July 31, 2014

When Asking a Question Is Itself a Problem

follow_the_leader

Here is an exceedingly wise word from Samantha Field, in an interview she gave at the her.meneutics blog called, “Finding Faith after Spiritual Indoctrination.”

I recommend the entire article. However, this part is essential reading, and I pull it out for our consideration and discussion today.

* * *

Spiritual abuse is so much more common than many people think. It exists in so many forms, and it is incredibly easy to miss. And it happens where people are honestly trying to do the right thing, to follow Christ, to pursue godliness.

It also happens when people stop asking why. Being handed a list of “this is what you should believe” is so very easy, especially when that list is handed to you by someone you respect. But when we stop asking questions, when we even begin to accept that asking questions is in itself a problem, that’s when we can surrender our faith into the hands of someone who could misuse it.

Many times when I explain my religious environment, the focus is the legalism, when legalism isn’t really the problem. It’s the power and control that legalism places in the hands of a select few. Fundamentalism, in my experience, frequently results in the congregation surrendering control over almost every area of their lives to their pastor. In a strange twist, while fundamentalists preach in the complete “sufficiency of Scripture,” in reality they practice whatever their pastor hands down from the pulpit.

I also find it troubling that in discussions about faith, we seem to confuse “having faith” with “being certain.” I’m no longer comfortable with feeling certain about anything; certainty, I’ve found, is dangerous territory. It also bothers me when we frequently resort to statements like “the Bible is very clear on this issue,” or that a specific interpretation of a passage is “plain” or “obvious.” This type of language seems almost designed to shut down conversation, or to dismiss the speaker’s opposition.

I think it’s important for us to stay receptive to new and challenging ideas. To honestly engage with a concept we don’t agree with, and see where it takes us. Instead of digging in even deeper when our faith system gets confronted, if we took a second to empathetically understand their perspective, we could have a change of heart and a change of mind. Being able to do this, I’m realizing, is much easier said than done. Most of the time when I’m challenged, I instantaneously start mounting a defense. It takes me a while to realize that instinctually defending your own idea almost automatically means you’re not really listening to– or trying to understand– another.

Comments

  1. I’ve seen this happen more times than I care to count, and it always drove good, sincere, honest people with questions away from the church. Usually a question about a church practice or doctrine would end up with the church leader yelling at the questioner, trying to bully him or her into submission. It also seemed that the more the questioner cared about his or her question and was sincere about wanting to discuss it, the more abuse he or she would receive, to the point where sometimes he or she would be kicked out of fellowship. My husband, on the other hand, had a way of bringing up issues and challenging church leaders without receiving this type of abuse. Perhaps it was because he was a good debater and he didn’t care what they thought of him, and he did not let other people bully him. He was left alone and never kicked out.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Usually a question about a church practice or doctrine would end up with the church leader yelling at the questioner, trying to bully him or her into submission. It also seemed that the more the questioner cared about his or her question and was sincere about wanting to discuss it, the more abuse he or she would receive, to the point where sometimes he or she would be kicked out of fellowship.

      Something I cannot stress enough for all the Christian Cult-Watch types:

      CULT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN WEIRD-ASS THEOLOGY. IT ALSO MEANS ABUSIVE CONTROL-FREAK BEHAVIOR TOWARDS THE MEMBERS. Back in the Seventies, a LOT of behaviorally-Cultic groups got a clean bill of health from Christian cult-watch groups because of their Correct Theology. At which point, the spiritual abusers in charge would use this as another weapon to abuse their people.

      • Absolutely what HUG said.

        To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, “Although I may have excruciatingly correct theology, if I have not love I am nothing.”

  2. br. thomas says:

    I agree with the author’s point of view, particularly the portion about the “certainty” of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is fear, cynicism and despair. Doubt, actually is not a bad thing—it is a healthy and necessary part of our faith. I become very concerned when a Christian claims to have no doubts about their faith, or about their relationship with God or about God’s will. If you know it all and are certain about everything, why do you need faith?

    There is a very real danger in believing you have all the answers and you are correct about everything in terms of God & faith. Being certain reduces issues to right or wrong, black or white, us versus them. That is exactly what Jesus fought against with the Pharisees and the religious leaders of His day.

    Extremism comes out of a fanatical belief that one knows the truth, has no doubts about it, and it becomes one’s mission to convert others to one’s point of view, by whatever power and means that are available. This is true in politics as well as religions. And that is what got Jesus killed—by fanatics who thought they had all the answers and could not tolerate anyone who opposed them or undermined their authority.

