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Faith in Doubt

April 22, 2014

After the Easter service at Montrouis International Fellowship, I decided to treat myself to lunch on the airy patio at Stop Over Night Club, a short walk from the church. It had been a long time since I had sunk my teeth into their excellent barbequed chicken and French fries, served with tangy pikliz of course, and the coldest Coke in the area.

As I relaxed in the cool of the shade of the thatched roof, gazing out across the cyan pacificity* of the Caribbean, I turned over in my mind the morning’s message from Francis Chan, one of my “five-star” preachers. Several years ago, a good friend insisted, “You’ve got to listen to this guy!” and when I did I instantly came to appreciate the man’s dynamic style and solid, insightful messages. His best-selling book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God is definitely on my favourites list. I reflected on how closely his message tied in with a recurring theme that has run through my mind over the past several weeks, a theme not new to me, but recently more focused, more cogent.

* [This word is new to the parlance, and may not yet be in standard dictionaries. It simply means quiet. To me, it best captures the mood I wish to convey.]

In his message, The Resurrection—So What? Francis very pointedly asked a deeply unsettling question: “Would you want to know the truth about God even if it’s completely different from what you currently believe?” As I pondered the question, I knew what my answer was: a resounding “Yes!”

I have always been a seeker of the truth, often going after it with the zeal of a Klondike prospector who smells the mother lode. I try not to let anyone do my thinking for me, and I rarely accept the ideas of others without assaying them assiduously. I am, however, always up for a new dig, always open to the ideas of others. But only I can decide how faith intersects with my life, and I want that intersection to be true to my experience of truth.  When it comes to things Biblical, I take heed of the Bereans that Luke commended for their pursuit of the truth through studied substantiation of what they heard.

Quest is my watchword. Dogged inquisitiveness and incisive questioning are an integral part of who I am. My personal quest as a believer has always been not only to “know whom I believeth”, but also to know what I believeth. Like Philip Yancey, “I have to take each one of my own beliefs and crack it open and see if I can swallow it. I like to tackle the questions, and writing gives me the opportunity.” Yet as I unearth answers to my questions, I find those answers are really questions in disguise, each answer giving rise to new questions. And so the quest goes on.

I have long regarded absolute certainty as closed-minded and dangerous. Czeslaw Milosz, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, asserted the same sentiment very bluntly:  “Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug and the worse kind of rascal.” By definition certainty leaves no room for faith. The very essence of faith in God means acceptance without irrefutable proof, and the very impossibility of proof is the gap in which God stands.

Let me just say before I go further that I hold a faith that leaves room for doubt. I need only read Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Habakkuk or Job to know I am in very good company.   As Yancey put it, “Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends.”  We are told in Matthew 28, as Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, some of them doubted. Surely aware of this, Jesus still told them to go and make disciples—more worshippers and more doubters.

Doubt is not, as some would have us believe, the opposite of faith. Neither is it evidence of the absence of faith. In fact it’s the very essence of faith. The struggle with God is not lack of faith, it is faith! As American writer Madeleine L’Engle said, “Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”

If my faith had no room for doubt, then all I would have left is religion, just another item to add to the other everyday things in my life. Doubt is God’s way of helping me not go there.

Haiti has a way of testing both one’s mettle and one’s faith. As the months of my sojourn elapsed, I experienced a major disconnect between the beliefs to which I had assented and what I experienced. Haiti challenged me, poking and prodding at my convictions, taunting me: “You say you believe this? Then let me see you walk the walk.”  It forced me to look at who I think God is, rattling my soul with tremors to rival the earthquake that shook this island nation four years ago. My faith, having for some time failed to serve as a convincing way of explaining the world, now at times seemed to be unable to explain it at all. I had to allow the truth of life to teach me on its own terms.

But never doubting the person of Jesus, rather than leave faith behind, I chose to rethink it, to clear away the debris, to jettison some of the excess baggage in my life, in order to make room to rebuild, to allow God to reveal a fresh understanding of both him and of my place in his kingdom. To seek that revelation I turned to what Jesus himself has to say to us.

I, like many others, had tended to intellectualize my faith—to live it in my head. I have come to realize that this path confuses information with enlightenment, mind with soul, and thinking with experiencing. The mind alone is insufficient for the task of fully embracing suffering, death, love, grace, mystery, infinity or God, for these are not rational. Understanding this,I had long been struggling with varying degrees of success to lead with my heart, but my faith still tended to rest on what I knew, how I thought. I needed to reverse the deeply enculturated mindset of according primacy to thought, its roots reaching back to the Renaissance, to rather place being over thinking. The way to the truth is an act of reason, the love of truth an act of the spirit. The two must work in concert to enable knowing and loving my Maker.

Haiti stripped me of much of my ability to maintain control. I had to learn not just to believe or have faith, but to do something much deeper and more difficult—trust in God. In order to do so I had to let go completely, forsake my efforts to run my own show. I had to learn to trust not out of my strength, but out of emptiness. That, I believe, is a heart thing. Amazingly, as I began to do so, I found myself liberated from much of what had dragged me down, and freed from many of my fears. I do not pretend to have even come close to mastery of this, but I continue to work on it.

I am also trying to move beyond dualistic, either/or, black and white thinking, to become more contemplative. Polarized thinking struggles with contradictions, with paradox, with inconsistency, with mystery itself—which covers just about everything, certainly everything to do with God. Everything in this world always has elements of darkness and light, good and bad, death and life.  Nothing outside of God is absolute. All other things exist on a continuum, and there are many, many shades of gray between the black and the white.

