Sunday, September 6, 2009

Faith and Doubt

Over at "The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic," Joe Rawls calls our attention to a great article by Fr. Martin L. Smith recently posted at Episcopal Cafe. Smith's article is entitled, "Welcome the doubters, but challenge them too." Here's how he begins:

"Come with your doubts; you’ll find a hospitable community here wherever you are on your faith journey." Reviewing the Web sites of Episcopal churches you often will encounter a deliberate appeal to those who have difficulties believing in some elements of the Christian faith. Certain churches proudly present themselves as havens from the demands of fundamentalist or orthodox communities. Fair enough, but is it enough to be a haven, which exists only to shelter?

In line with Smith's review of church websites, I note that at the Cathedral I serve, our bulletin sleeve includes this language: "Historically, Anglicanism allows and encourages honest struggle with the deep questions that faith encompasses. In that spirit, we at St. Andrew's welcome you to walk with us in whatever stage of certainty or doubt you find yourself. ... Both your talents and your questions will find a safe home here."

But as Smith rightly asks, "is it enough to be a haven, which exists only to shelter?" If all we do is shelter, much less encourage, doubt and skepticism, it's difficult to see how we form persons as committed disciples of Jesus. I sometimes get the feeling that, among the more progressive-minded Episcopalians I know, the whole point of being the Church is simply to "live the questions," endlessly deferring any answers (no matter how final or even provisional), assuming for ourselves the authority to pick and choose the doctrines and scriptures we deem normative, tailoring discipleship to our own subjective needs and desires. But Smith reminds us that our task is go deeper, and that doubts can provide an opportunity to do precisely that:

A church which welcomes those who identify themselves as doubters is called to be a place of risk and venture in which the actual experience of questioning is explored with candor and even rigor. A community content to vaguely affirm people where they are and leave their issues unexamined and unchallenged would be just as spiritually inauthentic as a complacently orthodox community. A goal for any Episcopal church would be to develop tools for publicly interpreting the various meanings of doubt. It would be good if in preaching and teaching, pastoral ministry and group discussion we demonstrated skills in diagnosing a wide spectrum of experiences that come under the abstract heading of doubt.

Smith continues by discussing the differences between several different kinds of doubt, including"healthy developmental doubt," "doubt as visitation," "mystical doubt," and doubt as a "defense mechanism." Smith is worth quoting on the latter:

Then there are entirely different kinds of doubt, which instead of serving faith, are defense mechanisms against it. So in our congregations there are those who rely on doubt for keeping Christ at bay. We need to get better at detecting the emotional dynamic that is frequently at work under doubts that are often presented as purely rational problems or even badges of sophistication. There are those whose doubts about the resurrection, doubts about the real presence, doubts about Christ, function as rationalizations for a basic dread of intimacy with the divine. In these cases intellectual agnosticism shields one from the possibility that Christ might actually touch or enter us, making us utterly vulnerable to being loved, moved, led and changed. It is good to keep on setting out good arguments for the truth of basic Christian doctrines, but they won’t be effective unless we recognize the emotional dynamic of fear and resistance that may well be fueling a person’s unbelief as they take up our offer of hospitality and inclusiveness.

As frustrating as it can be to deal with persons in the Church whose way of expressing doubt lies in questioning or even denying core tenets of the Christian faith while pushing the progressive BCP (Borg/Crossan/Pagels), it's important to heed Smith's counsel. It may be that doubt as a defense mechanism against intimacy with the divine, an emotional dynamic of fear and resistance to commitment, lies beneath the surface. I know that was true for me many years ago when I was so enamored with such authors. I was keeping Christ at bay, fearful of what it might mean if I opened the door of my life to him. Sure enough, things did change for me (I never in my wildest dreams, for instance, could have imagined I'd end up ordained as a priest!). And I'm quite sure that I still have a long way to go before I let go of all of my defense mechanisms against the divine. And so Smith's words serve as a much-needed call, not just to challenge doubters, but to do so with genuine humility.


plsdeacon said...

C.S. Lewis caught this spirit of doubt dead center in The Great Divorce (chapter 5)
"Oh as you lover your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes." (italics in original).

When it comes to the laity, I am willing to accept a certain amount of doubt. But when it comes to clergy, I do not believe that anyone who doubts the fundamentals of the faith (as plainly understood in the creeds and Holy Scriptures) should be ordained. I include in this people who deny the physical resurrection, the virign birth, or the Incarnation or the Trinity.

Doubt is often more of a function of the will than it is of the intellect.

Phil Snyder

Jendi said...

I agree, Phil - the pastor's job is not done when he or she makes the church a safe place for doubters; he or she is also charged with clearing away popular misconceptions that aid resistance to Jesus, and making the best case for the Christian fundamentals that you mentioned.

Guiding people out of their doubts requires a lot of sensitive one-on-one or small-group discipling. Sometimes it seems like we ask one person to do too much - both preach convincingly from the pulpit and be pastorally available to mentor individual Christians. It's a tough job. I wonder how churches can do it better...perhaps by training the laity to help? Should we take "priesthood of all believers" more seriously?