Review: Perhaps

Perhaps, Joshua M. McNall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Advances the idea of “perhapsing” that allows for the exploration of the space between doubt and dogmatism through close reading of scripture, asking hard questions, exercising imagination, and the practice of holy speculation.

Many of us feel pulled apart by the discourse of our times. On one hand, we encounter unbending and sometimes partisan dogmatism, and on the other unbridled doubt or an outright cynicism about truth. Then there are those who find ourselves in the middle of these extremes. We believe God and yet don’t possess either the certainty or the arrogance of the dogmatists. We don’t doubt in the sense of being in two minds or are we given over to the unwillingness to believe of the hardened cynic. We have questions. We wonder if there is room to wonder or set aside the pronouncements of the certain and the cynic to look afresh at the scriptures to hear its message through the noise and to use our imagination to explore how both/and might be possible when all we’ve been presented is either/or.

Joshua McNall affirms this longing for a space between doubt and dogmatism, proposing that this is the place of “perhaps.” He contends for the recovery of what some would consider a dangerous practice, that of holy speculation, a “faith seeking imagination” that is not without boundaries but opens us to be surprised by God. “Perhaps” may function to take us from a place of questions to the embrace of an orthodox faith. It may also give us the space to not feel we need to be certain about everything, particularly some of the important but contended questions that may be considered adiaphora.

McNall observes that this was the kind of speculative imagination necessary for monotheistic Jews to embrace the possibility that Jesus, come in human flesh was God and that, somehow, the One God was also Three. He then goes on to consider other instances of “perhapsing” in scripture. He considers what I think one of the toughest parts of scripture, Genesis 22. He proposes the possibility that Abraham, caught between the fulfilled promise of a son from two people as good as dead reproductively and the command to sacrifice his son, “perhapsed” that God could even raise the dead Isaac and so did receive him back from death (cf. Hebrews 11:17, 19). He then considers three historical exemplars, Origen, Julian of Norwich, and Jonathan Edwards. I found his treatment of Edwards especially fascinating. He notes how Edwards brings together the truths that God does all for his glory with the observation of the human longing of joy and that our greatest joy is the pursuit of God and his glory. He also notes Edwards’ distinctive thinking on immaterialism, occasionalism, and continual creation as other examples of a kind of holy and disciplined speculation.

McNall then talks about “guardrails” in our “perhapsing,” recognizing speculation can go off the cliff. He offers ten principles drawn from a dialogue between theologians from Augustine to Edwards with writers like Cormac McCarthy and E. M. Forster that is so good, I will not list the ten because it will not do justice to his exposition of them. One that I appreciated was Number eight: “Seek Noncontrastive Connections.” Later, he illustrates this in wrestling with the goodness of God and the existence of animal suffering and death before the fall.

Parts Two and Three contend against both dogmatism and doubt. He names the issue of the shrillness of dogmatism, contrasting it with the dancing and weeping of real prophetic Christianity. He shows how the quest for certainty often ends up in nihilism rather than obedient trust. Against the fashionability of doubt in our culture, he names the dividedness of heart that occurs when doubt becomes a way of life. Against this, he proposes the example of Martin Luther, ascending the steps of Santa Scala to pray for his grandfather in purgatory, assailed with questions about the steps, the power of relics and the reality of purgatory. McNall writes:

“Luther’s attitude is one of obedience. The question does not lead him to depart for a weeklong bender in the Roman brothels. Nor does it correspond directly to a repudiation of church tradition. This shift would come later through his outrage at indulgences, and by reading Paul. At the moment, Luther simply walks down the stairs. He descends Santa Scala–because a willingness to walk and wait and pray is the best response to doubt” (p. 126).

In the last part of the book he offers three examples of practicing “perhaps. As noted previously, he considers the suffering and death of animals before the fall, exploring three proposals that perhaps the significance may reside in some for of self-sacrificial instinct pointing toward a greater sacrifice. Second, he considers Romans 9:22-23, that some humans are “vessels prepared for destruction.” He notes how verse 23 breaks off mid-sentence and wonders if this might be a descriptive but not determinative statement, particularly in the context of Romans 11:32 which says, “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Then he turns to C. S. Lewis and his novel, The Great Divorce. It is a “perhaps” between rigid exclusivism and unbounded universalism. George MacDonald, who affirmed a kind of universalism is present as a character and witnesses the refusal of some of the residents of hell to believe. Yet not all turn away.

