November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
March 12, 2008
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
– Bertrand Russell
Nestled in the footnotes of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the author makes the following remark, “In the old days people said: It is too bad that things do not go in the world as the preacher preaches. Maybe the time will come, especially with the aid of philosophy, when they can say: Fortunately things do not go as the preacher preaches, for there is still some meaning in life, but there is none in his sermons.” It is a provocative statement, to be sure, and it represents a stinging indictment of both the church’s impotence in 19th century Denmark and Kierkegaard’s own belief in the hope and promise of philosophy. The church of his day had so completely capitulated to the prevailing culture that few eyes could recognize the transformative power of the gospel. The complexity and suffering inherent in the commitment to Christianity had been usurped by a government hoping instead to make faith a civic duty.
This atrophied faith left the Dane more than a little agitated, prompting him to equate the State Church’s message to the candy parents give their children: “These children’s sweets no more resemble the teachings about the cross, about suffering, about dying away, about hating oneself, any more than marmalade resembles cream of tartar.” It is little wonder, then, that Kierkegaard found his hope in philosophy. After all, if the place which ought to offer the deepest and most true orientation of life fails parishioners in this most basic regard, then philosophy may well be our most hopeful source of meaning and purpose.
I have considered this footnote more carefully in recent months, wondering if, almost four hundred years later, the church suffers from the same impotence that Kierkegaard railed against during his day. As I survey the culture of our Western Church, this sentiment feels more and more true, particularly when it comes to our posture towards those souls experiencing doubt or unbelief. It seems to me that what has become paramount within the Christian community is the assertion of one’s confidence in their beliefs, and therefore one’s self-confidence in the will of God. As a result, we tend to lose the very mystery and complexity of God, making questions and doubts implicitly contrary to a life of faith. If we are prohibited from truly doubting, and if we are not allowed to truly experience the “burden of the Gospels,” then we have suffocated the vibrancy and message of our faith and have lost something of our very humanity.
We need only to look at the position our current church holds within the culture to see this at play. The reality of religious pluralism and the mischaracterization of postmodernity as an “anything goes” philosophy has threatened to erode the unquestioned power Christianity has held in our culture. As a result, the church has responded by offering herself as a beacon of absolute truth in morally ambiguous times, asserting its version of absolute morality in a culture where every belief seems to be accepted with equal weight. We are given WWJD bracelets as a constant reminder that Christ is indeed our moral compass and we are implicitly (sometimes explicitly) told that the key to a “strong” faith is the degree to which we can clearly and boldly assert our beliefs. Indeed, amidst all the messages for people of faith to believe they “know” completely and confidently, it becomes difficult to find room for genuine questioning. The pull towards a faith sketched in terms of black and white is simply too strong.
It is important to note, however, that the church has always sought to protect orthodoxy despite critique by the culture or its adherents, if for no other reason than to establish norms for the faith throughout different cultures and times. But the recent success of atheistic books and films represents a renewed challenge to our faith. In fact, judging by the Western church’s response, it has left the church in quite a defensive posture.
In an article for last December’s Atlantic Monthly, author Hanna Rosin writes that in response to the new film The Golden Compass (a sort of atheist’s Narnia), a Catholic watchdog organization mobilized widespread boycotts of the film. Citing plans to circulate a booklet entitled Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked, the group’s president called this film “a backdoor way of selling atheism.” The church had an equally strong reaction in the spring of 2005 when Hollywood was releasing the widely popular The Da Vinci Code. During my visit to a moderately-sized Midwestern town during the film’s release, church after church displayed their sermon series with titles like, “The Real Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code.” And perhaps most notably, some of the most popular books on Christian bookshelves offer a classical apologetic defense of the faith. Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ, and even C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity dominate bookshelves almost ten years after their first release (or in the case of Lewis, almost 70 years after his first radio addresses). And as I write this essay, sitting atop Amazon’s bestseller list days before its release, is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
What each of these responses by the church suggests to me is that rather than seeking a conversation partner with the skeptics within our midst, we’re more comfortable with a poignant and rational defense. Taken in totality, the modern Christian now has more potent weapons than ever to wield against any critique the rational, scientific world may offer. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
So what are we to make of this reactionary and defensive posture of the church? If this sort of apologetic defense against anything resembling doubt or atheism is the reality of our current ecclesial climate, then it is critical for us to wonder about what sort of spirituality this fosters. In other words, how does an implicit posture of defensiveness influence the very ways we seek to gather and practice our faith? And can the church, so preoccupied with cultivating a people who believe biblical absolutes passionately and confidently, find space and a language to warmly welcome those with doubts into their communities? The failure to do so—and the tendency to entrench ourselves within our certainty—will only serve to objectify and demonize those who don’t share what we perceive to be “God’s way.” It will artificially pit believers against non-believers, faith against doubt, sacred versus secular, and will miss the point of our Christian faith entirely. Indeed Kierkegaard’s footnote may once again be relevant: there may be some meaning left in life, but there will be none left in our sermons.
