DOUBT AS LOSS
There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, sibling, or spouse. You can buy books on how to cope with the death of a beloved pet or work through the anguish of a miscarriage. We speak openly with one another about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.… It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road with me. They wanted to fix me. They wanted to wind me up like an old-fashioned toy and send me back to the fold with a painted smile on my face and tiny cymbals in my hands.
—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday
From: Michael Walker
Subject: Greetings From South Florida
Date: January 22, 2019 at 9:53:35 PM EST
To: [email protected]
My name is Michael, and I am a minister for a fundamentalist congregation in Hendry County. Since Fall of last year, I’ve been reading a lot of Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and Pete Enns. I’ve been listening to The Bible for Normal People, and I just got to your episode. I heard you mention Lee County, Florida, in your talk, and I just so happen to lead a study there on Tuesday nights each week for a house church. I understand that you are a county over, and I would love to get together with you sometime to talk about some of the things I’ve been studying recently. You put language to a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about.
I hope to hear from you soon.
P.S. I’m part of the 81 percent, but since last fall, I have slowly evolved where that is concerned as well.
* * *
Over the years, I’ve received hundreds of emails like Michael’s: honest, direct, intelligent, polite, and, underneath the surface, in real pain, if not a little desperate. I respond to some of them on my blog (being careful to protect the authors’ privacy), but I receive too many to respond to each one.
Something about Michael’s message motivated me to set up an in-person meeting. I suggested a wildlife preserve halfway between us. I’ve found that sensitive conversations of a spiritual nature often go best outdoors. Sure, coffee shops, living rooms, kitchens, and offices work fine. But there’s something about the logic and mystery of wind and water, trees and birdsong, together with the unhurried pace of walking and resting, speaking and listening, that creates just the right setting for conversations about matters of ultimate concern.
So Michael’s story poured out under cypress trees and among painted buntings and snowy egrets. He was raised in a small, super-conservative Christian denomination in the Midwest, and at a young age he was identified as an emerging leader. By nineteen he was preaching. By twenty he was a pastor. And by twenty-three, he had been fired and disfellowshipped (or excommunicated) by his congregation.
There had been no sexual misconduct or financial mismanagement, no secret drinking or drug problem, no unsteady work ethic or weakness in his preaching or pastoral care. Nor had Michael denied some central tenet of Christian faith. His fireable offense? He questioned the little church’s highly speculative doctrine of how the world will end.
If getting fired and disfellowshipped weren’t traumatic enough for a sensitive young man, those who fired and disfellowshipped him included his grandfather and his parents.
He was a newlywed at the time, working hard to finish his bachelor’s degree part-time while being employed as a pastor full-time, albeit with a pathetically small part-time salary. Suddenly, he had no salary at all.
What could he do? Was his short ministry career already over?
An older pastor in Florida who was nearing retirement heard through a friend of a friend that a precocious young pastor was available. Soon Michael had an interview and a job offer, and he and his bride were moving south to a town a couple hours northeast from where I live.
The small congregation began growing numerically. The people loved Michael and his wife. All was going well. Except for one thing. Week by week, when he studied the Bible in preparation for his sermons, new questions kept arising. Some things he read in the Bible seemed in tension with what he had always been taught. The more questions he asked, the more new questions arose.
Recent political developments brought additional intensity. Michael wondered if some of his members were more influenced by the Fox News of Rupert Murdoch than the good news of Jesus Christ. Michael only spoke to them during one hour on Sunday, but many of his members watched archconservative cable news pundits for three hours each weeknight, and during the day, they listened to radio talk shows with an identical slant. If Michael’s sermon disagreed with the monologue of a media pundit, the pastor, not the pundit, would be assumed to be wrong.
Perhaps if Michael could have suppressed his doubts he would have, but he couldn’t. Like a beach ball submerged in a swimming pool, his buoyant bubble of doubt kept popping up.
So he did what any number of budding critical thinkers before him have done: he secretly read books by authors that his tribe didn’t approve of. First he read Velvet Elvis by my friend Rob Bell, a book that acknowledges the inability of religious language to ever fully capture the depths and richness to which it points. Then he read a book by Richard Rohr, who writes about a spacious “alternative orthodoxy” that seemed far more hospitable than Michael’s inherited system of belief. Not long after that, he started listening to a podcast by yet another friend, Pete Enns, a biblical scholar who helps “normal people” have intelligent conversations about the Bible. Now, it wasn’t just one esoteric doctrine of the end of the world that Michael was coming to question. It felt like the system of beliefs that he had spent his whole life perfecting was wobbling and perhaps beginning to crumble.
To make matters worse, he was letting some of his questions slip out in his sermons. He couldn’t help it. Some people were relieved by his honesty; he was giving them permission to express their own questions and doubts. But predictably, others were suspicious. One fellow in particular seemed to be positioning himself as an antagonist.