    Entertaining doubts and being open to not having everything figured out prevents arrogance, pride and violence. Entertaining doubts and being open to mystery (if we are really honest, we know very little about all of who God is and what He is doing) keeps us humble, open to learning and to growing. It keeps us child-like, the key requirement Jesus set for us in order to enter His kingdom.

    • Fran H. says:

      +1

    • I rather doubt that “the opposite of faith is not doubt.” I should think it reasonable still to see faith and doubt as opposites, and they appear to be presented as such in James 1:6 and Matthew 21:21. Furthermore, Jesus did not compliment Thomas for his doubting. (John 20:24-29)

      A non-Christian professor of mine who came across as a “seeker” of sorts once observed, “The trouble with concluding that something is true is that then you must conduct yourself according to that truth.” Extolling “doubting” and “questioning” as virtuous is sometimes a way of trying to remain one’s own light and resisting truths that would compel a true change of heart and behavior.

      “For now we see in a mirror dimly …” (1 Cor 13:12) On the one hand we err if we do not acknowledge what has been revealed, and on the other hand we err if we claim to see what is not there. I should think that the best of the faithful will take a stand on what is fairly clear and pray still for greater light.

      I do think that there is a tendency simply to latch onto the conclusions of one’s theological forebears and neglect or even reject the kind of critical thinking that brought them to the understandings that have established standards for faith and practice. I see an opportunity for apologetics and a wider appreciation of the same.

      “Test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21) The Bereans “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” And yet “love believes all things.” (1 Cor 13:7) While I admire those who can ask the tough questions, I have also learned from (and occasionally envied) those who simply believe.

      “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7) And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:14)

      • “I believe; help my unbelief” will always be the pinnacle of faith, IMHO.

      • Patrick Kyle says:

        +1

      • br. thomas says:

        So, Paul K, you have no doubts in your relationship with God? You are absolutely certain about who God is, what He desires from you and that you are living your life in such a way that there is no doubt you are pleasing God in all your ways?

        As far as the example of Thomas in John 20:24-29, you realize that none of the disciples believed Jesus had been raised from the dead UNTIL that had seen Him, even then some of them doubted (Mark 16:11-14, Luke 24:11, 36-43). I have always understood that passage not as a rebuke of Thomas (because of doubt) but rather Jesus meeting Thomas where he was at – in his hurt, resentment and maybe anger at Jesus not having appeared to him, when he had appeared to all his other fellow disciples. Personally, I can identify with such a human and authentic response. Jesus also points to the new reality that after He ascends, people will come to believe in Him not because they have seen Jesus personally, but rather as He is proclaimed in the lives and the verbal witness of His body – the church.

        During His earthly ministry, Jesus seemed much more troubled by the certainty and the faith of the Pharisees and the religious elite than He was over any of His followers. They had no doubt whatsoever that they were right and knew God and His ways.

      • Well Paul K., Jesus also did not castigate, marginalize or demonize Thomas; nor did He treat Thomas with suspicion. In fact, if you read on you will see that Thomas via his doubting obtained a blessing for us. Jesus told him and the others who were there “…blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Oh yeah, and Thomas’ reply to seeing Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” That’s quite a statement of faith. Thomas confesses his faith and we get a blessing.

        I thank Jesus for the blessing and I thank Thomas for his doubt. One other thing about Thomas; he was probably one of the most solid disciples thereafter. So lay off Thomas and lay off the doubters. Jesus wasn’t threatened by Thomas’ doubt and faced it directly and he didn’t threaten Thomas with a public hanging because he had trouble believing.

        • I agree. Despite our traditional view, Jesus was not singling out Thomas and criticizing his doubt. Note that in the previous periscope he showed his wounds to the other disciples as well in order to identify himself.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Has anyone considered Jesus might have chosen Thomas BECAUSE he was a hard man to convince? And was known to be a hard man to convince? Because if you can convince a man like that, it must be important.

  3. The problem today as I see it as that many parts of Christianity are reverting back to fundamentalism. They are using the “Sovereingty of God” to shut down questions, shut down debate, and shut down discussion. Not only is this practice more Islamic than Christian it assumes that everyone is “on the same level” as defined by the leader of the movement of the pastor. This is part of the reason why I detest three words:

    “The Local Church”

    The Local church is nothing but a way to manipulate the process in the end. It is the end product that directs how you live your life in all parts in a twisted way. This scares me soooooooooooooooooooo much. I’m tip toeing back in and so badly, I mean SO badly not to run into a bad crowd again. Already along the way I’ve had to contend with interesting charachters and see those that knew me react when they find out that I’m exploring again. Becuase even as I move forward I’m still committed to hard questions, bukcing the trend, carving my own way and doing things differnetly I am not going to be a black and white type of individual. Those days are dead, and I was so dead when I lived them. Much of my life was about being certain of myself and others and “sin sniffing” and detecting heresy. I’m so determined not to go that route again. I hope this makes sense.

