Doubt Your Doubts

So 5 posts on ‘doubt’?… Why not just one and move on? Doesn’t this simply open people up and make them more vulnerable?

Well I don’t think so. I wanted to expand the various ideas a bit and consider what shape doubt takes and how it affects us if we don’t confront it. I know many of us doubt in different ways and maybe we are even feel afraid of where it may lead – like pulling on a thread that may unravel and destroy everything…

Then again some have no space to doubt and this is sad – genuinely sad – the end will be outward conformity along with inward dissent. You can only live in that dissonance for so long before you blow a gasket. If you’re in a ‘no doubt permitted’ community then find one that allows for questions. You will either become a person who is ‘obnoxiously certain’ about everything (because you can’t question) or you will eventually lose heart.

Others will quit and walk away because they can’t ‘make the numbers add up’. An ‘imperfect’ Bible, a world where God doesn’t deliver on cue and a bad experience of other Christians is often enough to make people give it away. If it ‘doesn’t work’ as we once thought then clearly we got something wrong and should move on… Or maybe the stuff you believed was just folklore and superstition anyway?

And then some will wander into a form of spirituality +/- Jesus – a hazy, often nebulous belief in a higher power, but minus the centrality of Jesus and the conviction that goes with a more focused and specific form of faith. This is the flavour of most contemporary (non-Christian) spirituality and is probably one of our greatest challenges. At the end of the day while we may have doubts and questions, we cannot forgo central tenets just to make faith more palatable to this culture.

My sense is that those who navigate doubt well will find a way of coping with complexity, disappointment and mystery. This may require an unravelling of many old beliefs and superstitions to make room for genuine faith. These core convictions will be the anchor that holds when the rest doesn’t make sense.

We certainly aren’t the first to struggle with doubt.

I feel for Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who is pretty much known only for his ‘doubting’ when in truth it might be fairer to say he was ‘checking the evidence’. I’d be with Thomas. People don’t come back from the dead every day. You have to do your homework.

And then Jesus didn’t rebuke the Father who had the demonised son when he said ‘I believe, help my unbelief’. That was fine with him. Jesus recognises that a belief in the things we are about runs contrary to popular thinking.

But doubt is not the enemy. In fact when managed well it could be the first step to a richer knowledge and experience of God as we let go of simplistic understandings and explanations and accept that some stuff is just beyond us. That’s not a cop-out. Its a belief I hold – that some stuff I just won’t get, but if my core conviction is that God is good then I can ride thru that stuff.

I remember a long time ago I heard someone speak on doubt and their advice was to ‘doubt your doubts’ to not be so fast to dismiss mystery and challenge in the life of faith. How do you ‘doubt your doubts’? I suggest you raise your questions with a trusted friend who has a steady faith and ask for a conversation around what is bothering you. If you get listened to and taken seriously then chances are you will walk the path well. You will be able to talk through the issues that concern you and often the conversation itself lightens the load and another perspective helps you see things you didn’t see previously.

Doubt is not sin and the church’s job is not to erase all trace of doubt from your mind. It is to lead you towards Jesus and to let him speak into those questions and challenges. For some, that won’t be enough. That’s just a hard cold reality. Sometimes people doubt and never find their way back. But plenty feel shame at their doubt, feel alone in it and see their only option as to abandon ship altogether, when a bit of time with a wise friend might be all it takes to light a path into a richer future.

Curve Balls, Curiosities & Maybe Even A Few Heresies

The last post post was pretty meat and potatoes in that I doubt there were many surprises for those of you who have been Christians for a while or who know me. Those 4 reasons I discussed are probably going to be there in most of our rationales for faith in some shape or form. If you only read that post and not this one then you’d think I have a fairly tidy theology with few loose ends or wacky bits.

So this post is where I will let you know what lurks in the recesses of my mind and confuses me, disturbs me and leaves me with unanswered questions – not unanswered questions that are going to give me cause to throw in the towel, but unanswered questions that just sit in my mind unresolved.