What would happen if he lost another job? Could any young pastor survive two firings before the age of thirty? Far more serious, was he on a slippery slope that would land him in hot water (or some other deep or hot substance) with God as well as his congregation?
Only once did I see his eyes brim and only for the briefest moment. But I could tell that behind this young man’s clean-cut, well-controlled exterior, deep emotions churned. My heart went out to him.
Truth be told, I saw myself in him.
I too was a child of fundamentalism. I too became a pastor at an impossibly young age and without traditional training. I too faced traumatic early setbacks. And I too wanted nothing more than to grow from a good and faithful boy into a good and faithful man, to follow in the way of my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. But I too was plagued with a curious mind. When as a young teenager I dared to ask questions and received thoroughly unsatisfactory answers, I remember a terrifying yet liberating thought arising, unbeckoned, from somewhere deep within me: “I’m only fourteen. Four more years and I’ll be eighteen, and I can get out of here.”
However, not long after that I was ambushed by an unexpected spiritual experience that I’ll recount later in this book. In large part because of that experience, I found myself staying within the fold of the faithful. But I quickly moved to the margins of my traditional conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist heritage. When I discovered the Jesus movement and the charismatic movement, I jumped in, a little timidly at first, then more fully, and they provided new spaces to grow. But by my senior year in high school, I had questions for which I could find no answers.
It was an English teacher who helped me. He had formerly been a Jesuit priest, and I could tell that for him, questioning was a good thing. But I also knew that his form of open-minded, open-hearted Christianity would be considered liberal and dangerous by both my fundamentalist elders and my Jesus movement peers. “An open mind is like an open window,” one of them warned me. “You need a good screen to keep the bugs out.”
By my freshman year of college, my faith crisis was intensifying. Every time I’d run into a Christian friend on campus and he or she would ask, “How are you?” I felt I was plunged into a moral crisis. If I said, “I’m fine. How are you?” I felt like a liar. But if I said, “To tell you the truth, I’m having serious questions about the Bible, about hell, and, increasingly, about the existence of God, and I’m in deep inner turmoil,” I knew that prayer groups around campus would soon be praying for me, and people would be “counseling” me if not rebuking me, which would only make my situation worse. Neither option—hiding my truth or speaking it—seemed practical.
Thankfully, I had some friends, all a few years older than me, with whom I could speak freely about my doubts. They introduced me to a whole new library of books by smart writers for whom the phrase thinking Christian wasn’t an oxymoron. Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis were chief among them. I devoured nearly everything they wrote. Buoyed by their good answers, like young Michael Walker, I was identified as a spiritually precocious young leader and helped lead a church while I was still a college student.
So as Michael’s story unfolded, I listened with empathy because it resonated so deeply with my own.
Your path into doubt may be very different from Michael’s and mine.
You may be Catholic, and it was the pedophilia scandals that rocked you, or the male hierarchy’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, or the sense that the church was more interested in taking offerings than offering help to those in need.
You may be mainline Protestant, and you have been driven to doubt because your church’s institutional bureaucracy seems to betray its talk about moral urgency, leaving you feeling impatient, suspicious, even jaded. You may feel that the church only continues because of a conspiracy of ambiguity; if the church became clear about what it was actually for and against, half of its members would leave in a huff and the remainder wouldn’t be able to pay the bills.
You may be Jewish or Muslim or from some other religious tradition, and even though my references to Christian issues differ from your own tradition in details, you may be going through a similar process with a similar flood of emotions.
Whatever your background, you picked up this book because you want to deal with your doubts in a positive way. You’re seeking guidance. You’re seeking answers. You’re hoping to discover you’re not alone, and maybe even that your descent into doubt could ultimately lead you upward.
The origin of the word doubt helps name the pain. Doubt derives from the same roots as duo and double, suggesting that to doubt is to be in two minds, one that believes and one that doesn’t. The two minds wrestle and writhe in tension, pulling you in two directions, leaving you in di-stress. You can see with eyes of faith and you can see with eyes of skepticism, leaving you with double vision or internal di-vision.
Before doubt, you simply believed. You were in one innocent and undivided mind, seeing with one vision, feeling a comfortable confidence rather than distress. But that innocence, that simplicity, that peaceful unity of mind and clarity of vision now slip away, the first casualties of doubt.
Doubt inflicts other losses too. In one period of doubt, I tried to capture my feelings of loss in a song lyric, comparing my faith to a map.
All my road is before me, but
All familiar paths lie far behind me.
My map’s here in my hand, but
I have ventured past its tattered edges.
