Honest doubt

With the increase in secularization and the decrease in church attendance across the United States, I find that there are many challenges for those who assume religious leadership. Two have become especially evident to me in the past few weeks. The first is well known and many Christian writers have addressed it. There are a number of people who find faith to be a personal matter and who feel confident that they can pursue it on their own. We often hear of people who do not participate in a church who find God in nature, in personal spiritual disciplines and other places. They feel that they have no need of an institution to live their spirituality and that they are not less faithful than others, just more independent in their faith. And I am sure that these are good people and that they do have faith. The problem, which was illustrated in the lives of some people I encountered this week is that you can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself. I do not deny that God is revealed in beautiful sunrises and mountaintop experiences. I enjoy my opportunities to see the beauty and glory of creation as well.

To put it bluntly, however, Mountains don’ make nursing home visits and beautiful sunrises won’t prepare food for a funeral lunch. There are times when we need community deeply and the care and concern of other people is critical to our survival. Encountering God in the everyday is wonderful and I wouldn’t discourage it in any way. But it can be insufficient when crises arise. Our people discovered this truth many generations ago - around the time that the first parts of what we now call the Bible were being collected as stories to be shared. There was a time when people thought that God was somehow limited to specific special places. They encountered the power and beauty and grandeur of creation in special places and so they concluded that God was present only in those wonderful places. They made regular trips to those places and they communed with God and they had deep religious experiences. Then, for whatever reasons we don’t remember, our grandfather Abram and our grandmother Sarai decided to leave their home and the places of their ancestors and the places where they experienced God and they discovered that the God they had experienced in those special places was also present in distant places they had never before visited. The idea that God was everywhere began to form as their entourage of people traveled across the ancient middle east. Their story became part of the foundations of our faith.

There is another problem that is a bit more subtle, but very real. As the country has become more secular, and the church has diminished in size and influence, fewer people are attracted to the profession of ministry. They don’t see it as having a future. With fewer ministers, the church has learned to modify its expectations of ministers. Youth and charisma have become valued qualities and age and experience have become less valuable. Even education and preparation has diminished as a quality desired by churches, who are panicked to find new leaders. As a result there is a form of “Christianity Light” that is being preached from many pulpits. Leaders of good faith, but limited knowledge of history and limited life experience, think of the verses and parts of the Bible that are attractive to them and preach part of the gospel. They speak of blessings and of salvation and of forgiveness of sins, sometimes powerfully and eloquently. But they rarely talk about doubt and despair and increasingly treat them as if they were somehow enemies of faith. They portray themselves as experts, but don’t seem to have read the entire Bible. The passages thy know and love best are great for good times, but seem shallow and hollow when real troubles come.

These good time preachers speak the truth, but often don’t tell the whole truth. Go to any contemporary evangelical church and listen for references to the ending of Psalm 137 or Jesus cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” You probably won’t even learn that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 when he said those words. Deep within our faith are stories of our people experiencing doubt and despair and depression. Sadness is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of belief. Wondering about where God is in a difficult situation is a constant theme of our people. But this is not being explored in preaching or in bible studies in so many churches. Pastors are threatened by doubt and often resort to pious advice about praying more or redirect people to scriptures that come from happier times. They seem to think that having the right beliefs is the answer to doubt, instead of accepting doubt as a normal part of a deep and abiding relationship with God.

I’ve attended far too many funerals where the message is that the one who has died was a wonderful person. They even call them celebrations of life and try to behave as if grief and despair aren’t part of losing a loved one. It is true that these are amazing and wonderful people and their stories should be told and thanksgiving and praise should be given for having those people in our lives. But if all we can say is “It’s been good and it’s over,” we miss the genuine treasures of our faith. The same God who is present in the sunsets and mountaintop experiences is also present in the moments of despair and doubt and grief. The community who loves you on the days of weddings and baptisms and celebrations will love and support you on the days of sorrow and sadness and grief. God’s love is communicated not only through creation, but also through creatures.

Beyond that, our people have been here before. Ours isn’t the first generation to have experienced grief and pain and doubt and despair. The Bible is filled with the stories of widows and orphans and immigrants. It is also filled with stories of survivors. On the days when survival is all we are able to accomplish it is good to know that we belong to a people who have survived other dark times.

Despite secularization and decline in religious participation there is still an important ministry for the institutional church. I have no doubt that the church will survive this downturn. I have no doubt that new leaders will emerge. And when I do doubt, I am strengthened by the stories of our people of the times when it looked like all was lost.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!