Wendell Berry once wrote that though he is a devoted reader of the Gospels and one who finds them instructive, comforting, and clarifying, they have “caused [him] to understand them also as a burden, sometimes raising the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands.” What could our spiritualities be if we took Berry’s burden seriously? What if, rather than adhering to a spirituality staked on the clarity and defense of one’s beliefs, we discovered a spirituality which held both belief and doubt as critical to our journey? What if we could see the process of doubting not as something to lightly entertain while we quietly and confidently “know” underneath it all, but as one of the hallmarks of a sincere and wise spirituality? These are, I think, crucial questions for us to consider because it may help us recover the essence of a genuine, Biblical spirituality, and may once again give us a richer vision for the God we serve.
A Historical Context
The need for a clear understanding of one’s beliefs has been with the church since its inception, with the apostle James urging people to “believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” But this epistemology of certitude appeared far more starkly in the wake of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and particularly when America began to mature as a nation. The historian Robert W. Jenson observes that as much of eighteenth century was caught in the critique of authority ushered in by Luther, Calvin, Descartes, and others, the church couldn’t claim immunity from the consequences. Up until that point, Western theology had always been informed by two messages, what Jenson calls “the gospel-proclamation of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the call to Greece’s metaphysical quest for true deity.” So when the Enlightenment forced the latter to trump the former, it sent the church into an identity crisis. He continues,
In Western theology’s affirmation of Socrates and his successors, it possessed a body of theology which it knew it shared with the unbelieving: that God is omnipotent, omniscient, invisible, etc., that the human soul is a free moral agent, and that the soul’s reward is somehow to participate in God’s eternity. The usual explanation of this circumstance was that the shared theological truths are those attainable by the power of that created reason which, if the doctrine of creation is true, believers do indeed share with all humans; so much religion and theology are “natural” to us. But then the gospel’s teaching about God, manifestly so very different from that of Socrates and not shared with him or his successors, must bring knowledge that is not “natural” to us, nor yet of course “unnatural,” and so “supernatural”; and it must therefore not be mediated by reason but by revelation, by an “authoritative” communication from God. When the eighteenth century—in large part taught so by the gospel—rebelled against doctrines laid down by mere authority, it was precisely the specific Christian teaching that appeared under the rubric.
As the church, we are a people continually appealing to the general and special revelation of God as witness to our belief. With the strength and intensity of Enlightenment skepticism now focused directly on the ecclesiastical structures of the day, the church was justifiably shaken. Indeed the irony is that, as Jensen points out, the suspicion of authority is the very call of the gospel, making the undoing of the traditional church during this time a sort of poetic justice.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the church could withstand the barrage of skepticism no longer, and what had once been the hallmarks of the Reformation evolved into rational and secular defenses of the modern liberal democracy. In other words, “the preference for rational examination in coming to conclusions about God [was] a profound sort of spiritual prostitution.” God was no longer the standard by which one’s faith was determined, but rather it was the rational coherence with which one could defend the claims of faith against logical positivism and falsifiability.
That the church has always held an uneasy truce with the culture in which it lives and breathes is clear from what we have just seen. In many ways people of faith cannot help but be caught in the shifting cultural tides of the moment, making it a near impossibility to form our theologies apart from our socio-political concerns. Jaroslav Pelikan asserts,
Each age constructs an image of Jesus out of the cultural hopes, aspirations, biblical and doctrinal interfaces that both make Jesus accessible and simultaneously illustrate something of the genius of the particular age in question. This is because ‘For each age, the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny.