My dad had the Mormons come visit the other day. Nice people apparently – really nice people and as he read their brochures they sounded a lot like us. Of course they are there to convert dad to ‘their truth’ but meanwhile dad has his own truth. No one’s converting anyone in that scenario, but my brain can’t help but tick over and say ‘So… Mormons to Hell? Really? Because in the opinion of the church as a whole they got some theology wrong?’ And the JWs would fit in the same box. Yeah ok so they don’t get grace like we do and we disagree with them on aspects of theology too, but do you go to Hell for a dodgy Christology? If so then I reckon many in our churches will be there too. We tend to see the SDA’s as more mainstream now – even if they do have an aversion to meat (that’d be my main concern) but it wasn’t that long ago they would be in the ‘cult list’. Where do we draw the lines? And who is it that draws these lines anyway?

Maybe a broader question is ‘how far can God’s saving reach stretch?’ If the folks we call ‘cults’ are doing their best at loving and following Jesus as they know him (and maybe even doing it better than us) is God going to reject them on the finer points of their thinking?


Maybe not…

Of course if we go this route then what about all the other world religions. For many this is the only spirituality they have known – and could know. Could sincere Muslims be with us in eternity because they chosen to respond to God (Allah) with the knowledge they have?

In the world I grew up in it was ‘no way’ to all of the above, but I find that a tad harsh. The fact that I was fortunate enough to be born in a country with a Judaeo Christian heritage gave me a head start on them – and then to be part of a Christian home where I really didn’t know any different affords me another edge.

What if I had been born in India, Indonesia or Afghanistan? My chances of finding my way to Jesus as the only way is much slimmer than us ‘lucky’ ones in the west. How does God deal with our unfair advantage because surely that’s what it is?…

I’m hoping he is as good and gracious as I imagine him to be and that he treats each person according to how they have responded to the revelation they have – be it natural or more than that.

Am I a universalist? No… but I find the theological boxes i lived in while I was young no longer feel like places I want to inhabit.

My strong hunch is that God has a way of making sense of things that we don’t and while some may reject any form of revelation I am pretty sure that the criteria for eternity is not the ability to pass a theology exam. That opens the door pretty wide.

What then of Jesus as the way, truth and life? The only name by which we can be saved? I’m not unfamiliar with those and other verses like them, but I imagine a good God will have this in hand. People meet Jesus post mortem? Hmmmm… maybe, but then Hebrews does say ‘we die once and then face judgement’.

So there is some stuff in the ‘mystery’ box that previously was in the ‘crystal clear’ box.

Along with these questions are some of the challenges with reading the Bible. I ditched ‘inerrancy’ a long time ago. That’s way too heavy a load to carry. But the challenge of discerning genre, writer’s intent and cultural framing mean that I have to read stuff with wisdom and insight rather than just assuming there was a man called Adam who met a talking snake one day.

I’m still working this one out in my thinking so this is more ruminations than firm conclusions. In this regard I have found Pete Enns’ stuff both helpful and unsettling in that he calls for a rethink of how we read much of the OT.

I remember studying some of this stuff while doing my theology degree but I had way too much else going on to try and figure out how I would now (re)read the whole OT, so I allowed my thinking to remain what it was.

That said I do remember reading The Biblical Flood by Davis Young and feeling like I had stumbled upon a dangerous secret. His case for a local flood and a myth around it was far more compelling than the logistical challenge of a global flood with two of every animal etc, but I reasoned it was best if I keep that sort of deviant thinking to myself

I’ve seen folks enter this liminal space and completely lose their bearings, ditch their faith and walk away. I remember an example during my own time at College. A bloke in his 30’s came from a tight, conservative country church, entered the courses and couldn’t cope with the brain stretch required. He gave up faith altogether. That didn’t turn out so well – but its what happens when people are not encouraged or even allowed to think beyond the confines of their tight little theological system.

