The Bible normalizes doubt
My friend messaged me the other day because she reacted negatively to a Bible story that she read on the Daily Prayer. It was from Luke 1, the stories of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ birth announcements to Zechariah and Mary, respectively. She reacted because the story seemed unbelievable. She felt isolated by it. She could not relate to all the foreign images. Babies leaping? Angels emerging? Men being silenced? Virgins becoming pregnant? She was as befuddled as Mary and Zechariah are in the story.
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
I love their questions. I love the permission to question the angel. They get visited by another-worldly creature, unbelievable in itself, and the angel tells one of them that his older wife will get pregnant and tells that younger one she is going to get pregnant by herself. What an odd and unusual circumstance. Despite the apparent evidence of the metaphysical, they still wonder, they still question, they still doubt. Mary believes and Zechariah doesn’t.
Doubt and faith are close to each other
Mary’s quickness to believe results in her blessing. Poor Zechariah’s doubt results in him being cursed with silence unless his boy is born. I suspect Mary’s youth led her to believe the unbelievable; and perhaps Zechariah’s old age made it hard for him to believe something new, something counter to his experience. It’s hard to have a soft heart, one that’s open to new things and new ideas. It’s hard to doubt your experience. In that sense, doubt and faith aren’t so far apart are they?
I’ve written about giving yourself permission to doubt and doubting your doubt even before. Previously, I did so in response to a dialogue on Twitter (what a terrible forum for relating) between ex-evangelicals and evangelicals. They seem to often get into fights about this subject. And it came to mind again, not just from my friend’s frustrated reading of Luke, but also from this overly-discussed gem from The Gospel Coalition. Pete Enns offers a great retort of the click-bait-y column here and he does so much better than I could, so I recommend you listening (or reading, since he provides a transcript).
Fundamentalism is an enemy of faith
Where I want to focus is at how a rigid faith, one that can’t flex, can actually lead to breaking faith as opposed to growing it. Fundamentalism, and the absolute certainty associated with it, makes believing, and more importantly doing, new things really hard. Zechariah appears to be acting like a fundamentalist to me in how rooted he is in his thought, how inflexible he is in his thought.
The reason this is fascinating is because fundamentalism can actually limit how God can use us. It can constrain us in ways we are trying to guard against. It’s not a good basis for a faith that’s intended to grow and expand.
I actually think it is fundamentalism that produces people who doubt and lose their faith altogether. It’s so hard to break out, too. It creates rigid structures and ideas, and then fences itself off from the rest of the faith, and how it’s developed, grown, and touched people over millennia. It’s very limiting and confining.
It polarizes us more deeply because it divides up. You create an us versus them world. It’s the antithesis to evangelism, which is frustrating, since so many fundamentalists insist on re-branding themselves as evangelicals! It doesn’t include, welcome, enchant. It forces us to think and act a certain way. It’s ready to tell us that we aren’t real Christians, too. And you know what? That kind of thing sticks with you. So much so that once you begin to doubt your fundamentalism, you think you’re doubting your faith altogether.
And then, all of a sudden, as you reread a story like the one from Luke, and you start to wonder if all of this could have happened, you wonder if you are a Christian at all. The Bible seems like nonsense if you read it like a story as a “post-fundamentalist.” The view of faith is so rigid that it makes the Bible into a rule book that is objectively true as defined by our post-Enlightenment world. In other words, the Bible needs to be literally true, based on a certain rational framework, or it’s all garbage and useless. Fundamentalism then breeds doubters that lose their faith, altogether.
Faith like a child’s
So I’m talking back to the fundamentalists because their theology could wipe out people’s faith. My friend told me she grew up being taught that the story is real. In other words, that it actually happened, point-by-point, fact-by-fact. This is common in fundamentalist upbringings, too. I understand the appeal. It’s helpful to teach your kids the Bible in a concrete way. I guess if we’re insistent on teaching children the Bible, you have to simplify how we read it.
But the funny thing is, kids actually can “pretend” way better than we think. I was talking to my youngest the other night; she kept coming out of bed (as is her wont). This time she was scared. I reassured her that Jesus was with her. She retorted, “If Jesus was real, I wouldn’t be afraid.” I replied back, “He is real.” “But I don’t see him,” she said. “Yeah, that’s the hard part.” I’m trying to help her believe in something that isn’t so concrete; something that’s a little more mysterious. I mainly want her to know God loves her.
Her depth of faith, or her ability to pretend and wonder, was inspiring to me the other day, when she referenced another person people put faith in this time of year: Santa. She had an assignment that asked her to list gifts she wanted Santa to bring her. I was only slightly disturbed since we never taught her about Santa. But I asked her who he was. She said, “A guy who dresses up. And I know it’s pretend. But I still believe it.” I laughed. I like that she’s holding two things together at once. I can learn a lot from that too.
Fundamentalists often stay that way
Fundamentalists have a hard time with that. Fundamentalists who lose their faith usually just become fundamentalists of another sort. In this case, the Bible has to be one thing or another. It has to be literal fact or it is otherwise utterly useless. Is that how anything works? Are things ever that simple? Are people ever that simple? The ex-fundamentalists are often as recalcitrant, though. I’m sympathetic, but I think they need to move beyond their anger and their resentment. They are free to doubt, but free to do so much more than that.
There is so much more to the story than whether it is real or not, whether it was true or not. I actually wrote my friend back and I asked her why it mattered to her it was real (I think it is real, by the way). The story has meaning and power regardless of whether or not all the facts line up. Furthermore, being “real” and being “technically correct” are so far from each other. The story is real because of how it impacts us, how we can have an existential encounter with it, and how we can use it today. The story itself is about the doubt that we can sometimes have about what God is going to do. Mary and Zechariah ask questions then, and it’s appropriate to ask them now too.
Our entire church demonstrates its resilience through dialogue. What holds us together is our ability to relate, connect, and talk to each other. Our belief is rooted in community, not in some immutable unchanging doctrine. There’s space for you here if you doubt and question. And your doubts and questions don’t have to be rhetorical; we can talk about them. We can teach each other to let go of some things and hold on to others. Yes, you can let go of a rigid way of reading the Bible without losing your interest in the Bible or rendering it useless. Losing your faith in your fundamentalism doesn’t mean losing your faith altogether. It can be the start to a new faith, a stronger faith, and dare I say it, a better one.