November 5, 2005

Doubt In Religion [or] How Far Is Too Far?

Part 2 is written and ready to be posted. But all this talk has got me thinking about Christians and our tolerance for people who question, doubt and reconsider their faith (read all the way through, I think it may be worth it). I’ve always been under the impression that it was good to question our faith. It was good to ask the hard questions and to take our time answering them. Several mentors even talked to me about the need to reshape my faith. We’re even told to doubt loudly, to share what we’re going through and question our faith in community. I think this goes back to our biblical desire to share our burdens with each other. We’re told to confess our sin, share our struggles and not keep things to ourselves. Even in recent years, it’s become more tolerant and safe to question, doubt and reform Christianity. Pop Christian books like Philip Yancey’s “Reaching for an Invisible God” and Brian McLaren’s “New Kind of Christian” trilogy have become A-list. I might even venture to say that questioning and being edgy has become cool. Rob Bell’s teachings and NOOMA video’s have sparked all kinds of conversations about revolutionizing Christianity as we know it. Even this past year I felt out of the loop for not reading Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” And all the hype around the book seemed to revolve around Miller’s honesty and ability to say what most of us think sometimes about God, Church and the Christian life. So not only is it okay to question our faith, for some, it’s a needed discipline. It’s even become “Christianly acceptable” recently…maybe even hip to doubt?

But apparently, doubting can go too far. There is a line that can be crossed and when it is, watch out. You could be written off in a moment. And people will venture to say anything. This is my frustration with Christian’s tolerance towards questioning, doubt and reshaping: We allow it up to a point. In other words, there is a “safe” way to doubt, but there is a point when it becomes dangerous and off limits. It’s okay to question and share differences on serious issues like world religions, Biblical inherency, and Christian exclusivism. It’s even okay to re-think spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. But be careful of re-thinking the Apostles Creed. And don’t bother thinking seriously or critically about Jesus death and resurrection (at least not enough to change your mind). And beware of reading author’s who don’t share an evangelical heritage. N.T. Wright is in. Marcus Borg is out. Well, it’s safe to read them, but over the line to agree with them. We can be honest with each other, but not too honest. Sharing what we really think about Jesus or how we really feel about Church publicly is as acceptable as confessing our deepest secrets and sin. You better keep that to yourself. Keep an open mind, but close it when it starts getting a little dangerous. Without knowing it, we seem to have made doubting and questioning an art form.

Beyond these invisible lines, I’ve found that the way we talk about our questioning is an art form too. Any sense of edgy creativity or unusual methods seems to be over the line. Keith Drury can write articles that push and prod ideas and values (and even use creative titles like “I Used to be a Gay Evangelical”) as long as he “comes around” on some level at the end. But articles that push and prod but don’t come around at the end are off limits. Apparently we can push people to think, but only so far. I’ve also found that if I write something remotely different, unorthodox or edgy, I need to sugar coat it with words of care and delicacy. Saying things like, “This is just something I’m thinking through” or a precursor that says “I really don’t believe all of this” is helpful. It’s also helpful to always present both sides of a matter so that everyone can visibly see the alternative. Being as winsome as possible so that fewer people are offended is a plus. And as I’ve found out recently, sarcasm is completely off limits - especially if it’s targeted at ourselves. It’s funny, we don’t have any qualms about questioning the lifestyle, practices and beliefs of those outside the faith – we even call them lost, broken and helpless and pray that they will find real life. But when it comes to really questioning our own beliefs and practices, we’re accused of all things imaginable. Again, without knowing it, we seem to have made the way we talk about our doubting an art form – full of invisible lines and safe dialogue.