When faith is brittle rather than malleable it has a tendency to snap rather than get beaten into shape. Some churches do not permit questions or assertions of the sort I have made here. They generally get met with deep concern. Maybe some of you are reading this and wondering if your pastor is really a Christian – that’s what happens when we draw lines tightly. (I think I am…)

But these are important questions – important issues for discussion and conversation. The longer I am a Christian the more it becomes about simply following Jesus than it does about getting the right interpretation of the tower of babel ,or whether or not Jonah really got swallowed by a big fish. And by that I mean keeping a focus on a grace filled life, framed by cross, resurrection and God’s kingdom as the goal.

I’m sure there are other places my mind roams as I contemplate the back alleys of theology and life. The danger of exploring these questions is that we may find ourselves with a worldview or a theology that no longer squares with church as we know it. What does that mean? Are we now ‘liberals’ and forced to go join the Uniting Church? (a little joke for my mate Broady) Or can we hold tight as ever to core truths, to Jesus as Lord, while accepting that there are complexities that we cannot simply navigate adequately with our current understanding?

So – yes – this is a lot less tidy than the last post – but these are some of the questions that lurk in my mind and the point of this post was to show that there can be questions – massive difficult questions even that do not need to lead to doubt and a faith crisis.

Reality Check

Last week I had a new casual worker with me, ‘C’, a guy who showed up at our Food4all project in Yanchep. He is homeless and looking to get back on his feet.

As we were working we began chatting about faith. ‘Why is it that so many people who follow Jesus do it tough? Why is there so much suffering? Why did so many of the big names in the Bible do it tough?’

‘Good question,’ I said ‘what do you think?’

‘I dunno. It’s why I’m asking you!’

Fair enough…

As I reflected on our ‘Bible heroes’ he’s on the money. Many of them suffered or did it tough in various ways. The Hebrews 11 ‘hall of fame’ tells of many of these and concludes with what we would consider ‘horror stories’ of living hard. And the writer says, ‘the world was not worthy of them’.

And of course then there’s Jesus… he suffered a bit…

Suffering and struggling is central to our identity. To follow Jesus is to take up a cross and enter into ‘life to the full’, but also a life of self denial and sacrifice. These two things go hand in hand or not at all.

So when I hear that it is Gods plan for you to be prosperous, wealthy and to have no difficulties I do more than cringe. I inwardly vomit because this is the antithesis of the life we are called to.

I have no problem affirming that God wants to bring contentment, peace and purpose to our lives but somehow the expectation of success, wealth and eternal happiness this side of eternity just doesn’t resonate with the overall story of humankind as we read about it in scripture.

Why do we do it tough?

Because we live in a world that is geared against us – that calls us to self centredness and to enter a rat race. Those who choose not to play or choose to march to the beat of a different drum – such as the kingdom of God – are going to hit obstacles, road blocks and difficulty, as well as much joy. We are ‘in this world but not of it’ to quote a wise man so we will feel like square pegs in round holes from time to time and that is good.

Reality check.

Why I Am Staying

Right in the middle of the reef at our local beach is a metal stake that has been there for as long as anyone can remember. I believe it was a mooring point for cray boats many years ago – but its still there and I imagine it will continue to be there for decades to come. We have spoken in church of this stake as a metaphor for a sturdy faith – one that is anchored strong and that will stand the test of time.

I’ve been a Christian now for around 40 years so I am probably a bit like the stake – deeply deeply rooted and with a lot invested in the Christian worldview. I also get paid to be a ‘professional Christian’, even more invested… (or even more conflicted should I ever want to give it away)

So perhaps I’m ‘staying’ because I don’t know any different, I’m ‘rusted on’ to the church… Or perhaps I’m just not open to the possibility of being wrong and it is just isn’t economically viable for me to walk away. I have often wondered what it would be like to stop being a paid pastor – to be a member of the congregation… I think it’s too late to experience that now. But, paid or not, I am a ‘vocational’ Christian missionary and leader. I believe it’s my calling and as such a huge part of my identity, so the thought of walking away would (I imagine) produce massive confusion around who I actually am and even what I’m doing on this planet. I don’t think I could do it easily.

That said, my reasons for staying have nothing to do with economics, fear of offending my family or sheer inability to think differently.

