The Doubt Trend, Or A Transforming Encounter With Doctrine?

A few years ago I began to feel very isolated in my faith – isolated from other believers. Churches seemed to be filled with people living serene spiritual lives, my friends seemed to be well-studied apologists, and no one seemed to be in the same place as me – doubt and questioning.

These days its a topic frequent among many Christians, thanks in large part to a movement of professed doubters such as Rachel Held Evans and Jason Boyett, both who have written books and maintain blogs frequenting the subject. Long before either were on the scene I felt very much so alone because no one seemed to be talking about it, and as such my questioning was not simply just in particular doctrines but in whether in my questioning I was losing orthodox faith altogether.

I had a desire in me to be a published author, and I began compiling ideas for a book that I thought would be totally different – a Christian admitting they’re shaky and not very rigid in the Christian structure, and in fact had stopped believing in some supposedly central ideas. I had worked out a cute title, “Sprinkler System Rainbows,” a reference to how even machines can make a rainbow, something called a miracle by the Bible.

Well I got focused on other things (and I was aware my chances of being published were very minimal), and before I knew it doubt was mainstream. Naturally this freaks out plenty of people who were raised to have “bulletproof faith,” but ultimately I think the doubt movement has potential to be a great thing.

My church very much so taught the Bible as literal and inerrant words of God himself, and thought of itself as the victim of constant attacks on the faith from all over culture. It pushed for believers to be strong as a rock. And I would never condemn a convicting faith, it’s a beautiful thing. However the church insisted it had everything figured out and the only thing to question were the opposing side’s viewpoint.

So imagine my surprise and horror when I began to find holes in the supposed air-tight church! And when they teach every single thing to be so important its difficult not to question everything.

Here are some reasons doubt can actually good for Christianity, which tends to do things upside down:

  1. Doubt precedes faith – its how you land at belief in the first place! There must first be doubt. But the church was either too afraid to admit that for fear of losing believers or simply didn’t see this value of questioning at all.
  2. Freedom can actually come from doubt – because we can finally feel comfortable and honest in what’s really going on.
  3. Doubt and questions don’t just dissipate. Healthy couples know to resolve their conflicts, not turn a blind eye. If you put off attending to a wound it ultimately gets bigger and can even get infected. It becomes a much bigger hassle if left untouched.
  4. I think one of the products of the building of a generation of believers who can make a case for Christ, who are trained in apologetics, is that you get a strong emphasis on doctrine – Christians should know exactly what they believe and be able to articulate it well.  And doctrine is easy to lose faith in, especially reductionist fundamentalist ones. Christianity for many believers, became more about believing in the ideas than in the power and experience of Jesus. The doctrine replaced Jesus. And ultimately believers are believers because of a powerful experience of meeting Jesus, not because of intellectualism. You doubt and question ideas, but usually not encounters. I think this is why you hear news stories of pastors who become atheists – for them Christianity was about intellectual belief.

So keep questioning on, if that’s where you’re at, and know that the very act of asking questions is actually an expression of faith. Jesus knew people would doubt – they doubted his teachings, they doubted who he was, they doubted his resurrection – and he wasn’t nervous about it.

 

What do you think about the doubt movement – do you agree it can help believers? What are its dangers?

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10 Responses to The Doubt Trend, Or A Transforming Encounter With Doctrine?

  1. Chris says:

    Hey Charlie,

    I said I was going to recede a bit, but here I am again. I found your latest blog entry really interesting so I had to take a shot at interacting.

    First, I think you make a lot of good points. The issue of doubt is one that I’m intrigued by because I do find myself spending time there quite often as well.
    I think doubt and questions should never be suppressed. I think if you have any kind of faith at all, any questions you suppress will eventually come back to undermine your faith if they aren’t adequately explored. I feel fortunate because I’m currently in a church, that most would probably describe as fairly conservative, where I openly express areas of doubt and areas where I seriously struggle with hard issues of what might be thought of as conventional Christian thought and I have never felt pounced upon because of it. One of the best phrases that I often hear my current Pastor use when confronted with extremely hard questions is the response, “I don’t know.” Some might say he’s copping out, but I really appreciate that response because it lets me know that he struggles like I do in some areas as well and really just doesn’t have that pat answer that many people are hoping for.

