Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Necessity of Doubt: Evolution

Direct your attention, if you will, to Colossians 2:8, an intricate and often-misused verse by Paul:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (ESV quoted)
Paul has just finished talking about the supremacy of Christ (1:15-20) and Paul's sharing in His sufferings (1:24-2:1), for the encouragement of the Colossians (2:1-7) so that they would not be deluded with "plausible arguments" (2:4), but would "reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ" (2:2). After 2:8, which acts as a sort of fulcrum to Paul's discourse, he begins expounding on the work of Christ in the flesh and the believers' identification with His death and resurrection. Even though this verse mostly consists of a list of warnings, it's worth putting some thought into what exactly Paul is talking about. He warns about four things, which I think are expanding on the "plausible arguments" he mentions earlier:
  • Philosophy. 
  • Empty deception.
  • Human tradition.
  • Elemental spirits (or elementary principles) of the world.
Bad philosophy/theology (I don't think there was much of a distinction at the time). Empty, false words. Manmade traditions that disguise moralism as true religion. Most puzzlingly, "elementary principles". Basically, Paul is warning the Colossians to watch their theology and keep it centered on Christ. Paul argues against numerous false theologies in his letters, but we get some clues as to what he is referring to here a few verses later (16-23):
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Here we see some examples of the kind of "human" wisdom Paul is warning the Colossians against. By "philosophy" Paul seems to be referring to things like legalism, asceticism, and mysticism--in short, doomed, manmade ways of trying to gain access to God when He has made the only way through Christ. These philosophies continue to hold sway today both inside and outside the church. The meaning of "elemental spirits" (or elementary principles) is still somewhat mysterious. David Guzik in his commentary offers the theory that Paul might simply mean the so-called "retribution principle" or "karma"; you get what you deserve, good things for good people and bad things for bad people, so be good in order to gain favor with your god. It's the basis of much of life, but is flatly contradictory to the gospel.

So Paul is, on the one hand, warning the Colossians against replacing the grace of Christ with the hopeless treadmill of legalism and trying to earn their way to God's favor and, on the other, replacing the concrete realities of Christianity with subjective, feel-good, new-age mysticism. Both of these philosophies are empty, human in origin, and antithetical to Paul's message.

With that relatively firm foundation of understanding established, I'll turn next to the reason I'm expounding on Colossians 2:8: an online discussion I read yesterday in which it was used as a rebuke to the "Satanic philosophy" of evolution. (No link because I'm not trying to humiliate the poster) Aside from the way he was demonizing people who supported the theory of evolution as much as the theory itself, there are several things that trouble me about linking it with the hollow philosophy Paul was warning against, which speak to the popular conception today that Christians are in some kind of a "war" against science.

First is the conservative Christian tendency to conflate the descriptive scientific theory of evolution and the normative philosophy of social Darwinism. A moral system that gives the strong free rein to triumph over the weak can be evaluated in light of God's desire for human relations and its ultimate effects. An attempt to explain how life on earth came to be the way that it is, is no more good or evil than an attempt to establish that the earth orbits the sun. You would think Christians (Protestants especially) would have learned from Galileo not to use religion to quash scientific inquiry, but apparently not. Christians, especially conservative Christians, often have trouble distinguishing the science of evolution from an anti-God, humanistic worldview when the two are not so inextricably bound together.

Besides this association between science and morality, many Christians deny evolution because "it says God didn't create the world in seven days, six thousand years ago, and that's a damned lie!" It is in this spirit that evolution is written off as the "empty philosophy" Paul warns against. Of course the usual, most-publicized conflict pitting one particular interpretation of Genesis 1 against scientific consensus is unlikely to give anytime soon, even though numerous other nonliteral interpretations of the creation story, ranging from the day-age theory to the literary-framework theory, affirm (in some sense) the truth of scripture while avoiding blatant incompatibilities with evolution. Combined with the fact that the means by which ancient cultures defined a "day" (the sun and moon) weren't created until "day" four, the strictly literal interpretation becomes untenable. Only when the young-earth view is portrayed as equivalent to the truth of scripture is there any inevitable conflict between science and religion.