    • Makes total sense. I love those who ask the questions, explore…. I’m with you on that.

  4. I appreciate the author’s point that entertaining doubts prevents arrogance, but I am not certain that’s what she meant.

    • Well, it certainly was a *part* of what I meant. :) I was being very careful with my language, and didn’t want “certainty” and “pride” to be so obviously connected that people would feel insulted. I basically didn’t want anything to distract from my larger argument.

  5. I think the Trinity is confusing, I think it’s gross to drink blood or eat flesh, and I think monogamous marriage is outdated and too hard to comply with. I think the church should just get rid of these ideas and focus more on good works. Before you reject my opinions or quote Scripture at me, remember Scripture is old and everybody has different opinions. So take a minute and think emphatically about where I’m coming from.

    • I didn’t realize you were a Mormon! :P

    • cermak_rd says:

      Not sure if it was intentional or not, but I think you just described 3 stances I’ve actually held (well, it’s not that I find the Trinity confusing, I just reject 2 of the 3 members). I do find simulated cannibalism weird, but to each his own and the symbolism is what matters there. No one actually believes they’re eating flesh and blood. Even the Catholics state that the accidents remain, after all.

  6. dumb ox says:

    Reading this makes it clear to me why many evangelicals are attracted to Catholicism and the Papacy. Especially a Pope like Francis makes the average big-name evangelical leader look like a meglomaniac.

    • I read the whole thing, and yeah, in that context, the excerpted quote makes more sense (though on its own, it’s a recipe for unitarianism). The church experience she describes sounds like a cult. Baptists, ugh. It’s pretty amazing how different churches can be that claim inerrancy. Maybe learning some basic history and greek would help.

      • Jaqui. C says:

        The author is my sister, and yeah, it pretty much was a cult in many respects. It’s sad to know that this is more common than I originally thought. I can name many people who come from these churches scarred and still recovering years later. It’s been 7 years since I’ve been out of that church and I’m still doing a “factory reset”. While reading the scripture and examining what it says I find out things are different than I used to think. As my sister shared, asking questions is legitimate and needed in a Christian walk. Following blindly is a recipe for disaster. Raise your children with the knowledge of “why” they do what they do, scriptually.
        Preaching and teaching should include the Greek and Hebrew to educate your listeners as to “why” the bible says what it says. Many people need to get out of the mindset that Biblical languages are just for the preachers, and that only knowing the Bible indepth is for the preachers, cause we should be studying the scripture for ourselves. But sadly, that mindset that knowing the Bible and sharing Gospel with others is for the preachers is more common, in many people I know.

        I’m thankful that there are still many churches out there that aren’t cults, not all Baptists are like this. So that is a blessing.

        • Prayers for you and your sister. I’m happy it sounds your family is finding the Gospel.

          I think it is a lot to ask of all Christians to take the time to learn the original languages and history of Christianity, but at the very least, clergy should be educated and professional. Christ trained the Apostles for three years. Clergy should receive at least that much.

          • Jaqui. C says:

            Yes, clergy should be educated fully, and fulfill the specific requirements the Bible has for preachers.. :)

            It is a lot of ask for everyone to learn the history and languages, but what I meant is people should realize that they can learn it too. I saw a program the other day that describes this mindset.
            A woman drove by an orchard of oranges and she saw a crowd gathering around one of the trees. Curious she stopped and listened as a man near the tree spoke, she noticed everyone had “the orange pickers handbook” and as the man spoke about the correct technique to pick an orange. When he was finished, he plucked one orange and everyone cheered and then started to leave. She asked one person attending if they were going to pick the oranges that were ripe on all of the tree’s. The person responded with “No, that’s only for those that go to orange picking school, were not qualified”. The lady stood there in surprise wondering why they thought like that. She got back in her car and drove away….

            Many people I know think they are not qualified to learn the Bible, or that they “Don’t know enough” to share the Gospel with others, and that is just not true. The field is ripe to harvest, who will go?
            At the end of Matthew everyone was commissioned to share the gospel, to go into all the world. Whether that be in Africa, or your own work office. God called all of us to share the gospel, not those who “went to school for it”. That mindset, makes me sad, and a lot of people have it.