How far is too far? It seems like we find out as we go. Except, I don’t always want to be safe. I’m not comfortable with always trying to perfectly craft my words so that I sound winsome and offend fewer people. And I want the freedom to use different methods to help people think. Whether it’s sarcasm, a provocative book review or a short story. Or gut level honesty. My point in writing my BLOG is twofold. One, I want to push people to think about their lives and their faith. Two, I want to use provocative methods to help this happen. And since 90% of the BLOGS I read are coming from a similar worldview, I hope this one can be different. I understand this may not be the most conventional BLOG or the most liked. And I understand that this leaves me vulnerable to lots of criticism. None the less, I think it’s worth it.


David and Katy said...

keep writing w/out hesitation...i'm enjoying this trip through your doubts.


Anonymous said...

Hi Josh

It really scares me that I read your BLOGG and get a feeling of understanding, You seem to always make sense to me, Thanks again for an interesting read, I have been reading what you have been writing for a least 6 months now, and I find your thought process inspiring, Keep up the good work...The 4 of us xxx

Rachael & Caleb said...

Have you ever read the old Classic St. John of the Cross....Dark Night of the Soul? Everytime I read excerpts you and Kari come to mind. If you want to know the best version email me... I think it would be worth a read. It puts structure around a lot of what you feel...

Christin said...

A couple of weeks ago I posted about "The Lies of an Autobiographer" by Andrew Hudgins. One of these lies is the Lie of Interpretation.
Basically, this means that when you write from an angry, bitter, disillusioned, or sarcastic point of view, readers expect you to "come around."
But this creates a difficulty for the writer b/c maybe we haven't come around. Myabe we're still upset, maybe we haven't found the answers, maybe we never will. And so we are forced, in order not to betray the readers, to "lie" in a way. We're forced to interpret our thoughts/experiences and arrive at some sort of conclusion.
I did this just recently with my post about Mt. Baldy. When I started writing I hadn't felt the presence of grace in my life, as I wrote I did. But I knew I needed to arrive there by the end of the post otherwise I would have broken my readers' trust.
It's sort of a trade-off, as unfair as it may seem. The reader has given us their time and their trust, with an expectation that we will take them from point A and deliver them at pt. B.
While it is a great priviledge to have people listen to us and allow us to influence their thinking, I suppose there is a responsibility to not leave them hanging between pt. A & B.
Here's the bottom line, I think what you encountered from people was more of an aesthetic reaction than a spiritual one - whether they like to admit it or not. While you promised to "come around" in Part II, that evidently wasn't enought to outweigh the readers' expectations that you would provide some sort of interpretation of your sarcasm.
Which in the end returns to your point about questioning being an art form. Maybe in real life questioning doesn't need to be an art form, but when you write it down -- it better be, or else...

Micah Dormann said...

Thanks for your honesty...I've really appreciated that, even when you were mentoring me. You spoke truth into my life, when no one else would! I'm sorry that you've felt "disowned" at times by Christians...Please know that as a mentee of yours I'm still learning, but i'd really like to know more about what you are learning before I think one way or the other. If this is a slippery road like you said in part 1 leads to normaility, is that what life is really all about? (I'm just wondering not attacking) Are we suppose to just be normal? I don't know, there are days in my life i would just like to disappear from the IWU scene because less would be expected of me and i wouldn't have to lead people. But I realize shortly after those thoughts that I never want to be normal, I don't want to fade in...i don't know Josh, like I said earlier i need to hear more of what you've learned these last six months, Just know that I still look up to you! I just have to really process these words to make sure they are worth applyin to my life! which is what i think you want us to do from this blog! Thanks man!

Dave said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

pk said...

As usual, great thoughts Josh.

Some things come to mind. I used to view Christianity in terms of who's "in" and who's "out". I think McLaren and others have helped to subtly alter this view toward a question: What direction are you moving in relation to God/Jesus? Are you moving toward God, away from God, or are you stagnant?

Now, as it pertains to your post, I think there is a degree of doubting which begins to look like someone is no longer moving toward God but is in fact moving away from God. Agree?

If this is the case, it may instill fear in the hearts of others. Both fear for the doubter (selfless fear) and fear for themselves (selfish fear: if he/she is re-thinking this maybe I should re-think this, Gulp).