One of the distinctives of McNall’s account is his appeal to story and imagination even as he uses discursive reason. Interwoven in the chapters is the narrative of two young women, Eliza and Claire, one in the process of losing her faith and the other finding faith. It offers a narrative rendering of what “perhapsing” might be like. It also underscores a contention of McNall that the theological imagination of “perhaps” is cultivated by the reading not only of great theologians but great writers of fiction. He models this by literary references throughout and offers a specific challenge to these two types of reading in his conclusion.

Perhaps is an important word for all who teach and pastor in this divided age. McNall captures the distress of many young Christians I know who do not want to walk away from the goodness of Christ, but are disillusioned by the shrill dogmatism of so many of his followers in positions of leadership in the church. McNall cogently diagnoses the real dangers of the divided heart of disillusioned doubt. And he articulates the desperately needed third way for those of our generation, the way of perhaps that leads to an imaginative and supple orthodoxy without dogmatism that addresses the challenges of our age.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Live the Questions

Live the Questions

Live the Questions, Jeffrey F. Keuss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that a deep and satisfying life is closely related to the questions we ask, how we pursue them, and to whom they lead us.

It is sometimes thought that Christians are those who have found answers, perhaps the answer and that strong faith is characterized by a sense of certainty. To have questions, or even worse, doubts, is thought to reflect a lack of faith, or to be on the road to leaving one’s faith behind. We often err in one of two ways: we either anesthetize ourselves to the questions, or we take shortcuts, accepting textbook answers without facing what the questions expose about us, and about the ultimate we seek beyond the questions.

Jeffrey F. Keuss believes that the questions we ask may be more important than the answers we think we have found. He writes, “I hope you find that to be human is to ask more and more questions, and that deep meaning is found in the journey and pursuit of where and to whom those questions will bring us.” He proposes that we live the questions rather than just ask for the answers.

Keuss takes us a step further. He proposes not only that we live our questions but to consider the questions that fill the pages of scripture and that shape and form the lives of those who people its pages. He explores eight such questions:

  1. Where are you? (with Adam and Eve)
  2. Am I my brother’s keeper? (Cain)
  3. How will I know ? (Abraham)
  4. Who am I? (with Moses at the burning bush)
  5. Why this burden? (Moses, under the burdens of leadership)
  6. How can I just vanish in darkness? (Job)
  7. How can I be born after growing old? (Nicodemus)
  8. Where can I get that living water? (the Samaritan woman)

We are faced with how we will respond to the God who pursues those who are estranged from Him. We encounter the irony of a God whose mark on Cain makes God the keeper of a brother who murdered. We discover a God whose answer to Abraham is to take him out of his tent to the stars in the heavens, a God who delights in Abraham’s probing honesty, and whose answer is far more than Abraham could dream asleep in his tent.

In each chapter, Keuss probes the question asked, whether by God or people and how these questions brought these people into deeper contact both with their own humanity and the living God. Along the ways he references everything from Kierkegaard to Steve Martin.

Perhaps one of the most moving stories he relates is from his time as a young minister in Glasgow, visiting a comatose, unresponsive patient with whom he read scripture, prayed and spent thirty minutes just being there, doing all he was supposed to do, and feeling utterly futile. Later he receives a small bequest from the family that he is ashamed to use, until a colleague counsels, “This check isn’t about you, Jeff….This is about paying it forward beyond you. For some reason what you did was more than you or your intentions, so you need to honor that somehow in his name.” And he did by buying a pair of black Dr. Martens boots that he wore wherever he ministered “reminding [him] to have faith, to show up, and be ready for the unexpected.”