There are 4 main ones:

A Decent Explanation is Needed For Our Existence

So Bart Campolo asserts that we are most fortunate because of all the random coincidences of molecular collisions that occur in the universe, ours spawned human life. We are the lucky ones who get to experience ‘life’ rather than simply being ‘matter’.

By contrast the Bible asserts God created. After that the details get hazy.

Whichever one you choose is a faith decision because neither is 100% conclusive in its evidence. I don’t intend to go into debates about forms of evidence in this post. That’s not the point.

But based on what I have learnt, understood and researched, I am willing to bet my life on a higher power being behind the existence of this universe. It makes better sense to me than random coincidence. It also gives meaning to life. When asked about the meaning of life, Bart Campolo boldly and simply stated ‘your life has no meaning’. It doesn’t mean it can’t be used for good, but it isn’t embued with any particular meaning.

Of course I can’t answer where God came from, but neither can secularists answer where matter came from. It’s a stalemate with regard to the question of origins.

So you do your own homework and make your own conclusions. There has to be some explanation for our very existence. Where will you place your faith?

The Jesus Factor – I believe the gospels are generally reliable historical records and as such record the life of Jesus in an accurate way. If he is who he claimed to be then that’s big – huge actually. If he died, rose again and then ascended then he is surely worth listening to. The ‘Jesus factor’ has always been a most critical element of faith for me and the part I would struggle to walk away from.

I get Bart Campolo’s struggle with not feeling like its an ‘intimate relationship’ because often for me it has been disciplined and cerebral rather than ‘heart-warming’. But then that’s how I function.

I began spending time with God each morning when I was 15 or 16 and its’ been a ‘thing’ on and off since then. I would say that in 40 years of meeting with God I have very rarely experienced what I would consider to be ‘intimacy’. Perhaps ‘intimacy’ is the wrong word to use for this relationship? Perhaps it has too many cultural attachments for it to serve us well.

If you ask me if I feel close to God I answer ‘yes’. I believe that I sense his spirit at work in my own heart and mind as we read about in Hebrews 8. I sometimes feel a desire to do things that are beyond my own natural inclinations and in those moments I suggest that I am listening to the voice of God.

So – yes – maybe you’ve noticed I have switched members of the Godhead in this post… I relate to God the Father, but I follow Jesus. I do try to ask the WWJD question in life as often as I can. Sometimes I even do it…

I put Jesus central because the sheer act of living in his way has the power to ‘right the world’. If his ‘kingdom came on earth as in heaven’, then it would look like a whole bunch of us saying ‘Jesus got this stuff right.’

In so many ways Jesus is the deal maker or breaker for me. Take him out of the equation and I’m not hanging around. Of course in the ‘Jesus bit’ the cross and resurrection are the biggies – the cross as a way of life and the resurrection to give hope to us that there is a better day to come.

I think the evidence for Jesus being who he claimed to be is very compelling, so again I can’t look away.

The Bible

The last 10 years of my life have seen me carve open large chunks of scripture and ask afresh ‘just what is going on here?’ or ‘How am I supposed to read this?’

From the creation stories, to prophets, miracles, Paul’s writings and some of the historical literature. I feel like I am intentionally stepping out of my assumed / inherited knowledge and asking again ‘how am I supposed to interpret this material’?

I’m not a ‘Bible says it, I believe it that settles it’ person. Actually maybe I am but not in the way that phrase intends. Neither am I in the ex-vangelical ‘the Bible means whatever it means to YOU’ camp.

I had someone tell me once that they held a ‘higher’ view of the Bible than I do. That’s an interesting phrase to use – and it generally translates to ‘I take the Bible more literally than you do.’ I have no problem with affirming that I don’t take it all literally. I don’t think we are supposed to. But I would refute the suggestion that I have a lower view. I view it highly enough to want to challenge my own assumptions and upbringing and to ask if maybe I have read it thru a 20th Century western, conservative (male) evangelical lens – and that has led me to certain conclusions. It was Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet who said ‘we are always interpreting the Bible.’ No one reads is flatly and perfectly so we need to simply be aware of our inbuilt biases and conditioning.

