Posts Tagged ‘faith’

The role of doubt

Just posted over at Sojo. I like this one. Chime in with your thoughts.

God is Big Enough to Take Our Doubt and Anger

by Steve Holt 04-23-2010

“To believe is human, to doubt divine.”

Those words are central to the self-described “incendiary theology” Peter Rollins preaches. Amid a Christian culture known all too often for its belief in absolutes and pervasive positivity, Rollins completed a pre-Easter tour in April to give these communities the permission to doubt and lament. The 10-city “Insurrection Tour” didn’t take place in churches, but pubs.

That’s because a message touting doubt, questions, and skepticism is often not welcome in our sanctuaries. Pubs and bars, however, serve as venues for discussing life’s toughest issues nearly every night of the week.

Folks in the pews, Rollins asserts, doubt all the time. They have terrible days, feel oppressed and cheated, and wonder if there’s anything to this Jesus-y stuff. And then they come to church and hear motivational pep-talks and putridly positive prayers and music.

Not only that, Rollins maintains that churchgoers expect their churches to do their believing for them. Though it isn’t their reality, we eek our good feelings of faith off of our pastors and liturgies. But what if our pastors themselves stop believing? Well, last month, Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University released a study entitled “Preachers Who are not Believers.” One full-time minister the researchers interviewed, “Adam,” self-describes as an “atheist-agnostic.” Here’s how he says he handles his job on Sundays:

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.

He went on to describe why he sticks it out saying and doing things he doesn’t believe:

I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go.

How did we get to this point? Simple. We don’t allow each other to voice our questions and doubts. Church isn’t a place for questions, but absolutes. It’s certainly no place for shades of gray — black and white are our colors. We certainly don’t get this from the narrative of scripture, where we find a motley cast of characters who are quite comfortable expressing doubt and anger — even to God. Rollins paraphrased Kierkegaard, who, in his commentary on Job, advised the troubled man to yell at God because God can take it.

But the Insurrection Tour gave me hope for what is possible when faith communities not just allow doubt to enter, but embrace it. I was touched by the hauntingly beautiful poetry and music of Pádraig Ô Tuaman that reflected the pain and lament of the human soul. Johnny McEwan’s moving beats and graphics complemented Rollins’ provocative words and rounded out a night of spiritual exploration unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The church desperately needs poets and artists whose creations not only reflect the joy and beauty of life, but the pain.

What I and Christians everywhere need is the permission to be human, living and struggling daily with the range of human emotions. Sunday morning services — with their “love songs to Jesus,” as Rollins terms them — would have us believe that Christians are “in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” This is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny.

What if, little by little, we started to believe that God is big enough to take our doubt and anger? What if we changed our culture of false pretenses? What if we began to not only share our struggles along with our joys, but were present to lend an ear to a struggling friend, without judgment? What if our hymnody, sermons, and prayers began to reflect more fully the range of human emotions, including doubt, fear, and anger?

We will become healthier and more effective ambassadors of love when our gatherings — from the kitchen table to the Lord’s Table — become places where we can struggle with the existence and character of God. Because while a conclusion is the place we arrive when we’ve stopped thinking, struggling — even with faith — assumes movement. And in the kingdom of God, movement is rarely a bad thing.

wrestling with faith

So, lately, I’ve been viewing faith (and specifically faith in Christ) from the perspective of an “outsider” or skeptic.  Why would anyone believe this stuff?  What is “good” about the Good News?  How does faith make life today any better than life with no faith?  Are the faithful really more ethical than your average humanist?

And on and on.

Helping me along this path is Sam Harris, author of the 2004 New York Times bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  An outspoken atheist and humanist, Harris is actually one of the more civil voices coming out of the “new atheist” camp. (juxtaposed against the vitriolic Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens, among others)  I am not too far into the book, but already Harris is raising some really good points about some of the problems with religion.  I hope to share some especially meaningful passages on this blog in the coming weeks.

For the record, I am positively still a Christian, and an active one at that.  I just think it’s important — especially in a day when so many people simply do not accept our traditional “proofs” for the existence of God or relevance of faith — to begin to see things from other side of the fence instead of demonizing that side.