But there is a more fundamental problem that I'm honestly surprised isn't the one dominating the church debate over evolution. An "elementary principle" of evolution is the idea of natural selection or "survival of the fittest": fitter, better-adapted species are better able to survive and reproduce, while less-fit species can't make it and die out. Die out. Die. The Bible teaches that death is an alien force, the consequence of sin (Romans 6:23), an enemy to God to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), alien to God's creation and originating in Adam's act of sin (Romans 5:12). The image God gives John of the perfect, restored Earth is one with no more death (Revelation 21:4); since God originally made the earth "good" and perfect, without mistakes, it follows that death was also originally absent from creation. In light of this, it is inconceivable that natural selection, and death with it, could have held sway over the world before the time of man, because this would mean that God created death, thus casting His Son's coming to defeat death in a much different light. Death is not "a natural part of life" or "the way it's supposed to be".

Now we arrive at a much deeper incompatibility between Christianity (as we know it) and evolution. Young-earth creationism is dispensable to Christianity; the "bad-ness" of death is not, as far as I can see. Unlike the YEC/evolution debate, which involves a necessary contradiction about the age of the earth among other things, there are possible ways to resolve this problem (such as an earlier, undocumented "fall" of Satan and his angels which corrupted creation), but none have enough scriptural support to be believed with conviction. In light of this, I'm currently agnostic about exactly how the biblical and scientific data on the origins of life fit together--and that's okay with me.

The agnostic response, however, is very uncommon from Christians who find their faith somehow in conflict the the external world. A more common response goes something like this: faith, the Bible says, is believing without seeing. It means trusting the "better word" of Christ above every "empty claim" upon the earth. So when our faith comes in conflict with the observable facts of this world, faith, if it is real and salvific, has to win. Therefore you should cling to your understanding on faith of the issue (usually a plain-faced, literal interpretation) and deny whatever it is in the world that is trying to contradict it, be it evolution, gay-rights advocates, or those doctors who don't think God will heal your cancer.

The problem with this response is that we aren't exactly pitting the "better word" of what God has said against the "empty claims" of the world, but our understanding of what God has said against the world. Just as scientific data needs to be interpreted before any meaningful claims can be made from it, so too the biblical data needs to be interpreted. When we confuse our faith in an infallible object with the object of faith itself, we lose the ability to admit we might be mistaken in (parts of) our faith. Faith, which is meant to draw us up out of ourselves and begin real conversation, is instead used to suppress conversation and affirm our previously held conceptions. The equation by well-meaning Christians of any compromise in their interpretation with a compromise in their faith is the root of hordes of unnecessary arguments and obstacles to faith. In the name of "holding on to what we believe", Christians become unwilling or unable to admit when we are wrong.

The process I just described is, I think, one of the biggest hindrances to the Christian church's witness, particularly in the last hundred or so years. It's a tragedy. Scientific inquiry, meant to heighten God's glory by appreciation of His handiwork, is instead treated as an enemy. Truth-seekers who might otherwise come to saving faith fail the litmus test of positions on science, culture, or doctrine, things only tangentially related to the gospel, and experience needless rejection from the church. Christians tragically become better-known for their intolerance and "backwardness" than for any of the things Jesus taught us to be. Situations like this call for a bit of doubt--not the refusal to come to any conclusions, but to be humble, loving, and open to conversation and relationship as we do so.

