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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Doubt and the In-Between

I love listening to a variety of podcasts when I ride my bike: great storytelling, fascinating journalism, round-the-horn discussions on politics and trending topics, long and probing interviews, new music... and truth be told, a little sportstalk too.

This one caught my attention the other day: "This hour, we walk the tightrope between doubt and certainty, and wonder if there's a way to make yourself at home on that razor's edge between definitely...and not so sure."

It followed the story of a geologist who had to face the fact that one day it hit him: "I don't believe in God anymore."

This didn't scare me. In fact, I have variations of this conversation quite frequently. As a pastor friend of mine put it recently in an email exchange: "We increasingly are doing ministry in a place where the people are interested in Jesus but not that interested in the traditional ways churches have expressed their service to Him.  This requires new thoughts and new methods as we bring the holy love of God into the world." Amen to that.

I won't give away the story told in the podcast - it is definitely worth a listen. But I'm not giving anything away by saying it follows the winding road of someone's journey with doubt. I mentioned in the post previous to this one that I am reading a fascinating book by Christian Wiman on this very topic. I read this passage this week:
Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward— or at least outward— even in your lowest moments.
He contrasts this sort of authentic searching with "an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith," which he describes as "static and self-enthralled." I like the way he describes that, because when I have conversations with people who have many questions about faith and meaning of life and suffering and grief and all that, I engage with them according to the posture they take. If people want to banter and debate about the unknowability of such questions, I do not linger long. The abstractions of such talk does not interest me all that much, and experience has shown me that they are not really looking for conclusive answers.

But hear me out: I am not saying that I only want to nail down hard and fast explanations either, because I think those are hard to come by as well. I like the way Wiman puts it -- "honest doubt" keeps drilling down for adequate insight into the big questions of life. It cannot rest. Rather than enjoying the sound of its own voice as it rattles off quotable and snarky quips, honest doubt wrestles with questions. I can remain in those conversations as long as people want to talk.

I think Jesus did too. This week, as I was reading in the Gospel of John, I came across this seemingly insignificant detail. Jesus has been crucified and is dead, still hanging on the cross:
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:38-39)
Nicodemus! I flipped back to chapter 3, where this Jewish leader comes to Jesus under cover of darkness, with his questions and doubts, after having heard Jesus teach in public earlier. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is some sort of wise teacher with a new authority, and Jesus responds with some enigmatic words about being "born from above" (where we get the all-too-abused phrase "born again") and Nicodemus is baffled: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?" Jesus says some more strange and exciting and disturbing things and Nicodemus responds with a simple question: “How can these things be?”

This strikes me as an example of the "honest doubt" that Wiman describes. And when I came upon this lovely little detail in chapter 19, where Nicodemus came to bury Jesus' body with Joseph of Arimathea, "who was a disciple of Jesus," I immediately thought, "how I wish I knew the story in between!" Wouldn't you love to know more about Nicodemus' journey of questions, doubt, and faith between chapters 3 and 19? It reminded me that we are all on a long and winding road, and I have learned that the story isn't over when someone expresses some life-altering questions and concerns. (Here's another plug for listening to that podcast on doubt -- it captures this process really well.)

May we be patient listeners, and always keep the "in-between" in sight. I am partnering with a great group of people to think through how we meet people where they are, in their skepticism and frustration, rather than write them off as "lost." Instead, we want to join people in the journey of honest doubt.

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