That said in affirming the existence of a supernatural realm I have no problem with the Bible recording supernatural events, miracles and the like. If we believe in the supernatural then anything is possible. Water to wine, feeding 5000, walking on water, raising the dead… when does it get hard? If something is possible then anything is possible.

I have read the debates around where the Bible fits in our lives – its ‘authority’ and what that means, it’s ‘reliability’ (or ‘inerrancy’ if you want to ramp it up a notch – I’m not an inerrantist) and it’s inspiration. I’ve considered to what degree its a human document and to what extent it is divine.

In the end its coherence, its preservation, its own claims about itself, its ability to stand up to external scrutiny and its sheer wisdom and insight into human life set it apart as a unique book and one to be regarded just a little more highly than ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ or the like.

I am a daily (meditative) Bible reader and I find that most days I read and take time to reflect results in insight for my life. The key is taking the time to allow the Spirit to speak thru the text and that requires a degree of stillness. As I have done that I have experienced an awareness of God and occasionally a more particular nudge to consider a new direction in life.

My Experience of God

I put this further down my list as I am a natural skeptic and a little wary of over-reading God’s activity in my life.

That said, I do have specific experiences I can point to that would seem to be very clearly God showing up in my life and either challenging me, giving me a hand or giving me guidance.

I feel like I’m at a point now where I discern a good idea and a God idea. I have lots of ideas – some of them are good and might even be helpful, but they aren’t borne of an encounter with God. By comparison ‘God ideas’ come at me with a shudder – a shiver down the spine – a sense of ‘really?… you want me to do what?…’ An internal moment of fear maybe – or concern that the idea could just be too wacky. Yet when I test it against scripture it is not bizarre – just different to the ideas people have who aren’t God botherers. They are the ones I have to speak up about – the ones that I sometimes share with Danelle thru tears, because I sense deeply its the Spirit calling me to act, rather than just me wanting to do something good for someone.

As I sit here trying to figure out what I could offer as an example I realise I could cite plenty, but perhaps my decision to give up alcohol was one of the most God led periods of my life. You can read the story here if you are interested. I have no doubt the Spirit showed up in my life that day and said ‘ENOUGH!’

But what I love is that my earliest experience of God was before I was a Christian. Just a scared 10 year old kid with no mates and God did something for me that I asked for – but really didn’t believe possible. I shared it as a slot on 98.5FM and you can listen to it here if you wish

Of course a skeptic can refute these as coincidences or delusions, but these are the tip of the iceberg. When I struggle to make sense of the Bible, or when I doubt my decision to choose a faith position I have to ask how I make sense of the vast number of times I have encountered the divine in my life.


If all of this sounds way too neatly tied up and locked away, then the next post might be helpful for hearing some of the thoughts that lurk in the back of my mind that I rarely process out loud because they may cause other people without sufficient faith grounding to experience confusion.

So until then…

I’m Do&*ting Too!

It seems there is a certain trendiness about doubt -& deconstruction of faith. Certainly I have heard people crow about being an ex-vangelical as if this were an enlightened space that only an elite few of us get to inhabit. I wonder why that is so? I guess it’s easy to kick evangelicalism in the guts. It’s a large soft target that has both done good for the cause of Christ but has also become so murky as to be no longer tenable as an entity. When a Trump government is a product of the ‘evangelical vote’ what the heck does that even mean?…

But there is a difference between ditching faith and ditching an expression that no longer holds validity for you. What I found interesting in both the Campolo’s book and the McAlpine podcast was that those who did not hold faith chose that position based on a disbelief in anything supernatural. This physical, tangible world is all there is and once it’s over then its over. There is nothing more. It’s simple secularism.

At a party recently I was deep in conversation with one of our neighbours who told me she didn’t believe in God or any of that stuff, but later in the conversation stated that she believed in the supernatural – in a world that we can’t see. I suggested that maybe God existed in that world but she hadn’t encountered him yet. She agreed this had to be a possibility.

