Doubting Our Faith Like Jesus and the Disciples

Doubt is viewed by many American Christians as one of the worst of all sins. To doubt a tenant of the faith, or something found in the Bible, or something one has been told growing up in church, is to reject God’s trust, or at least so it seems to the doubter.

This is a sad state of being. Doubt is one of the most beautiful – and most crucial! – elements of any vibrant faith. Doubt is the critical attitude taken towards any asserted system of belief or knowledge that works to refine and strengthen that system by cutting away the fat.

Yet, that is the problem for many Christians. Their faith is built on shaky moral and intellectual foundations, and the distrust of doubt is a subconscious acknowledgement of that fact. To know that doubting even one small tenant of faith would bring your entire worldview crashing down is to admit the weakness of that worldview; if it can’t stand up to scrutiny, it must be a faith “built on sand and shifting stones.”

The fear of doubt, for many Christians, is the fear that God will cast them out for doubting God’s truth. It is a fear preyed upon by those who tell them “The End is Near,” and those who want to use that fear to get in their wallets. What is Jesus came back just in that moment of doubt, and I miss my chance to be taken into heaven forever, because right at that moment I wasn’t so sure about something? Leaving aside the inherent problematic, and non-Biblical nature of such an apocalyptic worldview, the use of fear to coerce people into faith is surely one of the greatest sins one can engage in. “Fear not,” Jesus commanded. “There is no fear in love,” the author of 1 John writes. To cause others to fear, intentionally, is to go against God. To strike fear into the hearts of good people because they might have doubts is spiritual malpractice.

Especially because, doubt is Biblical!

For instance, in the very last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we find the resurrected Jesus issuing his Great Commission to the gathered disciples, exhorting them to “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Yet, just one verse before this, we read that, upon seeing the Risen Christ, some disciples worshipped, “but some doubted.”

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Carvaggio

And that’s it. That’s all it says. It doesn’t say that that doubt was resolved. Jesus doesn’t preach a sermon, or rebuke them, or tell them they have to get it together before they can make disciples.

No, all it says is “they doubted” and then they are commissioned and then they head out. Think about that: even with their doubts, Jesus still sends them out to make disciples. He doesn’t see doubt as an impediment to their ability to carry the Gospel. In being followers of the Way, those who doubt are just as valid as those who don’t.

(But, really, who doesn’t feel doubt, right? Even those who worshipped probably held some doubts.)

But really, think about it this way: those who doubted were probably better evangelizers than those who claimed not to! Remember, doubt is a refining fire. Questioning strengthens one’s beliefs in the long term. They person who engages in self-criticism, questioning and self-doubt can more clearly and firmly answer the questions – and speak to the doubts – of others. The disciple who speaks honestly of their own doubts and questions can more fully relate to other doubters, whereas the person who claims to have all the answers and none of the doubts is often off-putting and demoralizing by comparison.

And really, what was Jesus doing other than doubting the religious assertions and dogmas of his times. Asking questions, challenging, doubting that the religious really did have all the answers to peoples questions. The Way of Jesus is a way of doubts and questions and skepticism.

Don’t be afraid of your doubts. Don’t reject questions. Don’t be afraid to reformulate and reject and rethink. Bring your faith through the fires of doubt, and know you are standing in the tradition of Christ. Know you are participating in the great creating and animating spirit we call God.

“Theology Needs Periodical Rejuvenation”

Theology needs periodical rejuvenation. Its greatest danger is not mutilation but senility. It is strong and vital when it expresses in large reasoning what youthful religion feels and thinks. When people have to be indoctrinated laboriously in order to understand theology at all, it become a dead burden. The dogmas and theological ideas of the early Church were those ideas which at the time were needed to hold the Church together, to rally its forces, and to give it victorious energy against antagonistic powers. Today many of those ideas are without present significance. Our reverence for them is a kind of ancestor worship. To hold laboriously to a religious belief which does not hold us, is an attenuated form of asceticism; we chastise and starve our intellect to sanctify it by holy beliefs. The social gospel does not need the aid of church authority to get hold of our hearts. It gets hold in spite of such authority when necessary. It will do for us what the Nicene theology did in the fourth century, and the Reformation theology in the sixteenth. Without it theology will inevitably become more and more a reminiscence.

