Review: A Curious Faith

A Curious Faith, Lore Ferguson Wilbert (Foreword by Seth Haines). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022.

Summary: A book about the questions God asks, we ask, and those we wish we were asked, all with the message of living the questions and not hastily grasping for answers.

There is a strong and deeply embedded streak within me to want to have the answer to any question. Perhaps it came from being the class nerd, somewhat overweight, who compensated for his lack of athleticism with being a good student. Later, as a young follower of Christ, it seemed to be important to answer the questions my friends who didn’t believe would ask. Yet I began to notice that my “answers” didn’t reach to the heart of my friends’ questions. Then midlife hit, and deeply painful life junctures and I became aware that the answers weren’t reaching to the heart of my questions. And because the questions were existential ones like, “does my life really matter?” and “does God really care?”, they mattered, and I began to learn that living the questions rather than hastening to answers that really didn’t work was vital. Those questions laid bare what was in me and awakened in me my longing for God, not as an answer, but One to be known.

That journey is one Lore Ferguson Wilbert traces in her own life. The book opens with epigraphs from Madeleine L’Engle and Rainer Maria Wilke about living the questions. Wilbert traces her own journey from certitudes to questions, finding a church that loved her despite all her questions, living them with her. What is most striking though is that in three parts she explores the questions we find in scripture: The questions God asks of people, the questions we ask of God, and the questions we wish someone would ask of us, the questions asked by Jesus during his ministry.

The chapters (32 in all) are short, allowing readers to pause and sit with the questions and reflections and consider where these might connect with the questions they are living in their own lives. One chapter I appreciated was God’s question to Moses: “What is in your hand?” Wilbert observes: “When God asks what is in Moses’s hand, the staff in his hand is there because so many things have just gone wrong in Moses life.” She sees in that staff all our failures in life and then moves to consider what that staff in his hand came to mean as Moses shepherded God’s people. She considers the question Jesus asks the woman caught in adultery, “Who condemns you?”, and reflects on how often we have a condemning voice in our head and think ourselves utter failures at being good Christians when Jesus’ first concern for the woman is that she be safe and know that no one condemns her–only then is she or any of us free to refrain from sinning.

The invitation throughout is to be curious. To sit with questions, to keep questioning, to bring our questions to God, opening ourselves to God. Her curiosity sometimes leads her to ask a raft of questions in some of the chapters and this perhaps can be overwhelming. Sometimes, a single good question is enough. She urges us to not be hasty to grasp at answers that are too small for our questions. In various ways she holds out the hope that there is really one Answer, and to wait for Him and to allow his questions and ours to take us on that journey to Him, however that comes to pass.

I thought her most profound chapter the one on “The Unasked Questions” where she describes the Tenebrae service that ends with the cry, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” followed by all lights extinguished. Sometimes we don’t even know the questions to ask, we live a kind of death, as we await the coming of light, and life. Only what has died may be raised.

This is an uncomfortable book. But there are many living with uncomfortable questions. To them, this book is a kind of balm, that encourages them to keep living them. They are questions that matter, questions that break us open to God, questions that lead us to far more than just “answers.” Often such people are thought to have lost their way. This book proposes that a curious faith that lives the questions is the only way to find one’s way.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Learning Questions

Question Mark Questions What Why How Where WhoI sympathized with a Facebook friend who posted the other day a statement that said, this is not for “discussion but for declaration” and that he wished there was a feature on Facebook that allowed for turning off comments. I have wished for that feature many times!

There are times when I’ve posted a comment, sometimes on a controversial issue, or an article, that reflects my own thinking and convictions, and immediately it is beseiged with arguments or counter-posts or even hi-jacked. Trying to engage in an intelligent fashion often seems futile. I honestly feel the commentators just want to shut me down. Sometimes they succeed. I understand why many people only post pretty pictures and cat memes on Facebook!