Fear of both kinds illicits a reaction. Maybe you're scaring people?

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Are we to doubt? I believe in the Scriptures we are to have FAITH--"the assurance of things hoped for-the evidence of things not seen." I do believe it's important to question those things we believe in--such as--Is there absolute Truth? To me that answer is plain and clear in Malachi when it says that "God is the same yesterday, today and forever." People change--cultures change--we may change--but God NEVER changes. So, it is important to question some things--like, why do I believe what I believe? Is there supposed to be baptism by immersion or sprinkling? Most Christians feel that the last question is not that important, but it is. If God is the SAME, then we should follow His example that He set on earth, which was baptism by immersion. And, what about the church? There wasn't paid ministers and a focus on fancy buildings. And, tithing was 10% of one's increase. Maybe you are questioning some things, but I don't think you're questioning God or Christ. I feel you're questioning what is really right and what is Truth.--John 16:13..Christ's Church, since set up when He walked on earth, has had a giant makeover, but WE are the ones who need the makeover. It is our responsibility to seek for the Truth and to follow It. Maybe you're missing a part of it and things aren't making sense to you. But, God is not a God of confusion and mis-interpretations. It is my prayer that you find Absolute Truth--there are no gray areas--it's black or white. May God richly bless your journey is my prayer and may you find the Truth.

Josh said...

Thanks for the comments so far. Group response:

DK - thanks! It's a trip alright.

Anon - Toni?

Rachael - Yes, I've read parts here and there. Good stuff. Mine could be titled, "Dark Year of the Soul." Though, I feel awakened...not darkened.

Tin - GREAT thoughts...I love reading something that is NEW to me!

Micah - Thanks! I'm sure you'll sift through what is true and what is crap. As long as we keep sifting, right?

PK - Yes, yes, yes. I like your observation of selfless/selfish fear. I think that is helpful here. McLaren is helpful (I was in a room with him about an hour ago). WHAT's a circle...and though I may be moving "away" from God...I'm actually on my way back around??

Anon - I think I can speak for at least half my readers by saying, WHAT THE????? You said (among other things), "It is my prayer that you find Absolute Truth--there are no gray areas--it's black or white." You seem to be taking part in a conversation that happened last decade. There are lots of faith blogs out there to read...I'm sorry, but I'm not sure this BLOG is for you.

Sniper said...

I am from the camp that says "God will always take honesty over a phoney watered down version of ourselves." However in the world known as the blogosphere/internet, the "myself" is read by others. There is no such thing as "my thoughts won't effect other people. My faith struggles won't cause other people to ? as well." Obviously, you are well aware of this by your writing (which is very good by the way). The question then becomes, "To what degree and I responsible for the doubting of others, the questions of others, that results not in honest seeking, but in faith crisis?" You said "I’m not comfortable with always trying to perfectly craft my words so that I sound winsome and offend fewer people. And I want the freedom to use different methods to help people think." That freedom is fine, if you honestly think that just telling it like it is actually helps everyone who reads your blog. But to be quite honest, the question of who you offend doesn't even matter unless there is a Christian Ethic behind it. So...continue searching...and if you come back to Christianity, you'll call into question this idea as well.

Josh said...

Sniper -

Good point. I think you summarized what many people are thinking - "why should he put us through this?" "Is he helping us or hurting us?"

It's funny, I THINK I'm helping people by pushing (like my great mentor KD did to me), but maybe I need to re-think what I push on?

I'll think about that. :)


Sniper said...

Realizing all the while that you are not putting any of us "through this." Any faith meltdown that starts by reading your blog can be silence by the click of a mouse. Those that are here are choosing to read your thoughts. And wheter I Agree or disagree with those thoughts, I can at least respect them.
Continue "Searching for God Knows What" (another one of those "pop" Donald Miller Books..check that one out, i think u'll be surprised.)

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