The great religious thinkers who created theology were always leaders who were shaping ideas to meet actual situations. The new theology of Paul was a product of fresh religious experience and of practical necessities. His idea of the Jewish law had been abrogated by Christ’s death was worked out in order to set his mission to the Gentiles free from the crippling grip of the past and to make an international religion of Christianity. Luther worked out the doctrine of “justification by faith” because he had found by experience that it gave him a surer and happier way to God than the effort to win merit by his own works. But that doctrine became the foundation of a new theology for whole nations because it proved to be the battle-cry of a great social and religious upheaval and the effective means of breaking down the semi-political power of the clergy, of shutting up monasteries, of secularizing church property, and of increasing the economic and political power of city councils and princes. There is nothing else in sight today which has the power to rejuvenate theology except the consciousness of vast sins and sufferings, and the longing for righteousness and a new life, which are expressed in the social gospel.”

-Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, pg. 13-14

America First, God Second?

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the book of Jonah, asserting that America plays the role of Nineveh in that story, not the role of Jonah (as we like to tell ourselves.) Today, I want to follow that up with a little theological grounding for that idea.

I’m doing this because I can hear folks asking, how can I equate us with Assyria and people from places like Iran or Syria with Jonah, when those people aren’t Christians, or even Jewish? Why would God side with Muslims over us, even if, as a nation, we haven’t always acted very Christian in our foreign relations?

The answer is found in thinking about the relation of humanity to God, and specifically, the fundamental orientation of that relationship. In the telling where America plays the good guy role here, the assumption is made of a Divine-Human relationship where we get to set the terms. From us emanates truth, and all else swirls around us and is described in relation to us. America is good, not on God’s terms, but on our own terms. In this telling, the great fundamentalist fear comes to fruition: truth is made relative, in this case, to the needs of American imperialistic aims. The way of God is made unimportant; instead, the way of America is the guiding lodestar. America First becomes not just a quasi-racist catchphrase, but a theological assertion of primacy.

But this gets the human-Divine relationship backwards. When speaking of God – the Divine, the Ground of All Being, Ultimate Truth – one exists in relation to God, is defined by one’s relationship to the Divine. Paul Tillich writes of the “subject-object distinction,” asserting that God can never be an object in an object-subject relation, but is always the subject.

This argument can be problematic at times, especially when the subjective God is conceived of by human beings as a capricious, angry and self-obsessed God. This subject God, around whom all else orbits, becomes “Anti-humanistic,” a God with little if any concern for humanity, but instead completely caught up in God’s own whims and desires. Humanity’s actions and existence become by-products of God, rather than objects. The subject-object relation breaks down in this case.

God as subject works, though, when we understand God as concerned with humanity, and especially, as Jesus posited, with the “least of these.” This is one of the primary and most important contributions of liberation theology to the conception of God: a God concerned primarily with the oppressed, who stands on the side of those not in positions of power.

That’s what powers my assertion that America is playing the role of Nineveh, and persons in places like Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan are playing the role of Jonah. Because God takes the side of the oppressed. And in the case of American imperialism in the Middle East, the oppressed are the people in those places who are being bombed and terrorized and killed. God sides with them, no matter their religion, no matter their creed, and no matter their nationality. In cases where unjust power in being brought to bear, God could really care less about any temporal identifiers. God cares about the flourishing of human life, in its many varied forms. God takes the side of the indigent peasant farmer before he takes the side of well-fed suburbanites in conflict between the two.

Too often, America plays  the role of oppressor to peoples in the global south and east, especially poor people of color. We do it for well-reasoned “good” ideas, like democracy or liberty. But always, these are justifications that benefit not in solidarity with others, but at the expense of them. This is where I get my grounding the say: in Jonah, we are Nineveh. I have very little doubt about that.