Jesus illustrated this through His ministry on earth. The religious shunned “those people”—the marginalized, rejected and neglected, the poor, the outcasts, the down-trodden, the persecuted and the lonely, women, Samaritan “dogs”, prostitutes, cheats, thieves, tax collectors and lepers—but Jesus embraced them, recognizing the good within them. The “good” however—those who set themselves above others and looked down their noses at them—he excoriated for their malignancy. His actions shout clearly: no one created in the image of God is unclean or unworthy. Yet no one in and of themselves is clean or worthy. Not one. All are sinners, an amalgam of good and evil that God somehow finds loveable, and therefore, recognizing our self in the other, so should we.

There is a very relevant Haitian proverb: Tout moun se moun—everyone is a person. The implication is that everyone deserves to be treated as a human being. This mirrors the second of Jesus’ greatest commandments.

Very frequently, as I mull over ideas, God seems to set relevant material before me, not singly, but in clutches. Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading a trilogy of works by self-professed Catholic, prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, journalist, historian, and currently Emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University, Gary Wills. His books are controversial, and have been rejected by the Catholic Church as without merit (too Protestant?). I very much disagree with that out of hand dismissal. In the books I read—What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant—Wills articulates some interesting perspectives that I believe can, though everyone certainly will not subscribe to them, weather the storms of argument. Many of his premises I myself have chewed over for some time, and being satisfied they are faithful to the spirit of the Bible, I am bringing them to bear in the rejigging of my personal theology.

Having assimilated Wills’ works, I began reading Silence by Shusaku Endo. Something he wrote about himself I found fit me to a T. (I wondered what the source of this expression was, and found the “T” is an abbreviation of “tittle”, a Medieval word appearing in Matthew 5:18 and Luke 16:17 of the King James Version, meaning “the tiniest detail”.)

My Christianity “was a kind of ready-­made suit. . . . . I had to decide either to make this ready-made suit fit my body or get rid of it and find another suit that fitted…. There was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like.”

I might have written those lines myself. Endo’s metaphor immediately called to mind my experience of buying my first tailor-made suit. I drew up a design, strongly influenced by the wave of Carnaby Street style that had swept over the Atlantic on the heels of the British music invasion of the sixties. I opened my wallet wide to engage an excellent tailor known for with-it styling. When I came to pick up the suit, I was shocked. It was quite a departure from what I had envisioned, far more mainstream, domesticated as it were, something a successful young businessman might wear with panache. It was beautiful, but it was not me. Whenever I wore it, the suit drew compliments, but there was always a little ache in my heart.

Faith is the same. I am who I am, who I have always been in the mind and heart of God, and my faith must allow me to experience who I am in God and who God is in me. How I believe, and in whom I believe, shapes everything about who I am. I think the inverse is just as true—everything about who I am shapes my faith, how I believe and how I experience my Creator, my Redeemer, my Abba. There is no “one size fits all” faith, and where the notion that such a thing exists is promoted, people suffer, having the life crushed out of them. Why do you think we have four Gospels? Simply because the writers approached faith from their own particular directions.

Doubt can do things spiritually that nothing else can do. To me it signals that I am in the process of dying to myself and to my own ideas about God, and listening more attentively to who God says he is, who Jesus says he is and who he says his Father is. For me, doubt is not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth, a letting go of my egocentric preoccupations.

My quest centers on Jesus’ own words as found in the Bible. Yet although I know what the Scriptures say, I am not a The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of guy. I am acutely aware thatthe relation between words and their meaning is elastic. Furthermore, it is not so much what the words say that matters; what they mean is of far more consequence. And ultimately, it is how those words impact my life that most interests Jesus.

And so I have set out on this journey, a quest for what I need to build a faith that honours God and respects who I am. This is not a teardown and build new project, but rather a contemplative renovation, contemplative in every sense of the word.

I elected to start this journey with the Great Commandment and the second like it, an obvious choice in my estimation since Jesus indicated these are at the very heart of faith. My next stop is the Sermon on the Mount, a section of the Bible the substance of which is largely ignored and far too often spiritualized. Our egos divert us from anything that would require actual change in us, preferring intellectual beliefs or moral superiority stances that ask almost nothing of us, but invariably demand that others change.

As with all that Jesus said, I must tread carefully when considering this sermon, avoiding any temptation to try to boil down his words, bursting with life, drama and tension, to a series of principles in a PowerPoint program, an exercise that would be somewhat akin to trying to reduce a living person to a diagram. Jesus’ words are meant to be lived, not just known and perhaps understood.

I have come to the conclusion that in this sermon Jesus’ unwraps the framework of his working philosophy for me, laying bare the only practical way to live. Having long asserted that the sermon turned everything upside down, I have recanted, shifting my perspective to concur with G.K. Chesterton (and, I believe, Jesus) that it rather turns everything right side up. The sermon embodies the center and substance of Christian ethical conduct. It is certainly difficult to live out, but is it as some have claimed impractical or even perhaps impossible? It is if one clings to the current Western societal norms of ruthless competitiveness, careless individualism, discontented egoism, mindless idealism and the economic system those have spawned. I would contend that if the ethical side of our gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact, the redemptive side is rendered worthless.

Where I will go next, I know not. As I have so oft echoed, I travel “with the Holy Spirit as my walking stick, and Jesus as my guide.” I will listen as Jesus speaks to me through his own words, and through the Spirit he set within me. I pray this journey will be a banquet for, as Abraham Joshua Heschel so magnificently penned in God in Search of Man, “my growing inwardness that reaches and curves toward the light of God.”

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dan Gagne permalink
    April 25, 2014 6:02 am

    Thanks Barry. Borrowing a quote from Peter Rollins …”To Believe is Human. To Doubt, Divine.” A recent book of his is called, “Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”.

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