Frankly, I think it is rude to assume that I am inviting an argument. Sometimes, I just want to express what I am thinking or feeling or share something that I believe is reflective of my convictions that says it better than I could. I see plenty of things I take issue with on others’ profiles. If it is an article, sometimes I stop by and read. Sometimes I learn something. I guess I’ve never assumed the person was inviting an argument, unless they explicitly say so. However, the capability built into Facebook invites argument, wanted or not. Most of the time, it accomplishes nothing except inflaming the feelings of all involved.

I’ve seen a few places where this works, mostly closed and moderated spaces with clear ground rules for online discussion. One of the differences between the futile arguments that proliferate on so much of social media and healthy discussions, is that healthy ones are characterized as much by questions and listening as by statements and speaking. These discussions don’t always exclude efforts to persuade, but do so from a foundation of respectful listening and learning and questioning, and an openness to learning from another, even if this means change. It’s rare, and it leaves space for people to make up their own minds without rhetorical bludgeoning.

One of the marks of such conversations is that they are characterized by learning rather than leading questions. Learning questions are genuinely curious and really want to understand what a person thinks and feels and values and why. Leading questions are trying to maneuver a person into a place where one can assert the superiority of one’s own ideas and beliefs. Learning questions are open and open-ended. You really don’t know what the other will say or where the conversation will go. You might even discover something that changes you. Leading questions have already decided where you want things to go and what you want the other to say.

While I think it could happen in a Facebook comment box, I think it is far better face to face. Here are some of the kinds of questions one might ask:

“I’d love to know how you came to think the way you do about this question?”

“This is something I didn’t quite understand. Could you tell me more?”

“That’s really interesting. Could you say more about the basis for this idea?”

Who or what has been most influential in leading you to these conclusions?”

What has your way of thinking about this meant for how you live?”

So what should you do if you still think differently and would like to have a conversation about that difference?

First, a good test of whether you’ve really understood the person is that you can re-phrase what they think and they say, “yes, that’s it.”

Second, ask yourself if you really want a discussion of your thoughts in the same way you’ve been learning from your friend. Are you willing to be asked questions and to explain yourself so another can understand.

If so, then I think there is one more learning question that might be something like this:

“I think we differ about what we’ve been discussing. Would you be open to discussing how we might differ?

We cannot assume that another wants to have this discussion. Here, too, it seems we need to learn. We are inviting someone into a situation where we are having a good argument, one in which we differ, and are seeking to understand the difference and whether one of these is superior to the other (it could be that there is another way of thinking that has occurred to neither of us!).

Theoretically, one might do this on Facebook, but it would take a lot of typing! I think that is one of the problems with the format. It is designed for the quick response, not the deliberate step-by-step process by which two people understand each other. It is often a free-for-all with many people who know nothing of each other throwing in their two cents worth. No wonder it is usually a hot mess.

I do think Facebook can be a place where we learn something about what each other think. What would help me, and perhaps help this space, would be that if we disagree with what we’ve read, we ask first, would you be willing to discuss your ideas about this? That’s a learning question, as well as a courtesy. Then, if we want to, we can figure out the best way to do that, which might not be on Facebook. Would that be so hard?



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.

Thinking and Believing


The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. Public Domain

I help people discover how it is possible to both think and believe.

This is often what I say when people ask me what I do. I work in a Christian collegiate ministry with graduate students and university faculty. I say this because it is not obvious either inside the church or inside the university that one person may do both.

In the university world, it is often thought that if one is serious about thinking, that this rules out believing. One study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, found that only 36 percent of university professors still claim some form of belief in God whereas 90 percent of the American public does. Sometimes this has to do with the perceived conflict between science and faith, most often due to the evolution wars in this country. Yet there are leading biologists like Francis Collins, who led the effort to map the human genome, for whom this has never been a problem. Sometimes this is a consequence of what I call, “stupid things done in Jesus name.” For some, the wounds they have experienced at the hands of Christians are serious. And sometimes, I’ve met people who simply do not want there to be a God.

