“God Can Handle Our Tough Questions” And Other Expressions of Certainty

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?

The Predicament of Belief: Part 1

Summer is well under way and that means one thing for me: more time to read awesome theology books. I’m currently in the middle of Philip Clayton and Steve Knapp’s The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith as well as a big time blogging slump. I thought I would solve the latter by writing about the former. In the coming days (or, more likely, weeks) I will attempt to summarize each chapter and add my own thoughts where appropriate. My hope is that you can join the conversation as we go along.

Clayton and Knapp begin their work by highlighting what they call the five main reasons for doubting the ancient claims of the Christian tradition. It would seem that as time progresses and history unfolds it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to some sort of belief in an ultimate reality (or “God” as many are more familiar with). The five reasons for doubting the claims of Christianity that the authors highlight are as follows:

  • Science – This reason is rather self-explanatory and very likely familiar to most. As modern science continues to provide more and more answers in terms of the way the world works, there seems to be less and less room for God. In the words of Clayton and Knapp:

The upshot of [scientific discoveries] is that the natural world–that is the universe as explained in terms of the laws discovered by the natural sciences–increasingly looks like a completely closed and self-explanatory system.

  • Evil -This argument is age old and yet carries a special significance in light of the many atrocities of the last century. Why would an all powerful and benevolent God allow famine, disease, murder, etc. to exist?
  • Religious plurality – Again, Clayton and Knapp explain:
…if other people believe other things with equal convictions and, as far as we can tell, with equally good spiritual and moral effects, what makes anyone think that her religion is preferable to theirs? Indeed, is any one of the major world religions more likely to be truer than any of the others?
  • The state of the historical evidence – What are we to make of the lack of historical evidence for biblical events like the exodus and the conquest of Palestine? And what about the inconsistencies in the gospels concerning the major events in the life of Christ?
  • The claim of resurrection – Of course, this reason is closely connected to the first. How do we make sense of the claim that Jesus came back to life three days after he died. Additionally, if God has the power to raise the dead why has he not chosen the same outcome for the countless other innocents who have died in history? Why only one 2,000 years ago?

I commend Clayton and Knapp for staring these reasons directly in the face. This book cannot be accused of skirting the difficult issues. In the face of such issues the authors tackle another important question: Why not be agnostic? In the words of Clayton and Knapp:

We will argue that it makes sense even for non-Christians to regard belief in at least some Christian claims–those that Christianity shares with other theistic religions–as rationally preferable to their rejection; that it is intellectually better, consequently, to affirm those claims than to deny them; better also than to refuse to affirm them. And we will also argue that it makes sense for those who find themselves engaging ultimate reality in and through their participation in the Christian tradition to have a similar attitude toward certain claims that are particular to that tradition and are not shared by others. Here again, we think it is better for those so situated to affirm the claims than to deny them. Better–but not beyond all shadow of doubt. Because we judge the reasons to affirm Christian claims, even for those who find themseles “inside” the tradition, to be only somewhat stronger than the reasons not to affirm them, we regard our position as a kind of Christian minimalism.

The authors’ Christian minimalism separates them from Christian agnostics in that they assert that progress in assessing Christian claims can be made and indeed should be pursued.
What follows in the rest of this work is Clayton and Knapp’s attempt to make a minimalist affirmation of Christianity over against the compelling reasons for doubt as well as the option of agnosticism.