October 17, 2017

Damaris Zehner: How to Question Your Faith: A Guide for Young People and Others

The Confirmation Class, Stryowski

The Confirmation Class, Stryowski

How to Question Your Faith:  A Guide for Young People and Others
By Damaris Zehner

A conversation I had recently made me think about the scary process of – pick your metaphor – stepping off a cliff, walking in the dark, setting off across an uncharted ocean, or any other image that suggests the potential change, insecurity, and blindness that questioning one’s faith involves.  I have questioned mine several times in my life, sometimes the entire Christian religion and sometimes particular beliefs within a tradition.  I’ve done it for bad reasons and good ones and gotten bad results and good ones.  I have no particular qualifications for giving anyone advice on this topic, but I’m going to anyway, partly as a reply to the person who asked me, and partly as an analysis that might be generally useful.  As always, caveat lector.

It’s scary, questioning what we think, but it’s a good thing to do if it’s done well.  Although some religious groups and individuals would rather people just take their religion for granted, God allows us the freedom to challenge what we’ve been told.  In fact, he seems to require most of us to do so at least once in our lives.  In order to mature both spiritually and intellectually and to become more strongly ourselves, sometimes we have to ask ourselves if all this stuff we say we believe in really makes any sense.

Of course there are bad reasons to question, doubt, or reject faith.  Seeking some sort of personal gain or comfort is probably the worst.  Someone who rejects her religious upbringing because it doesn’t condone what she wants to do is acting without integrity.  So is the person who wants to join the “in” crowd or sees some other advantage in no longer being what he was.  Questioning faith simply in order to rebel against family, social establishment, God, or authority in the abstract is never a good idea.  And some people don’t even claim to be seeking the truth but just drift away on an ocean of indifference.

So how do we question rightly, then, when we’re led to the point that we have to?  I want to break my answer down into two parts, first concerning a particular belief (for example, do I accept my church’s understanding of baptism?) and then concerning religious conviction in general (Is there a God, and what is his nature?).  In either case, the foundation of questioning must be the willingness to get an answer – and sometimes that means an unanticipated answer.  Questioning is not genuine if it is a nervous tic or an amusing hobby rather than the pursuit of truth, and setting out to prove a predetermined position is not honest.

Questioning particular beliefs:  If you are struggling with doubt or worry about a Christian belief or denominational tenet,

  • First, articulate carefully what you have the problem with.  Something like this is not helpful:  “I just can’t accept all that baptism stuff.”  This is helpful:  “I don’t see how a little ceremony with water can really have any effect on our spiritual condition or our standing before God.”  This is a good way to discover if you really do understand what you’ve been taught; be open to correction once you get your question into words.
  • Next research your own tradition’s beliefs on the topic.  You may have a catechism you could read through.  Find other books, articles, or websites by respected, legitimate religious leaders.  Talk to your pastor or some other person who could be expected to know.  Call or write a college or seminary of your denomination and ask someone there.
  • Find relevant Biblical and historical information.  Be careful not to distort the record to suit your own preconceptions.
  • Look into what other traditions have to say on the practice.  In some cases you may find that they agree with yours, or they may be united in disagreeing.  You may even plunge into a mass of disunity and contradiction where no one agrees at all.
  • In any case, don’t be too quick to make up your mind.  Let everything settle for some time.  Some people spend years with these questions percolating slowly through their minds.
  • Pray.  Surely God himself knows what is right.  He probably won’t speak to you directly, but prayer is still somehow efficacious in sorting out the truth.
  • Strive for humility.  You may get an answer you don’t like.  You may even find that there is no “answer,” at least not in a form that satisfies you.  Allow there to be some mystery.  After all, if you understand the answer to a vexing religious question through and through, it’s probably not a very good answer.  Often the best result of questioning is not an answer but simply a deeper trust of who God is – think of Job.  God answered Job by presenting him with a panorama of his glory, not by explaining how things work.
St. Thomas Altar, de Vos

St. Thomas Altar, de Vos

Questioning Faith in General:  If you doubt you can accept the entire Christian premise, or even the premise that there is a God of any sort,