    • There are pros and cons to both. There are some things that Catholicism can do well that Evangelicalism can’t do well. And then there are some things that Evangelicalism can do well that the Roman Catholic church can’t do well. As I explained to my Mom and Christmas it would be nice if there was something with a combination of the two.

      Also remember some people are going to have a “grass is always greener” view. It happens with jobs, family, careers, dating, and yes faith to….

  7. Phil M. says:

    It always amazes me when I hear these types of stories. I’ve heard them quite a bit, so I know this type of abuse is unfortunately too common. But I guess the thing that amazes me is that there seem to be so many people who are willing to blindly follow bad leaders. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the Northeast and we valued personal independence more than almost anything, but I can’t imagine most people listening to pastors like this. Heck, there were elders in my dad’s church who left because my dad had the gall to say that he thought they should tithe regularly…

  8. I find neither attractive.

  9. Phil M- You wrote: “I can’t imagine most people listening to pastors like this”

    Please consider she was raised in this madness. She was a child, for goodness sake, she obeyed & submitted to her parents theology… Then she grew up…

    I wasn’t raised with any Christian theology, my parents didn’t go to church. And at the risk of sounding terribly corny or delusional, Jesus revealed His love to me when I was asking, seeking, hurting…

    JESUS was unseen but present… After the glow faded, I went to church. I trusted the leaders, they had PhD’s and Master degree’s in biblical studies, they were the experts, what did I know?

    So, as a grace for you & to us Phil: Please consider us…. the one who have been raised in this madness, and those of us that who were not, that. We are not dumb or stupid for listening and obeying pastors such a this….

    • Jaqui. C says:

      Yes, we were raised in the madness, but it wasn’t like that from the start. It was a process that happened over 12 years. One family would leave, and it wasn’t noticeable, then another and another till there was only 3 families left, none with children, just old folks. We found out over the years after we left how bad it actually was. It didn’t start out bad outwardly, but the core presented itself over the years and we saw what was actually happening and decided enough was enough. Enough discussions with the pastor and hoping for change that never came.

    • Gail,
      It wasn’t my intention to belittle anyone. I know children really are innocent bystanders in all of this. I’m just continually surprised when I hear about this sort of thing happening. I just have a hard time understanding how there are people that let this sort of thing happen. I do think that sometimes pastors who are very authoritarian have a strange ability to mask it. There are some pastors whose public persona is completely different than what they’re actually like in private interactions.

      • Thanks Phil M.

        I am sorry, I over reacted, had a long day and as I thought about it this morning, thinking more clearly, I thought boy I was kinda snarky with Phil, what was that all about, and I realized you hit a nerve.

        In all honesty I think I do feel a little stupid for putting my trust in my X-pastor. I was so naive on everything that had to do with scripture. I trusted the way he interpreted the scriptures, after all, he was the expert, what did I know?
        But, my gut kept asking me, where is Jesus in all this? So, I would ask him questions, and I would be lectured about learning to submit to those who were in authority over me. And you really hit the nail on the head with this: I do think that sometimes pastors who are very authoritarian have a strange ability to mask it. There are some pastors whose public persona is completely different than what they’re actually like in private interactions. It was a nightmare, but my eyes are wide open now.

  10. Danielle says:

    This is certainly a dynamic that exists inside cultish and controlling churches. I know a number of people who are recovering from their experiences in situations of this kind. All the subtle manipulation, esp. when combined with the urgency of being told again and again that you have to “get x right” and are “in danger” of being wrong just like “all those other people,” really takes a mental toll. It is not unlike, I suppose, dating someone who makes you feel special, but who continually hints that if you stop doing what they want, you will reveal that you are actually a terrible person–not who they thought after all–and probably deserve whatever they do to you afterward. From the outside, the trick looks obvious, but when you are inside the relationship, it can be hard to see what is happening.

    It is also a dynamic that can exist in less extreme form in evangelicalism more widely, where fear of boundary-crossing and various emotional and intellectual trangressions can be fairly strong. I did not fully realize this until college, which was the first time I was immersed in a community that was 99 percent evangelical. I began to notice how carefully some people would frame potentially difficult questions. And if someone broke the taboo on expressing problematic ideas or feelings, sympathetic persons join in with great relief and enthusiasm. And with–sometimes literally–a glance over the shoulder to see who was watching. We were actually checking to see if the coast was clear, or if the conversation was likely to provoke concerned intervention. I wouldn’t call the dynamic cultish, but it really wasn’t healthy, either.