But a worldview that allows for no belief in anything spiritual would not be open to considering the possible existence of a God. That makes sense.

If we are to be honest then we have to agree that there is a possibility that the secularists are correct. Maybe there is no spiritual realm and the creation of one is simply a way to give hope in a world where we would otherwise struggle to find meaning.

It’s a possibility that we are collectively kidding ourselves.

The flip side is that the vast majority of humanity believes in some form of higher power /other realm / spiritual world that is connected to this one. And its not just Christians – the major world religions all call us to a belief in a world other than the physical.

Maybe all those who believe in a spiritual realm are wrong.

But if we’re not then the question that exists is more around who has the best read on what is going on outside of the physical. Is it the Muslims? Hindus? Confucians? or could it be that we Christians have have the most accurate read on spiritual things? If there is a spiritual world to be engaged with then surely someone has got it right – or at least more accurate than others.

I find it intriguing how many people believe in evil spirits, occult activity and the like, but who have given little thought to a belief in God. If like Bart Campolo and David McAlpine you have no belief in anything beyond the natural then you have no issue with ‘who’s on the money?’ We are all wrong.

As I read the Campolo’s book which alternates chapters between father and son I found myself alternately saying in my head ‘yeah – he’s got a point…’ as both Christian and secularist made a case for their worldview. Whose is the most far fetched and least believable? I guess that depends on where you start from and what your own biases are.

What I found intriguing was Campolo senior’s reason for still believing. Of all the things he could have chosen he referred to his personal experience of God’s presence in his life. I thought he might have gone Jesus as historical person, maybe even scriptures as reliable, but he chose his own personal encounters with God as his reason for continuing to believe. He wrote of his mornings with God and of his evenings envisioning Jesus on the cross and giving the dark moments of his day to him. He sounds like has a rich faith.

Interestingly Campolo junior writes that he ‘faked’ experience for many years, before coming to an ‘Emperor Has No Clothes’ realisation that he was in a community where maybe many others were also ‘faking it till they made it’. He writes of having no ‘intimate relationship with Jesus’ and even wondering how such a thing may be possible.

The Campolo’s push back hard on each other in consecutive chapters and they have obviously got to a place of agreeing to disagree. Bart no longer calls himself a Christian and that is that. More than that he has taken a role as a humanist chaplain in a California university. It’s a significant shift. He continues with his work among the marginalised because it is good to do good. He hasn’t become a cheating, lying adulterer since giving up on faith. He’s still a good bloke serving others as best he can.

Similarly David McAlpine has found himself not believing in the God he was introduced to as a child and is now a disbeliever in anything spiritual. I would certainly affirm a similar disbelief in the God we were introduced to as children and teenagers. As David said, he heard a lot about Hell at Sunday school, but not so much about heaven. Such was the culture of fundamentalist faith at the time.

Campolo senior makes the point that the people we surround ourselves with is all important in the formation of a belief system. We become like those we spend time with. Tony would argue that Bart’s dissociation with a church community and increased engagement with people outside of faith contributed to his atheism.

I guess there’s no surprise in that, but simply being a product of a community does not mean you have thought for yourself and grappled with tough questions.

Over the years I have often questioned and wondered ‘ what if I have got this all wrong?’ If I had to offer my own reasons for continuing to believe what would they be…

GIve me 24hrs and I will slot them into the next post 🙂

Do&*t Happens

Over the last year or so we have heard of a few better known Christians giving up their faith – usually couched in more ‘dramatic’ language – but all the same it’s walking away from the faith they espoused on stage and in their books. The fact that we are surprised ought to be cause enough for question. Why are ‘celebrity’ (too strong a word I know) Christians somehow perceived to be less likely to succumb to faith crises than ordinary run of the mill garden variety Christians? The ability to write a book or sing on a stage says nothing of the robustness of a person’s faith or their actually connection to Jesus.