Analogies on God's Fairness

This is a pretty good blog post about the difficulties people have with accepting how God can choose to save some but not everyone, or spectacularly execute His justice on some nations in the Old Testament but not others. Doug Wilson has this to say:
If you start with the assumption that humans "don't deserve it" then of course you will come to the conclusion that we don't deserve it. And if the Bible insists we catch it anyway, then the assumption collides with our conceited faith in ourselves -- and we will think that the Bible is advocating a fundamental injustice. 
But what if we are flattering ourselves? What if the doctrine of a final judgment is not a doctrine of raging injustice, but rather raging justice? We may come to realize that our problem was not really with the justice/injustice part, but rather with the raging part. If everlasting Hell were unjust, then it would be possible for some to console themselves there. But the everlasting Hell is just, and that means there is no consolation.
And later:
If there are ten innocent citizens rounded up, and five of them are shot by a despot, there is a gross injustice. But if there are ten inmates on death row, and the governor pardons three of them, there is no injustice done at all to the remaining seven. The only question of possible injustice arises with regard to the three who were pardoned. In other words, the question of justice does not arise when we are talking about Hell. It does arise when we are talking about Heaven
The question is not "how can a just God send people to Hell?" The question concerns how a just God can allow sinners into Heaven. A God-centered concern about justice would worry far more about Heaven than Hell. A self-flattering, man-centered approach would worry aloud, and does worry aloud, about the purported justice of Hell. But we needn't worry. The Scriptures teach plainly that at the point of judgment, every mouth will be stopped. The Bible tells us that when it comes down to it, there will be nothing to say. The debates will be over.
This is the usual evangelical answer to the question of how God can be just to some, but not others: we all deserve His wrath. God is being just to those He condemns, so they can't complain about any unfairness as He elects to save some. The picture of the judge acquitting prisoners is also common. But let me offer another analogy and another perspective on this line of thought:

Suppose that one day an elementary school student's mother bakes a batch of cookies for him do what he wishes with. Despite knowing that there are 24 students in his class and that his mom baked enough cookies for them all, the boy brings 9 cookies with him and, in class, distributes them seemingly at random to 9 of his classmates. For the rest of the day, the 14 hurt students who didn't get a cookie steal dirty looks at him and conspire to get revenge on him. When they trip him in the lunch line the next day, he protests, "I was giving the other kids a gift! I don't owe any of you any cookies! It would be totally fair for me to not give anyone a cookie!"

What is the thing that parents and teachers always say about bringing treats or presents to a class? "I hope you brought enough for everyone!" By the common evangelical logic, the boy's argument is sound; none of the students have any right to protest that they didn't get a cookie. But by putting it this way, we begin to see the reasons this line of reasoning is hard for us to accept.

It's very true that the boy wasn't obligated to give anyone a cookie. If he had simply showed up with no cookies for anyone and said nothing, no one would have minded. The 14 hungry students were not unhappy merely because they didn't get a cookie, but because others did and he chose not to give them one as well. Is this envy? Was the boy correct in saying that he was totally just and fair in only giving cookies to some of the kids (we assume not merely out of favoritism), or were the 14 students right to be hurt? Maybe if I don't answer for myself, I'll start a comment conversation!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Impersonal Gospel

In the midst of a stressful day at work, I had a sobering revelation about the way the gospel is presented in so much of evangelical Christianity. Let's look at the Knowing God Personally (KGP) booklet, a common evangelism tool used by Cru. (I'm not singling out Cru, I just happen to still have a bunch of KGPs in my Bible from being a part of it) The KGP breaks the gospel down into four main points (paraphrased):

1. God, who created you, loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, for you to know Him personally.
2. Sin separates us from God, keeping us from knowing Him and His love personally.
3. God made a way for us to know Him personally through Jesus Christ alone.
4. We must individually accept Christ as our Lord and Savior to know God personally.

The phrase "know God personally" appears in some form in the title of the booklet and in each of the points. As it (and much of evangelical Christianity) portrays the gospel, the point of the gospel, of Jesus coming and dying, was so that you could be reconciled to God, know Him personally, and enter into a wonderful, life-changing relationship with him. As the viral video goes, Jesus was thinking of you when He was on the cross.

Is it any wonder we have such a problem with self-centered, individualistic faith?

For starters, this classically American, individualistic take on the gospel almost makes it sound like this offer is "specially for you" instead of for absolutely everyone. This fact is largely used in evangelicalism as a reason to share your faith, but have we really stopped to think about what it means that everyone who is in Christ is going to be remade in His image? As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it today, you would be strongly tempted to worship." In the same way that He transforms us individually, He will transform the church corporately. God isn't just going to make us holy in our private, spiritual lives; the gospel is a blueprint for the total overturning of art, science, business, government--society itself.