  • Do everything suggested above, adapted to your broader quest.  Be especially clear to articulate what it is you’re questioning.  (The best soundtrack for this process is Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.”  I recommend it.)
  • Dismiss no source of truth, and take nothing for granted.  Nature, people, culture, or some other unexpected source may end up revealing God to you when church or scripture remains silent.  Don’t limit the terms of your seeking too stringently.
  • Along the same lines, expose yourself to great art – painting, music, literature, architecture, etc. – of all kinds, times, and places.  All can reveal some sort of truth, but beware of the art that seems to hate you.  The artistry may be skillful and the hatred may seem grittily honest, but you are not likely to find God there.
  • Also meet people very unlike you and listen to them, especially those who are simple, sane, and poor.
  • Disentangle cultural trappings from eternal truth.  If religion to you means stodgy, repressive people singing bad music, then who wouldn’t question it?  But inadequate people or cultures do not disprove the faith – they are, in fact, a perfect example of its necessity.  Chesterton (of course) said it best:  “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  What is it that you are really questioning?
  • Be careful to balance rationality, experience, and trust.  Some aspects of the faith can be understood by being studied and thought about.  Some aspects must be experienced and cannot be well expressed in logical form.  And there are some things in religion as in all of life that have to be taken by trust, simply because we do not have the time or ability to analyze or experience everything.  Depending on your personality, you may be tempted to rely on one of these three, but you are more likely to draw near to the truth of the ineffable God if you expand your means of knowing.
  • Balance “integrity” with humility.  This is an issue I see often.  I am the only Christian in my immediate family and one of the few in my extended family.  When I discuss issues of faith with my relatives, they commonly explain that their personal integrity prevents them from accepting a position that they don’t feel comfortable with.  In a way I respect that position, but I think in some cases (not all) it is founded upon an unquestioned self-satisfaction and unwillingness to be proven wrong.  If you have heard yourself say something similar, ask yourself if you are really willing to sacrifice what you call your integrity for the sake of finding the truth.  Ask yourself if your perceptions are likely to be complete and correct or if there is still anything you could learn.
  • Try being the hands of God even if you doubt his existence and see if he reveals himself to you in the process; in other words, stop thinking and get out and do something.  When you get knotted up about doctrine, go play with an unhappy child, take some food to the homeless shelter, crochet a blanket to give away, or build a house for a person who needs one.  (Once again Indigo Girls provide our sound track:  at this point listen to “Hammer and a Nail.”)
  • Practice silence, simplicity, and self-restraint.  Let God speak.  Strip away defenses until you have nothing left to hold on to.  Discover what remains when everything has been taken away.  This is terrifying.
  • Read “The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson.
  • Be patient and honest and put your whole self into the search.  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” says Jeremiah.

What will be the results of this process if it is done well?  I can’t say.  Some people have lost all faith and been either relieved or devastated in the process.  Some have ended up in a position they never expected, perhaps one that puts them at odds with everyone around them.  And some have found themselves right back where they started from, delighting in the depth of the richness and beauty that they once questioned.

Comments

  1. Heh; I recently wrote about how the Holy Spirit often uses our doubts to lead us to him. Of course, in the Fundamentalist churches where I grew up, they were so afraid of doubt, ’cause they were convinced doubt would do nothing but lead us away. (From them, sure; but in their minds they’re the one true church, y’know.)

    I still make the folks in my church bonkers by regularly asking, “Is that really what the scriptures teach?” And asking it of myself just as much as I do of them—only they’re not so irritated by my asking it of myself. Some of ’em fear it’s way too close to the serpent’s question in Genesis 3.1. But unlike the serpent, I’m not asking the question only to dismiss the answers I find when they don’t suit my agenda. I only want truth. And all truth is God’s.

    • I still make the folks in my church bonkers by regularly asking, “Is that really what the scriptures teach?”

      I definitely hear you on THAT one! People want the comfort of certitude, an unquestioned belief system rather than a striving, questioning faith. Few are excited about actually seeking the truth. They would rather say, as one person in my Sunday School class said,”Just tell me what to believe!”.

      • >Just tell me what to believe!

        Takes me back to junior-high Sunday School days, except our teacher liked to shrug his shoulders with a “what do YOU think?” look, sometimes with a non-answer to get us thinking about it instead. For me, that usually resulted in frustration rather than using my brain.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I definitely hear you on THAT one! People want the comfort of certitude, an unquestioned belief system rather than a striving, questioning faith.

        “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

    • Nicely said, K.W.

  2. meet people very unlike you and listen to them, especially those who are simple, sane, and poor.

    You could probably write an entire other post just unpacking this gem. 🙂

  3. “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them.” – G.K. Chesterton.

    “Doubt as a necessary element in faith as a dynamic state. The individual person feels certainty (subjective), but the existence of and the nature of the object of faith is uncertain…. for all expressions of ultimacy are necessarily limited by language and human inability to comprehend and express the infinite.” – Paul Tillich.