If you haven’t heard, comedian and HBO talk show host Bill Maher has a new movie called “Religulous.”  It’s a scripted, documentary-style comedy asking questions of and mercilessly poking fun at every major religion.  If you’ve seen Maher’s stand-up act or watched his show, you’ll know he pulls no punches.  But behind the slapstick and downright meanness, Maher has some real issues with religion, and we’d be smart to take heed when he says something of substance.  Remember, this is the guy who said this a few years ago:

It’s a shame that Christianity has gone so far from the teachings of Jesus. I don’t know anyone less Jesus-like than most Christians.

The other night, in an interview on Larry King Live about “Religulous,” Maher made a good point:

One thing I don’t like about religion is — and ask any of the truly devout — it’s not mainly about doing the right thing or being ethical, it’s mainly about salvation.  It’s mainly about getting your butt saved when you die.  And that’s why I think they’re less moral than ethicists.

Is this a fair critique?  What do you think?

my political journey

mccain and obama

If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year.

(Some of you just muttered to yourself, “So that’s why they keep showing that toothy guy and old man on the news!”)

A certain excitement surrounds presidential elections.  Much of it is media-induced, as was evident by the earlier-than-ever start to the primary season (summer 2007).  But a lot of it is, I think, a genuine yearning in the hearts of Americans to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, or move in a new direction.  That’s why every candidate in the race is using buzz words like “hope” and “change” and “new direction.”  I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t more than a little caught up in the political fever myself.

But I’ve come to a point where I can no longer attach any of those adjectives — hope, change, etc — in their deepest, truest meanings, to the political process.  Though I am still a deeply political person, I refuse to be political in the way we are told to be political — by voting, by supporting one of two major parties, by pushing for legislation, by seeking to leverage my own power and strength.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.

My parents raised my brother and me to be good Democrats.  We denigrated Reagan economic policy around the house and rooted for Dukakis to defeat George Bush and the Republican machine in 1988.  The 1990s were political glory days around our house … Bubba could do no wrong.  He was a guy to whom my dad, who has spent much of his life in Arkansas’ neighboring Memphis, could relate.  In his smooth, Southern accent, he spoke of compassion and peace and health care for all Americans.  Even Clinton’s legal woes with Watergate and Monica-gate didn’t diminish the big guy’s celebrity around the house.  Heading off to college, I had received more than my fair share of political indoctrination — not in a heavy-handed way, but in the subtle way parents pass along their own ideologies to their kids.  Needless to say, I went off to college in Texas with my mind made up about whom I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

al gore mask

In fact, when I arrived on campus at my overwhelmingly Republican university, I immediately joined the tiny but faithful College Democrats club.  At the first meeting, I was even selected to serve as the vice president during the 2000-2001 year.  That election year, we would show up for debates against the College Republicans (a veritable machine on campus…), sign folks in town up to vote, attempt to broaden the debate on campus from just two issues dealing with sexuality to issues of justice, the environment, and the economy.  Looking back, this snot-nosed freshman really didn’t know what the heck he thought about much of anything, certainly not enough to deserve the VP position in the college Dems.  I think I was more concerned with being different from my “war-loving, vitriol-spewing, poor people-oppressing, trust fund baby” (my perhaps misguided thoughts at the time) Republican friends.  (you should have seen my Al Gore Halloween costume, though…)

I think we all remember what happened in the 2000 election.

“Projected Winner: Al Gore” … oh, wait.  Hanging chads.  Gore wins the popular vote.  Florida Supreme Court.  Bush wins, weeks later, by a hair.  Gore cries (has he stopped?).

We were all devastated.

Most of our friends were electrified.  A Texas boy had made good and gotten to the White House.  Bush’s supporters at the university that gave him an honorary degree (along with Charlton Heston) could finally say they knew him when…

I developed a much more robust personal political philosophy over the next few years, primarily because I had so much material to work with.  Right out of the gate, George W. Bush’s cowboy attitude just rubbed me the wrong way.  (and as a writer, the Bushisms annoyed the heck out of me!)  Then came 9/11, which I helped cover for the school newspaper of which I was a member, and the political poo hit the fan.  We were staging an all-out retaliation in a country that had little, if anything, to do with what happened to us on that Tuesday morning in New York.  America’s leaders, led by Bush himself, took a page from the Toby Keith school of foreign policy and threatened to “put a boot in the ass” of anyone who crossed us.