The reality is ‘doubt happens’ – to all of us, but we just have different ways of processing and different motivations for how we process. Some folks feel the need for a dramatic choreographed exit from ‘faith as they knew it’, while others quietly slip out the back door with no fuss. I sense those who make a fuss make a fuss for a reason – they need to be seen to be credible still – hence why so many of the stories are less of ‘losing faith’, but more of an ‘awakening to new realities’.

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking on the issue of struggling with doubt. It’s one I face myself on a regular basis. What if I am wrong?… What if I am dead wrong about everything I’ve invested my life in?…

Now let’s be frank. That’s a pretty big motivation for ‘staying put’ right there… It’s hard if not impossible as a paid religious worker to genuinely get to a place of allowing doubt to take hold and possibly unseat my confidence or lead me down new paths. As Al Gore once said, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ I would like to think it less crass than a salary and loss of face that keeps me there but I also know I have more invested than most in the whole faith thing.

That said I also feel I’m pretty open to new ideas and I certainly ‘read and listen’ beyond my own tribe, but I’ve never got to a point of ever thinking ‘I just don’t know if I can buy this any more’.

So maybe that is virtually impossible for me in my current vocation. Maybe if I was just a retic bloke I could let the sails out and roam away from what I have always held true. But then I don’t feel a need or desire to do that.

My own ‘doubts’ if you can call them that are more related to my conditioning – born into a devout Christian family in a very religious part of the world – enveloped in Christian culture from a young age – indoctrinated consistently (not against my will) and then pursuing a life of vocational Christian work. It’s pretty hard to ever imagine an alternate world view when this has been your life for 55 years.

Ironically if I were ever closer to being able to doubt properly it would be now – now that I am aware of my biases and now that my world is far more grey than ever before. While I was only a fundamentalist for a short time, I was a (very) conservative evangelical for many years. There was black, white and the odd shade of grey, but the Bible had answers for everything and questioning was not encouraged. I had answers to all of life’s perplexing theological & philosophical questions – answers that worked for me at that time.

In the last 15-20 years my ‘mystery’ zone has increased significantly and there are more things I am less certain of. This in itself could be a cause for doubt, but it just feels like a maturing reality – accepting that I know less than I once thought I did, but that I am also more settled in my convictions and reasons for faith that before. There are questions I no longer have solid, non-negotiable answers for – not that I haven’t sought answers – but more that I just can’t see clear unquestionable arguments for some issues. I might discuss those questions in another part of this series.

Over the last week I have read and listened to two conversations around faith & disbelief that have been valuable for helping me work towards developing some teaching in this area. The first was the book Why I Left Why I Stayed by Tony and Bart Campolo and the other was this podcast by the McAlpine (twin) brothers. The Campolo name is well known in church circles and Tony is probably the best communicator I have ever heard. I remember going a National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego back in 1997 and knowing he was on the cards to speak. I got a front row seat – and other than Campolo’s legendary ‘spitting’ – it was worth the price of the trip just to hear him. His son Bart grew up under his influence and was a significant Christian leader in his own right, engaging in much of the work among the poor his father so often spoke of. But there came a point when Bart no longer believed and he is now the Humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.

Quite a shift hey?…

Slightly less famous are the Mcalpine bros – born in my own home country of Northern Ireland, raised in fundamentalist Christian culture like my own, one chose faith and the other atheism. The podcast is well worth a listen to hear two well educated articulate brothers who clearly love each other deeply discuss questions of belief and worldview.

In Part 2 – I will offer some reflections on the book and podcast and then in Part 3 I will air some of my own questions that could lead to doubt – but haven’t and I’ll explain why not.

When Our Prophets Rage

Lately I’ve watched on as friends on FB have advocated for their various causes, the most prominent being the role of women in the church, aboriginal rights and environmental issues. Often the words and the rhetoric are strong and stinging. There is little room for explanations or exceptions – just ‘bull at a gate’ rage – to the point where sometimes I want to ‘hide’ their profile.

Unfortunately it seems this is stage 1 of getting people to listen – saying things so starkly that heckles and defenses are raised – that ‘surely not me’ is one of the first responses. Prophets tend to do this. They tell the truth that needs to be told – often in a way that is harsh and uncompromising – but that’s because ‘gentle truth’ rarely changes anything of a structural nature.