Keuss invites us in this book to listen to our questions, and the questions of the scriptures. He urges us that a healthy process takes us into relationships, and not isolation, and that questions and a life of faith and worship in community need not be at odds. He invites us not merely to discuss questions but to live in them, to walk in them, and rather than simply looking for answers, to allow the questions to take us deeper into the mystery and wonder of God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the Shadows

Faith in the ShadowsAustin Fischer (Foreword by Brian Zahnd). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Explores how one may live a life of faith in Christ in the midst of doubts and questions.

Austin Fischer was a pastor who struggled with doubts and feared they might lead him to abandon his faith. Then he came to this pivotal realization:

“People don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts.”

In this book, Fischer explores how it is possible to be a Christian for whom doubt is the path to a deeper and more honest faith. He begins with the mistaken notion that faith requires certainty, and the misbegotten quests for the proof that answers every question and defenses of hyper-literal readings of the Bible. So many who go down that road leave the faith when certainty fails them. Instead, Fischer invites us to be “ants on a rollercoaster” who throw up their hands “in equal portions of terror, bliss, and surrender.”

He observes how Job teaches us to doubt by telling God the truth about our doubts. In the end, he was commended by God as speaking rightly of him. Fischer writes of evil, not as a problem, but as a crisis, and of a God who is there on the gallows who fights back against evil. He writes of Jesus who forgives sin, heals disease, casts out evil, and conquers death. Rather than starting from sovereignty and the glory of God that makes evil a problem, he begins from the freedom God gives and the love of God, that bids us resist evil. He explores the times when God is silent, and offers no easy answers but simply waiting, with the hope that Christ waits with us.

He then turns to a trenchant critique of fundamentalism, drawing heavily on Mark Noll’s work in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about the intellectual retrenchment and rigid ways of reading scripture that developed. He argues this simply gave people more ways to lose their faith. He explores the challenges science has posed, particularly when it dismisses the idea of God, moving from a method to a metaphysic. He argues that the real place where people often have the most problem is with stuff–affluence that gives us the luxury to consider God superfluous, in a way rare among the poor.

He deals with hell, in which he agrees with a congregant that he believes in hell, but is not happy with it. He explores the idea that the love of God is wrath to those who hate God and heaven is hell to them. Paraphrasing Barth, he claims that “anyone who does not hope for universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.” Ultimately, Fischer argues for the priority of the way of love in dealing with our doubts, that our love for the beauty of Jesus means “we would rather be wrong about him than right about anything else” and living in curious wonder rather than certainty.

There is so much that seems right about this book (perhaps because Fischer agrees with my own way of thinking in so many ways!). Working among graduate students and faculty, I’m surprised how many that are resistant to Christian faith came from very fundamentalist backgrounds and concluded that because they could not attain the certainty required, that they could not be Christians. I’ve witnessed the incredible relief of students when it was affirmed to them that they could doubt and still be Christians and that doubt didn’t preclude faith, especially when one believed enough to voice one’s doubts to God. I also prefer the approaches of resisting evil to debating it as a problem, and proclaiming the gospel rather than speculating whether all will be saved in the end.

Most of all, I loved the insight that faith is not the absence of doubt but the presence of love. It tracks with my own experience of watching doubting folks remain in community, continuing to care for each other, continuing to learn with each other from scripture, praying with and for each other, and moving to a deeper place of faith.

This book is classified as an apologetics book. It is, but not the sort you would expect. It doesn’t give answers that “demand a verdict” even though it explores some of the toughest questions Christians face. It offers instead reasons for hope in Christ in the midst of a messy world, and ways to live one’s faith when God is silent and doubts impose. For most of us, this may be the most necessary apologetic of all.

Review: Questioning Your Doubts

Questioning Your DoubtsQuestioning Your Doubts, Christina M. H. Powell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This book comes out of the world of academic research and proposes that the process of questioning our doubts as well as our faith builds bridges of understanding deepening both our exercise of reason and confidence in our faith.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges” –Isaac Newton.