Patriotism was also at an all-time high.  One could see flags everywhere, and often they were accompanied by pithy statements like “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  Even many so-called progressives rallied behind the flag and our president and supported returning the slap that Islamic terrorists had given us.  Through all this flag-waving, though, I kept thinking, “What about the Afghan children?  Are they less precious than our own children?  Is our own ‘homeland security’ more important than Afghanistan’s?”

iraqi child

Then we invaded Iraq.  The rationale never quite squared with me.  Tension had been building for months over supposed WMDs inside Iraq, but to date, none had been found.  Then came Dubya on the TV set during primetime saying we had begun a “shock & awe” attack on Baghdad in an effort to free the Iraqi people from tyrannical Saddam Hussein.  No mention of WMDs.  There was, however, some connection made to what happened to us on 9/11, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) see how any of that rationale adds up.  All I saw was an emboldened empire seeking to expand its reach using military might.  It was way beyond retaliation at this point … this was pre-emptive war.  I saw it then and I see it now. (photo credit: David Leeson, 2003)

The night of the shock & awe campaign, I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper applauding the US for attempting to root out Saddam quickly and without much collateral damage.  A quick in and out procedure.  Five years and 60,000 deaths later…

These events, as well as the ongoing war, kick-started my disillusionment with the tactics of the U.S. Government in foreign policy.  I began to see that the American project doesn’t exactly square with my primary identity as a citizen in God’s kingdom, and that both political parties (not just one, as I’d previously thought) were guilty.  Sure, the parties talk a good game with regard to justice and values, but in the end, the status quo must be maintained.  (which means people around the world and right under our noses are squeezed to the margins or destroyed)  These realizations were further underscored when I began investigating the un-reported intimidation, extortion, dishonesty, and even murder US officials were committing around the world to bolster the wealth and power of the nation. (John Perkins’ memoir, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” was especially eye-opening)  This is about when I began referring to America as an Empire.  That’s right, empire — like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. (watch this video if you’re not convinced)

Indeed, the lily-white history of the United States I received in elementary school was, for the first time, in question in my mind. As my eyes were opened to the reality that my fellow countrymen and women were killing my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American church stands behind such action — even cheering it on — a new light was shed on how the last 200 years or so have proven to be a slow march toward empire-building for America.  In light of these realities, how could I comply with the political system, as is?  How could I put any hope in a system that, at its very essence, places nation over the Cross?  Furthermore, how could I continue to support candidates and parties that support economic systems that run counter to God’s economics policy of Jubilee?

In the 2004 election, my wife and I placed opposing votes in Texas in order to cancel the other’s out.  This was our first act of political subversion, albeit largely insignificant. It was, however, significant for us personally, setting us on a pathway of deepening our identities as citizens first and foremost in God’s kingdom, not man’s.

For the last four years, my political theory — in light of my theological convictions as a follower of Jesus — has been shaped and formed, and the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Claiborne, and others have impacted me greatly.

Many have traded the political ideologies of the Religious Right (a failed experiment) for more progressive political views, still informed by faith.  Leaders in this movement, which include Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, among others, have correctly called Christians to broaden their view of justice and righteousness from a couple sexual issues to include the environment, poverty, economic disparity, consumerism, and peace.  In many ways, I have these thinkers to thank for sparking the conversation about the problems in the current political system and foci among Christians.  I have come to see, however, that these leaders are still calling for participation in the politics of Empire in order to attain societal justice.  And while the movement claims to be “non-partisan,” anyone with their eyes open can see that it has become the Christian Left.  And because the Left is just as hell-bent as the Right about maintaining and expanding empire, maintaining a consumerist economy, and waging war, I cannot with a clean conscience adhere to this movement. (though I consider many who do my friends)

I just finished Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw’s new book, Jesus For President, which to a great degree spells out where I’ve come politically.  It’s the book I would have liked to have written.

the lamb

JFP maintains that Jesus was in fact political (it is a common misconception that he wasn’t), but not in the conventional way of the time.  He subverted the Roman Empire with his words and deeds and even the names people ascribed to him, which were all dripping with political irony and meaning.  He continually established and underscored his own kingship (not Caesar’s), and promised that true, sustainable change would occur when people fix their eyes on Jesus and join Jesus in the work of reconciling all things. A thorough and open-minded reading of the Gospels sheds light on this convincingly, I think.  So it’s not a question of whether Jesus-followers are to be political, but how this is done.  (more on this in the days to come)

Furthermore, God knew that too much power in the hands of sin-proned humans was a dangerous thing.  (see the Old Testament for example after example)  Yet the cries of the people — “We want a king!” — prevailed, and God gave them over to their wishes.  (with a not-so-subtle warning, of course)  Today, millions of Christians are yelling, “We want a king!”  Their ideal king may have an (R) or a (D) after his name, may make promises that fit their values to a T, and may in their minds hold the last hopes for a just and righteous society, but in the end, the candidate is an imperfect, frail human.  And I’ve said it before, but I’m convinced that the office of President — or state rep, senator, congressman, mayor, or any political office — shapes the person much more than the person shapes the office.  In the end, Barack Obama and John McCain will be just as interested in Empire-building and war-mongering as any other president who has come along.  The machine simply cannot be stopped.