So given our philosophical and theological narrative, it is little wonder that we have created a spirituality based on the need for rationality and defense. In large part, a response to the culture and the degree to which one was/is clear and certain became tantamount to belief, relegating seasons of doubt and disbelief to a pre-salvific state, if not dismissed altogether. In fact, it is difficult to find churches today who take the doubts of their believers very seriously. It simply is not a part of the ecclesiastical vernacular.
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we begin to realize that rarely do we live lives of such constant certainty within the confines of faith. We will be visited by doubts and dark nights of the soul will overcome us, and we deny ourselves something of our humanity when we work so hard to craft impenetrable theologies which overlook this reality. Therefore it becomes crucial for us to consider a life of faith which takes seasons of doubt and seasons of confidence as equally important ingredients. As we begin to consider faith and doubt no longer as standing in opposition to one another, but perhaps as needing one another for a genuine spirituality, we recover a more robust picture of what it means to faithful. So let us consider the ways we consider the seeming paradox of faith and doubt from the very day we are born.
An Ontology of Doubt
Despite our best attempts to ward off any signs of pain or loss, the reality is that we live in a world filled with both. The pervasiveness of sin touches every corner of the world and, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, its destruction can be nothing short of overwhelming. In many ways we experience the beauty of dignity and the ugliness of this depravity from birth, and since infancy we work to construct a world which shelters us from the inevitable harm of our parents and our environment. As a child, one’s restless curiosity necessitates the construction of a world in which he/she can live and move safely, shaping the objects of their world to their comfort and allowing the environs to mold them. “Especially if the ‘objects’ we encounter are people,” writes James Loder, “we ‘take in’ and indwell them as if it were a matter of life and death—because it is.” He continues,
With sucking mouth and clutching hand, through gazing eyes and hearkening ears, and through myriad tactile perceptions of the skin, we take in and indwell, holding and molding everything to suit the structure, activity, sensitivity, and corporate model of the body. Even in rest and sleep the body is at work constructing matrices for the lived ‘world’ of waking life.
We are at work constructing the world around us before we even comprehend its existence, relating everything to what we do know: our body. As our experience of the world expands and extends beyond our body into the worlds of imagination, symbols, and faith, we simultaneously develop “worlds” to accommodate what we find. Indeed what we believe to be true about the world cannot be artificially separated from that which we believe to be true about God, making the construction of “worlds” also an exercise of faith. But no matter the complexity of our constructions, they will be rooted and grounded in the experiences of our body, thus making our “worlds” an expression of our infantile longing for protection and safety, particularly from the brokenness of the world around us.
But we are finite beings capable of finite things, and the orientation of our ways of seeing are no exception. As we grow and mature we experience more deeply the fears and pain of a life lived. At some point along the way our fragile semblance of a worldview becomes ruptured by the confusion and disorientation of an event for which our being has no paradigm for understanding. Thus when the rupture invades our world—whether it is the unexpected loss of loved one, a sudden divorce, or a deep existential crisis—we come face to face with the “void.” Loder describes this void as the “ultimate aim of all proximate forms of nothingness; the implicit aim of conflict, absence, loneliness, and death is void.” Indeed these moments can feel like a dark abyss of non-being, a black hole sucking the very life from us, forcing us to consider questions about the meaning of everything while the words of Ecclesiastes pierce our lips, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” They are moments when hope feels lost and there is no vision for a happy ending to the story. And they are seasons when darkness and doubt feel all too real.
A Narratival Rhythm of Doubt
Two people who knew the impact and force of these moments were Abraham and Thomas. As we know, Abraham was a deeply devoted old man when God finally granted him the son he had been promised, and then shortly after, asked him to sacrifice Isaac as a “test.” It is a story we know all too well and one which, because we have the benefit of the ending, tend to see as a demonstration of Abraham’s faithfulness. The biblical text does not give us much in the way of Abraham’s emotions, and yet what must that request have meant to him? Was it possible God had gone crazy? Kierkegaard sums that moment with brutal honesty,
All was lost! Seventy years of trusting expectancy, the brief joy over the fulfillment of faith. Who is this who seizes the staff from the old man, who is this who demands that he himself shall break it! Who is this who makes a man’s gray hairs disconsolate, who is this who demands that he himself shall do it?
