Monday, June 9, 2008

Doubts and Questions

One of my most vivid memories from college is of my first week in a class called "Intro to Philosophy." I was very excited to be taking this class. In high school, I had never had the opportunity to study Philosophy (although, I had plenty of chances to try my hand at Agriculture), so I was eager to learn how to think like a real-life intellectual. I looked forward to being at parties and being able to drop in a quote from Aristotle or some other great philosopher during a normal conversation ("Why yes, I would like a re-fill. Thank you for offering. You have re-invigorated my faith in Immanuel Kant's concept of the Categorical Imperative!" or, "Wow, I can't imagine what it must be like to need to work three jobs. You must feel so much like the mythical figure of Sisyphus from the writings of the great Albert Camus." I know what you're thinking: "Awesome.").

Anyway, so I'm in this philosophy class, and it doesn't take long to realize that my professors (there were three philosophy profs teaching the intro class) were bitter and angry old men. And, of course, in a philosophy class it never takes long for the class discussion to veer toward the topics of religion, spirituality, and the existence of God. Now, something you should know is that I had come from a VERY conservative community in rural Oklahoma and even if you didn't believe in God, you never expressed that opinion in public, and you were probably even a member of one of the many local churches in the community. So, you can imagine my intellectual whiplash when, in the midst of a conversation about the existence of God, one of my professors--the one with the ponytail--started to pace the classroom and ask rhetorical questions: "So, how can we truly ever have confidence in anything, let alone the existence of some ambiguous divine entity? How are we supposed to come to any conclusions about this?" Then, he looked across the room with a cocky smile and said, "I mean, should we trust the Bible?" Half of the people in the room laughed. He grinned with satisfaction. I didn't know how to process this. I'd always heard of people who don't take the Bible seriously, but I'd never met one. Who did this guy think he was? I doubted that God looked kindly on his cynicism and doubting. I silently thought, "See you in hell, Professor Ponytail." (I'm just kidding. I didn't think that. I wasn't that clever as a freshman.)

I walked out of class with such a deflated sense of doubt. I had never really doubted anything so basic as the existence of God. But now, I began to wonder. This professor was clearly intelligent (except for the choice about the ponytail). Maybe he had discovered something that I had not had the wisdom to see. I really felt disoriented. On top of this, I felt guilty for the doubting. That was probably the worst part. I thought I had somehow stopped being a Christian because I was doubting some stuff that I had always taken for granted. Through talking to a few people who are much smarter than myself (mainly my uncle Sam. Not the ominous government entity that wants to send you to Germany to fight the Nazis. I have an uncle who's name happens to be Sam.). I realized that my doubts were actually forcing me to come to terms with what I actually believe. Not what I had always been taught in Sunday School and assumed were true simply because all of the adults in my life believed them--but what I really believed. I discovered that doubts and questions can be some of the most healthy parts of our own journeys.

That's really why I started this blog. In the past two years or so, I've been going through my own personal renaissance (except without the painting) in regard to my own believes and worldview. This has forced me to examine each conviction and idea and ask, "Okay, what do I really think about this?" Some things have been reinforced and I believe them more fully than I ever have. There are other issues toward which I have absolutely changed my opinion. And still, there are others that continue to be loaded with questions and confusion. I have found that the doubts and the questions have given me a renewed sense of confidence in the things that I claim to believe.

I have found that this is something that is deeply rooted in the Christian faith. When we examine the life of Jesus, we have to remember that he was someone who was deeply rooted in the Jewish culture and religious structure. Within this, doubts and questions are a highly valued concept. The great Jewish writer, Lawrence Kushner has written a book called Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction For Christians, which I highly recommend. In this book, he exposes the idea of doubts as a central part of our faith and growth:

"When Jews disagree or argue about the meaning of Torah, they are actually helping one another to become better Jews... Trying to understand the Torah is an endless search. No matter how many times we reread it, or how many times we are sure we understand it, a new interpretation will arise to challenge our understanding" (45-46).

In Judaism, the idea is that anytime someone asks a question that tests or challenges someone else's paradigm, it is a thing to be honored and even celebrated. The idea is that these question can help all of us be better at being who God has made us to be. They keep us moving forward. I have not found that this has been a value that has been preserved for many Christians. I knew some Christians who, after the day that Dr. Ponytail made his crack about the Bible, dropped the class. The fact that this professor was willing to put some of our most sacred beliefs up for discussion was more than they could handle. But shouldn't we look at a situation like that and say, "Okay. He's making me doubt some stuff. I don't like it. But is it at least possible that he's making some fair points? And if I truly disagree with him, then why? What makes me so confident?" Shouldn't we relish the opportunity ask questions and determine what we think and why we think it?

In his book The Gospel According to Moses, Athol Dickson writes, "God loves an honest question." I truly agree with this. I think God has made us curious and inquisitive and had given us the ability to come to conclusions because he truly wants us to be confidence and to understand more and more of the reality within which he has placed us. As if he were responding to one of my classmates who chose to leave the class, Dickson writes this:

"Asking is not doubting. It is trusting…It takes more faith to ask than it takes to fear the asking. It takes faith to be ready for whatever answer comes, and faith to persevere with more questions if the answer is not understood. Asking an honest question means being ready to change in response to the answer and short of martyrdom, change may be the ultimate act of faith" (page 19).

If I am afraid to ask question because I fear what I might learn, isn't this a greater lack of faith than the one who can face a question and wrestle with honesty and curiosity? I often wonder if people resent questions because they really have less faith than even my atheistic professor (who's Doctoral Thesis was titled: "All Of Life Is A Waste Of Time" and to which I ascribed the subtitle, "A Love Story.").

And so, in the words of the writer Paul, who seemed to have a great amount of faith, "Test everything. Hold on to what is good." (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

I wonder how many of us would have a greater confidence if we could simply stop being afraid of questions and the people who might disagree with us.