Doubt and certainty: a fork in the road

Conversations with some of my closest fellow sojourners (such as Mike, Cliff, and Matthew) have often included a discussion of the following question: given our radical departure from many tenets of evangelical orthodoxy such as our rejection of inerrancy and acceptance of critical scholarship of the Bible, the theory of evolution, etc., why does our faith remain strong despite the many (if not the majority) who go along similar paths and end up losing their faith? What makes the difference?

There’s no easy answer, of course. Performing an autopsy of another person’s faith is tricky business, and will certainly require more “inside” details than our armchair analysis will be able to provide. So we usually pursue the least assuming and more promising line of inquiry, which is to examine the commonality of the experiences of those of us who hang on to faith despite its dramatically changing shape under serious scrutiny.

This is more of a “journal”, “web log” kind of post than an exposition. The following will in no way give you a complete picture: chances are that if you’re expecting this post to be an apologetic, you will be significantly underwhelmed. Nevertheless, while I was thinking about it I decided to jot down some of the factors that have contributed to my faith’s thriving (and I think many of these go for the friends I mentioned above as well, but you’ll have to ask them).  I focus here not on what makes me a theist, but what makes me persist as a Christian specifically.

Enduring interest
Obviously, an important component is that I am comfortable with (enthralled by, even) many of the teachings of Christianity, although I have since discarded so many of what more orthodox believers consider essential that they would roll their eyes to hear me say that. I have come to understand God primarily in terms of the message of Jesus, rather than Jesus’ purported actions (miracles, etc., even the Resurrection) or even in specific formulations of his message in the Gospels. In fact, I have accepted the revelation of modern scholarship that the Gospels actually represent the message of Jesus as interpreted by different and varied first century “Jesus communities”; especially considering their relatively late date (30+ years after Jesus), we have precious little reason to expect that they directly present Jesus’ message, but are, rather, later interpretations of his message.

Yet I’ve still not encountered anything that convinces me that the Gospel writers’ presentations of the man’s central message were really far afield. Indeed, despite the many differences between the Gospels, the distinctives of Jesus’ message are actually unmistakably close to one another: the first Gospel to be written already has Jesus framing his mission as the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and as MacDonald points out, what that kingdom looks like is remarkably consistent over all four Gospels (italics original, bold and bracketed remarks all mine):

What is the kingdom of Christ? A rule of love, of truth—a rule of service. The king is the chief servant in it. “The kings of the earth have dominion: it shall not be so among you.” “The Son of Man came to minister.” [both from Mark] “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” [in John, of Jesus’ healing of the sick] The great Workman is the great King, labouring for his own…The lesson added by St Luke to the presentation of the child is: “For he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.” And St Matthew says: “Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Hence the sign that passes between king and subject. The subject kneels in homage to the kings of the earth: the heavenly king takes his subject in his arms. This is the sign of the kingdom between them. This is the all-pervading relation of the kingdom.

Many now say that the Jesus of the Gospels was effectively created out of whole cloth by writers well removed from him. But this begs the very serious question never answered: why then did they all create specifically the Jesus of the Gospels? Oh sure there are differences, sometimes dramatic differences, in the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus, but that makes similarities such as Jesus’ preoccupation with and characterization of the Kingdom of God all the more significant. One must posit a source for these traditions, and we’ve certainly no better hypothesis than that this source was someone actually teaching these things — at very least planting the seeds among his followers. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, which is at bottom of willful servanthood, stands as what I consider the greatest and most important philosophy in history, inspiring me and countless others to be his disciple. As I have said before, even if I found out by proof positive that Jesus never rose from the dead in any sense, I would likely still consider myself “Christian”, at least in a philosophical sense (like a “Kantian”).

Decisive experience
Ok, so I like Jesus’ teachings — so do many people of other faiths and of no faith whatsoever. Still, I consider myself a “Christian” in a more spiritual sense than that.

My childhood faith, bolstered by a community of faithful believers (and particularly my parents), was delightfully rich. Although I’ve never been one to feel or talk as though “me and God hung out today,” I have always felt “connected” with Him in a mystical sense. Somehow, He’s a person I feel I’ve met and come to know better and better, and in actuality I always feel like I’m delusional for trying to deny this even in my thought experiments, like trying to convince yourself you’re not married when you have clear memories of your wedding and subsequent marriage relationship. My experiences with God, which comprise not only emotions but also consistent and lifelong observations of positive effects of belief in myself and others I know well, have been persistently profound even though somewhat intangible. I have seen no reason not to continue using them as something of an anchor.

Intellectual disposition
One more I’m going to mention here is the influence of certain personality characteristics which may help explain my upbeat attitude toward an ever evolving faith.

An extremely important factor for me was that my experience with faith and Christian belief was always one of discovery. So when the data started coming in that convinced me of evangelical Christianity’s flaws and errors, apart from a feeling of growing isolation from my community I was more than happy to glom onto that data not so much as a challenge to but as an expression of my faith in God.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the following never applies in the lives of the de-converted, but I know for a fact that it has influenced my lack of de-conversion. It is this: I never trusted easy answers to begin with, and so it wasn’t such a shock to have my evangelical faith overhauled by my close scrutiny. An unshakable uneasiness with simply accepting whatever was handed to me and the above mentioned thrill for the truth hunt have been prominent ever since my discovery as a seven-year-old of the discrepancy between what Genesis 1-2 says and what my book about prehistoric science said.

As Cliff is keen to point out, certainty in either direction is simply not in the cards. The dichotomy is not between doubt and faith — doubt is the qualifier that distinguishes a reasonable faith from an altogether blind faith — but between acknowledged and unacknowledged uncertainty. Christians and avowed atheists alike are simply going about their delusions of certainty in a different way. Christians who refuse to peek under the cover are not exercising faith but fear: fear of having to deal with uncertainty.  When former believers who embrace a thorough atheism as though it were the only option other than fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, they are not exercising healthy skepticism but cynicism, or laziness at best.

In any event, when I reached the fork in the road at the end of the evangelical path I had been led down, I had two choices: I could take the path of hopeful uncertainty or continue on another (very different) path of imagined certainty. The sign over the first path said, “I’m not certain it’s true, but I love it,” and the other said, “I don’t love it because I’m not certain it’s true.” For reasons such as those described above, I chose the former, “and that has made all the difference.”

As I said, this is not meant to be persuasive but as a window into some of my musings of late. Take from it what you will.

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