What Kierkegaard understood is that this story from Genesis 22 adds a layer of deep complexity to one’s conception of God. It is a disturbing request that God makes of Abraham and, in many ways, paints the image of a God who is difficult to understand. This is not a safe God, but rather one who has the potential of inviting one to surrender the very things they have been given to steward and cherish. It is the portrait of one of the greatest fathers of faith, a man so grief-stricken and angry with God that he never will speak to God again.
The reality of much of our readings of this passage is that we do what we can to shirk the gruesomeness of God’s requirements. By only keeping the ending in mind and using this as a lesson in obedience or some sort of Christ-allegory, we miss the anxiety of the story itself, the wondering about the type of God Abraham had so passionately served. As Kierkegaard so poignantly asks, “There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word, but how many did it render sleepless?” What would stir in our souls if we let the story stand on its own? Would we let ourselves ask the same questions Abraham must have asked? Would we allow ourselves the chance to encounter God differently, to encounter him with doubts born deep in our souls?
This is a biblical narrative that has the ability to grip our relationship to the Divine and shake it senseless, much as Thomas must have been spun into confusion at the thought of a risen Christ. John’s Gospel explains that in the days following Christ’s resurrection he appeared to most of his disciples to anoint them with his Holy Spirit. But Thomas was absent during Christ’s first visit to his disciples, leading him to question the resurrection at all, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” For eight days—eight days!—Thomas went without encountering the risen Christ. Despite all he heard from his other disciples and Mary Magdalene, he would not believe. And yet on that eighth day, when Thomas gathered with the other disciples behind closed doors, Christ appeared. And upon asking Thomas to physically touch his wounds, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” They are words of encounter, of belief, and likely of relief that he had encountered the risen Christ.
The text is vague about those intervening days between Christ’s appearance and, specifically, what Thomas must have been thinking. But it is important to note that Thomas was not considered any less of a disciple because of his questions and skepticism. Although Christ puts his questions to rest in the end, the plight of Thomas was honored as deeply as the disciples who had believed from the first mention.
These are two stories from our scriptural narrative, each individual haunted by their questions and conceptions about the nature of God. Or, as Loder might say, they are two individuals who saw their “worlds” ruptured by the unknowns in life, only to have the “void” break in and threaten utter loneliness and despair. How lonely must it have been for Thomas to be the only one of the twelve not to encounter the risen Christ. And what grief Abraham must have felt after coming within inches of taking the life of his son, Isaac. These are stories of faith that I am incapable of rationally defending. There is no logical defense for either case, and no proof to be made here to assert my belief. I do not understand the suffering each man had to endure and I do not understand the ways of God in the midst of their respective stories. Why was Abraham given such a test? And why was Thomas the last of the disciples to witness the living Christ?
As one was met by Christ and the other separated from God, we know that both were transformed by their encounter with the living God in the midst of their darkness. And each headed into their crucible of doubt without any idea when, or even if, God would show his face. And for us perhaps God will do so more explicitly in some cases rather than others. Our hope is that, as Kierkegaard says, the faces of the void will become the very faces of God.
Maturation through Transformation
As we submit to these crucibles of darkness, we emerge transformed and matured human beings. The maturation process is, according to authors Steven Sandage and LeRon Shults, always a step towards “developing qualitatively more complex ways of holding and being held in relation to others and the Other.” Said another way, maturation through transformation allows one to see that “Doubt is not opposed to faith but may very well be the sign of an emerging tension that can lead to a deeper experience of knowing and being-known in relation to God.” This emerging tension is fleshed out in a helpful model which demonstrates that a person of faith’s life is comprised of movements between spiritual seeking and spiritual dwelling. “Dwelling,” they write, “can include connection to a spiritual community and tradition that legitimize certain rituals and spiritual practices and provide a sense of continuity to spiritual experience.” These are seasons of comfort and safety at their best but can also lead to spiritual detachment and/or complacency. A person is transformed then, as they are aroused from their slumber of spiritual complacency and “experience a spiritual awakening that involves the moving into the risk of intensified anxiety and arousal.” It is, in other words, spiritual seeking.