For many of us, faith is our map of reality, our map of the universe. It tells us where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, where to turn. But as soon as our trusted map stops matching reality, we feel disoriented. We have no idea where to turn, what to do, how to survive.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of using a paper map or a GPS guidance system and realizing that because of some glitch or a flaw, it’s leading you astray, or taking you in circles, or telling you to keep going straight or turn right when you’re actually at a dead end.
Academics often call these mental maps paradigms, and when a paradigm fails and we need to seek a new one, we go through a paradigm shift. That intellectual language might make it sound like we’re dealing with a strictly theoretical problem, but people experience the failure of a mental map, paradigm, or worldview as personally traumatizing. Even scientists, when their conceptual maps fail them and they must challenge some of their fundamental scientific assumptions, use emotionally charged language to describe the experience.
Listen to Werner Heisenberg, known for his famous “uncertainty principle,” describe what it felt like when he and Niels Bohr lost the certainty of their trusted scientific maps:
I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?… Here the foundations of physics have started moving; and … this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.1
Albert Einstein used almost identical language when he described the experience of coping with data that took him off the edges of his scientific map:
It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.2
If the loss of a scientific map or model creates anxiety, how much more does the loss of a religious worldview? This loss threatens us with another even greater loss: the very loss of God or of God’s favor, love, and protection. What could be more terrifying for a sincere believer?
This terror is especially real for people like Michael and me, who were taught that God is an almighty supreme being who demands absolute perfection and submission, a strict and demanding father, and a tough and exacting judge. Yes, we were also taught God is loving, gracious, and forgiving, but the one requirement God demands above all others is precisely the thing that doubters struggle with most: God demands firm, unwavering faith, which we understood to mean correct beliefs. To question those beliefs throws open the terrifying possibility that God might at any moment turn against us, punish us, reject us, maybe even send us to hell if we don’t get our beliefs straight and hold them tight, without doubt.
Now it’s scary to be a sinner falling into the hands of an angry God, but it can be equally scary to be a doubter falling into the hands of angry believers. Doubt can breach the psychological fortress in which we’ve felt safe, tear up the internal map by which we’ve navigated the world, and threaten to separate us from God’s favor and love. Then, beyond all those losses, it can rob us of the relationships most near and dear to us.
I felt a less dramatic version of this loss one day as a young pastor. I was meeting for breakfast with a trusted colleague from a church across town. I got up my courage and told him I was having some doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture, a doctrine that was deeply important to Evangelical Christians like us. He looked up from his scrambled eggs and made unblinking eye contact with me. “If you lose the inerrancy of Scripture, you lose the inspiration and authority of Scripture too. And if you lose that, you lose everything. I’ll never doubt that for a second.”
And that was it. No empathy. No encouragement. No inquiry about the reasons for my doubts. Not even an offer to pray for me. Just a warning and a self-distancing, a line drawn in the sand between us.
Before that breakfast, I had been able to confide deep personal struggles to this friend, and he to me. But my doubt crossed a line, and I knew instantly that he was no longer a safe person with whom I could speak freely from my heart. Frankly, our relationship was never the same, and I was left not only with my doubt but with one less friend to help me face it. (At least, that’s how I interpreted his response at the time. Now I wonder if I misinterpreted his intention. Perhaps he valued our friendship so much that the fear of losing me as a colleague in ministry motivated his firm response. Or perhaps my admission of doubt resonated with secret doubts of his own, and his response to my doubt was a way of suppressing his own.)
To lose or damage a friendship is a significant thing, but the toll of doubt can be even more costly.
One day, my friend Susan Cottrell received a phone call from her daughter, a college student. Her daughter confided that she was attracted to women, and in spite of trying to “pray the gay away,” she was not changing. Susan brought this news to a small group of her closest friends at her church, and they immediately told her that her daughter was sinning, and it would be a sin for her to accept her daughter as gay. She recalls, “I was being asked to choose between the two most important parts of my life: my child and my church.” Then, through tears, she adds, “I chose my child.”3 She no longer fit in with her church, and on top of that, half of her family turned away from her, many refusing even to speak to her.
Sadly, when faced with a choice like Susan’s, many people choose their religious community. Reversing a famous parable of Jesus, they stick with the ninety-nine sheep and cut off the lost sheep forever.
Just as caregivers have identified five stages of grief4 when we lose a loved one, doubters go through predictable stages as they grieve the loss of a simple, unquestioned faith:
Denial: I’m OK! Everything is fine! Praise the Lord!
Anger: It’s their fault that I’m having doubts. It’s that preacher, or friend, or church, or radio show, or denomination, or book that’s to blame!
Depression: I guess I’ve lost my faith and I’m going straight to hell. I’m doomed.
Bargaining: Maybe if I go to church more often, or go on that retreat, or take that class, or pray more, or read that book, or send money to that religious organization, or try harder, the doubts will all go away.
Copyright © 2021 by Brian D. McLaren