    Your couple of comments regarding apologetics were also interesting to me because I very much like apologetics. Although I think it has its place, apologetics is not the answer to the churches problems, and I also do think that apologetics these days are very much both misused and misunderstood. Misused it can actually be quite detrimental to both the church and to people because in the context of living, breathing human beings it is often completely unnecessary. People often like to trot out their knowledge to impress and it’s effect unfortunately is often totally counter-productive. I think one of the best definitions I’ve heard regarding apologetics is that it really should represent more of a kind of clearing away of the bushes, or the debris, of which there is much, so that people may clearly see Christ. Apologetics should not be a purely academic exercise. Apologetics nearly died in Europe because it was viewed as a such. Rather it should be thought of more as a spiritual discipline, much like fasting or prayer. The simple, humble life of an old babushka living quietly but resolutely for Christ in some far off village in eastern europe can even in itself be a powerful apologetic. And the greatest apologetic of all, of course is love for others as He has love for us and to be in relationship.

    Your comment about doctrine I also found fascinating (good post overall) because it’s interesting to me how people view the subject of doctrine so differently. One book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time is one by Allistar McGrath on that very subject. I think the title is actually “Doctrine” or something close to it. I once heard him say that he felt that doctrine was beautiful. Now I’ve heard people say that doctrine was necessary, or indispensable, but I’d never heard it referred to as beautiful. What makes most people view doctrine (and I do think it’s most, Christians included) as something that’s negative, and another person refer to it as beautiful? That’s a question to me that begs exploration and I don’t think it can just be sloughed off as the romanticized notions of some conservative theologian. We are all strung a little differently, I’ve said often, and I think that God speaks to us all a little differently, so doctrine may not resonate with you, but you have to recognize that just because your view may be in the majority (and I think it is), you owe it to yourself to at least find out why or how a person can find beauty in something like doctrine. At least I want to know.

    One last thing concerning doubt. To me, as I said, doubts should not be ignored. But I also think that it’s not necessarily a place where I want to linger. I don’t think of doubt as a virtue, but I think expressing my doubts honestly is. Doubt is something I want to work through, hopefully with the help of other faithful Christians, and then eventually leave behind. I think it may stunt my growth as a Christian if I just revel in my doubt. Now I may have new doubts that crop up, and so I don’t know if I can ever say I will ever be doubt-free. But I think it’s wrong to think of faith as absolute certainty. This induces a response of over-reaction. Rather I think of it as a reasonable, justified confidence coupled with an active trust. Like a lot of things in my life I know I can come to a point where I can feel satisfied and say, okay, I really believe I can trust this person or this thing. I don”t need to be endlessly suspicious or eternally doubting.

    There’s lots more to say, but this is your blog not mine.

    Peace

  2. Hey Chris feel free to say whatever you want to say and don’t hold back, I don’t write the blogs to make a statement but start a conversation. Glad it worked this time!

    I can definitely appreciate a pastor that doesn’t have all the answers AND will admit it. I’m glad you are in a community where that occurs, and where people don’t pounce on you. I’ve had plenty of people try to “save me” from my doubts, which is quite annoying because it obviously doesn’t make those questions go away.

    I definitely appreciate your perspective on apologetics, and that is something I can get behind. I think it became a different monster – a way to counter attack in the culture war. Christians historically have never been very good at fighting, and I think that the “warfare” language often used puts people on edge and love is quickly lost.

    I used to be fairly interested in doctrine (college years), but I found it suffocating and for me personally its pursuit actually distracted me from my relationship with Jesus. The classic switching of the heart and the head (it should really be both, but we usually shift from one extreme to the other). I’d be interested in hearing more as to why/how that person finds doctrine beautiful – and I can easily imagine it is, as long as it doesn’t stay in dusty , stiff textbooks where its most often found. Doctrine should more closely resemble poetry rather than systematic charts.

    I agree I don’t want to stay in doubt, and I think my particular stay here has been longer simply because I have to work through so much of my religious upbringing.

    Great reply, keep ’em coming!

    • David says:

      The beauty of doctrine is when it points us to Jesus. What is unfortunate is when we substitute knowing for doing!

      How much doctrine did the Gerasenian Demoniac have when he told the whole village what Jesus had done? (Mark 5) How about the Woman at the Well? (John 4) Did she get theology lessons before she told the whole village that Jesus was a prophet? No! They knew who he was because they were changed by Him without question.

      Here is what religious folks always do when God shows up: John 9:24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

      25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

      The true word of God is backed up with signs and wonders and power.