And that's not even the half of it. An article I read recently made an interesting point: that although Christians tend to think of the universe in the three categories of God, humanity, and creation. But God sees things a bit differently: there is God, and not-God, i.e. creation. Yes, the Bible is God's testament to humanity, but then we are the only ones on Earth who could understand or receive it, and we shouldn't take it to be encompassing of the scope of the gospel. God created "all things" by Him and for Him (Colosisans 1:16) and will reconcile to Himself all things in heaven and earth (1:20) The gospel is not even exclusive to humanity. Several Old Testament prophecies refer to God changing the natural order--herbivores and carnivores will somehow live in peace, and the earth will be "full of the knowledge of the Lord". (Isaiah 11:6-9) He even says He will create a "new heavens and a new earth" (65:17), which is seen more clearly in Revelation. The implications of this fact are considerable.

The gospel is shorthand for God's ongoing transformation and redemption of all creation, restoring it to be even better than it was before we went and screwed it up. It certainly isn't confined to us, and it may not even exclusively begin in us. It matters to every part of our lives and the world around us. The gospel, when fully understood, will make us feel precious and beloved, but at the same time very small and insignificant--it is a personal offer, but also a sweeping, unimaginably vast, impersonal (not uncaring, transcending us as individuals) hope. The verse that best expresses this hope might not be in John, Romans, or Ephesians, but Revelation 21:1-5 (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite verses):
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
This is the hope we as Christians carry and want to spread as the gospel--that God is not just making transformed, joyful, more fulfilled people who will live forever, but a whole new creation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Denial of Doubt: Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic

This post is a long time in the making, almost as long as the providence series, and very close to my heart. I've been exploring the question: what place does skepticism have in the Christian faith? How should faith and doubt coexist in believers? What does it mean to be, as I sometimes call myself, a "faithful skeptic"?

The denial of doubt

I think in our culture religion and skepticism are seen as opposite extremes, with skepticism strongly associated with atheism and an anti-religion agenda. In the same way, because faith and doubt are considered to be antonyms, doubt is often considered inappropriate for Christians to embrace in any capacity. In the American Christian subculture there is a "denial of doubt". Doubt is ignored or not frequently spoken of; when it is spoken of it is often simply as an aside to demonstrate that Christians aren't crazy or blind in their faith ("I still struggle with doubt"), and it is also portrayed as insignificant compared to the overwhelming weight of God's grace and glory.

I think this is especially prevalent in evangelical Christianity that so often concerns itself with "movements" or large gatherings that are all "go" and no "stop and think it over". So often, the face of Christianity I hear preached in church, see taught in classes, and even show to my Sunday School kids is all confidence, no doubt. If you dare to doubt God in the face of the clear teaching of scripture and all the amazing things He has done for you, the thinking goes, it's because in some way your heart is sinful, hardened, spiritually blind to His promises. In other words, there is something wrong with you. Your doubt is invalid. For instance, doubt that God is really "for" you--just pray and meditate on Romans 8:31 until you feel better and repent of your doubt!

So for years I shared in this denial of doubt. I brushed aside serious, unanswered questions of faith as mistaken or irrelevant and tried my best to take up the deep, strong faith of those I saw around me (does this sound like you?). When I kept failing at this, I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Finally, a year ago I came across the question of God's truthfulness, which I wrote about in my essay "The God Who Seeks Us". I couldn't ignore it, not forever; it demanded to be answered like an impossibly heavy weight on my soul, and my faith began buckling and weakening under it--but not really my faith, apparently, but the manufactured illusion of faith I'd been putting on for years. It felt like a slow process of dying. One result of struggling with this and other questions was that it taught me to embrace my doubt, confront it, and try to answer it rather than simply denying it or applying a "Bible band-aid".

