2009-01-28

Dealing with Doubt: What happens when life and God don't make sense together?


A Talk for GAP on TAP
2009.01.28
Copyright 2009 Nathan L. Bostian

Tonight our topic is "Dealing with Doubt: What happens when life and God don't make sense together?" Have you ever had doubts? Doubts about God, Jesus, Scripture, Christianity, or religion in general? What do YOU do when what you experience in life does not seem to mesh with what you know- or thought you knew- about God?

There are some forms of religion- of Christianity in particular- who view doubt as the chief enemy of faith in God. The object of this form of spirituality is to build such an immense foundation of faith, with such high walls of proof and certainty surrounding it, that nothing could ever possibly cause the great Castle of Religion to collapse. The irony of course is that no matter how thick the foundation is, the shifting soils of experience cause cracks all the time.

And when the cracks appear people are left with the alternative of pretending they do not see the cracks, or running away from the collapsing castle wall as fast as they can. We have all met people of both types. We all know people who think they have to defend their religion to the point of absurdity, ignoring or dismissing any doubts that may arise. We also all know people who perhaps grew up in a restrictive, exclusive form of religion and then "lost faith" at some point in their lives. Now faith is just some kind of joke for naive people.

Perhaps, like me, we have actually BEEN these types of people. Perhaps, like me, you can identify with the words of Songwriter Sting in his song "If I ever lost my faith in you" [play song].

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do

Some would say I was a lost man in a lost world
You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV
You could say I'd lost my belief in our politicians
They all seemed like game show hosts to me

If I ever lose my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do

I could be lost inside their lies without a trace
But every time I close my eyes I see your face

I never saw miracle of science
That didn't go from blessing to a curse
I never saw no military solution
That didn't always end up as something worse but
Let me say this first

If I ever lose my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do

Sting here sounds like the posterchild for what it means to live in the 21st century Western world. Some call this world "emerging", others call it "postmodern", still others call it "postsecular", and finally some call it "postchristian". Perhaps they are all right.

We live in a condition where we have seen 20 centuries of utopian schemes implode. We have seen the utopian scheme of Christian Europe implode in the crusades, inquisitions, and reformations of the middle ages. We have seen the utopian schemes of nation-states with national-churches implode in two world wars and two atomic bombs. We have seen leftist utopian dreams implode as the Berlin Wall and Kremlin fell. Likewise, we are seeing the right wing dreams of utopian free markets implode with investment scandals and a ravenous consumerism that leaves used and abused communities in its wake. The utopian dream of technology and time-saving devices only seem to create MORE work, MORE multitasking, and LESS ability to concentrate on what really matters. Who here does not feel captive, some times, to their cell phones, text messages, emails, twitters, and facebooks!

In fact, no matter what our pet utopian scheme is- no matter if it based in politics or religion, self-improvement or community activism- it seems that our schemes fail to achieve the ends we have envisioned for them. We say "true, but if only this was changed, it would be a success… If only we could try it MY way." Perhaps. Or more probably, we would just join the last 20 centuries of failed "if only's".

Sting, with a prophetic voice, speaks of at least four areas of doubt that we struggle with in our common lives:

First, we have lost our faith in the secular dream of "science and progress". Along with Sting, who among us has not seen a "miracle of science, that didn't go from blessing to a curse". Don't get me wrong. I love refrigeration. I love modern medicine. I even love my iPhone, when I'm not busy cringing while it rings and blings off the hook. I would not want to go back to a time without most of my technological conveniences.

But the same technology that allows us to split subatomic particles allows us to destroy entire cities. The same GPS technology that can get us anywhere in America without a missed turn is the same technology that allows us to flip a switch and bomb anyone, anywhere, at any time without even thinking about their humanity. The same technology that allows us to have fast transportation and fast food also destroys our ecosystems in big and small ways. And the technology that makes us able to communicate with anyone, also opens the doors for unimagined invasions of privacy.

Sting is right. Every opportunity that science opens seems to also open up a doorway for oppression and destruction. Technology is not an unqualified good, nor a guarantee of "progress".

Second, Sting notes that we have lost our faith "in our politicians, they all seemed like game show hosts to me". I know I am treading on thin ice here, with the election of a new president who brings so much charisma, vision, and hope with him into office. I pray for him that he will be truly outstanding- someone who unites this country as never before. "If only" he can do it.

But, looking at the last five centuries of Western politics, and the last two and a half centuries of American politics, I also believe in being realistic. Every ruler, every president, every elected body in our history has fallen far short of the hopes and dreams of those who put them in power, and has to some degree earned the criticism of those who opposed them. None of the political schemes- nor matter how far left or right they have been- have effected the eradication of the basic causes of oppression and its victims.

While politics undoubtedly does SOME good, Sting is basically right. There seems to be something at the core of human pain and suffering that defies a political solution.

Sting even speaks of our lost faith in those who are supposed to be the guardians of Truth in our culture. We have lost our faith "in the people on TV". Gone are the days when Walter Cronkite would give us the objective truth about the world on the evening news. Now we are in the world of talking heads. We are in the world of politicized and consumerized news. We pick our news vendors based on what our political or cultural affiliation is.