This constant tension of life— between spiritual dwelling and seeking—creates moments whereby we mature in spite of and despite both, creating new “worlds” and developing greater capacity to hold the given paradoxes of life. One matures insofar as one has a greater capacity to encounter and embrace the inevitable transitions which lead to transformation. In other words, our worlds expand to include the heartache and darkness of life’s transitory moments, re-orienting life around a new paradigm for understanding the world. The new paradigm will likely be just as incomplete as the first—and thus prone to more ruptures—but one’s maturity is exemplified in the differentiated self’s ability to enter these with reduced anxiety.
The hope, then, for seasons of darkness and doubt is that we emerge a matured being, one capable of “seeking, exploring, and tolerating transitions that lead to transformation.” We have the good company of saints and the biblical narrative to accompany our journey. Stories that show us seasons of doubting all that we know to be true are deeply transformative and necessary pieces of our spirituality.
The Hints and Guesses
On our best days, we live a spirituality “half-guessed,” and it has been the hope of this essay to articulate something of a different spirituality despite knowing it is “half-understood.” For those who have taken their doubts seriously and understand something of the loneliness of the pursuit, we can take comfort in knowing that the questions and wonderings do not occur in opposition to faith, but because of faith. We meet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with our curiosities, our anger, our doubts, and indeed our very humanity.
Henri Nouwen understood this brilliantly, and offers the idea that maybe—just maybe—God is bigger than even our questions allow. He writes,
God is ‘beyond,’ beyond our heart and mind, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, and beyond all the events and experiences that make up our life. Still he is the center of all of it. Here we touch the heart of prayer since here it becomes manifest that in prayer the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence no longer really distinguishes. In prayer, God’s presence is never separated from his absence and God’s absence is never separated from his presence. His presence is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. His absence, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of his presence.
Whether we are lifelong Christians experiencing the void interrupting the worldview we so carefully constructed, or committed atheists certain of the evidence refuting the existence of God, Nouwen shows us that we can not help but find God in either place. As we begin to embrace a spirituality rife with the paradox of simultaneous beliefs and doubts, perhaps we would cease to view the two as opposed to one another but rather as partners in a more holistic framework of what it means to be human.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 29.
 Bruce H. Kirmmse, “‘Out with It’: The Modern Breakthrough, Kierkegaard and Denmark,” in Alastair Hannay & Gordon D. Marino, The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 33.
 Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels” in The Way of Ignorance (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005), 127.
 Hanna Rosin, “How Hollywood Saved God,” The Atlantic Monthly (December 2007), pg. 78-79.
 Berry, “The Burden of The Gospels,” 128.
 James 1:6 (NIV)
 Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 6.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 See Carl A. Raschke, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 26-27.
 Ibid., 27.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, as quoted in Colin Greene, Christology in Cultural Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 23.
 James Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 71.
 Ibid. Loder writes, “One’s ‘world’ is spontaneously projected, and sustained by the primordial need to live in a unified, comprehensive, and meaningful context.”
 Ibid., 81.
 Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NIV).
 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 19.
 Ibid., 28.
 John 20:25 (NIV).
 John 20:28 (NIV).
 F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 18.
 Ibid., 88.
 The model is based on the work of psychologist Davide Schnarch and states that “intimate relationships involve a systemic balancing of cycles of growth and stability” where “[i]ndividuals will enter the crucible of growth only if they are willing to differentiate from their partner, that is, to develop that ability to hold on to their identity in the presence of the other person.” See Sandage and Shults, Transforming Spirituality, 32.
 Sandage and Shults, Transforming Spirituality, 32.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 196.
 See T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, accessed February 18, 2008, at http://www.allspirit.co.uk/salvages.html.
 Henri J. Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York, NY: Image, 1975), 126-127.
Tom Ryan is a stay-at-home dad and an editor for The Other Journal.