I originally posted this on my old blog on March of 2013. I have made a few, minor editorial changes.
In a book entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell speaks of a time when he was troubled by doubts about God.
One Sunday morning a number of years ago I found myself face-to-face with the possibility that there is no God and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.
Now I realize lots of people have questions and convictions and doubts along these lines — that’s nothing new. But, in my case, it was an Easter Sunday morning, and I was a pastor, I was driving to the church services where I’d be giving a sermon about how there is a God and that God came here to Earth to do something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could live forever.
And, then further along, he writes:
I should pause here and say that when you’re a pastor, your heart and soul and paycheck and doubts and faith and hopes and struggles and intellect and responsibility are all wrapped up together in a life/job that is very public. And Sunday comes once a week, when you’re expected to have something inspiring to say, regardless of how you happen to feel or think about God at the moment. This can create a suffocating tension at times, because you want to serve people well and give them your very best, yet you’re also human. And in my case, full of really serious about the entire ball of God wax.
I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I know I can. And, I’m sure a lot of people can imagine that situation — and how difficult (they would presume) that it is.
In fact, I’ve sometimes pondered atheism during morning devotions.
I am now a person who can entertain an idea without being committed to accepting it. But, I can’t (at this point) trace back the steps that brought me here. I think the catalyst was theological reading. If people engage in a program of serious theological study they will be constantly confronting points of view they don’t agree with, nuanced arguments about fine points of interpretation, and so forth. In my early days in Seminary and in the pastorate I had an ongoing love / hate relationship with Rudolf Bultmann’s (justly) famous Theology of the New Testament. Bultmann has now become passé, of course — as the existentialism of Martin Heidigger (Bultmann’s philosophical framework) has become passé. Needless, to say I disagreed with Bultmann a lot. But, arguing with Bultmann was helpful to me. If he was wrong, I needed to think through why I thought he was wrong. And, of course, plenty of times he was right. His existentialist slant allowed him to see the issues of being “in the world but not of the world” with great clarity.
Since that time I’ve learned a lot from writers with whom I don’t agree. In fact, I think it may be true that I learn the most from writers with whom I don’t completely agree.
In the pastorate a person meets all kinds of people with all kinds of differing viewpoints. I’ve learned to listen to what’s behind what they are saying — why their expressed beliefs are important to them.
Well, I say all that to say this: I’ve become a person who often entertains and plays around with ideas I don’t fully agree with — just to see how they work.
So, it’s not possible for a person like me to exclude consideration of radical doubts. To me, it is part of the whole process of thinking. This is part of what I was trying to express when I wrote: What I Mean by Faith. At this point in my life, doubt and faith play a little dance together — they are not enemies. Doubt suggests the lines of thought I need to pursue. And, at some point you begin to doubt your doubts.
So, my response to the dilemma of a preachers’ total collapse of faith is this.
If I arrived at a firm conviction that there is no God — and if I were still a pastor — I would figure that I still had a responsibility to do my job — and that job is to demonstrate, from week to week how the story of the Bible relates to life — and to support people in their faith. Yes, I would need to get out of my job in that event — since I no longer believe the whole thing is true. But, I ought to respect the faith of others — however naive I have now come to feel it is. I would need to leave my job, while doing the least amount of damage to them. If I can’t leave with grace, something goofy is going on. In that case, this isn’t doubt I’m experiencing — I’ve replaced one type of rigid certainty with another.
Doubts about God and Christianity don’t disturb me. I actually think there would be something wrong with me if I was incapable of entertaining them. They don’t disturb me because they don’t go anywhere I want to go. They lead to a dead end. Christ is still the best key to understanding life and God. If I were to abandon that perspective I would want something larger, more gracious, more loving, more perceptive. I don’t wish to abandon it for something less.
The new atheists insist that atheism is only “a mere negation.” But, such a negation will not do as a worldview — of course — and, of itself it leads no where. But, anyway, they claim atheism is a “mere negation” only in the vain attempt to distance themselves from the horrible atrocities perpetrated by atheistic political regimes — and I say: so much for that.
Bell goes on to say:
That Easter Sunday was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.
This seems to me to be the right approach.