Christina M. H. Powell grew up in Pittsburgh, a city of bridges spanning the hills and the three rivers that define the city. As a Christian inhabiting both the world of faith and science, she has concluded that part of her calling is to be a bridge builder. She holds a Ph.D in virology, having done her research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard. And she is an ordained minister within the Assemblies of God church. In her own life she has bridged what often seems a divide, and an important element of living her calling has been learning to question doubt and to learn how to live with these questions.

She begins by noting that doubts can be both intellectual and experiential. She contends that doubt, particularly when questioned, can actually deepen rather than cripple our faith because we were made to think. She contends that it is important to understand the interplay of influences in our lives that shape how we think and experience. All these may lead to faith but can never replace it. Within this context, doubt may actually be a good thing that leads to discernment. As she notes, misgivings about a fad teaching may be a good thing that saves pursuing a course that can end badly. She points out how important questions are in the world of research, and in the ministry of Jesus, in solving problems and leading to truth.

Having considered the value of doubting and questioning and both the importance and limits of our rationality, she moves in the second part of the book to consider sources of doubt. One has to do with our limits as human beings to know and the discernment to know when pressing past these is courage, or folly. Another is the reality that there will be unanswered questions in our lives. She realistically explores the place of mystery, the challenges of suffering and pain, and the “closed doors” in our lives. To conclude this section, she teases out the ways disillusionment can masquerade as doubt, for example when we experience painful encounters in Christian community.

The last part of the book explores the resolution of doubts in our lives. She sees this not as pat answers but as a lived journey of authentic faith in the midst of our doubts, which may be more compelling to others than our most well-reasoned apologetic defenses. Sometimes, our efforts to make sense of our doubts require that we remember and retrace the steps that have brought us to our present place just as Jacob’s journey of flight and return required coming back to Beth-el where he first encountered Yahweh. She also talks about the fact that this is a journey in community, something that both scientists and saints through history have appreciated. She has a wonderful sketch of Michael Faraday, a rigorous experimentalist and also a preacher who practiced community both in his science and faith. She concludes that we should not be discouraged if we feel we are going through cycles or circles of doubt and questioning and faith, because the journey of faith is one that takes a life to complete.

There are two groups of people for whom I would especially commend this book. One is students, both undergraduate and graduate, who struggle with the apparent divides between what they believe and what they are studying. The other is pastors and seminarians who may be confronting their own doubts as well as the doubts of those they will pastor. The added benefit for this latter group is that the author’s journey helps develop a vision of how science and faith need not be in conflict with each other and what the world of scientific research is really like, knowledge often lacking in our local congregations. The fact that the author bridged these worlds in her own life and pursuit of calling gives us a narrative that “gets real” about reason, faith, and doubt and the value of questioning in building bridges of understanding.

To the building of more bridges and fewer walls….

Doubt. . . And Belief

"C.s.lewis3". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

C.s.lewis3“. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

One of the most troubling experiences for those of us who are people of faith comes when we face serious questions and doubts about that faith. Most often, these come unbidden. It may simply be that life happens and we wonder, “how can this be true and yet there be a good God?” It may be that we are pursuing a line of intellectual inquiry related to our calling and suddenly come smack up against something that poses questions about what we believed to be true–whether this concern the origins of life, or the nature of human freedom, or the rightness of certain convictions and the ways in which we have lived these out.

I think there are at least two aspects to what troubles us in these situations. One is that something, or even Someone, we have cherished as true and real is called into question–perhaps even the very existence of what we have loved is questioned. We do not want to lose what we have so loved, and has so made sense of our lives. The other troubling aspect for many of us, I think, is that we suspect that it is wrong, or there is something wrong in us, to have these questions and doubts.

In a book on C. S. Lewis, I came across some statements I find very helpful on this topic of doubt and belief. Lewis held that, “If it’s not true, God does not want you to believe it.” Clearly belief to him was not “believing in that which you know is not true.” Lewis rather believed in the thoughtful but not frantic effort to resolve the questions and doubts we face. He wrote, in a letter to Rhona Bodle:

don’t mean by this that you should cease to study and make enquiries: but that you should make them not with frantic desire but with cheerful curiosity and a humble readiness to accept whatever conclusions God may lead you to, (But always, all depends on the steady attempt to obey God all the time. ‘He who does the will of the Father shall know the doctrine.’)”