So this is where I’m at politically.  I want to stand with the poor and marginalized now more than ever, but I don’t believe the voting booth is where I should stand.  I want to see God’s “kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven” now more than ever, but the Empire — with its penchant for war, expansion, wealth-creation, and being first (Jesus told us to be last) — is diametrically opposed to this dream.  God’s peculiar people must continue the work set forth by our brothers and sisters throughout history to affirm that only God can create a new reality, establish justice, and sit on the throne — as King.

Using Jesus For President as a guide, the next few posts will focus on ways the people of God can be more political than ever, while not bowing to the idols of nation or investing in a broken political system.  It can be done, but as Claiborne and Haw (and Brueggemann before them) say repeatedly, it’s going to take an ample dosage of “prophetic imagination.”

faith as language learning

I’ve often been frustrated at my inability to speak conversational Spanish, despite four years of it in high school and a minor in it in college.  Everyone always tells me, “Steve, you just need that immersion experience in a Spanish-speaking country, ya know?”

I recently heard about the Transnational College of Lex, a fascinating community created in Tokyo in 1984 to research the unique relationships between human beings and languages. Based on initial and ongoing study, LEX Language Project Clubs, where individuals and families are immersed in a community where several languages are spoken at once, were formed. No books. No grammar lessons. No teachers. No tests. Just people interacting and learning naturally. Based on their success in bringing people together in community to learn multiple languages, LEX Language Clubs have popped up in cities all over the world, including Boston. Read this brief description of why the clubs work:

LEX Language Project, organized by LEX America, offers opportunities for multicultural and multilingual exploration to all people.

LEX encourages people to participate with family and friends, because when an entire family gets involved in the LEX language activities, the natural, total immersion environment that is best for acquiring languages is established. Family and community involvement in this program is essential to its success. Only in the richness of human relationships can real learning occur.

Languages are Like Music: Begin by Humming the Tune

At clubs we often say, “sing the sounds.” This is more than just a metaphor. At first we try to sing the big wave of language, the rhythm and melody which constitute the “Chinese-ness” of Chinese, or the “French-ness” of French.

Babies love music. At LEX gatherings, even babies who can’t walk yet will sway to the sounds of a song. Infants don’t learn their native language by breaking the language down into little pieces of grammar and vocabulary or by looking in a dictionary, thus children or adults do not need to learn other languages that way.

Without understanding the meaning of another language, people can begin to speak all the words, as if in a song. There are no mistakes, only exploration. If one does not even know where the separations between words are, the “past tense” or “plural form” or “articles” are all hidden inside of the whole, and it is impossible to be confused by them.

As my friend was telling me about this, I began to think about faith. I wonder if faith formation is more like learning a language through immersion and relationship than learning by being taught, mastering the do’s and don’ts of grammar, taking tests, reading books, etc. I began to think about the traditional ways that people of faith pass it on — studies, lectures, book and Scripture assignments, etc. Many faith traditions place a premium on the mastery of propositional truths and proofs, and these virtues shine through in the dominate methods of proselytizing.

There seems to be a renewed emphasis, however, on faith as a way of life. For Christians, we believe the way of Jesus is the very best way to experience abundant “life before death.” We believe we have been saved into a way of life that reflects — though imperfectly — our original humanity and goodness. We are learning how to be human again, how to reflect the glory of our Creator.

In this way, faith formation is a lot like learning a language. I dream of a world in which vibrant communities of faith popped up all over the world with the purpose of creating a space in which to be immersed in the gospel way of life. I dream of faith communities whose “tune” is so beautiful and lifestyle so attractive, outsiders are compelled to begin “humming along.”

We’ve got to stop trying so hard to make people see things our way.

We’ve got to stop forcing the sheet music down people’s throats before they’ve learned to hum along.

We’ve got to start living like communities who have something to say with our lives, and stop talking so much.

Can we do that?