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.