Thursday, April 12, 2007

Compass Point #8 Doubt and Disbelief in the Life of Discipleship

What does it mean to be a Christian? That's the question I've been exploring now for several weeks, after I saw a CNN program with Anderson Cooper that explored that very issue. Some of those profiled by Cooper were Christians whose faith I recognized and identified with. Others, particularly those from the Christian right, offered up statements and commitments about faith that I reject. Does that sound harsh?

Consider these statements from Christopher Morse's book Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics (theology) of Christian Disbelief:

"To believe in God is not to believe everything. In fact, it is hard to imagine what believing everything would mean....Surely a tendency to trust everything without awareness of what is untrustworthy is not the faith in God to which we have been called by the gospel. But are there some things that Christian faith refuses to believe? And if so, how do we come to recognize what they are?"

"Running through the traditions of scripture within the Bible there is what may be termed a call to "faithful disbelief" A key instance of this is most simply expressed in words of the First Epistle of John: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (I John 4: 1)

"Faithful disbelief" occupies an important place in the life of faith. As Morse rightly points out, how could we believe everything? Over a year ago, while I was visiting in Rome, my son and I visited the church where Galileo stopped to pray before facing the rather terrifing trial regarding the orthodoxy of his faith. Galileo had the temerity to suggest that the sun does not revolve around the earth. Not a smart thing to say at the time! It took the church quite a while to acknowledge that Galileo was correct and the church was wrong. That would not be the last instance of a courageous soul facing up to the power of a church bent on obedience, even when the solitary, courageous human spirit was in the right.

It's becoming more prevalent to hear state governments making official apologies for complicity with slavery in our nation's history. My own home state, North Carolina, recently issued a statement of "contrition" for condoning slavery in its past history. That sounds rather biblical, that word contrition. The psalmist knew something of what it meant to seek a "contrite heart". On occasion, I think it would be good for most every religious body to make a clean admission of error.

Many times the church has called for obedience and assent to certain aspects of supposedly right belief that were later acknowledged to be wrong. Church bodies in recent years have made statements of repentance for tacitly condoning slavery. Southern Baptists have done so. Some have admitted limited understandings of ministry in years past by not calling women as well as men to all offices of ministry. Others like the Southern Baptists continue their intransigence on that topic.

And now, some church bodies are expressing regret for a profoundly inadequate appreciation for God's good creation, the planet earth, which more and more Christians now realize is a sacred trust that we must manage with tender care and reverence. The current debate over global warming is part of that ongoing dispute. I admired the National Association of Evangelicals for backing its Vice President, Richard Cizek, who was under fire by the likes of James Dobson of Focus on the Family, after Cizek led the NAE in addressing such issues as global warming and for issuing a declaration opposing the use of torture in war. A process of doubt and examination of previous assumptions about the core of faith "undoubtedly" played a role in this evolution of evangelical understanding by the NAE.

The upcoming lectionary reading for this Sunday is John 20: 24-31 which includes the story of "doubting Thomas". Mention the word doubt in Christian circles, ask people their initial reaction to that word at a gut level and wait for the responses. Rarely do people first express an appreciation for the place of doubt in faith. The Apostle Paul celebrates the triune virtues of "faith,hope, and love", but I would add another to that list, "faith, hope, love and doubt." Without a place for doubt, I know I could not be a Christian. There would be no place for me to have faith in such a worldview.

How is doubt a powerful aid to confront false belief? I find that question to be crucial in the practice of discipleship and faith. Look around you and see the beliefs and practices that ought to be doubted. Some courageous people have been distinguished by the fact that in the face of universally accepted falsehoods, they dared to stand up and cry: "I doubt that." Without doubt, as many have observed, only an oppressive status quo and its established dogmas would exist.

What I appreciate about this Sunday's lectionary is how Jesus treated Thomas. Jesus does not shame Thomas for his questioning faith. Rather, he invites Thomas to reach out with his hand and touch the wounds in his hands and side. Doubt, it seems to me, is sometimes a wounded faith or idealistic trust that needs acceptance and healing. Doubting people recognize the credibility and authenticity of those who have suffered for what they believe and trust and are willing to risk.

Someone has written that Thomas is the "apostle from the show me state," almost the official slogan for the state of Missouri. Having lived in Missouri for almost ten years, I find that comment humorous. But I don't think it was just stubbornness on Thomas' part. He was willing to stand apart from a conventional faith that doesn't question; he was also willing to engage in an earnest search for Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life." Call him the first seeker!


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