    I also remember realizing one day that I had began to hate it when anyone quoted the Bible in a conversation. It often had the curious effect of immediately bring the conversation to a halt. Isn’t that strange? The conversation should have gone deeper at that point. But what was too often happening was that someone was attempting to offer a proof text to settle an issue … they were not actually seeking to open discussion, but were making a powerplay and thought they had the trump card that ought to end the conversation. So you either had to back down, or find a way to challenge the entire paradigm from which they were working. To do the latter, you have to have both motivation and energy.

    • Thank you, Danielle, for sharing these thoughts– they echo so much of what I’ve thought and felt over the years, but wasn’t able to articulate until recently. These kinds of things need to be brought up more often.

      • I was going to say that I am glad I am not crazy & that this makes sense. However, I would prefer that I was crazy!

        I know exactly what you mean about needing a long time to be able to work through what one has observed and make some sense of it. It’s easy to see individual pieces, but hard to figure out how to make sense of it … and difficult to say something that sounds negative, because of all that means. If that makes sense.

        Thank you for being so forthright. I think a lot of good can be done by letting people know it is OK to be upfront. And to discard fear. I know smile at my old self, so afraid that if I did the wrong thing, faith would crumble away. But here we are, yes?

    • +1 Danielle- You just put words into my mouth.

  11. I’ve been reading this site for nearly a year, but until now I’ve just been lurking and absorbing it all. This post struck a chord with me as it speaks directly to my experience.

    I grew up in a non-questioning community, and one thing that makes this issue sometimes confusing is the double-speak that can occur in these environments. In the group that I belonged to, they would never have blatantly said that questioning is unacceptable, rather it is implicit in the culture. If you had questions or doubts, you should “seek help” from the church leaders – it was treated as a spiritual sickness. If they couldn’t “correct” your thinking then you’re advised to “wait on God.” But discussing your thoughts with anyone else was frowned upon as this could “stumble others.” Questioning wasn’t wrong as long as you came to the right conclusions.

    After I left, many years afterwards, only recently in fact did I realize that one of the side effects of such an approach (at least in the group that I belonged to) was that the emphasis becomes placed on the individual’s relationship with the group or the community, rather than a relationship with God. Staying in good standing within the community, keeping one’s thoughts aligned with what the group thinks and not stepping outside of what is socially/spiritually accepted all took precedence over a positive, personal relationship with God.

    In the group that I belonged to, the leaders were not particularly charismatic. As for “how this happens,” at least from my experiences and what I witnessed, the sense of tight community and belonging were powerful lures, along with the feeling of having “special knowledge.” There is a seduction in certainty, in being “right,” in having all the answers. Danielle’s dating metaphor fits what I experienced as well. After I left, and gradually started to see things in a different light, I was astounded, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen what was actually happening before. And the longer you belong to such a group the more “normal” certain behaviors and ideas become.

    • Amen Noell- Wish I could form the sentences the way you & Danielle did, however I am grateful that you gals can articulate the madness…

    • Yes. For some people, “questioning” is OK, so long the resulting conversation can be managed carefully and resolved. Having doubts? Depressed? Well, hey, here’s how you should feel! No go do it.

      People mean well, and intellectually they really do want to encourage questioning and learning. I can’t think of many people who want to be against this. Nonetheless, there is often an undercurrent of deep concern that people need to stay on script and anxiety when they don’t. Some people will be great with it, but there’s always someone not too far off who feels they have to “fix” the “problem.” The problem with this, of course, is that it blosters the authority of certain people and it makes people hide or censor the kinds of feelings and thoughts that are not actually bad … and in fact benefit from being worked out in community.

  12. This was one of those posts that just felt too close to me and too personal.

    It would be fair to say that what Field’s talks about is not confined to Faith, Fundamentalism, Evangelical Christianity or the SBC.

    There are too many sociological studies that show the power of “group think.” When the right answer is A and everyone around you says, “B”, it’s just really hard to see the truth. You second guess yourself. There is something hardwired into us that makes us want to follow the pack. In this sense, it’s more an act of faith to question.

    Having been in this kind of culture, it messes with your mind. To question and to ask “Why” puts your standing in question. It’s like going against your family.

  13. TimothyR says:

    The one concern I have after reading this article and the discussion is that doubt itself will be perceived and accepted as the highest form of wisdom. That is a certain path to despair. The freedom to doubt and ask questions is vitally important. But doubt is not a deeper or higher state.

    I am reminded of Malachi Martin’s term “the ‘We cannot know exactly’ of the pseudointellectual”.