Today's word: diakrino

I'll have to put those last two paragraphs in my testimony someday. The question I want to look into now is: what is doubt, and what is its value to Christians? Word study time: in the New Testament, there are a few words that translate to "doubt", "doubts", or "doubted".
  • διαλογισμος (dialogismos) is the word we get the English "dialogue" from; unsurprisingly, it means to dialog, deliberate, or carefully reason about what is true, within oneself or with someone else, and is more commonly translated simply as "thoughts".
  • δισταζω (distazo) is only used twice, in Matthew 14:31 and 28:17, and is used to refer to the disciples somehow doubting in Jesus.
  • The most common one, διακρινω (diakrino), has a variety of connotations besides "doubt" such as judging, weighing, or discerning; making a distinction or distinguishing between things; or even striving or contending.
From this, it seems that "doubt" certainly can consist in a sinful refusal to believe, particularly in the instances of distazo. (The disciples somehow doubting in the risen Jesus) But it can also mean more of an internal dialogue, weighing, questioning, or process of reasoning--in short, simply not being sure of something, or having unanswered questions. And doubting in the sense of judging or discerning is valuable, even commanded. In 1 Corinthians, Paul questions if the Corinthian church has anyone wise enough to judge disputes between them (6:5), speaks of the need to judge oneself before taking communion (11:29,31), and says that prophecies should be weighed by others (14:29). The author of Hebrews says that spiritually mature people constantly train themselves and practice in distinguishing good from evil. (5:14; the word is diakrisis) These examples are speaking of doubt that is good and necessary for the functioning of the church--the kind of shrewdness Jesus commands in Matthew 10:16. Being a Christian does not mean checking your brain or critical faculties in!

One other really important detail is found in Matthew 27:46: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is huge: while dying on the cross, Jesus expressed doubt in His father (and, according to trinitarian theology, in Himself). This doesn't mean that when we're having a rough life we should fret and worry that God has forsaken us; the crucifixion was unique in that God did forsake His Son by "[making] him who had no sin to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21), and I think this was what Jesus was dreading even more than the physical ordeal. But if Jesus was able to express His raw pain and confusion to God, we must conclude that it is acceptable for believers to do the same.

Is doubt bad?

My argument is that this "healthy doubt", consisting of continual discerning, judging, questioning, and above all, being open and honest, is distinct from the "bad doubt" that is regularly contrasted as the opposite of faith (Matthew 21:21, James 1:6, Romans 4:20, among many others). I think references like these are at the root of the faith-doubt dichotomy at work in American Christianity; simply taking from them the universal command for Christians to have faith and never doubt, and then use that to justify the denial of doubt, is a dangerous oversimplification.

To see what I mean, consider others of Jesus' ethical imperatives--to care for the poor, to avoid committing adultery in your heart, even to go and make disciples. All of these commands are good and righteous, but most Christians are smart enough to know that trying to legalistically follow them above all else goes disastrously against the whole point of God becoming flesh--because we could not obey His commands and the more we tried, the farther from God we became. If we elevate any of the commandments in importance above the first (to love God) and second (to love your neighbor), the result is unhealthy, maybe even deadly. Why, then, do we so often forget this with the command to have faith and not doubt?

The fact is, every follower of Jesus will at some point have trouble believing some of His words, whether on a purely intellectual level or on a deeper, heart level. If we simply deny or dismiss these doubts as sin to be repented of, laid at Christ's feet, and forgotten, we leave a stumbling block between us and God that keeps us from loving Him as fully as we could and should, and so we put the commandment not to doubt before the command to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. It's very hard to wholeheartedly follow God when you have very (to you) credible and real doubts that He might be a compulsive liar, or a murderer of children, or not real. In the right ordering of these commandments, we will honestly, openly ask the questions that come between us and God, allowing Him to work through them with us until they are obstacles no more. Of course doubt isn't good when pursued for its own sake, but it's worth being recognized as real and treated seriously.

Those last two paragraphs were really special because they were completely off my outline and almost seemed to write themselves. What I originally planned to do next was to try to define "bad" doubt. Is there a kind of doubt that does simply need to be repented of and cast aside? I would say yes, but I don't think "bad" doubt usually manifests itself as such, as doubt or questioning. More often we sinfully doubt in something we claim to intellectually believe without objection--such as that God "gives generously to all without finding fault". (James 1:6) Or the meaning of diakrino as hesitation or vacillation--not obeying or dragging your feet when God plainly points you toward obedience in something (see Acts 10:20). This kind of doubt is inextricably tied in with sin and is most often something we are unconscious or unaware of.

