No “safe spaces:” The role of doubt in the life of the learner

If you’re familiar with the life of C.S. Lewis, you know this man of great faith was also a man of doubt.  Lewis was, of course, a hardened skeptic before coming to know the Lord.  But even after his mind and heart were captured by that great “hound of heaven,” Lewis admitted to experiencing moments of doubt:

“I think the trouble with me is lack of faith.  I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.  Mind you I don’t think so—the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”[1]

One of the consequences of living in a world of so much moral and religious diversity is that no one belief system is paramount.  What we’ve lost is a common consensus on what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good.

What’s that mean for us?  It means that more than ever, you and I are exposed to a world that challenges the claims of Christianity at every turn.  Add this social pressure to the kinds of heartaches and painful experiences we endure as human beings, and we have a recipe for doubt.

These days we often joke about colleges having “safe spaces” where students can go to avoid offensive language and ideas.  But sometimes I worry that—on an intellectual level—the modern Church has sought to be a “safe space” where we don’t ask the harder questions of our faith.  When faith goes unexamined, when doubts go unaddressed, then God’s grace lies in danger of going unappreciated.  Doubt has a place in the life of the learner, and therefore doubt has its place in the community of faith.

In his recent book In Praise of Doubt, Peter Berger talks about authentic Christian faith as standing opposed to two broad trends: (1) relativism and (2) fundamentalism.  In many ways, we are like the desperate father who cried out to Jesus: “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  Faith and doubt aren’t mutually exclusive.  So how should we understand their relationship?

 

AVOIDING RELATIVISM BY EMBRACING COMMUNITY

First, we live in a world of cultural and moral relativism.  What’s right and wrong, what’s true and false—these things can no longer be answered with absolute certainty.  They depend entirely on a culture’s definition of right and wrong and what each person decides for themselves.

Many young people—particularly in their late teens and early 20’s—tend to find themselves swept away by the wide variety of competing ideas they encounter as they get older.  More and more they leave the familiarity of the “nest,” along with it the security of their youth groups and their private schools and find themselves in university environments where the faith convictions of their upbringing are not shared by their classmates or new girlfriends.  In such environments, many young people end up re-shuffling their beliefs and values to accommodate their new social environments.

There’s a reason why Paul said that the Church is a “pillar and buttress for the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He used a word picture of a building, but Paul, of course, meant that Christian community—the relationships we share with one another—help form a web of relationships that help hold Christian belief together.

While the example I used above was of young people, all people are vulnerable to their faith crumbling (or at least changing) when we are not active in Christian community. By sharing in each other’s lives, we learn to see Christianity as having an enduring relevance for the way we engage the world.  This also means that even if you struggle to share Christianity’s values and beliefs, you are invited to observe the way that others embody God’s truth in their daily lives.

 

AVOIDING FUNDAMENTALISM BY EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY

Secondly, within the walls of the traditional church, there is the lingering danger of “fundamentalism.”  Mind you, fundamentalism started out as a very positive movement (more specifically, a series of books called The Fundamentals) aimed at guarding Christian tradition against the competing views and values of the modern world.  But as time wore on, “fundamentalism” became a much more legalistic, narrow form of Christian faith that still shows up in portions of the church today.

How might fundamentalism feed doubt?  You might think it would do the opposite.  Two of my professors in grad school—Drs. Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace—were fond of the phrase “brittle fundamentalism.”  They meant that sometimes it’s easy for conservatives to learn things about Christianity without ever really learning why they’re true.  If we return to our college classroom, we might see this in the face of a college student who’d been taught that God made the earth in six 24-hour periods, but that same student has no way of dialoguing with his biology professor who counters this story with the theory of evolution. And so the student’s “brittle” faith cracks, it shatters on the rocks of modern complexity.  Or what about issues of same-sex marriage, or sexual ethics in the broader sense?  If all students learn  is that “it’s bad,” then we have failed to provide them with a thoughtful faith that aims to engage the world.

The solution, I would suggest, is to embrace a certain measure of uncertainty.  I know that makes us nervous.  I don’t meant that we should abandon all certainty, only that we be willing to step back, ask the hard questions, and really evaluate not only what we believe, but why we believe it.  In the end, this can often make us more confident about our faith than when we left our beliefs unexamined.  And this is why Church community must become a place in which we explore our faith and our doubts not merely by grumpily rehearsing answers from the past, but by inviting one another to explore God’s timeless truth as it intersects with the timely issues of the day.

 

TRUSTING THOMAS

When the resurrection happened, Jesus’ followers didn’t know what to make of it, even thought they’d been following this man for three years.  One of the strangest two verses appears in John 20, where faith and understanding aren’t as close together as we’d like to assume:

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8-9)

Later we find the famous story of “doubting Thomas” (though in fairness, we should point out that he’s never given that title in John’s gospel):

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Here in John we don’t find the kind of “brittle fundamentalism” that some of us grew up with. According to John, faith is something organic and evolving.  What starts in a faint mist crescendos into tidal waves of vivid comprehension—but only after a life of being scraped raw by the rough edges of time and experience.

We don’t need a “faith seeking a safe place;” we need a “faith seeking understanding.”  Sometimes that kind of faith makes us uncomfortable, but it’s there that we’ll find Jesus.  For his followers, doubt isn’t something that we pursue, but when it confronts us we do not flee from it.  Even such a season might be used to sharpen us, shape us, and conform us ever more closely into Christ’s image.

[1] The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, from The Quotable Lewis, p. 164.

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