I’ve been following John Suk’s journey with interest now for a while. I read his blog faithfully. Just getting back into my blog reading after summer I found two interesting postings on the Bible and on Prayer.
John of course has been public with his journey of doubt and the blog posts fall in line with that. Most folks I know have some level of doubt but preachers of course have to have a particularly strange relationship with it.
Critiquing Shallow Biblicism and Mercenary Religiosity
When I read those two posts part of the point he makes I can agree with him on. I’m pretty brutal on the kind of mercenary motive that fuels a lot of religion inside and outside the church. This is why I use misery-deliverance-gratitude as way of helping people grow beyond the implicit contract of putting God in our debt to achieve even good outcomes we desire like security, happiness and well-being. The Victoria Osteen viral video is of course an extreme example of this but the sentiment is common and obvious in most churches including my own.
At the same time most pastors that I know will be honest about the fact that not all prayers are answered as we wish, and the Bible is a large, complicated book. Jesus’ comments on prayer dramatically in the gospels and I doubt he himself was deluded on either of these points.
Fetishization of Doubt
There is an interesting conversation on the Phil Vischer podcast about doubt in the context of the Michael Gungor flap a few weeks ago. The pertinent conversation starts about minute 33. Drew Dyck, editor at Leadership Journal was a guest on the podcast whose written on the issue of millenials leaving the church.
Dyck makes the point that there needs to be space for people to air and process their doubts with others. That is essential. And yet he asserts that doubt finally is something to be overcome. Doubt can be helpful in terms of removing bunk to seek and refine the truth, but as a destination it offers little.
Doubt and Pastoral Care
When I read John’s posts as a pastor I wonder “OK, I understand your doubt and I understand your point. What positive contribution do you have to make with this?”
Let’s imagine a person has doubt with respect to whether or not they can trust a friend or a spouse in a relationship. There is a lot that we could say with respect to doubting that friend or spouse. We all know what people are like, that good people fail to keep commitments and that good friends and spouses fall short and betray. I’ve lived enough in this world to be hesitant about offering any guarantees about people’s conduct or fidelity especially over the long haul.
How do friends talk to friends about these kinds of things?
It’s complicated yet most friends for the sake of relationships and families will generally not simply camp on the failure or imagined failures of the promises offered in the past. Sometimes someone is in denial or deluded but I find more often people are afraid. Fear plus doubt is a potent enemy that can cause people to become angry, defensive, and thoughtlessly destructive in their relationships.
Reading 2 Peter 3
Of all the books in the New Testament for doubters 2 Peter would be high on the suspicion list. There are lots of reasons to cast a negative eye on the book. Did Peter really write it? How late is it? How do we understand similarities with Jude and 1 Clement? Etc.
I’m reading it together with my men’s group now.
2 Peter 3 has a polemic against the “scoffers” who doubt the second coming because of the delay. Well if you think this was an issue in the 1st century (or 2nd if you imagine a very late dating of the book) what would we say now? The book will go on to talk about God’s judgment in the flood, etc.
Book of Doubtful Peter
How might doubt rewrite the book of 2 Peter? I imagine the book wouldn’t have been written at all but if it were it might make the following points:
- Maybe we got the whole second coming thing wrong after all, so just try to make life work in the Roman empire as best you can, at least until you die and then who knows what will happen to you if there is anything that endures of you at all.
- Throw out any notions of a second coming or any future rescue or vindication by God. Imagine writing to seven churches in Asia minor, beset by persecution from Jews and pagans encouraging them by saying that God will rescue and vindicate them. They are toast and they might as well admit it. Christianity as a tiny separatist Jewish faction in the Roman Empire has no future, anyone can see that.
- Forget all this angst about avoiding the temples, the sacrifices, the shrine prostitutes, etc. Good religion should help you feel better about yourself and help you get along with your neighbor. Do whatever seems to work to help you in business and in civil society
- New teachers will come (wink wink, they’re already here of course but I’m writing the book as if I were Peter, being some sort of unofficial ghost writer because people will read a book associated with Peter and not with little old me…) who will tell you that God just wants you to be happy and to use religion and spirituality to make life work. If they’re making a lot of money from selling their religious ideas you should be suspicious of them, but really, life is about getting by as best you can so if you find some of their ideas helpful, if they make you feel better about yourself, go with it.
