Today’s blog post is my third in a new series on my evolving Christian faith.
If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the first two posts introducing the series, I recommend first reading FaithRethink: A new series on an evolving Christian faith followed up by FaithRethink: Are you the same person you used to be?
When I think back on my Christian upbringing I have many fond memories. We were part of a caring church community who prayed together, ate meals together and generally liked being around each other. Because we were regular church goers and were consistently involved in church activities and groups, we developed relationships with a lot of families.
My parents raised my siblings and I to value and pursue a personal relationship with God rooted in Jesus Christ. Central to this personal relationship was the Bible, and for us, the Bible was the definitive source on truth, on God’s will and was entirely free from error. Coupled with this way of understanding of the Bible, our church taught that it was important to stay in God’s will so that we wouldn’t get deceived by sin and the world. We did this by being vigilant to pray, read our Bibles daily and believe its truth claims. We were also told to never question the Bible, but instead to make sure to resist and reject any doubts that surface about things in it.
While I am deeply appreciative of so many things in my Christian upbringing (both within our home and within our church), especially the example of my parents to prioritize a relationship with God, it was this last component–resisting doubt at all cost and never questioning the Bible–that became increasingly untenable later in life, causing lots of unnecessary anxiety, frustration and confusion.
Because the more I got to know about God in my church community, at home and in the pages of the Bible, the more questions I had that needed answering.
Born to Question
As far as I can remember, I have been a deep thinker and a questioner. I suppose we all are to an extent, some more than others. When I was very young, I often kept those questions to myself due to social anxiety and fear of being seen as unintelligent. As I got older and felt more comfortable in my skin, I began confronting my social anxiety and verbalizing my questions both in church and in school classrooms.
Throughout high school and then in my twenties, as I got more involved in church and Christian ministry, I began to notice that certain questions were looked down on by Christian leaders in our church. While many of them claimed that any question was welcome (that there was no bad question), this was not the case in practice. It became abundantly clear that some questions were simply off the table, particularly questions about truths we referred to as foundational truths.
The underlying assumption was that Christians could probe and ask questions about peripheral matters (said to be only a matter of opinion), just not foundational ones (which were fixed). Those were basically untouchable. It was assumed that if one of the foundational truths were in question, it could lead to doubt, and doubt leads to compromising, sin and eventually leaving the Christian faith.
After many years of heavy involvement in church ministry and studying the Bible, I just couldn’t buy into this thinking any longer. It required some serious mental gymnastics and forced me to be disingenuous about my faith.
While I remained a Christian, I began to acknowledge and accept that no question should be off the table.
The Things Cults are Made of
Part of the problem for me was this very important question: what if what we call foundational is actually something that should be peripheral? Said differently, what if there is good reason and evidence (whether from the Bible or life experience) that demonstrates to you that what you were taught should be foundational should actually be more of a peripheral matter? As others have put it, what if we are majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors?
Also, where did we get these terms “foundational” and “peripheral” to begin with? Since when are certain subjects and truths (or interpretations of those subjects and truths) fixed in stone and unable to be questioned? If we are truly “free in Christ,” shouldn’t we also be free from the bondage to systems of thought that limit our questions, and instead be free to question and probe any truth claim (or interpretation of those claims) pertaining to the Christian faith and the Bible?
In other words, if something is truly true, actually true, it should hold up to the scrutiny of a question. If it turns out to be false, or at least questionable, shouldn’t we instead have the courage to face our misperceptions and misinterpretations? Shouldn’t we be willing to acknowledge where we were wrong or short-sided?
For those who have studied educational theories as I have had the privilege of doing, much of educational theory suggests that asking questions is one of the most fundamental aspects to learning and growing as human beings. Much of our learning begins with a question or perhaps a set of content, and that content then compels us to learn more which leads to asking more questions.
