In the Fall of 1988, my friend Dave and I were sitting in a large conference hall listening to a man named Bill Gothard as he shared with us and a few thousand other “troubled teens” about how they can get their lives on the right path by following a series of principles that he carefully laid out for all of us. Dave lived with his grandmother and she paid our way into the conference, believing that we needed the spiritual “redirect” that this was supposed to provide. Dave was estranged from his parents, and I was from a broken home, so she figured that we were prime candidates for Gothard’s teachings. Thankfully, Dave had his driver’s license, and we were allowed to attend unaccompanied by the watchful eye of his strict grandmother. We swore to her that we would go, and we did, for about one hour each day (at most). Then we would look at each other, get up and mozy out the door for an afternoon of doing whatever we wanted to do (yes, I am sidestepping the ethical questions about lying to his grandmother).
Other than the fact that sitting through a multi-day, hours-long seminar wasn’t our idea of a good time, we were certainly not interested in hearing from someone who was of the opinion that all forms of rock-n-roll were evil. We didn’t get much past that portion of his very rigid belief system (thankfully).
While I can say that I wasn’t raised on Bill Gothard, his approach to faith is one example of a “way” of believing that I was raised with… the idea that your beliefs were not to be questioned.
I can recall having a “defense guide,” just in case any of those pesky doubts came pouring in. I’ll never forget the book: When Skeptics Ask, by Norman Geisler. It was a guillotine for questions about Christianity. The blade was sharp and at the ready for any question you might ask. I don’t remember who turned me on to this book, but I’m guessing it was one youth minister in particular, who was of the mind that argumentation was the best presentation of his Christianity to those who didn’t share his faith.
In spite of that youth minister’s best efforts, doubt has been a part of my faith journey for a long time. I’ve read plenty of answer books from the best that Christian apologetics have to offer and those authors make a lot of sense for the most part. But there are a few major problems with using apologetics as a way to resolve doubts:
- They’ve never led me to trust God
- They usually fuel an “us vs. them” approach to Christianity
- They assume that having an answer to these questions will result in a satisfying faith experience
- They don’t always fully satisfy the difficult questions of our faith
This criticism of apologetics isn’t new or unique, but I mention it because I think it is still common to hear “helpful counter arguments” as a response to those who express any doubts about their Christian beliefs. While that may help someone think through faith issues on occasion, there is a tendency among Christians to use them to shut down the voice of doubt, instead of listening wisely.
I recently had a phone conversation with a friend who shared about how he has ended up at a place much like agnosticism. He’s been a pastor and grew up in a strong, very conservative church in California. Especially because of one very difficult experience, he is confused and angry about what he was taught about God in his formative years. Without going into all the things that led up to this, I can tell you that one important part of his story is that the church hasn’t known how to respond to his struggle.
I had nothing in the way of answers to help him resolve the struggle. My response wasn’t formulaic in any way and really not intentional, but it turned out something like this:
I shared some of my story around the doubts I’ve struggled with,
I shared why I’m hanging on (sometimes barely),
I shared the ways it continues to be difficult,
and then I invited more conversation.
In no way was that meant to serve as the “answer” he may or may not be looking for. In fact, the conversation may have benefitted me more than it did him. And that’s the point. The conversation was the benefit, not some ironclad argument that is meant to scare off doubts and questions. What keeps the church from having these kinds of conversations without isolating or patronizing people?
Probably because certainty is more important to us than honesty about our beliefs. Until that changes, we won’t be able to have the kinds of conversations that real doubts will always require.
For those of us who have a penchant for questioning just about everything, doubt will always come back to the door of our faith with a steady, unrelenting knock. I’m making it a habit to answer the door and invite it in with the hopes that the conversation will lead to a more resilient faith.