When I think back to the early days of the missional church when I was part of a serious critique of the established (attractional) form of church, the language I used and the tone I took was intentionally provocative and even inflammatory at times. No one pays attention to a quiet voice asking ‘have you considered?…’ But when someone says ‘the good ship Christendom is sinking and we are singing and listening to sermons neither seeing nor caring’ then it raises some ire.

I wrote this piece on ‘Incarnational v Attractional Mission’ in 2005 and it was my most read and most commented post ever – until my blog went thru an upgrade and all the original comments were lost…

I feel like I had a good 7-8 years of speaking and writing prophetically about the need for the church to turn itself inside out – essentially, to get less focused on trying to get people into the church and to get more focused on trying to get the church into the world. That was a small part of it, but in my ‘Forge’ days it was an assault on the whole structure and form of what was the dominant paradigm of church.

Fifteen years ago we were voices in the wilderness – spiky malcontents making trouble and strife as we called the church to move back into mission. The book that started it all for me was The Shaping of Things to Come by my friends Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost. It was incendiary – brutal – and answered the question of ‘Evolution or Revolution?’ (of church) with a hearty ‘Amen’ to ‘revolution’. Burn it down and start again!

Yeah – it was that gnarly.

But now …15 years later everyone is missional – even if they’re not – they use the word to describe and give cred to their church activities. Because now its ‘compulsory’ to be missional – to show how you are engaging the community etc etc. (I fear the word has lost its original intent and potency and that mission has become a lowest common denominator way of describing anything we do that involves non-church people.)

But – we are at this place because of the work that was done clearing the ground by the prophets.

Maybe one day soon we will see women no longer second class citizens in church, or aboriginal people as lesser humans, or environmental care as a good idea if it doesn’t cost too much.

In the meantime when the prophets rage take the time to listen and do some honest self assessment. More than likely they are right. We just don’t like being told.

Exceed Expectations

The other night I went out to dinner with a mate. It was to a local pub, a venue we go to often. The meal was fine and then we ordered sweets.

The sweets were great too, but the coffee… Ok so I am something of a snob, but it was probably on a par with a coffee I would expect from a Chinese Deli in a Wheatbelt town. It looked awful when it arrived and tasted just as bad.

I drank it. It was a coffee flavoured drink if nothing else – and it wasn’t much else…

As we stood at the till waiting to pay the duty manager asked me, ‘By the way how was your coffee?’

‘Dreadful’ I said ‘possibly the worst coffee I have ever had in a cafe!’

He smiled, ‘Yeah we don’t have a barista on and no one was too sure quite how to make it. He chuckled a little more.

RIght then he had a chance to ‘wow’ me, to literally take away the bad taste in my mouth, by throwing me a freebie – at least giving me the coffee for free! But no, he just rang up the full charge and cheerily ignored any opportunity to win me back. Maybe because he isn’t the owner – maybe because at the end of the day he is a hired hand. (I know the owner and I have been fixing his retic for nearly 10 years now… )

Wind the clock forward to another local pub where we eat often and this time my steak comes out ‘medium’, when I asked for ‘rare’. This is the third time in a row my steak has come out overcooked at this cafe. I haven’t got gnarly about it on any of the occasions, but this time I asked the waitress as she was passing, ‘what would you call that steak in terms of its cooked state?’

‘Medium’ she said.

‘Yeah – I asked for rare. This has been the third time in a row that this has happened’. I’m not mad – just letting them know.

She apologies and offers me a new steak. I tell her its ok. Its not the end of the earth. Not worth wasting a steak over and I will be fine. ‘I just wanted you to know.’

A few minutes later the manager walks over and apologises too. She offers us a free desert. Nice. I get free desert and when I go to pay I see that she has wiped the drinks off the bill too.

It isn’t hard to change a slightly disappointed customer into one who is now very happy. So next time I head out for dinner which cafe is the more likely to get my business.

Not rocket surgery people!