The Doubtless Church

Sadly this is how many picture church (Catholic or otherwise)

In Chapter 10 of You Lost Me, David Kinnaman looks at the problem of the church appearing to be doubtless. Many people in the church as well as many outside of it feel as though being a Christian means being absolutely certain of whichever doctrines the church in question holds as essential (and often  there are a lot). This is scary because the simple reality is that being absolutely certain is the unicorn that can never be caught because it doesn’t exist. Some are better at pretending than others but everybody doubts sometimes.

Types of Doubt

Kinnaman addresses four types of doubt. The first is the most obvious: intellectual doubt, usually connected with certain points of theology. Some are fairly classic questions like why does God allow suffering? That’s one has been debated since even before strict monotheism was introduced in the Exilic period. Others have to do with more precise and less personal (at least on the surface) theological questions.

The doctrine of Hell is the most common theological point of doubt, Kinnaman points out, although I question whether the doctrine of penal substitionary atonement would be a close second especially since many churches equate this doctrine to “the Gospel” and therefore make it essential to be saved from the aforementioned Hell. In American evangelicalism, where much of this research took place, evolutionary science could be another but I talked about that more in my post on The Anti-Science Church. The questions that people ask about these doctrines are very good ones, ones welcomed whole-heartedly in the academy but sadly often pushed away with cliches in a lot of churches. “God doesn’t want to send people to eternal conscious torment; he is bound by the rules of retributive justice.” So God isn’t really the ultimate authority; this abstract justice is? Or: “No, God didn’t kill his Son; Jesus is God himself.” So maybe it isn’t child abuse it still seems like this God is pretty twisted to have to kill (one person of) himself in order to satisfy his own wrath. Sadly most people ready to leave the church raise these questions and the church, after the initial cliche, shrugs them off and discourages doubting instead. It might seem to stop the supposed damage of questioning but it does way more damage since people are made to feel unwelcome for having these questions.

The second doubt Kinnaman explains is institutional doubt. People have a lot of problems with the church. That’s what this entire book is about, after all. In Catholicism we routinely hear of the priest abuse scandals. In Protestantism, especially evangelicalism, we often deal with our own judgemental attitudes. In Anabaptism, we deal with a history of escapism, settling for staying away from the world instead of working to transform it. In the mainline, we hear the idea that there is little difference between the church and a social justice club. They all have some element of truth to them while being vastly generalized.

The final type of doubt that Kinnaman discusses is transitional doubt. This is determined by its length rather than source. Every Christian experiences doubt even if they don’t admit it. I dare say, every non-Christian doubts too even if they don’t admit it. This type of doubt is usually more personal than intellectual. Some receive the necessary support and return to faith. Others don’t and leave because they feel as if they aren’t welcome. Churches, keep an eye out for these people. I guarantee there are a lot of them. Make sure you have the tools in place to support them.The third doubt that Kinnaman explains is unexpressed doubt. The majority of people, if they feel that their questions are not welcome, will simply leave the church and faith without bothering to ask. Some will instinctively blame the doubter, then, claiming it is their fault that they didn’t ask so how the church be held responsible? This is missing the point, I think. The church needs to make sure it is known that doubters are welcomed and loved. The nature of doubt is that you probably aren’t going to express them without feeling like it is a safe place. Churches, make sure you are a safe place. Discuss the benefits of doubt in your sermons. Have HomeChurches where people will know each other personally enough that they can be vulnerable. You can brainstorm other strategies in the comments.

Certainty and Modernism

The root of this problem is a philosophical one. Modernity, the primary philosophical starting point for approximately the past 500 years in the Western world, emphasized certainty in objective truth. We have been taught that we can learn the exact reality which is true for everybody if only we carry out the right scientific process. Protestant theology adapted the same approach and claimed that we can learn the exact reality which is true for everybody if only we read our Bibles. What happened, though, is obvious in hindsight: we disagreed about some of what we thought the Bible was saying to us today. Theologian/historian Alister McGrath calls this Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: everyone is allowed to interpret for themselves but in the modern era we were all expected to get the same conclusion. When we didn’t, clearly whoever disagreed with the decision-makers were heretics who needed to be removed from the church. That’s why we have thousands of denominations.

This simply was not true for the first 1500 years of the church. There were some clearly-defined dogmas which were to be held in order to a member of the church. This didn’t mean that you weren’t allowed to doubt that small list plus the list of required doctrines was far smaller. The first creed of the church was 3 words: “Jesus is Lord.” That was it that people had to agree with. In my opinion, this is also the simplest presentation of the Gospel. A few hundred years in they developed more creeds which upped to a couple hundred words which were primarily related to how Jesus is Lord. To this day, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are far more theologically diverse than any Protestant denominations who have lists including a precise definition of Hell, atonement, biblical hermeneutics, who wrote which books of the Bible, free will, church governance models, whether women can lead, and much more. Daring to ask questions about even one of these is often tantamount to heresy and that is because modernity has ingrained in us to see this concept of objective truth on all details to be more important than the personal Truth Jesus, his great two commands to love neighbour and God, and his prayer that the church be one.

The Nature of Doubt

In the postmodern age we have been given the opportunity to reclaim the meaning of faith and the meaning of doubt. Postmodernism is largely defined by the realization that we all carry with us a lens through which we filter the Bible, church tradition, and even science. This does not mean that objective truth does not exist. It just means that the relationships behind how we see truth are more important than that truth. Consequently, we can return to speaking of faith the way that the Bible speaks about faith: a relational reality, not an intellectual one.

If the relationship is more important than hard cold objective truth, asking questions is not only acceptable but it is absolutely necessary. Imagine if I have never asked my wife a question. Imagine that I just took every thing each of her friends said, every thing each of her family members said, every thing each of her coworkers said, as absolute truth about her. Even if there aren’t any contradictions, which would be a miracle, I would still have not experienced the most important thing: being in relationship with my wife. That takes actually being with her, listening to her, asking questions about her and how she sees the world. It more than likely will mean that I have to question what I had been told by friends or family and probably set some of that aside. It doesn’t reduce their intelligence that they think some things differently than I; it is just admitting that their filter on the absolute truth about her is different than mine. That’s ok.

If I valued my understanding of the absolute truth even in the finest detail more than I valued those friends and family, I would be hard pressed to have any form of relationship with those people at all. It’s true of the church, too. Even when the church has significant and meaningful differences, we have a lot more in common. Jesus’ prayer was not for us to all have our theology right. It was that we would be one family. Families are allowed to disagree but at the end of a disagreement we remember that we’re all on the same journey. Doubts are just a helpful part of getting to know each other as family by providing us with the questions necessary to go deeper.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.