I also find that some really do not think authentic faith has room for authentic questions. And yet questions are at the heart of what a university does. Jesus loved questions. He loved it when his disciples asked him questions. And he probably asked more questions than anyone in the New Testament. He even asked questions in response to questions! This runs so contrary to the idea that a person who believes has lots of answers and lots of certainty. For me, it is much more the case of finding someone who I can really trust with my questions, and who often uses questions to transform me and my outlook on the world, if I am patient and persistent enough with them.

Sadly, I’ve often found the church to equally be a place where, if one is serious about belief, it means that one must rule out much of what some people think. Often it comes in the form of some conflict with what we understand the Bible to be saying. Most often, I’ve found the conflict to be apparent rather than real, more often the result of trying to make the Bible answer questions its’ writers didn’t intend to answer. Sometimes there are real conflicts, but then there are also real anomalies in the data of any field, and the worst thing you can do is force a solution, as much as you’d like to “neaten” things up. And sometimes, the conflict is really one between cultural ways of life in society and the counter-cultural life of God’s people. Here, it seems, the answer is to not simply ask what but why–to understand the reasons behind a different way of living.

I think it is equally the case here that people struggle with the idea that an authentic life of faith does not have room for questions. Yet in the gospels, I see that faith is acting on what one does know about God or Christ, even while asking about what one does not know. After all, none of us gets to one hundred percent certainty about anything. We live and act on knowledge about which we have far less than 100 percent certainty all the time.

To the contrary of what some think, I am convinced that the life of faith may actually open up the life of thought and research. First of all, at the heart of the formative practices of Christian faith is the practice of attentiveness, first of all to God, but also to one’s own life, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Often, attentiveness is the seedbed in which the curiosity that leads to good questions grows. And good questions are at the heart of good research. Don’t get me wrong. I know lots of people who are not believers who are attentive and ask good questions. I’m simply saying that the attentive life that flows from faith prepares us to be attentive, whether in the lab or the art studio, or when we are studying a musical score or a balance sheet or statistical table.

I could go on. The conviction that we worship and follow the one who is Truth ought make us dogged in the pursuit of truth, because we really believe it is out there, and isn’t just a masquerade for who has power. The paradoxes of the faith–the incarnation, the Trinity, humans as the imago dei and yet as finite and fallen–leads, I believe to a flexibility or suppleness in thinking that is open to the answer being “both this and this” rather than an oppositional binary. Certainly, the belief in a Creator who thinks (the ultimate, it seems to me, reconciliation of believing and thinking), gives a powerful rationale for hypothesizing theories, and searching for lawful order in the cosmos, and even for the power of mathematics to map onto the physical world.

At the end of the day, however, what I am about is not an argument about whether it is possible to think and believe. Rather, what I am about is deeply desiring that my friends engaged in the “heavy lifting” of academic or professional life are able to live with this deep sense that the joy they experience in the joining of prayerful pursuit of knowledge and attentive inquiry, the wonder of those “aha” moments, is the pleasure of the Creator upon them, for which they were made.

St Irenaeus wrote:

The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”

My longing? Human beings fully alive discovering in the creation of God the glory of God, bringing thought and belief together. That is joy indeed.

Review: Becoming Curious

becoming curious

Becoming Curious, Casey Tygrett (Foreward by James Bryan Smith). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Commends curiosity as essential to transformation and helps us cultivate the practice of asking questions as a spiritual practice.

Anyone who has been a parent knows there is a season of life where you probably answer a hundred questions a day from your growing child. As children grow and change by asking questions, we begin to settle into the role of being people who have life figured out enough to have “the answers.” That settling can be dangerous, as we harden in attitudes and dispositions. We cease to grow.

Casey Tygrett thinks that curiosity isn’t just for the young but rather an essential for growth and transformation at any age. He proposes that we need to become, not childish, but rather childlike, and that learning to ask questions, lots of questions, can be a spiritual practice that helps us cultivate curiosity, and that can be the doorway to change as we live with our questions before God.