Advice from a Doubtful Pastor
As I think about this I imagine how I would approach someone who comes to me in emotional distress if I gave into doubt about prayer or the Bible. What might I say to them?
- “I suppose you can pray if it makes you feel better. Some people feel better after they pray. It’s a purely psychological effect. Don’t expect any special spiritual help with your circumstances. God doesn’t work that way if he exists.”
- “If you’ve got some money or good insurance maybe you can find a good therapist. They can be helpful. Go to your doctor and see if he or she has something to offer. If you can afford it take a vacation, find a new romance, keep your distance from your kids who are bothering you or make some new friends. Find a hobby.”
- “If you’re poor, mentally ill, homeless, elderly, well, sorry. Maybe you’ll die soon and your suffering will be over. Look on the bright side and remember good times in the past.”
- “If you find the Bible helpful you might try reading that. Lots of people like the Psalms for emotional value, but keep in the back of your mind when you read all the Psalms asking God to save you that he won’t. There might be other books out there that help.”
- “You might look into other religions too. Maybe your suffering is being caused by unrealistic expectations so through meditation and other spiritual practices you can reduce attachments to things like your marriage, your kids, wealth, success, youth, etc. and in that way make your peace with circumstances that you find difficult. Stoics and Buddhists majored in this. Check out their writings and practices.”
Doubt is a gray country, it is Yosemite filled with smoke from wild fires. At some point you have to decide if you’re going to live like that Half Dome is there or not and the stories about it are true.
I don’t think that there are only two options: that either prayer “works” in some facile, mechanistic way or that it’s bunch of bunk. I think that prayer like all relationships is complex and the idea that we relate personally to a being the likes of which is responsible for the universe is more mysterious and complex still.
I don’t think that there are only two options when it comes to the Bible. That it is either a facile wonder book whereby God transmits TRUTH directly into our puny brains OR it is a compilation of spiritual texts equal in quality and character to the library of other spiritual and religious texts on the planet.
God speaking to us, again given the complexities of language, understanding, and our biased abilities to comprehend is on simplistic process. The idea that God communicated to people within time and culture, and we read this third hand, and the idea that the Holy Spirit works even through this in mysterious ways prompts in me a lot of leeway for lots of stuff. The benefit of a canon is that we have a prioritized text with a track record that generations of Christian saints have testified towards.
We might demand that surely God must be able to dispel doubt from two sacred avenues of grace but where does such an argument leave us? Find me such an avenue in all of human history. There isn’t one. That leads us to suspect that perhaps doubt is a quality that belongs to us, that we maintain and nurse for reasons of our own.
Knowing my own character I’m probably doing so to give myself excuses for not wholly committing myself, wanting to ride the fence, keep my options open, to maintain a reputation as a reasonable person among as large a population as possible.
I can in fact find that doubt is a useful tool in keeping the world subject to my own evaluation. Doubt is a subtle tool to staying in charge, to judging others. Doubt with its stronger friend cynicism keeps me as king of my mental map finding all other systems and promoters of systems to be second rate as compared to my capacity to evaluate. Doubt serves my ego well.
Doubting my Doubting
If I start to doubt my doubting I can begin to see myself as small, weak, short lived, vulnerable and dependent. I have a theoretical grasp on this truth but a strong emotional stake from letting it settle in.
If in fact my grasp on knowing this world and evaluating my grasp on it is as tenuous as I see that of others around me, why not take a chance on faith. Why not reach out to God in prayer? Why not invest my heart in this book that millions before me, many of whom I value and esteem have done so? What really do I have to lose?
What I begin to see is that deep inside of me it is my pride that befriends doubt.
Doubt protects pride by saying “don’t talk too boldly about prayer. You might be found wrong in the estimation of others and your reputation as a reasonable and esteem-able person will suffer.”
Doubt protects pride by saying “don’t point people too strongly to that Bible. You know the issues involved in that book. Be measured and reasonable so that you can be see among your other skeptical peers as worldly and sophisticated, not a simple, religious rube who is a sucker for superstitious wishful thinking like ______________ (list for favorite religious dupes).”
If I take myself a little less seriously, understand the fragile nature of my existence, and allow hope and freedom a bit more leash from my prideful ego perhaps I can believe and find doubt a sometimes useful tool while still an unfaithful friend.