March 17, 2017 column
Living with Inevitable Doubt
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
We all get to points in our lives where we just don’t “know what we believe anymore.” Call it what you will—doubt, lack of certainty, skepticism— the experience is inevitable in Christian faith.
When we feel that way, one of our first impulses is to try and get out of it. Get rid of that nagging doubt. Get back to knowing what we believe. Get back to certainty. After all, doubt is often not a comfortable place to be. It’s much easier and much more comfortable to be certain about our beliefs.
Let me suggest however that when we enter a period of doubt, our first priority ought not to be to get out of it, or fix it, or try to bring it all back to the way it was. In fact, once doubt hits, it’s no longer possible to go back to the way things were.
When it happens, we are faced with a choice as to how we live as we move into the future. And as I see it, for people of faith, there are three choices:
1. Make believe nothing happened and everything is OK. Stay in the game, bury your thoughts, and keep on as usual.
2. Think of the doubt as a temporary bump in the road, and if you handle it properly, you will safely wind up back where you were, perhaps with even greater resolve.
3. Accept that period as an opportunity for spiritual growth, an invitation to move into the future with no predetermined results.
In many church circles, choices 1 and 2 reign: “Stop making waves and get with the program” or “My period of doubt was simply a momentary lack of faith on my part, but now I have clearer reasons for why my faith is just fine as it is.”
For me, the 3rd choice is far more intellectually appealing and spiritually satisfying: “I’m not sure what has happened and I’d give anything to go back to the way things were. But I know that can’t be. Instead I choose to try and trust God even in this process, to see where the Spirit will lead, even if I don’t know where that is. I need to let go of thoughts and positions that gave me (false) confidence and begin the journey toward learning to rely on God rather than ‘my faith.’”
Part of what is triggering this column is an interview with evangelical pastor and best–selling author Tim Keller which appeared in the New York Times around Christmas. Nicholas Kristof asks Keller about the challenges to being a Christian in the 21st century. Keller insists throughout the interview that one must accept every statement in the Bible as being literally true in order to be a Christian. There is no room for doubting things like the virgin birth or miracles or the physical resurrection of Jesus. For Keller, there is no room for any skepticism or doubt about any part of Christian faith.
I recognize that there is something artificial about an interview with a newspaper reporter. But it strikes me that if I were being asked about what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century, I would want to be a little more open about the possibility that ancient writers wrote from a different sense of how God is present in life. If we were writing these words today, we’d tell the story quite differently.
There are some issues of modern life that the Bible simply does not address: neuroscience; genetic engineering; social media; space travel; and so on.
Even in those matters which the Bible does address, the ancient authors don’t agree with one another. Take the virgin birth. Only Luke and Matthew mention it, and their accounts differ considerably from one another. Mark and John, on the other hand, don’t mention it, and neither does Paul.
Even with an event as central to Christian faith as the resurrection of Jesus, the accounts in the gospels and Paul’s letters differ considerably from one another. They cannot be merged; they were never meant to be merged.
Despite Keller’s protests, these matters and others in the Bible invite genuine intellectual skepticism, not simply because of the nature of these events, but precisely because of the Bible’s varied and even confusing reports of them. Simply reading the Bible raises the concerns and, intellectually speaking, they are not easily solved.
All believers need to decide how to handle these things. I would want to begin by saying, “Yes, I understand and respect the honest searching that has brought you to this point and I acknowledge that the Bible is ambiguous about some things.”
I would want people to hear empathy and respect before anyone starts drawing any lines about who is in and who is out. I want people to know that they are valued as people first and that the Christian community is precisely the place where such things can and should be worked through.