Doubt as healthy and necessary

I've been reading a challenging and fascinating book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, by David Dark, a high school English teacher, which he describes an enlightening exchange where he asked his students to define the word "agnostic". The answers he got were "Someone who doesn't want to believe" and "Someone who chooses not to believe". These are both descriptions of someone who is doubting in a sinful sense--actually refusing to believe, consciously or unconsciously resisting God's pulling at their hearts. But this is not a description of most agnostics. He goes on to argue that a better definition is "Someone who doesn't know" and that, in a sense, he and his students are all agnostics.

It's surprisingly hard for me to come up with a concise definition of "doubt", but simply admitting you don't know is a good start toward one. Doubt is not being too easily convinced or overly certain, and questioning everything to the extent you aren't convinced of it. And yet it isn't questioning for questioning's sake, which gets into the territory of "bad doubt". It is being mindful of the assumptions and guesses you are constantly making, or of all the ways you could be wrong (but don't think you are). It is recognizing the limitation of your own knowledge and judgment; in Dark's words, describing his grandfather, "he also understood that as far as he knew and as far as he could tell weren't far at all." In the language of my nebulous "Seeds and Shells" post, which I wrote at the beginning of a period of deep doubt, it is a counterbalancing force that keeps the "shell" of your actions and professions of faith from outgrowing the "seed" of your actual faith.

What is there to gain by embracing your doubt? Obviously the biggest thing is that intrinsic to doubt is a spirit of honest with God, others, and yourself--not pretending to believe something you don't really believe or be someone you aren't really. I can't overstate how this overwhelming honesty has transformed my faith and helped me to begin to "get" how the Gospel touches and gloriously transforms every part of life. Bringing your questions and doubts to God--who isn't afraid of them--and not just "going with the flow" of American Christianity is essential to a healthy, genuine life as a Christian (or in general). Interpersonally, it allows us to empathize with and minister to people who could come to faith or grow in their faith but for unanswered questions or doubts that they carry.

I also see acceptance of doubt as the cure to so much of the factionalistic and denominationalistic infighting among Christians. When we humbly admit that only God has all the answers, the Bible is not crystal-clear on every question we may have, and that no one has an inside connection to God, we will stop claiming Biblical authority for our own theologies and learn to tolerate other interpretations of scripture--because, as Dark says, "interpretation is all we've got". As I've developed my own theology, I've diverged from my church and many of my friends on a number of things. If I tried to find a community that believed all the same things (the "right" things) as me, I think I'd keep searching forever. But I realize that these points of divergence are differences of interpretation, not just matters of who is right and who is wrong, and even more importantly that they don't have to disrupt the unity that Jesus desires for His church (John 17:21).

The cost of denying doubt

If you still aren't convinced, let me offer one more reason, why doubt is essential for how the church ministers not only within itself but also to the world at large. Doubt as the Berean-like (Acts 17:11) ability to "filter things through scripture", to distinguish the truth from the lie from the indeterminate, is essential for us to be, as Jesus said and is so often quoted, "in the world but not of it".

Let me direct your attention to the "Christian bubble", also known as the "sacred-secular divide". For those not in the know, this is a set of (as James Hunter calls it) "parallel institutions" within the thriving (primarily evangelical) Christian subculture that parallel "secular" culture. There are Christian books, Christian radio stations, Christian diets, Christian financial strategies, Christian breath mints... Regardless of the quality of these things, they all try to claim the high ground of being officially sanctioned by God that comes with the "Christian" label. In the bubble, "Christian" becomes a stamp of approval and artifacts that bear it are uncritically (read: without doubting or questioning) accepted by believers who are rightly concerned about being set apart as holy unto God. Anything outside this bubble is viewed with great suspicion (and, in Christianese, given the "secular" label) and best avoided by discerning, godly Christians. When Christians like Rob Bell make statements that are "heretical" to the Christian bubble's defining theology, they are cast outside it and ignored by the community at large, a modern-day form of excommunication. (Not that I agree with Bell's position of universalism, I'm just using him as an example of this kind of treatment)