    • Chesterton also said, “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”

      This is a hard saying for me – not because it is not true, but because it directly contradicts all I was taught as a Reformed fundamentalist, and it directly contradicts my (still lurking) desire for a totally rationally sure belief system.

      • Um, how exactly is he defining “insanity” here? Unless we know what he thinks “madness” is, this is a beautifully worded but utterly meaningless statement. We know now, as perhaps they did not know in his day, that mental illness does not actually discriminate between poet and chemist, but I don’t think that’s actually what he’s talking about. So what does he mean?

        • If I may: Chesterton was defining sanity as a recognition of the way the universe really is. Because he believed that the universe was a place of mystery and wonder, created by an unimaginable God, he held that people who recognized mystery and human limitations were saner than those who felt they could figure out and control the world.

  4. “Faith, by its nature, includes separation. If there is no separation from the object of faith, then it becomes a matter of certainty, and not of faith.” – Paul Tillich.

  5. “The step I myself made in these years was the insight that the principle of justification through faith refers not only to the religious-ethical but also to the religious-intellectual life. Not only he who is in sin but also he who is in doubt is justified through faith. The situation of doubt, even of doubt about God, need not separate us from God. There is faith in every serious doubt, namely, the faith in the truth as such, even if the only truth we can express is our lack of truth. But if this is experienced in its depth and as an ultimate concern, the divine is present; and he who doubts in such an attitude is “justified” in his thinking. So the paradox got hold of me that he who seriously denies God, affirms him. Without it I could not have remained a theologian.” – Paul Tillich.

  6. I come to this post shortly after listening to a podcast interview of an ex-evangelical atheist who was very intentional about seeking truth. (In general, many of these Gamechurch podcast interviews are of interest to those of us who feel compelled to make sense of different kinds of religious experiences.)

    In the interview, Scott Benson claims that he was never satisfied with accepting mystery, and it does sound like the people who were going on about “mystery” and “ambiguity” in his story were doing a pretty shallow job of it.

    n either case, the foundation of questioning must be the willingness to get an answer – and sometimes that means an unanticipated answer.
    That’s where I stumble, because it becomes another game of endlessly looking into my self, trying in vain to uncover my deepest inner motivations. Are you really saved? Do you really believe in Jesus? It sounds like more of the same. Are you really willing to accept an answer as definitive truth? How do I know that I’m really seeking an answer? The truth is, I am a little weary of answers, even though I simultaneously believe in absolute truth (at least the one Absolute, being God), and in the necessity of sincerely seeking real truth. I’m too relativistic to have much confidence in answers.

    I think this relativism has in some ways shielded me from losing faith. I notice that many atheists — including Scott Benson from the Gamechurch podcast — sound more assertive and sure about morality and meaning than I do. I’m almost more nihilistic than the atheists! And this sense of cosmic uncertainty and hopelessness keeps me coming to Christ, keeps me identifying with His disillusion and sacrifice—because if the Truth were not manifested to us in the Incarnation, then morality and meaning and life is all as good as nothing.

    • If your relativism, nihilism, and hopelessness have brought you to Christ, then you’re doing something right.

    • I can really identify with the whole “more nihilistic than atheists” things. In my experience, nihilism is such an unintuitive thing to most people, since we are naturally meaning-oriented creatures, that even atheists don’t grasp it much of the time. Only a certain type of person who is unusually sensitive tends to “get it”, and often, as in my case and the case of the gentleman quoted above, it makes unbelief much less feasible.

      • Sorry for any confusion—I messed up the block quote. I was trying to quote Damaris Zehner, and then to respond:

        In either case, the foundation of questioning must be the willingness to get an answer – and sometimes that means an unanticipated answer.

        I’m glad to hear that someone else understands the horror of real meaninglessness. It’s bad enough as a Christian, looking at all the human meaning that God’s world crushes. But I don’t think atheism offers any reason to value anything at all, and I can’t live knowing that everything I value—or even my need to have a reason—is completely arbitrary.

        • “…the horror of real meaninglessness…”

          That’s why I love Ecclesiastes. It tells me it’s ALL meaningless. Get yourself EVERYTHING YOU’D EVER WANT, and it’s all still meaningless.

          • Well, I don’t think Solomon was a nihilist, certainly not in the modern sense. It’s one thing to despair of human striving and it’s fruits, but a whole other to despair of the fact that the universe and human existence is utterly devoid of meaning and purpose.

