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.

14 comments:

Rose~ said...

Hi fork-man. Good to see you are still around.

marc said...

"a lobotomized, night-of-the-living-dead kind of brainless submission to self-proclaimed authorities"

Blue, you have to post more than once every few months!

TheBlueRaja said...

Hey rose and marc! Good to hear from you. The roller coaster is on the way uphill for awhile, so I thought I'd take advantage before life dives and twists again. I've been reading online journals and magazines (like "First Things") with only occasional forays into the blogosphere, but I'd like to get back into it at some point.

The Family Beckwith said...

yeah, you better! I need something to do on my lunch at work!

TheBlueRaja said...

Dude, if you're reading this on your lunch break you've already hit rock bottom! It's all uphill from here.

Sameer Yadav said...

Amen and amen. The only thing I'd take a bit of umbrage to is the jab at Muslims! They are just as internally differentiated as we are, and we both have our "simpletons" as well as their strugglers. After all, there is in Christianity a very prevalent reading of the fundamental nature of man's relationship to God that identifies it with Abraham's unquestioning readiness to plunge the knife into his son rather than Jacob's struggling, and Jesus' "not my will but yours" rather than his "let this cup pass"... something similar can be said of Islam

TheBlueRaja said...

Yeah, that comment was a little stark, but not completely unjustified. Unqualified submission to the will Allah is a central tenant of Shar'iah law, for example.

As far as I understand, Islam's fundamental difficulty with the incarnation is the perceived assault on God's transcendence, and I would think that the kind of invitation to relationship implied in the Christian version of faith (what I was talking about in this post) isn't exactly what Islamic spirituality is all about. The structure of Islamic spirituality, as I've heard it, anyway, is total surrender in order to make one capable of immediate obedience to God's commands.

Sameer Yadav said...

I think any reference to "unqualified submission to the will [of] Allah [in] Shar'iah law" is exactly the sort of substitution of part for whole that troubled me in the first place. To use the conception of Islamic law emphasized by modern Salafis as representative of Islam's understanding of obedience to God is a misrepresentation of Islam as a whole, or even as a majority, given the rich and diverse range of ways in which its legal tradition has been and is interpreted. Islam simply can't be fairly differentiated from Christianity along the lines of struggle vs. slavish obedience.

It can't be differentiated by Islamic perspective on transcendence vs. immanence either, unless you want to make some normative case for bracketing Sufism.

If you want a paradigmatic example of Islam endorsing "struggle" in the way you mention then consider the Muslim version of Augustine or St. Thomas, i.e., al-Ghazali, and particularly Ebrahim Moosa's magesterial recovery of him for modern Islam.

Anyway, I don't think there is any more wiggle-room to cast Islam in the light you do without also being able to point to long stretches of Christian tradition and saying, "We're not Christians" too.

Sameer Yadav said...

To clarify -- you're staking out a normative Christianity that puts its best foot forward, and contrasting it to Islam. Now, either you're contrasting it to a normative Islam which you as a non-Muslim are characterizing with its worst-foot forward by your standards, or else you're contrasting your view with a merely descriptive Islam where you are substituting what by your standards is the worst in it and representing that as what "Muslims" as an unqualified designation believe.

I obviously don't want to accuse you of being intentionally uncharitable - I know you too well to do that. But I do think it is an uncharitable remark.

TheBlueRaja said...

It was bound to be,I guess, since my understanding of Islam is almost entirely from an apologetic (rather than an inside) perspective. Could you point to some more helpful critiques of Islam from a Christian perspective?

Sameer Yadav said...

Well, I guess it seems like to me that the problem of the "apologetic mode" is criticism before understanding, and since I don't consider myself to really understand Islam all that well, I have a hard time thinking of something that I'd call a "good critique" of it. Just talking to Muslims with understanding rather than apologetic in mind is probably the best place to start. Then I could move from there toward some questioning of this Muslim friend's Islam while also graciously receiving her questioning of my Christianity.

Otherwise, maybe the best thing I could recommend is some good reading on a "theology of religions" -- Paul Griffiths' work is meant to be quite good there, and I think Mark Heim has also done notable work there...

Sameer Yadav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheBlueRaja said...

The offending text has been removed! Thanks!

笨蛋 said...

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