Thursday, February 28, 2008

Believing Doubt

Scoffers aren’t really open to hearing any answers, because they aren’t really asking serious questions. And as much as they like to be seen as “only being after the hard truth”, they usually are far from what the Proverbs call “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasure” – they read a lot less than people think they do, and they often uncritically parrot the objections of others rather than working through these things themselves. I think they mistake doubt for a kind of knowledge – as though being educated meant learning to deny everything. It might be what the author of 1 Tim. 6:20 meant when he talked about opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge”. Such is our age.

But among evangelical Christians, scoffers are a minority group. The majority group might be what the book of Proverbs dubs “the simple”. The simple confuse strong faith with the absence of doubt, resulting in a lobotomized, night-of-the-living-dead kind of brainless submission to self-proclaimed authorities. Promoting a life of faith, in other words, is tantamount to encouraging you to ignore your own experiences, swallow your questions, keep your objections to yourself and continue pretending that life really works the way your theology says it does even when it’s obvious to you that it doesn’t. This is a kind of faith which is very much like the flu – it swells the eyes shut and plugs the ears so that the only clear voice to be heard is our own: and it’s singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” While our lives are burning down, the simple cue the violins. For the simple, faith is an alternative to reality.

But this sort of faith betrays a superficial acquaintance with the Biblical story. The most cursory glance at Genesis or Kings will yield not a few tantrums, a lot of panicking and a metric ton of confusion – but very rarely do we see the kind of bland spirituality some call strong faith, the kind of faith which meets every challenge with an effortless: “As you wish, Lord. Your will be done!” Does that sound like Moses to you? Or David (or Jeremiah, or Habakkuk)? If so, it’s time to revisit some of those stories. In fact, Genesis 32 foreshadows the strange distinguishing mark of God’s people; struggle. It is because Jacob wrestled with God that the text says he is renamed “Israel”. The point here is that Christians don’t believe in a God who wants submission above all else. We believe in a God who invites us to engage Him, to bring Him our hearts, not just offer our compliance. He wants us to trust Him, a proposition that entails going to Him with our questions, not ignoring them. In short, He desires a relationship in which we can say: “I don’t see how this makes any sense at all” before we begin to search for the answers which hide like treasure. He wants us to be honest about that which is unbelievable, unreasonable, confusing, and even those things that make us angry.

Jesus was not Ned Flanders, though He’s been read that way through our contemporary evangelical lenses. There’s no doubt that He always did the will of the Father – but as God directed Him to the cross, Jesus emphatically did NOT say: “Okely-dokely”! The Gospel writers depict the Garden of Gethsemane as a place of writhing anguish. Luke displays Jesus, drenched in agony, racked with uncertainty. He knew what He had to do, but was, at that moment, faced with the indecipherable absurdity of it all. He didn’t refuse the cup He was given to drink, but He didn’t want to drink it, either. This scene isn’t what leaps to mind when we ask: “what would Jesus do”? But careful readers of Scripture have witnessed this before in the lives of men and women throughout Israel’s history. There is such a thing as believing doubt, a kind of doubt that is actually the mark of mature faith, a faith that fights for understanding. And the ironic thing is that it’s much more like the faith of Jesus than the “Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd. It’s the kind of faith that hung on the trembling lips of a grieving father in Mark 9:24. Jesus proclaimed, “All things are possible to him who believes!” and he replied, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

There’s a whole section in our Bible that’s dedicated to grappling with the hard questions about what we believe. It’s called “The Wisdom literature” – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. It questions what other parts of Scripture take for granted. Genesis 3 says that sin is the cause of all human misery. But in Psalm 73 and most of the book of Ecclesiastes the authors ask, “Why then do evil people seem to prosper and enjoy life so much?” Deuteronomy, the theological center of the Old Testament, says that living for God will generally bring blessing and disobedience will generally bring cursing – but Job isn’t so sure. In presenting these challenging questions to the theology presented in other books of the Bible wisdom literature isn’t invalidating these other traditions as wrong or contradictory. They’re inviting us to honestly struggle with a God who can’t be contained by theology or neatly harmonized with experience. The Scriptures are inviting us to take our faith seriously enough to actually care whether the things we read make sense in real life. By accepting that invitation, you will enter the world of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, Edwards, and all those who’ve learned that any belief worth having (certainly any relationship worth living and dying for) must survive the titanic struggle of life: the struggle with God Himself.