At another point he also writes her:

“No one can make himself believe anything, and the effort does harm. Nor make himself feel anything, and that effort also does harm. What is under our control is action and intellectual inquiry. Stick to that.”

From this I draw several insights that I have found helpful:

1. Implicit in all this is that doubt for Lewis is part of the life of faith, not antithetical to it. The antithesis of faith is unbelief, a refusal to act upon what one is convinced is true.

2. We cannot make ourselves not doubt and the frantic effort to do so only makes things worse, not better.

3. Nor should we go to the other extreme and make doubt a fashionable way station, something to be celebrated. Sometimes I fear that it is more preferable these days to talk about what we doubt and question, than what we believe and embrace, as if the latter person must always be a bit narrow-minded lacking in intellectual acuity or sensitivity.

4. Intellectual honesty is important. This means an openness to the truth, whatever that turns out to be, whether it confirms, re-shapes, or overturns what we have believed. Lewis never wanted people to believe if the evidence against their faith was stronger than that for it. At the same time, Lewis thought we should continue in our beliefs unless we were presented with cogent reasons to change them, even when we have questions and doubts.

5. For Lewis, part of the answer is disciplined intellectual work–meeting the doubts head on. Rarely do we come upon a question that others have not wrestled with, often deeply. No where is this more true than in the Bible itself. Philip Yancey makes the observation in a very thoughtful post on this subject that none of the famous atheists of the past or present raise questions that have not been raised and wrestled with in the pages of scripture. Beyond this, there are thoughtful people who have written on most of the questions that we face. To search prayerfully looking for God to give illumination about the things we struggle with is not to force a resolution but rather to express faith that God may meet us in our search.

6. The other part is disciplined obedience in what we know. The great command to love God and love our neighbor is not suspended by our doubts. Continuing in our own reading and prayer, our worship, our community with others and service are all ways we walk in the way of God who ultimately is the one to address our doubts.

What Lewis’s counsel emphasizes is that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. By “action and intellectual inquiry” we are expressing a trust that God rewards those who seek and who come to God with their questions. What I also appreciate is the recognition that belief is not merely a matter of intellectual assent but rather a deepening relational trust–a movement from believing “in” God to believing God, as we would a spouse or friend we trust deeply because of all we’ve shared together. What Lewis commends is an approach to doubt meant to take us into the knowing and being known that is the deepest longing of human beings, something never easily won, but worth the effort.

Chasing Certainty

I would like to propose that chasing certainty is like chasing the wind. The most that you can ever hope for is to exhaust yourself only to end up with a handful of nothing.

I work in the context of a ministry with graduate students and faculty, and would argue that the academy eats certainty for lunch. I am not making a statement here that the university is anti-God or anything like that. The truth is that the university is an equal opportunity certainty-eater. When the university is operating at its best, it subjects every idea and research finding to rigorous questioning and testing.  The ideas or theories that survive this process are considered credible explanations, not certainties.

I think there is a mistaken notion that faith, at least for Christians, the group I know best, is about certainty. I think this stems, at least in part from a mistaken understanding of Hebrews 11:1, a verse we often refer to in our “definition” of faith. It reads, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). For starters, I will note that the word “certain” or “certainty” is not used here. Second, I will not that this talks about things hoped for and not seen. Neither of these terms suggest certainty to me but a certain amount of uncertainty. But what about the terms “confidence” or “assurance”. If I look at the context that follows, what I see this meaning is not certainty but simply acting in trust that what is promised or commanded is true. Noah, for example, believes the warnings of a coming flood even though this is a “thing not seen” and builds an ark (Hebrews 11:7).

What I would propose is that the terms “confidence”, “assurance”, and “faith” are relational terms that have to do with the trustworthiness of the object of one’s confidence, assurance, and faith. If a good friend agrees to meet me at Starbucks at 2 pm today, I will go to Starbucks, not because I’m certain they will be there, but because I have faith in their word. I have confidence or assurance, perhaps based on the fact that they have shown up at other times we’ve set up meetings. Therefore, I leave my house at 1:50 believing in an unseen future meeting with my friend.

