The embrace of doubt and mystery in the life of faith has become somewhat of a trend recently, especially in more progressive churches. This push to include more expressions of unknowing in our worship and liturgy is indeed a much needed corrective to what can only be described as the triumphalistic and naively positive faith of many American Christians. But we have to ask ourselves: when we do talk about doubt in the Church do we let this sense of unknowing go all the way down to the core of our being or do we house our doubt within an even greater system of certainty?
A few years ago I wrote a devotional for a Bible class that I was TAing about Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. In the devotional I pushed my listeners to consider the idea that even Jesus felt forsaken by God in his hour of need and so we too ought to expect to, at times, feel as though God is absent. This short devotional was my apology for a more honest and real faith, one that is not afraid to ask difficult questions of God or express our doubt as a part of our worship. However, throughout this devotional I ground this call for a faith that can express doubt within a deeper sense of certainty. Take the following line as an example:
The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent.
Implicit in this claim is the idea that what was ultimately true in this scene was God’s enduring presence with Jesus despite Jesus’ experience of the loss of God. In other words, we can be sure that even when we feel like God is absent, he really is there holding us and ensuring that our suffering works out for some greater good. Thus, this sense of doubt that I was defending was really no doubt at all but was instead just a lack of perspective for what’s ultimately true and what we can be absolutely certain of is God’s guarantee that our suffering is meaningful.
Here’s another line from the devotional:
What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion.
Here again unknowing is placed within an overarching sense of certainty that “God can handle our tough questions.”
It’s been a few years since I wrote this devotional and so I’ve come to a bit of different understanding of what role doubt, mystery, lament and unknowing might play in the life of faith. I’ve begun to wonder if talking about doubt as I did in this devotional, that is, as grounded in a deeper, overriding sense of certainty, is really enough. I’ve begun to ask myself what it might look like to let doubt and uncertainty go all the way down to the core of our being, that is, to lament the sad state of our world without any sort assurance that things are all happening for the better or that God can handle such difficult questions.
What if things don’t actually work out for good?
What if life on earth is just a cosmic accident?
What if no one is listening to us when we pray?
As a final thought I want to ask what it might look like to enact this more radical sense of doubt in a liturgical setting. In what ways might our gatherings create space in which we actually experience the loss of God as Jesus did on the cross?