If you know anything about religious cults, both Christian or otherwise, one of the primary values and practices of cults is to ensure groupthink by limiting and shaming questions (and those who ask them) through fear, manipulation and control. Being in agreement with a group, whether a faith group or not, is fine (even normal and healthy) when it is rooted in real evidence and the freedom of individual choice. But to maintain groupthink by limiting questions and shaming through fear (perhaps excommunicating someone) simply goes to show that a group’s beliefs are not rooted in the believability or reliability of its truth claims. Instead, they are maintained through an unhealthy fear of the group and suppressing individual freedom to think for oneself.
Asking questions about truth or questioning truth
There are some Christians who make a sharp distinction between asking a question about a foundational truth and questioning a foundational truth, but I think this distinction too is unnecessary. In either case, if learning and understanding is desired, then why does it matter whether a person is asking questions about a truth or questioning a truth?
Is there a law of the Christian faith to not ask certain questions? I submit that for many Christians who make the distinction between questioning about truth versus questing truth, they make this distinction out of fear–a fear of what they may discover in the process of questioning (perhaps that after questioning something they may discover that what they once assumed was foundational may not be foundational or perhaps a fear of what other Christians might think of them for questioning something they assume should not be questioned).
This set of circumstances is usually scary for anyone because foundational beliefs are tied to our core sense of identity and worldview. To let go of something you once believed to be a foundational truth, or at least begin to recognize a different interpretation of that truth, can and often does lead to fear that your entire worldview and identity is coming apart or shattering.
But let’s stop and think for a moment. If a Christian person has a deep-seated concern that a particular “foundational truth” (or perhaps an interpretation about that truth) doesn’t hold up due to a solid reason or set of reasons, or perhaps that it conflicts with other truths and facts they believe that simply have more weight, or perhaps they begin to recognize that the perception they once had about this “foundational” truth is generally not attested to in life, then isn’t questioning the validity or reasonability of that foundational truth the most natural byproduct? I say YES.
Why continue to believe something is true or foundational if it is highly questionable? Even more so, why believe something is true when it is a lie? Again, truth can and should hold up to our questions. Truth, or for that matter God, is not offended. What kind of god would be afraid or offended by questions anyway? A pretty small god. The people who are often the most offended by questions are religious people. More often than not, controlling religious leaders in churches who like things comfortable, who like their positions of power and/or who have a twisted satisfaction with controlling (not leading) their congregations through fear and intimidation are the biggest culprits.
So is there a place for doubt in the Christian faith? I think so. Doubt arises when something is unclear or simply hard to believe until there is good reason or evidence for it. Doubt happens when something feels off or out of sorts. That something can be an event, an experience or information that is shared (yes, even information in the Bible itself). In this sense, doubt can actually serve a good purpose in regards to truth seeking. How?
It may be that after doubting something is true, you end up discovering good reason to continue believing it. That’s ok too. The point is not to give up on what we believe, but to believe something is true for good reasons. If your inner doubt leads you to find better, even healthier and weightier reasons for believing a particular thing, whether you perceive it to be foundational or not, then your inner doubt has served it’s purpose.
Of course on the flip side, you may also discover that what you once believed to be a foundational truth should not be considered foundational and/or something that should not be considered true at all. That is the risk of asking questions. But isn’t being honest and open with yourself better than lying to yourself or believing a lie. The ripple effects for questioning or not questioning are enormous.
And living with a sense of fear of what your pastor, your Christian friends or community might think about your questions if you raised them should actually give you pause. Serious pause. Is that really a safe community to be around?
We can’t of course force ourselves or anyone else to believe something is true (even foundationally true) by telling them to just accept it by faith simply because it’s in the Bible. There are reasons people doubt. There are reasons why people ask questions.
Not Afraid of Questions
That long diatribe was to make the point that my old framework of not questioning certain foundational truths out of fear of my church, my pastors, individual Christian friends, even my previous fear of doubt itself eventually began to appear foolish. In fact, it began looking downright dangerous. As I mentioned, if something is true it will hold up to questions.
As I continue this series on an evolving Christian faith, I will begin introducing some of the topics I began to rethink after giving myself the permission to ask questions.
Perhaps you’ve also had questions you’ve wanted to ask for so long but never gave yourself the permission.
Isn’t it about time?
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