      The whole idea of doctrine is simply man’s attempt to be right, when the fact is that when one knows Jesus, he is righteous.

  3. David says:

    Christianity based in anything that smacks of intellectualism is dead religion. I know that you have a bent towards putting off the fundies, but if you back up an see how they got there, it is not really a surprise. Even the denominations are no surprise for those that rely on belief and not faith. Amazingly, and wonderfully Paul addressed it all – particularly in Romans. These were folks that did not have a previous religious experience.

    People of faith know God personally. They do not need to cloister with others to keep their faith. If faith is a relationship (it is) then all one needs to do is makes sure they have a string foundation. Most don’t. I am not suggesting that we don’t need other Christians, but it is only a small part of the pie.

    Doubters get freaked out by science. Doubters usually haven’t been taught to hear God, or study for themselves like the Bereans did. A lot of churches perpetuate spiritual ignorance by not discipling, but creating converts (spectators)… it’s all wrong.

    Everything we need to know about building a strong foundation for a personal relationship with Christ is outlined in Acts 2. Unfortunately, many churches that claim the name of Jesus overlook them. Regardless, here they are.

    -1 2:38a “Repent”

    -2 2:40a “Accepted his message” [Jesus is the Messiah]

    -3 2:38 “Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” [the same one that the 120 received in the Upper Room. Acts 2:1-4]

    -4 2:40b “Be baptized” [water]

    -5 Acts 2:42a [continue in] “teaching”

    -6 Acts 2:42b [continue in] “fellowship”

    -7 Acts 2:42c [continue in] “breaking of bread” [communion]

    -8 Acts 2:42d [continue in] “prayer”

    The above is the foundation – a beginning!

    I am sooooo glad you didn’t bring up Thomas. That guy saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead!

    • Chris says:

      David,

      I think much of what you say is true. But if I may I’d like to push back just a little.

      You said: “Christianity based in anything that smacks of intellectualism is dead religion.” I’m a little unsure of what you mean by this. Are you advocating non-thinking, or ignorance? Somehow I don’t think that this is what you mean, so I hope you can clear this up for me. You speak of the “fundies”. This is basically their position. The early fundamentalists were basically anti-scholarship. Do you think the bible assumes we should never think about our faith? That the head and the heart are in opposition to one another?

      • David regularly speaks about dead religion – I think he’s referring to Christianity characterized by rule-obedience and obligatory attendance, with no investment in Jesus or his heart. In essence just going through the motions, participating out of habit. But I should let him answer!

      • David says:

        @Chris – I am not anti-scholarship. But if the Holy Spirit is the teacher, and we don’t know him, we’re sunk. It doesn’t matter how many Bible degrees and PhDs someone has, that is never going to produce “revelation.” In my book there is no such thing as a Bible expert. We can’t teach what God has not shown us, and I see a lot of that. Folks who think they can teach everything there is to know about the Bible. No one has all the theological answers.

        Though he never changes, God is revealing his plan for the church generation by generation – all of it playing into His eternal hand.

        I further note that few Christians have ever read the Bible cover to cover.

        Let me be right up front. I think NT Wright and Dudly Hall are great teachers. They are both true gifts to the church. They are a blend of scholarship with real spiritual insight, unlocking the mysteries of God at very deep levels.

        There is a whole list of super intellects that I would never read anything by. It is the type of stuff that appears on TV, Christian bashing websites, cults and the like.

        People who practice religion do just that, they practice. But for the folks that really know Jesus, there is freedom and grace, holiness and character.

        I also have 500 blogs on my site. I am not going to make an entire case in a long winded comment.

        Thanks Charlie for commenting and lending me a portion of the cyberspace!

  4. Angela says:

    I appreciate what you said here Charlie. I think we all do have doubts and we should openly admit them so we can actually have authentic conversations. The reality is, not all of us are right in our spiritual views, it’s impossible. If we admit our doubts and remain open, then we can truly hear others’ perspectives and just not come off like a “know it all”…who really wants to have a spiritual discussion with that guy?

    • you bring up an interesting point Ang because ultimately I think lots of people want to be know it all right guy, because he (or she, of course) has it all figured out and there’s a certain feeling of superiority and confidence that comes along with it. To me though, I think God has a habit of turning things upside down on their head, and that assurance of knowledge is actually a wall God has to break through in order to show you what you’ve inevitably missed.

      Not to mention those who know it all rarely spread their knowledge because no one wants to engage in discussions with them – great irony.

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