His book is organized around different kinds of questions we might explore, and each chapter ends with a “questions journal exercise” that encourages us in this practice. Among the kinds of questions he explores is the searching question that Jesus asks both James and John, and the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” He encourages us to think of how we would answer, and what it would be like were Jesus to ask the question of us and what we would answer him. He considers questions of identity (“who do you say I am?”), questions of motivation (Why?), the question of the other, and what it means to love the other well (“Who is my neighbor?”), and the questions of failure (our own) and forgiveness (of ourselves and others). Finally he considers what is perhaps the hardest question, what it means to change, which often involves dying, resurrection, and ascension.

What impressed me so much about this book was how Tygrett comes at so many familiar passages with a fresh slant. Earlier, I wrote on his discussion of “repentance.” There his question is, what if we thought of repentance as an invitation rather than a command? I found this fresh slant in the chapter on failure, where he observes that Jesus doesn’t make Peter confess that he had denied the Lord, and that Jesus invites Peter to participate in his own reinstatement in responding to his questions “do you love me?”

This was most apparent in what he wrote on forgiveness:

     “One of the reasons curiosity is so important to our growth and formation is that it’s not enough to hear Jesus teaching ‘forgive,’ and then we do it.

We need the second question–the curious question–How?

When it comes to forgiveness, the how is not just an event. It’s not just an action, an attitude, a prayer, or a gift given in hopes of burying a hatchet.

Forgiveness is an address. It’s a place where you live.”

I’ve never heard it expressed like this but it so makes sense. It is like there are only two houses we can live in–a judgment world or a forgiveness world. We either live in a world of judging and being judged, or in forgiving and being forgiven.

My sense is that this freshness arises out of the author’s own childlike curiosity. Perhaps one of the simple goodnesses of this book is the permission he gives to ask questions. Some of us may have gotten the mistaken notion that this is not permitted of “good” or “mature” or “orthodox” Christians. Far from being a problem or an apologetic challenge, he treats questions as an opportunity to be encountered by the God who is not put off by our questions but uses the questions we bring into God’s presence as a means not simply to inform us but to change us–to transform us.


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.


I Hadn’t Thought of it This Way…

becoming curiousI’ve just begun reading Casey Tygrett’s new book titled, Becoming Curiouswhich proposes that the asking of questions, of being curious, is actually a practice that may be spiritually transforming (and one we often lose as adults as we think maturity equates with having answers and certainty).

That’s not actually the point of this post. Rather I want to focus on an observation he makes about the word “repent.” We most often hear it as an imperative, but he asks the question of whether it might be understood differently, similar to an ad he saw for a certain airline saying, “Fly _____”. The ad is not a command, but an invitation in the imperative form, kind of like what I am doing when I answer the door at my home, see a close friend standing on the doorstep, and I say “Come in!” It’s not a command but an invitation of welcome.

We usually think of the word “repent” being spoken in angry tones by an adult (like a grim father figure) who is really put out with how awful we are and is warning us to clean up our act or face the consequences (“turn or burn”?). Most of us usually respond pretty negatively to this kind of stuff. Perhaps it is a “sez who” response. Or maybe it is disbelief that people could be so obsessed with “sin.” Maybe we just put our hands over our ears.

What if this were framed, and heard as an invitation? What if we heard it as the chance for life to begin again, anew? What if we heard it as a second chance being offered, saying that we can change our minds, change our ways, and this will be honored and received with gladness? What if we heard this as the words of the father to his prodigal son, saying “come home”?

Are there any of us who has not desperately needed this invitation? We know we have screwed up, made bad choices for which we are utterly responsible, done things that have deeply hurt another. We know in our deepest selves that our “transgressions” were not noble acts of rebellion, but rather a self-absorbed descent into the darkness. In our most honest moments we wonder and despair whether there is any way to escape the cloud of shame and the pangs of guilt. We cover it well, put a brave face on our self-justifications, and maybe even start believing the lies we tell ourselves.

