I’ve become and am still becoming.

The Truth Is Out There—Living with Unanswered Questions, Part 3

In my last post I noted that my questions often leave me perplexed, and even confused. But I’m not in despair.

Like Mulder of the X-Files, I believe “The truth is out there.”

That doesn’t mean that I will find it; but I’m sure going to try. I’m on a quest, and this quest has led me to try to puzzle out this world, and in the process to study theology, philosophy, and the Bible—as well as to take human experience seriously.

The Need for Faith

I’ve found that the quest for truth requires two things.

First, it requires a certain faith. You have to believe that it is a worthwhile quest and that you won’t come to the edge of the world and fall off; you won’t fall into the unknown, never to return. This means that the fearless quest for truth—motivated by doubt, by what you don’t know—is nevertheless undergirded by trust or faith. (Is this faith in God? It is at least faith in the trustworthiness of reality.) The quest for truth (to use Augustine’s idea, made famous by Anselm) is “faith seeking understanding.”

However, there is no guarantee that throughout this quest for understanding your faith will remain unchangeably the same. Hopefully it will deepen and become more mature.

The Need for Humility

The other thing the quest for truth requires is the humility to realize we don’t have all the answers, and might never find all the answers. There are no guarantees for success in the quest.

Plus, we could always be wrong—in anything we currently believe. This is not a matter of psychological doubt (of actually doubting any particular belief), but simply the logical possibility of being wrong. There is no belief that I currently hold that is strictly “indubitable,” that I can’t doubt, that isn’t subject to the possibility of change.

Of course, I would need to be shown (in a manner that convinces me) that I need to change my belief on a particular matter. But I have to be open to that, in principle.

The Problem with Fundamentalism

The alternative to acknowledging the possibility of being wrong is fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism isn’t a matter of any particular beliefs, but rather a way of holding to beliefs. A person who doesn’t actually think they could possibly be wrong (not that they are wrong, that they could ever be wrong)—that person won’t give another person’s viewpoint the time of day. They might even believe the other person has no right to their beliefs, since they contradict what is obviously true.

Fundamentalists of a philosophical type (typically called foundationalists) tend to label people they disagree with as irrational. I’ve met such people and been so labeled (when I was in grad school).

Fundamentalists of a political or religious type tend to regard people they disagree with as evil. In its mild form, such people are thought to have ulterior motives; in its extreme form, they are “of the devil.” I’ve encountered religious fundamentalists and had the latter phrase applied to me (by a prominent church leader, in public).

Given the problems of fundamentalism, I’m fine with the possibility of being wrong; I’m even fine with doubt.

I’ll talk about the positive role of doubt in my next post.

The Church’s Mishandling of the Gospel—Living with Unanswered Questions, Part 2

In my last post, I raised some of my questions about what the Bible teaches—especially where this teaching seems to contradict human experience, modern science, or other things the Bible teaches.

But not everything the Bible teaches is difficult to understand. Some of my questions have to do with why the church distorts biblical teaching that seems to be quite clear.

To put it another way, why do Christians do such a terrible job of living out the gospel, or even of grasping what the gospel is about? This leaves me utterly perplexed.

The Church’s Reduction of the Gospel to the “Spiritual”

To start with, there is the common reduction of the gospel to some small “spiritual” area of life, as if our faith doesn’t embrace the entirety of life in the world God has made. This other-worldliness in the Christianity I was raised with (this division between the “secular” and the “sacred”) makes no sense, given what the Bible teaches.

The Bible teaches that this world is God’s creation and he loves and cares for it, despite the sinful brokenness we humans have introduced. In fact, he loves the world so much that Jesus came to die on the cross for our sin, and now forgiveness and new life are offered to all who want a part in the restoration of the world.

The Church’s Blindness to Present Evil in the World

But the sacred/secular division not only blurs our vision of this good world, it often leads to our ignoring—or even buying into—the present evil in the world (in the so-called “secular” area), since it offers us no resources for challenging that evil on the basis of how the world should be.

One egregious example of this is the unholy mixing of the gospel, especially in the United States, with secular ideologies. This results in sincere people who claim to be disciples of the Crucified One advocating military action and even torture against people whom they think of as their enemies (without any pangs of conscience or struggle about how this relates to the teachings of Jesus).

It is paradoxical that the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1980s put out a position paper on war, in which one of the positions they rejected as “sub-biblical” was labeled the “love your enemies” position! It just doesn’t make sense to use Jesus’ own words to label a position you think is unbiblical.

Perplexed but Not Despairing

But I guess I’m in good company with my questions.

The writer of Ecclesiastes long ago had “applied [his] mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth,” including “all that God has done.”

Yet he ended up with the conclusion: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; NIV)

Questions like the ones I’ve mentioned leave me quite perplexed, and even confused. But not in despair.

In my next post I’ll explain why I haven’t given up on my quest for answers.