Wednesday, October 07, 2020


 I listened to a podcast recently about churches needing to accept people who are asking questions, and not come off as unwelcoming, or unwilling to come alongside them.  Even great saints experience doubt, and people in hard places may need support more than even implied criticism.

All entirely true, and I can steer you to churches that don't like questions if you want to see one in action. But there are opposite or divergent truths about churches as well, and these also deserve some attention.  Some churches love questions but don't like answers.  I should say, they don't like religious answers.  Those usually love political and cultural answers. I wrote about this in 2006 when I scoffed at an Episcopalian's assertion that the defining attribute about them is Doubt. Yet when I looked into it, I had to admit he was largely correct, and I was Hoist on my Own Petard. Not only the UU's and Episcopalians, but the mainstream denominations now increasingly shy away from religious answers.  I don't think it is accidental that they are simultaneously embracing political views of stricter or looser wokeness, but that is a different topic.  I see a connection, but that may be an overread on my part.

I am reminded of the bishop in CS Lewis's The Great Divorce who could not accept the idea that in heaven there would no longer be free inquiry into the nature of God.  He wanted to lead discussions in heaven about such things. The person sent to discuss at the very borders his possible repentance and entry into paradise tried to explain that there is no further need to discuss the nature of wetness when one is immersed in water. (He allows there may be further subtleties enjoyed by the wet folks as they seek to understand more deeply, but not that the quality of wetness is anymore up for debate.  Everyone knows what it is there.) The bishop would have none of it, and returned to Hell, humming a hymn. 

Roman Catholics have loved questions for centuries.  They also seem to like answers. It seems about right. My own denomination, formed from a fusion of Lutherans and Pietists, has tried to hew closely to the practice of allowing considerable difference in interpretation of many doctrines, so long as core doctrines are retained.

There is secondly the question of whether these are honest questions are not.  I think most religious questions start out as honest ones.  I believe this both from theory and from practice. Sometimes the questions derive from intellectual objections, sometimes they stem from tragedy or unfairness coming into their lives, sometimes they come from disillusionment with respected figures.  I don't know if I am much tolerant of the honest questions of young people at this point, but there was a time when I was, and gave cautionary advice even to their parents about letting doubt and questioning unfold. I had a minor reputation for it in our circles, likely exaggerated. 

This may no longer be true, because I have seen honest questions turn dishonest too many times.  If you want an answer, then seek an answer. Ambiguity can itself be an honest landing point.  There are things I believe are paradoxes, or elusive, or not easily definable.  The works of GK Chesterton, and Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire were greatly liberating in this way, though my introduction to the possibility through Tolkien and Lewis likely set me up for understanding this. But if you are still asking the same questions ten years later and are asking everyone else to listen attentively, I have to wonder if you are serious.

That could be badly wrong.  Perhaps questions and doubts have to incubate in their own time, and I am just not of sufficient character to be patient.  

Summary: Yes, churches should be willing to walk alongside those with honest questions (though Jesus was pretty harsh with Nicodemus, come to think of it). Yet what if the churches themselves are avoiding answers for their own reasons?  And what are we to do with dishonest questions?


Texan99 said...

The danger I try to guard against is assuming that inevitable doubt on one point means we can't be sure about anything. I can remain perfectly clear on my duty in a lot of areas without purporting to be certain exactly what the afterlife consists of, whether saints are active there in precisely the way the Catholic medieval church taught, what exactly happens when an unbaptized infant dies, what's the fate of billions of human beings who never came into contact with the Gospel, and so on. Distressing quantities of sectarian strife stem from insisting that we have the one true answer to problems God never encouraged us to think were strictly our business to solve. I like to keep in mind that, if Jesus had believed we absolutely positively needed to know precisely how the Virgin Birth happened, or exactly what's going on in the Eucharist, He'd have spent a lot more time insisting that we focus our attention there. Instead He seemed to think our wandering attention belonged on a number of other issues, about which the less doubt the better.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's a very good way to put it. It is good to study the Scriptures closely and attend to meaning, but it is best to notice what Jesus talked about most and keep that as our main focus.

james said...

Very much so.

And sometimes our questions come from the wrong categories. Some of the scholastic arguments seemed pretty foolish to me--many could be solved by thinking operationally instead of in terms of essences. After all, our words are rather feeble descriptions of essences. OTOH, some of the divisions that vex us come from thinking solely in operational/reductionist terms (if it quacks like a duck, is it a duck? maybe, maybe not).

We can't know everything, but we can often know _enough_.

That a rich man finds it hard to enter heaven could refer to men rich in learning as well as rich in money.

Someone with much more pastoral experience than I said that he'd run across very few purely intellectual doubts--more were driven by lifestyle or reluctance to change social relationships.

I don't know.

For example, I flatter myself that I have intellectual doubts about the legitimacy of making Mary as central to worship and devotion as Roman Catholics make her. It makes no sense--unless it's true. (Very strange things are sometimes true.) Had I been raised Catholic, I would probably have no doubt that it was true that she deserved such adoration, so maybe I'm kidding myself about intellectual doubt--or maybe they are. (I have, no doubt presumptuously, suggested a persuasive miracle.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. Another comment to reread more than once and make sure I have gotten it all.

Texan99 said...

I sometimes try to imagine myself newly arrived in Heaven and having some questions answered. Which answers would floor me? "Mary's a pretty big deal" would be no shock. "Billions of people disqualified themselves from Heaven because they didn't adequately buy into a specific view of Mary worship" would be a bit of a jolt. I seriously doubt it's at the root of anything important, though dissing the mother of God clearly is not a helpful path to embark on. Still, during Jesus's life He scarcely went around telling people "Ignore what I say and obsess about my mother." We find it so hard to give people and ideas and practices the reverence they deserve without elevating them to a supreme position to the exclusion of things we've been told clearly are paramount. We often act, too, as though concluding something isn't paramount means it should be despised, and the people who revere it should be murdered. Isn't that the whole point of the commandment against idolatry? Keep God first, and lots of errors are avoided about everything else in the hierarchy of attention.

"Simulating a better future" said...

It made me think of what a Swedish author called the small steps towards becoming secular: "From Jesus ... to God. From God ... to the holy. From the Gospel ... to Christian values. From prayer ... to spirituality. From discipleship ... to activism. From Christ ... to Christian faith. From confession ... to interpretation. From sin ... to brokenness. From the Word ... to mystery."

Thos. said...

I saw this on Wednesday, but am only just now coming back to it. I echo the earlier comments that keeping an eye on what Jesus said and did is a good practice.

If I had anything that might add to the discussion (and I am by no means the first person to say these kinds of things), it would be this:

First – I know myself and my own limitations well enough that I have no difficulty accepting the truth that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than mine. That means that not only are there truths that I haven’t learned yet, but in all likelihood, there are some truths that I am presently incapable of learning. My limits do not in any way reduce the value of those truths I have not yet acquired; or of God to whom they belong.

Second – Everyone who sincerely seeks to follow God's path finds that there are both greater and lesser elements to their personal faith. We all have to distinguish between those elements so that we can be sure that doubts about lesser elements (details of the after-life, proper Sabbath-keeping, etc.) are not permitted to overcome our commitment to the greater elements (God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the twin commandments to love God and our neighbor, repenting and forsaking sins, etc.).

Moreover, all of these elements (both lesser and greater) are acquired, not at once, but piecemeal over time – “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, and there a little.” It behooves me to be honest with myself about which elements I do have experience with, as these are the markers of God’s hand in my life (“that [my] faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”).

Finally – I appreciate your approach to discussing matters of faith. Thank you for including this kind of post in your blog.