  7. Eckhart Trolle, are you there? What’s your take on Damaris’ advice? It would be very nice to see the opinion of someone who’s done his searching and come to a different conclusion than I (paltry though my searching has been).

  8. Adam Cantrell says:

    Perhaps the line that spoke to me the most is “inadequate people or cultures do not disprove the faith – they are, in fact, a perfect example of its necessity.” Southern U.S. Protestant Evangelical culture is in ways great and in ways terrible. At a point in my life I thought of leaving the Christian faith because of the lousy parts of it. Thankfully, somebody helped me to see God in spite of my culture. I have to admit, I still struggle with my local culture. (I particularly don’t care for Christianity’s marriage to the Republican Party in my part of the country.) I am glad I was able to realize Southern U.S. Protestant Evangelical Christianity is not Christianity, even though many Southern U.S. Protestant Evangelicals are Christians. (Kind of like squares are rectangles, but rectangles aren’t necessarily squares.) It was probably the biggest spiritual event in my life.

    One of Chesterton’s thoughts really helped me during this part of my life:

    “It is no disgrace to Christianity, it is no disgrace to any great religion, that its counsels of perfection have not made every single person perfect. If after centuries a disparity is still found between its ideal and its followers, it only means that the religion still maintains the ideal, and the followers still need it.”

    • I know some communists (not many, but yes, they still exist) who would be happy to talk your ear off about how the USSR and China weren’t/aren’t “real” communism.

      • Adam Cantrell says:

        I get what you’re saying. I was hoping to get across the idea that I feel it is ok to challenge what my culture thinks about the Christian faith. If a person says they are a Christian, I take them at their word. However, if a person claims to be a Christian I feel it is my right to challenge what I believe is a bad interpretation of Christianity. I assume they feel they have the same right.

        Btw, I think your question concerning those without doubts is a good one. That being said, I’m not quite sure how I would answer it.

  9. This is a pretty long, involved process. Let me ask you: Is all of this required for people who *don’t* have any doubts? If you totally believe in Jesus or Mohammed or whatever, then do you have to go through this big reading and self-reflection and -criticism project or do you just get your hand stamped and go on your merry way?

    I ask–admittedly, rhetorically–because atheists like me are *always* being told we ‘don’t know enough’ about religion to reject it. Nevermind of course that atheists outscore everyone on tests of religious or scriptural knowledge. But no, you’re not allowed to be an atheist if you don’t have a theology degree–but not even then, of course. But believers are free to be as boundingly ignorant as they like–of theology or anything else.

    Ignorant believers are *praised*, not criticized (“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, …” etc, etc.)

    • Good questions, J. I don’t think everyone should always be questioning. Questioning artificially is as much an affront to honesty as stifling doubts. At the same time, though, I do appreciate those who know they don’t know it all, whether believers or otherwise.

      “But no, you’re not allowed to be an atheist if you don’t have a theology degree–but not even then, of course. But believers are free to be as boundingly ignorant as they like–of theology or anything else.” Too true, I’m afraid.

    • Aren’t there ignorant and unlearned atheists as well? People who will happily tell you that gods aren’t real, but aren’t really able to give reasons why (instead focusing, say, on aspects of religion that don’t do much besides beg the question)?

      I’d say that anybody is free to be as informed or as ignorant as they like, however much better the former may be than the latter. This is just a guide for people who find themselves having those questions. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living, but that didn’t stop people around him (enough to sentence him to death!) from doing exactly that, and it’s the same way today. The fact that there are so many more opportunities for us to learn better renders that reality much more tragic.

      “But no, you’re not allowed to be an atheist if you don’t have a theology degree–but not even then, of course. But believers are free to be as boundingly ignorant as they like–of theology or anything else.” Sad, but true. And I’m tempted to say that it’s worse here in the US. Someone once spoke of Michael Spencer’s environment, saying that where he lived, the biggest compliment you could give a preacher was to say he had no “book-learning.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Someone once spoke of Michael Spencer’s environment, saying that where he lived, the biggest compliment you could give a preacher was to say he had no “book-learning.”

        “He has NO book-larnin’, and HE IS LOUD!”

      • –> “Aren’t there ignorant and unlearned atheists as well? People who will happily tell you that gods aren’t real, but aren’t really able to give reasons why (instead focusing, say, on aspects of religion that don’t do much besides beg the question)?”

        This.

        • Agree. I’d call it a naive atheism, where unbelief is as natural and intuitive, as opposed to reasoned and deliberate, as belief was in the past. In fact, I’ve seen the presence of this naive atheism used as an argument against belief and it’s supposed naturalness. Mind you, I’ve also seen the unintuitiveness of atheism used as an argument for its truth.