We no longer watch or read or listen to the news passively. We ask ourselves "What is the spin here? What are they trying to sell me? Who are they trying to get me to vote for?" Most importantly, we ask "What is being left out here?"

With these three critiques- of technology, of politics, and of the media- Sting is steering us into a cultural space that is "postmodern" and "postsecular". It is post-modern because we can no longer believe in the "modern" dream was some sort of peaceful utopia brought about by human effort and skill. After three centuries of the modern dream, we just seem to keep killing more people century after century, decade after decade. The 20th century amassed the biggest bodycount in world history, and the 21st century doesn't seem to be starting out any better.

It is "post-secular" because we have come to realize that there is no "secular", objective, value-free space to evaluate culture, apart from personal bias and ideology. Instead, the Western secular tradition sounds a lot like a University-educated upper-class European who systematically excludes the voices of other cultures and other genders from the discussion. And while that might seem all academic, it has caused no end of trouble with our dealings with other non-European nations.

So far, Sting has extended the area of our postmodern doubt to technology, politics, and the media. But that is not all. He extends our doubt in a post-christian direction as well.

In subtle ways, with Sting, we have lost our "belief in the holy church" as well. We are all swimming in a ocean of postchristian culture. For instance, as recently as a century ago, Church leaders were regularly pop-culture superstars. Theological discussions and debates used to routinely make it on the front page of newspapers. Theologians and Church leaders were sought out for commentary on politics, philosophy, culture, and even science.

Now, how many of us would not be skeptical of a Church leader speaking publicly as an expert on any of these topics? How many of us would be uneasy with a leader of "the Faith" making public declarations about "secular" matters? How many of us are profoundly uneasy about making our own opinions known about religious faith and politics, or faith and science, or faith and culture?

What has made the difference? Why the change? What has caused our trust in religious faith to shrink to such a tiny, private area of our lives (if we even give it that much)?

The answers to that question are manifold. We might have doubts caused by the amount of suffering that has been caused in the Name of God and religion. We might have doubts caused by the fact that religion- especially conservative religion- often seems to be on the wrong side of history in areas like civil rights or women's rights. We might have doubts about whether the foundational documents of religion- such as Scripture- or the foundational doctrines of religion- such as our Creeds- seem to be at odds with what we know from Science and History.

Or, our doubts might arise from a more fundamental sense of uneasiness about the presence of God in History. Things are changing so fast, and the world often seems to be spinning out of control. People are suffering all over the place, and we seem to devise new methods of creating suffering every day. If God is good, and God is love, then where is God in all of this? God seems to be absent, or perhaps asleep at the wheel.

Finally, our doubts might arise from personal experience. We just don't feel God there with us anymore. Perhaps God was there once, but God just seems so distant now. Where is God in all of this?

What is the solution to all of this? Should we put our religious blinders on and just build up the walls of faith, and ignore the doubts? Should we just choose one form of rigorous fundamental religion, that will spoon-feed us all the answers, and leave us no room for doubt?

Or perhaps we should just give in to doubt. There is nothing to have faith in. All is meaningless and a chasing after the wind. Eat, drink, and be merry- for tomorrow we die. Just submerge all those deep questions about the Meaning of Existence, and suffocate our yearning for a Love that transcends this Life, and give up on faith.

Or is there another way?

In the midst of all his doubt Sting seems to have an object of faith which transcends his doubts, and is able to carry Him through his doubts. Sting only refers to this person as "you". Who is the "you" who he puts his faith in?

Is this "you" another person: Perhaps a lover, or spouse, or friend, or even a parent? Perhaps. But, judging from the entire catalogue of songs by Sting and the Police, he seems to understand well how fickle human love is- especially human romantic Love. People leave. People grow apart. People die.

I don't think Sting's "you" is another human, but someone who transcends humanity, politics, technology, and even religion. Now, Sting, as far as I know, is a Buddhist. His "you" probably refers to the Nameless power that sustains all existence. "You" is Sting's name for the Reality that gives all reality its real-ness.

And I will go this far with Sting. But perhaps, just perhaps, this Nameless power took on a Name once. Perhaps the Nameless One entered History as a real person and struggled with doubt in the same way we do. What if this invulnerable power became vulnerable- just like everyone in this room- and cried out in doubt and anguish "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

And what if that Nameless Power with a Human Name was filled with a Love that actually defeated death, and opened a path of Hope for us? What if that embodied God understands our doubts and sufferings because He experienced them personally? And what if this Person- this "You" that beckons for our faith- what if He deals with our doubts by walking with us THROUGH doubt, rather than rescuing us FROM doubt?

And finally, what if this embodied God does not punish us for our doubt, but treats us like he did his friend "doubting Thomas". Thomas doubted the resurrection. Thomas had lost all hope. Thomas would not believe until he saw and touched Jesus. Jesus showed Himself to Thomas in just the way he needed, to make it through his doubt.

What if- in the middle of a world where politics fails, and technology fails, and media fails, and even religion fails- what if there is a Embodied God who will walk with us through our doubt, in just the way we need, when we need this God the most?
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.