Sunday, October 6, 2019

What if the Church...Valued Doubt as Much as Faith?

"Don't question God," my Sunday school teacher told me when I was young.  Maybe you were told the same thing.  What they really mean is that you'll be a better robotic follower if you stop thinking so much.  Of course, they wouldn't quite put it that way.  But it's true that free thought threatens the status quo, and my Sunday school teacher felt threatened when I asked questions she couldn't answer from her Bible or her teacher's manual.  Asking good questions was mistranslated as "questioning God," which my teacher deemed a sin. Unfortunately, the church has spent thousands of years squashing good questions when those questions proved difficult.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro's article "400 Years Ago the Catholic Church Prohibited Copernicanism" is a good read, and deserves the few minutes it takes to follow the link, once you're done here.  In it, the author discusses Galileo's trouble with the Church when he taught Copernicus' view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  In 1616, the Inquisition forced Galileo to retract his teaching.  In 1632, when he could not keep his questions quiet, Galileo published a book contrasting the Copernican and Ptolemaic views.  Finocchiaro writes:

This book was a reasonable, clever, and indirect attempt to circumvent the 1616 prohibitions. Unfortunately, Galileo did not succeed. The Inquisition summoned him to Rome, and the trial proceedings lasted from April to June 1633. He was found guilty of suspected heresy, for defending the earth’s motion, and thus denying the authority of Scripture.
“Suspected heresy” was not as serious a religious crime as “formal heresy,” and so his punishment was not death by being burned at the stake, but rather house arrest and the banning of the Dialogue.

I wish this were a rare view of the church's attempts to silence good questions from good people--but unfortunately, it's not.  Historically, the Church has thought that questions are a threat to faith, rather than viewing them as a means to grow in faith.  But what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if the church valued good questions over good answers?

I know many good people today who describe themselves as "former Christians," who reached that point because they had some good questions that were wrong for them to ask.  They were told that they couldn't be good Christians if they inquired whether evolution could be true, whether it was okay to be gay, or whether God were more like The Force than a grandfather in the sky.  Since they couldn't turn off the questions in their head, and they were told they were bad Christians for questioning, they decided to throw in the towel, accept the moniker of "bad Christian" until they finally described themselves as "former Christian."  Then, as a result of their doubts, some were removed from positions within the church, or felt they had to remove themselves, lest they be removed.

Is this what Jesus would have done, when encountering people who doubt?  From his conversations with people like Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Zacchaeus, and others, I believe Jesus would have engaged in compassionate conversation, without forcing his views on anybody.  In the right timing, in the right way, Jesus would express his perspective, but Jesus also welcomed the questions and opinions of others.  One of his disciples, often called "Doubting Thomas" might have felt ashamed of his questions--but while Jesus expressed blessing for those who could believe without seeing, Jesus also accommodated Thomas' questions and met him where he was.

So today I ask, What if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if we understood that questions aren't so much a challenge to faith, as much as a means of growth?  If, at the end of a person's questioning, they come to conclusions that are different from yours, if you value their doubt then you're going to honor their journey.  You're going to realize that Jesus doesn't want cookie-cutter followers, but people who are strong enough to think for themselves and relate to him in their own way.  No two people are alike--and neither is their faith or even lack of faith.  But to judge somebody for where they are on their journey is something Jesus never did--and something we should never do.  

So, what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  We'd probably have better conversations, better relationships, and more engaged church members.  We'd recognize that the Church is made up of both believers and doubters, and we'd embrace both with equal love.  And maybe, just maybe, we'd allow the audacious questions of doubting people to lead us to consider some truths we never believed possible.  Maybe we'll find out that the earth really does revolve around the sun.  Maybe we'll find out that science is right on a few other things, and that we don't have to run away from that.  Maybe the less the Church runs away from answers that come from good questions, they more relevant we'll be in today's society.  We'll look less like a dinosaur and more like an explorer.  We'll learn to ask good questions ourselves--and we'll find answers that will help us to grow.

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