Installment 1: Why Doubts and Difficult Questions Must Be Allies of Faith
Brian J. Indrelie, Th. M, is the Chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bradford Christian Academy. Why Doubts and Difficult Questions Must Be Allies of Faith is his first in an ongoing series addressing the challenges of private high school educators in the disciplines of Biblical and Theologicial studies.
In an iconic episode of the popular television drama Lost, one of the most notorious characters, Ben Linus, reflects on a portrait of Thomas the Apostle. He recalls that at one point Thomas had volunteered to go to Judea to die with Jesus, and yet no one remembered him for his bravery, but rather for his one moment of doubt. Such is the dilemma of many Christians throughout the world. We—as well as our students—enter the classroom burdened with many doubts, fears, and questions, both understood and not yet understood, and yet we bear silently with them. Educators in private Christian high schools must recognize that the Christian community often suffers the suffocating sound of silence out of fear that in authenticity someone might call us out for our weaknesses and doubts.
There are several reasons why this is. To begin with, by default most Christians in the broad Nicene tradition have a very high view of truth. Indeed, believers in the majority of churches throughout the world confess the lofty belief that the Bible is the truth with a capital “T.” The rest of the world, of course, does not share this belief, and as cognitive minorities many of us in these communities subconsciously police each other. We tell ourselves that we are fortifying our borders, and we justify ourselves in the true and very legitimate conviction that truth and doctrines matter a whole lot. Yet we are not serving doctrine any more than people when we shut down challenging questions, or when we cause people to retreat inside and to out on a false front.
We also suffer this silence because our faith has too often been wed to enlightenment values rather than to biblical ones. While the enlightenment brought new life to biblical studies and to theological creativity, in was inseparably bound to the modernistic quest to solve every mystery, and to shed light into every dark corner. Yet while the Scriptures themselves do contain clear and true principles which can be trusted completely, they often stop far short of the absolute certainty about everything that the enlightenment quest requires. Indeed, from the frank anguish of the lament Psalms to the brutal honesty of Habbakuk and the soliloquies of Jeremiah, to the cavernous treatise that is the book of Job, we find that sometimes the answers to some of our deepest question are tensions and ambiguities. Thus while the Scriptures teach us to embrace certain unknowns, our enlightenment programming punishes us with the burden of banishing all doubt, a task often no more attainable than the task of Sisyphus.
A final reason is that in our teaching we all too often adopt a teaching style that dampens rather than empowers. In his watershed book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, famed educational theorist Paolo Freire noted that many staple western educational techniques encourage unthinking imitation rather than critical thinking and engagement. In short, he noted how education often tends to focused overly on memorizing content and spitting it back in rote form. Corresponding to this, good teachers are those who fill students’ heads with content, and good students are those who allow their heads to be filled with said content. While a knowledge of the materials of thought is certainly a critical piece of education, this tendency rewards those who memorize but do not comprehend the content, but often punishes those who gain understanding by wrestling with it. We teach a happy, confident faith where all questions have already been easily answered. Corresponding to this, our heroes and role models, where they have experienced struggle and doubt, are held up not for their struggles, but only for their triumph. Thus we subconsciously reinforce the convictions that the best Christians are those who unthinkingly embrace our teaching without doubt and that those who wrestle with doubt are in crisis rather than in progress.
What we need in remedy to this, it seems, is a vision of the Christian life which is more akin to the experiences of Jacob in Genesis 32. Jacob had been personally promised great blessing from God in accord with a covenant which had been made with his father before him. Quite simply, if he continued to trust God by obeying his instructions, God would protect him, bless him, and give him favor. Up to this point in his life he had no reason to doubt this promise as he had been blessed greatly, but this time God had told him to return to his homeland where his violent brother had previously plotted to kill him. This triggered a bit of a crisis of faith on Jacob’s behalf. On the one hand, he packed up his family and began to head home. On the other hand, he fretted and anguished, and split his family into two camps as a failsafe in case his brother wiped out one of them! Jacob then went off by himself for some time alone, in which the Scriptures tell us that he wrestled with God. After wrestling with God all night he was given a new name, Israel, and blessing, for he “[had] striven with God and prevailed.” He also named the place Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face.”
Both of these instances are packed with meaning. The name change signifies that he has a new relationship with God, and the name of the place signifies that his struggles have led him to know God in a deeper and fuller way. While this is no doubt a great triumph, it is not the end of Jacob’s doubts! In the following passage he continues to show doubts and insecurities during his groveling and overly meek conduct towards his brother, despite the fact that it is clear his brother harbors no ill will. Regardless of these continuing doubts however, it is clear that Jacob has come to know God in a deeper way on account of these doubts. From this an important principle emerges, namely, that doubt is not the opposite of faith; rather, unbelief is. This is because faith and doubt exist side by side in Jacob’s life, and it is the combination of both rather than the lack of the latter which leads him to new and deeper places in his faith. Jacob has faith in God because fundamentally he does what God asks him to, despite his deep misgivings about it. Yet without his doubts, he never would have been driven to pursue a deeper and more authentic relationship with God.
This has significant implications for our task of educating our students. We are not wrong to hold up faith and to exude a commitment to propositional truth. But we must not do so in a way that discourages inquiry, or that encourages us to hide or suppress our honest feelings and doubts. We need to find a way in our classrooms to create wrestling grounds, where we can all feel free to strive with God in communities which support and encourage this endeavor. This will not be an easy task. If we are to create such a space, we will make ourselves vulnerable to sincere challenge, and must accept the discomfort that sometimes the answers themselves will be mysterious and full of the tension that must exist when Christ’s kingdom is inaugurated but not yet consummated. This endeavor may be as uncomfortable at times as the patriarch was when he wrestled with God. Yet if we don’t commit ourselves to this task, though we may have faith, we will never see the face of God.
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