Much of life is like that. We have reasons to believe and act in certain ways, whether with people or God. But we never have certainty. Yet I often observe Christians, as well as many others, pursuing certainty. Perhaps it is in an airtight theological system–and I’ve seen this of Christians of all stripes. Perhaps it is in an apologetic for the faith that “demands a verdict”! Perhaps it is a theory of the beginnings of the earth or an “airtight” refutation of post-modernism. Or maybe it is just having “enough” money in our bank account, or having chosen the “right” diet or exercise plan.

Sooner or later, in the academy and in life more generally, certainty comes up empty and one of two things happens. One is to double-down and become impervious to whatever is challenging our certainties. I’ve often seen this in the form of demonizing those who disagree or a rigidity of thought. The other extreme is becoming un-done–a completely abandoning one’s faith, sometimes for a new set of “certitudes”. Sometimes, I’ve seen this happen to those who came to graduate school from Christian colleges or from strong church backgrounds. Often, the “secular” university gets the blame, but I would propose that the problem may be the idol of certainty that we’ve erected in the place of trust in the living God, and what happens when we find our idol has “feet of clay.”

Others flourish in a similar environment. These people nurture a humble trust in God that acts on what they do know in loving and sometimes risky obedience and confesses what they don’t understand. It is the kind of faith that has room for questions and doubts and takes these to God. Over time, I watch these people gain a larger vision of both reality and God that is marked by resilience and rigor rather than rigidity.

Pursuing certainty is like chasing the wind. What are your thoughts of how one can live a meaningful and flourishing life in a world without certainty?


Stand Firm in the Faith

Ben posted yesterday on one of the other phrases in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “be strong.” As I listened to Rich on Sunday, my attention was caught by the phrase “stand firm in the faith.”

One of the things I most appreciated about what Rich said had to do with not confusing faith and certainty. I find this is a real problem with many. Unless they can be certain about God, or something God has promised, they don’t think they can have faith. Truth is, there is very little in life that I can say that is certain when I think carefully about this. Am I certain my wife loves me? I’m pretty sure of that and I trust her enough to fall asleep in her presence and let her prepare my food. But I can’t prove to a certainty that she loves me. I have faith in her love and after 35+ years of marriage, it seems pretty reasonable to trust her!

On the other hand, there are some who think that faith is simply irrationality–believing what we know isn’t true. Faith may be that for some, but what I propose is that Christian faith is reasonable faith–that God has given us sufficient reasons to believe that he is good and that we can trust Him. The resurrection of Jesus, which Paul argues for in 1 Corinthians 15 is perhaps the most compelling of these reasons.

At the same time, Rich focused on something else that is very important. Sometimes we know all the reasons to believe God and it is still hard to act on what we believe to be true. Rich spoke about the idea that sometimes faith is simply “keeping on”. That is what Paul means when he says “stand firm”. Sometimes the best way to “keep on” is simply to stay put!

This is hardest for me when I am anxious or fearful. One place where I struggle with this is money. Things were very tight for us when I was growing up, and I fear being in that place. Whenever the bills mount up, it is tempting to postpone writing those checks to the church and other places where I give regularly. And I’m more prone to think twice (or more) about helping with a special need. Standing firm or “keeping on” means following my regular routine in writing those checks first–and trusting God to get us through the tight patches.

I fear failure. Yet I find the life of faith calls me into doing new, risky things, at times. It may mean a new situation of speaking about Christ, or a new responsibility where I could crash and burn! The “firmness” in standing firm is not the firmness of success versus the shakiness of failure. It is that whether this new venture flies or flops, I am secure in Jesus–firm.

So a few questions for your reflection:

  • In what instances might you be looking for certainty when God has given you sufficient reason in scripture and your experience that he is good and can be trusted?
  • Where might you be attempted to stop “keeping on” in some practice of faith in your life?
  • Where might the Lord be inviting you to trust him to keep you firm and secure in some new, risky thing?

[This is also posted on Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on the messages at my church on which several of us post]