What if we heard in the invitation of repentance a chance at forgiveness, a chance at a new beginning? This only stands to reason, when you think about it. Wouldn’t the invitation to repent be the most ultimate act of cruelty were it followed by condemnation? That, I think is why the invitation to repent is often followed by the words “and believe the good news.” What if there were One who so radically loved us that he paid what we could not possibly pay or repay? What if there were one who could empower us to live differently, to become the self we know we ought to be, even as we are delivered from self’s tyranny?

What if repentance were an invitation into this kind of life? Would you say yes? Will I?

Review: Grand Central Question

Grand Central QuestionGrand Central Question, Abdu H. Murray. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Every worldview addresses the fundamental “why” questions of human existence and the author contends that the worldviews of secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam each have a “grand central question” and that the grand central questions posed by these worldviews find their deepest and most satisfying answers in the Christian gospel.

Abdu Murray grew up as a Muslim, trained as a lawyer, and spent years questioning the beliefs of those around him–atheist, Christian, pantheist–until he was confronted with some questions of his own that led to a his embracing the Christian faith.

In this book, Murray begins with the important and costly search for truth, acknowledging that this could lead to great loss–of respect, of family, even of life–and leaves us with the question of what the truth is worth for us. He then explores the idea that every worldview in some way addresses some basic questions including:

  1. What explains existence? Or is there a God?
  2. Is there an objective purpose and value to human existence?
  3. What accounts for the human condition?
  4. Is there a better life or salvation from our present state?

He contends that each of the belief systems–secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam–is particularly concerned with one Grand Central Question that receives the greater emphasis in that system. For secular humanism, it is the question of the basis of human dignity when there is no God. On what can the inherent value of humans be grounded? For pantheism, it is the question of how do we escape (and explain) suffering? Finally, for Islam, it is the question of the greatness of God, and how one might worship a great but unapproachable God.

In three sections, Murray expands upon the central question for each worldview, showing how the worldview attempts to address this, the shortcomings of those explanations and why he believes the Christian gospel provides the most cogent and satisfying explanation. For the secular humanist, simply asserting the intuition of our worth may not be enough if we come up against superior beings considering us expendable. Appealing to fine-tuning arguments of design, Murray proposes the grounding of our worth in God as his image bearers.

Likewise, pantheism argues for the elimination of desire as the basis for the escape from suffering. Yet this does not do away with the reality of suffering. Christian faith speaks of a God who enters into our suffering, and rather than trying to deny or transcend its existence offers meaning in suffering as well as an ultimate deliverance from it.

Finally, and perhaps especially valuable because of the author’s own prior beliefs, is his exploration of Islam. He particularly explores the idea of “God is greater” and proposes that the very things Islam denies are in fact what offer the greatest possible God, a God who is One not only as we are but uniquely one essential deity in three persons, a God whose love arises from the eternal relations of the three, and a God who may be approached in worship because he approached us in his Son. Furthermore, this Jesus did not have a substitute die on the cross, hardly a sign of greatness, but died as the substitute for humanity.

He concludes with the proposal that the Christian gospel does not address one Grand Central Question but provides answers that address the range of questions about human existence that intellectually satisfy and can spiritually transform.

I appreciated the idea of a “grand central question”, although I wonder if proponents of these worldviews would be comfortable with this rubric. His discussion showed evidence of many dialogues with people who hold the views he is addressing, but I wonder if the book would have felt more authentic if he had dialogue partners from these three “worldviews” responding to his proposals.

I think what set this book apart was the sensitive and insightful exploration of Islam, including his narrative of how careful study of the Qur’an actually led to his examination of the gospels. I hope he will write further on Muslim-Christian engagement, which seems so important and needed in our day.


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.