    • what would you like to ask J

  10. Love this article, Damaris. It helps me reflect on the 5-7 year spiritual desert I went through back in the early 2000s and see what might’ve been going on. I have no fears about questioning anymore. Questioning is good. It keeps me humble, tells me I’ll never know it all, helps me embrace mystery, and helps me be patient.

    One “quibble”, pretty minor. You wrote, ” In either case, the foundation of questioning must be the willingness to get an answer.”

    I would add to that, “…and a willingness to accept that an answer may never come (or come after a LONG time).”

  11. Thanks, Damaris. Looking back, it’s interesting how my wilderness journey meshed with what you have written. What kept coming up for me was an answer that I had previously considered “arrogant” and “unbiblical.” God has a sense of humor… or I really needed that huge of a change… or both.

    Dana

  12. Christiane says:

    “Some aspects of the faith can be understood by being studied and thought about.
    Some aspects must be experienced and cannot be well expressed in logical form. ”

    I have always felt that it was the latter that was superior . . . not because they couldn’t well expressed in logical form but BECAUSE they couldn’t be expressed in logical form.

    • Christiane says:

      correction: ‘not because they couldn’t BE well expressed . . . ‘

    • And yet not everyone has those spiritual experiences. So how is it fair to say that they are superior when they are not given to everyone? And more than that, how is a God that will give definitive experience of His reality to one person but not to another just or loving?

      • There’s no sharp division between the “spiritual” and everything else – Reality is all One Thing.

        Having existence is a spiritual experience. Everyone alive has that experience, though some have not contemplated its meaning. My priest has told me more than once: “You exist, therefore God loves you.”

        Encountering Beauty is a spiritual experience. Wonder is a spiritual experience, even if that is wondering why I have to endure terrible, inhuman circumstances. Gratitude is a spiritual experience.

        The most definitive experience of God’s reality is his Incarnation as the GodMan, as the God who enters into our suffering.

        Maybe there’s a different question underneath the one you asked, Sotto. Whatever is going on, I send you a hug.

        Dana

  13. They’re not numbered, but I would add:

    Be honest with yourself.

    Where you end up may change and shift. Be honest with yourself when you no longer believe something or can’t believe it. Don’t just hold on because you must keep face or risk avoiding exposure as a doubter. Be honest with yourself.

  14. Christiane says:

    Hi SOTO VOCE,

    my reference is best expressed in this from sacred Scripture:
    ” And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension,
    will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)

    and in this from the book of Ephesians:

    ” . . . to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge . . . ”

    sometimes the ‘groanings’ of the Holy Spirit ‘speak’ for those who do not know how to pray when they need help. . .

    not all in our ‘theo-logy’ is the ‘logy’ part
    . . . some of it comes to us as ‘gift’ or ‘grace’ or ‘mercy’ and the response to it is one of deep thanksgiving for that which defies our very human ‘logic’ which is sometimes rooted in the darker angels of our flawed nature

    there are those human experiences for which there are ‘no words’ . . . . it is there that where we often sense most acutely the Presence of grace

  15. Our friend, J, I would guess has more religious book larnin’ than the already high average here, perhaps more than the average of pastors who hang out here. I’m guessing the same holds true for his measured IQ, but in any case he certainly outdoes me in both areas. I would say that in a debate his views and beliefs would have more intellectual cohesion than those of most Evangelical Christians. This amuses me because I consider J an Evangelical Atheist. Unlike many atheists in the real world, J has an agenda, a mission, an overwhelming urgency to convert others to his particular and peculiar way of seeing things. I would buy him the beverage of his choice to sit and hear his story, but not to hear the party line.

    Faith is one of those words everyone uses without any agreement as to what it actually means. College students run into J everywhere and “lose their faith”. This kind of faith seems to consist mostly of intellectual assent to certain propositions, which I would also say describes J’s beliefs. David R. Hawkins held that “there are various pathways to Truth and Self-realization, including the pathways of mind, devotion, meditation, and contemplation. Each pathway emphasizes a different approach or style to arrive at the same end.”

    I would say that most folks here have more or less a grasp on this, even tho the preponderance goes with the intellectual approach. Different strokes. I would say that going exclusively with an intellectual approach, even given Damaris’s excellent cautions and suggestions, is a recipe for failure, and maybe disaster. The Modern Age is over. If you think that Rationality is still on the throne, you probably didn’t listen to the evening news.

  16. Damaris, I love this. Thank you so much.