My autobiography is littered with the debris of doubt. It’s like doubt comes in uninvited and then leaves a trail of its presence, like unwashed sheets, stained coffee mugs, and the TV set to a channel I never watch. Everywhere there’s a piece of it, unescapable.
I could also say
My life is filled with opportunity, growth, and hope. Everywhere I look, there is insight into the way the world works, the way humans operate, the way God is. Every thing is a piece of a puzzle I can only guess will resemble the Great Mystery we call God.
How we understand doubt is what separates our very sense of the world around us.
I read Peter Rollins books. For those who don’t know him, he’s a continental philosopher and radical theologian. If this means nothing to you, think of it this way: he’s into postmodern thought and the challenge of communicating the is-ness of what is. He’s clearly not everyone’s cup of tea.
But what I love about encountering Rollins in his writing or teaching is that he challenges me to explore the space my heart wills my head to never open.
The space in which we fear we’ll stay. Where doubts destroy faith and leave us with nothing. Those are the spaces so many Christians and other people of faith refuse to go. And Rollins encourages us to go there willingly.
I always have.
A Dinner With Doubt
Like the dinner at a friend’s house, when he expressed the idea of the Holy Spirit at once deeply radical and orthodox. He said simply that he would still believe in Jesus if a man named Jesus never graced the earth.
I nodded my approval, agreeing completely, of course. Hoping to work through the implications a little more.
His spouse, on the other hand, was not as eager to work through the implications. Horrified was more the expression.
I know I can be aloof, but I didn’t expect such an obvious possibility would be so troubling for someone else. It all seemed logical to me. I mean, if we believe what we say we do about the nature of Jesus as part of the Holy Trinity and their eternal co-existence, the idea of a non-human Jesus shouldn’t trouble us in the least.
But it does.
Which makes me think that maybe we don’t believe what we claim to believe. Or else maybe we aren’t as willing to believe as we think.
I occasionally entertain the typical doubts. The ones which seem to bedevil other people. You know, the usual: is God real? Is Christianity just a hoax? Were the Gnostics right and there really are two Gods?
Usually, I entertain more useful doubts. Such as ones about the church and tradition. Or maybe the authority of Scripture and the language of faith.
And then there are the least useful doubts of a brain playing tricks on itself. Doubts about being good enough or if I’m really doing something God has called me to do.
Not all doubts are equal.
Doubt Isn’t Disbelief
We often mistake doubt for disbelief, as if possessing one doubt is the same as believing nothing.
Or we think that having a doubt in our brains is like a virus. We must flush it out with lots of fluids and indoctrination.
Or perhaps its just the insecurity doubt breeds in us. As if we’ve come to see doubts like slim cracks in pottery. Cracks, which we know from personal experience, compromise the integrity of the piece. We see a crack and we instantly envision the moment the vessel shatters: and all its contents (our faith!) will scatter.
For some reason, doubt leads to great fear in us. Mostly because we have such a fatalistic and narrow view of what doubt actually does.
Can you preach on Easter if you doubt?
It was like we were using the same word, but in a totally different language. I was sharing my own sense of doubt, which I’ll admit now, is a pretty naughty thing to do. Because I know how people understand the word and its implications. But it’s a fantastic word. And I think most of those implications are dumb.
How do we think if we don’t question ourselves or entertain doubt? How can our brains even function without doubt?
Faith, and it’s lesser articulation, belief, are technically nouns. Nouns, we remember from grade school are things. Faith and belief are things because they are concepts. But they are concepts which depict an activity.
Much like the similar concept of “Running”. But we don’t mistake it for the static attribution we do with faith.
And really, we don’t ascribe such a rigid status to someone when running is involved. Yes, a person is either in a state of running or not. Of course, we are speaking to concept of “running” and not the verb itself, “to run”.
So when we see someone running, we rarely give much mental bandwidth to the arguments over whether or not a state of light running is more like “jogging” than running or whether to better classify the faster motion as a “sprint”. While the words and concepts exist, the need to parse the conceptual pieces vanish when a person in spandex is moving down the street in front of our house. In such cases, all people are running.
Faith is not a static concept any more easily parsed. Faith is about believing far more than it is about the subject or object of our belief.
The opposite of Faith isn’t Doubt. It’s apathy and indifference.
It was as if she thought doubt was the absence of faith. Or the counter-current. But doubt sharpens faith like flint to steel. Doubt is how we come to believe more strongly and intentionally. Doubt is entirely necessary for faith.
For faith to be real, it must deal with doubt and wrestle with it like an adversary who won’t submit. That means doubt isn’t the enemy of faith, she is faith’s sparring partner.
A Fragile Faith
Watching Joel Osteen waver as the God of blessing didn’t bless his city revealed the limitations of faith untested by doubt. Just as the parishioner who hates to see the gospels in parallel because she doesn’t want to see it.
Like a patient with a compromised immune system or the poker player untested by human competition, they wilt at the very presence of opposition.
Seriously, how can we call something faith that doesn’t take any faith to believe? As Jesus similarly spoke about love, suggesting its easy enough to love your family and friends, but to really count as love, you have to extend that junk to your enemies and see how that works out for you.
Faith unexposed to doubt is dangerous faith. And not just for the person who holds it.
Many Christians practice a siloed faith, walling themselves off from opposition and outside influence. It’s the faith of Contemporary Christian Music and church-endorsed books and millions more avoid being exposed to “secular” influences. And I wonder how their faith will develop the antibodies to ward off a diseased faith.
But for the rest of us, we also shouldn’t be tricked into the thinking that is the definitive version of faith.
Faith Statements are Mutants
Our faith isn’t the collected statements finely crafted into a confession of belief. Nor is it the very recitation or adoption of such a confession as one’s own.
The collecting and formulation of a statement of faith to which adherents must assent is a mutation of active faith. It’s the dangerous rejection of the wild, hopeful character of trust in light of the evidence. Or in spite of it. It’s a mutation of the thing, not the thing itself.
Faith is an act.
It’s just like Jesus compelling his followers to express love for their neighbors for that is the very manifestation of God’s love.
That’s what compels me into the pulpit on Saturday night in the midst of the Great Vigil of Easter to proclaim that Jesus is risen! Because Mary went looking for him in the tomb and didn’t find him there. And that’s why we can’t go to our own tombs and expect to find them occupied with a dead messiah.
I share a story of faith shared by millions who came before me, knowing that the love of God is found, not in beliefs about the story or about God, but in our hearing. In our sharing. In our gathering in love.
And I come back in the morning with all the lilies and white dresses and preach what I believe. From a place full of faith. And doubt.
That’s why I’m happy to believe in a Jesus raised and not give a rip about looking for historical earthquakes to shake the Temple, trial records, or shreds of a shroud. Articles and arguments of historicity are ultimately as meaningless or meaningful to the act of faith as doubt.
For faith, Easter, and the foundation of our tradition to be true, it shouldn’t matter if logic can refute it, historical research can disprove it, or if preachers doubt it. What matters is that we act in faith and embody Christ in our community. Because that is precisely what Jesus told us makes him real.