Doubt, lack of certainty, skepticism. Call it what you will. The experience is inevitable in the Christian faith.
We all get to points in our lives where we just don’t “know what we believe anymore.”
When we enter that period, our first priority is not to get out of it, fix it, and bring it all back to the way it was.
Once the doubt hits, there is no going back to the way things were.
Our only choice is how to live, and for people of faith I see three choices:
- Make believe nothing happened and everything is OK. Stay in the game, bury your thoughts, and keep on as usual.
- Think of that period as a temporary bump in the road, and if handled properly, you will safely wind up back where you were, perhaps with even greater resolve.
- Accept that period as an opportunity for spiritual growth, an invitation to take a pilgrimage of faith without predetermined results.
In Evangelical and Fundamentalist 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, choice 3 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.’”
The trick, as many skeptical Christians have found out the hard way, is finding people to talk with about their doubts without being made to feel like they just “don’t get it.” As a college professor I deal with these types of inner struggles in my students on a regular basis.
What is triggering this post is Nicholas Kristof’s recent interview of Tim Keller in the New York Times, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller.”
Kristof is asking questions of Keller about the challenges to being a Christian the 21st century. You can read the brief interview for yourselves and draw your own conclusions (aren’t you glad I’m giving you permission?), but I would have answered the questions quite differently from Keller, ironically (perhaps) for pastoral reasons.
I grant the constraints and artificiality of an interview (Kristof notes that the “conversation has been edited for space and clarity”). Even so, if I were genuinely struggling and skeptical about my standing in the Christian tradition, Keller’s answers would have sounded more dismissive than pastoral, more in quick “fix it” mode with ready “answers” than truly listening to the legitimacy of these recurring concerns.
Despite Keller’s protests, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus 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. The resurrection accounts differ considerably from one another and cannot be merged—they were not meant to be. The virgin birth is known only to Luke and Matthew—Mark and John don’t mention it and Paul, though given ample opportunity, never even alludes to it.
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, and my point here is not to address that process. I only want to say that a truly pastoral response should begin, “Yes, I understand and respect the honest searching that has brought you to this point and I acknowledge the Bible’s ambiguities,” rather than (to cite the article) “if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”
Maybe it’s just me, but if given a few lines, that’s not what I want to say to someone raising these perennial questions. I want people to hear empathy and respect before getting into drawing lines. I know many will disagree with me—that I am putting the cart before the horse—but I disagree.
I want people to know that they are valued as people first and that the Christian faith (not to mention the long, honored, and diverse history of Judaism) has known that even (perhaps especially) the central pillars of faith wobble and that the community of faith is precisely where these things can and should be worked through.
Likewise, the challenge of science and modernity is a perennial one for many people of faith that I know of. To say as Keller does, “I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science,” is to not take seriously a major, if not the major source of cognitive dissonance for people today working through their faith (e.g., evolution, cultural anthropology, neuroscience).
This post is not “against Keller” but against what he represents here in this article: the inadequacy, even incapability, of mainstream Evangelicalism to address pressing questions of faith for our day; for giving answers that you have to be an Evangelical Christian to accept.
I have known people who have unnecessarily walked away from the Christian faith because of answers to legitimate struggles that sound dismissive and even disrespectful of the inner turmoil that generates the questions.
To be sure, interviews in newspapers lack the nuance of a personal exchange, and I would not want to assume that Keller’s face-to-face engagement with a genuine skeptic would mirror his answers here. Still, for pastoral reasons, I would have liked to have seen more of option 3 than defaulting to options 1 and 2.
I believe the Christian faith and those struggling with it deserve better. I also think the Christian faith is subtle and diverse enough to handle it.
[***I explore the challenges of the Bible and the role of doubt in the Christian life in The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Comments to this post are welcome, though please try to remember that the survival of the Christian faith does not depend on you. I check comments regularly though it may take me as much as 24 hours to get to them. Your patience is appreciated. ***]