Now let me redefine the Christian bubble as a place where doubt, the healthy kind of doubt I have been arguing for, is treated as unnecessary, and perhaps even lumped in with sinful doubt in being viewed with suspicion. Anything inside the bubble with the "Christian" label is good, anything outside it is suspicious. There is no need to judge, weigh, or discern for yourself what is true or good because the bubble has already done it for you. Meanwhile, those who happily live their comfortable Christian lives inside the bubble smile and sip coffee (perhaps brewed with "Christian" coffee beans) during their morning devotions from mugs with feel-good Bible verses printed on them, oblivious as their ability to distinguish true teaching from false slowly atrophies from disuse, leaving them vulnerable like spiritual infants or unguarded sheep to any false teaching that manages to slip inside the bubble, like prosperity theology--the fulfillment of 2 Timothy 4:3. (Note: prosperity theology is rightly denied by the evangelical community at large, but exists in a smaller bubble of its own with similar dynamics to ours) For the sake of loving the truth and hating falsehood, of raising up followers of Christ who love Him with their whole minds, to pop the Christian bubble and authentically witness to the world, it is essential that we embrace good, healthy, (dare I say it) biblical doubt.

"Blind faith" is, aside from a great Dream Theater song, believing something without questioning it, or even actively suppressing questions. The "Christian bubble" is one moderate example of this; cults are an extreme example. Again, the extent to which questions are quashed is the extent to which doubt is denied. Another way I have seen this denial manifested (even in my life) is when doubts about God are believed to cast doubt on your salvation because faith is the condition of justification--my pastor Steve often reminds us that faith in God is not simply an "intellectual assent" where the extent to which you agree with something is the degree of certainty you have that you are "saved". This kind of thinking turns faith into yet another work we do to earn our way to God--an abomination!

To keep our faith from devolving into the extremes of factionalism or blind faith, we need doubt--not doubt that rejects all conviction or paralyzes into inaction, but the aforementioned biblical doubt--but the habit of continually judging, testing, discerning, and questioning commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Doubt that realizes that only God has all the answers, not us, and in our limited and fallible quests to find them, we can't assume the truth will be as neat and tidy to us as we expect it to be. In other words, to regard our attempts to understand truth with a healthy dose of doubt. As God renews our minds into the image of Christ, we will judge all things rightly (1 Corinthians 2:15-16 ). Now we see "through a glass, darkly" and know in part, but eventually we will see God face to face and know fully. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The burden of doubt

But this also takes me to the limitations of doubt. The first is that, as that verse predicts, doubt is only temporary; one day it will become obsolete, and we will be all the more blessed for it! "When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." Doubt is only necessary now because sin keeps us from seeing perfectly. If a world with no doubt or any need for it sounds undesirable, it could be a sign that you are too attached to your doubts.

But this news is also kind of a relief to me as I've realized what a burden doubt is. The downside to embracing doubt rather than denying it is that you find it much harder to be really sure about anything. Certainty becomes a precious and scarce resource when you have to prove everything to yourself. Obviously in matters of faith you need to know where to wield doubt and where to suspend it, because faith means an absence of ironclad proofs and formulas. Striking the delicate balance between embracing the truth of Christ we've been given and not doing so blindly or overconfidently is a daily challenge. When reading the Bible, it means questioning everyone's interpretation, including your own, and separating fact from sanctified guessing. It means questioning even your own questions (this is where it gets confusing), testing whether they arise from a desire for deeper faith or just deeper knowledge.

And, in the end, doubt is not the center point of life in Christ (however much I may act like it is); it isn't even one of the fruits of the Spirit. We give our doubt too much influence if we let it get in the way of our more important job of representing Christ by our love. Whatever gifting I may have, it is given "for the common good" and "the strengthening of the church" (1 Corinthians 12:7, 14:26), not for me to become the smartest Christian ever. This means knowing when to keep silent about something I disagree with (which, for an INTJ, is often), and when to speak out. It means directing my skepticism into actions that build up instead of tear down, express love and not judgment, and make less of me and more of God. The supremacy of love is the challenge that comes with all of our gifts, but it is through this challenge that we become the heterogenous, making-disciples-everywhere people God made us to be.

Update: Besides the title of this post, "Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic" is also the new name of this blog! The old name had multiple meanings and significance for me, but "Thoughts of a Faithful Skeptic" is actually an excellent description of the content of this blog as it has become over the years. Thank you for reading all of this.