Thursday, August 07, 2008

There was no Freedom of Speech in my Head

As a Christian we used the word “Faith.” A lot. It was a slippery little word to define; in fact we had sermons and books and classes and articles and meetings and whole series all designed to give insight into that five-letter word.

We knew it was the conduit by which we received salvation. “By grace you are saved, through faith….” Eph. 2:8. We were justified by faith. Rom. 3:28. It was not merely a belief, but a belief so strong it necessarily resulted in evident actions. James 2:14-20. It could heal. James 5:15. Matt. 8:9-13. Faith could control weather. Matt. 8:26

Faith could (hyperbolically) move a mountain. Matt. 17:20. It was not a one-time belief, or a passing thought, but something to be nourished; something to grow. Rom. 4:20; 2 Cor. 8:7

It was not irrational, but it was not rational either. It was more than just evidence. Heb. 11:1. It was “proof” of creation. Heb. 11:3. Without this thing called “faith” it was impossible to please God. Heb. 11:6

We understood it was a leap (not a blind leap) based upon incomplete data whereby our mind was fully convinced in a God doing…something. We made pithy statements like, “Faith is not thinking God can; but knowing God will.” Or “Faith is the light that guides you through darkness.” Yet even with these, we never quite understood how it worked. Thus the reason for repeated sermons, teachings and readings on how we had to have faith….whatever that meant.

And while we were never quite confident on the full definition of “faith” what we were confident was the antithesis of faith—its mortal enemy. Doubt. We believed in a God, even in a specific God with specific characteristics. And we felt the depth of our conviction was on a scale; with faith we became more fully convinced, with doubt we slid backwards to less conviction.

We didn’t want doubt. If faith pleased God, surely the opposite—doubt—would displease God. We placed ourselves on a treadmill in which the only acceptable speed was “faster.” More faith. To slow down—to have “doubt” was unacceptable. Curiously, to maintain speed was equally unacceptable. One could always have more faith. Never did we reach top speed.

So we struggled with how to become more faithful; but at least we knew what to avoid in the process. Moving backward. Having doubt.

That much we knew.

Don’t get me wrong—we knew we were human. Doubt would come; it was not expected we would never have any doubts at all. It was like a canker sore. As much as one doesn’t want one—one still gets them. And while we have medicines to reduce the symptoms of a canker sore; there is no insta-cure to make it “go away.” Doubt didn’t just disappear, sometimes it lingered. And over time, with persistence, the canker sore went away, as did doubt.

Of course, one of the simplest ways to not encounter doubt is to not contemplate the thought. We implemented the “avoid even the appearance of evil” in so many other ways, it was easy to cross-over into our thinking. Want to avoid drunkenness? Simple—never drink alcohol. Want to avoid lustful thoughts? Simple—impose strict dress codes on women so we never even see an ankle, let alone a leg or a thigh or a…

Avoid pre-marital sex? Never kiss, never hold hands and never, EVER dance!

In the same way, if you never contemplate the thought that Jesus might not be God, you never have to worry about entering the dungeon of doubt. Don’t even go in the door! If the thought of “Why, God, did you allow…” you learned to stop at the “did” because God was God. And to start questioning God was to start down the dangerous path of Doubt.

While the intellectual discussion of “Was Jesus God?” would be acceptable, to dare contemplate the actual possibility would not. Within our human mind, it is impossible to precisely differentiate between the intellectual discussion and the empathetic notion of an actual possibility. In order to discuss “Is the Earth flat?” we actually have to think about what the Earth would be like if it was flat.

This is part of the reason we only held such discussions with other Christians. We could debate, even vociferously, the concept of Jesus not being God, but none of us really believed it. We knew, at the end of our “debate” we would have convinced ourselves Jesus was God. It strengthened our faith; it didn’t introduce doubt. We read Christian books. Regardless of how the book started, or what was in the middle, we knew the ending would safely land us on non-doubting ground. The questions would be answered. The correct words stated to saturate any doubt we might have had.

Oh, we would read non-Christian books, too. But first we would put on our armors of Faith. We would question every word stated utilizing a firm Christian worldview. If it did not align exactly with our position (if it dared imply humanity was not completely depraved) we would be free to reject it and any premises resulting from it.

And if it did, by some unforeseeable trickery, manage to instill even an ounce of doubt we ran to any writing by a Christian that could even remotely dispute it and grasped on to the Christian writing with the strong arm of faith. Because we didn’t want doubt.

My mind was no beacon of Freedom of Speech. Far from it. I had censors firmly established, refusing to allow even the possibility of the question to form. I loved what I thought was a God. I was extremely thankful for the gift of salvation I thought I had received, not to mention the bountiful life I attributed to this God. It is remarkably uncomplicated that I wanted to please this God. I wanted this God to say, “That fellow is a keeper.” Faith pleased God. Doubt did not.

Who, in such a situation, would even want to dabble with idea of displeasing such a God? Daring to seriously consider alternate possibilities was, to me, like seeing how close I could hold my face to a running chainsaw before it chewed out my eyes. Unthinkable!

For many years those censors worked. Sometimes they worked overtime, but they worked. In fact, you might say they worked too well. My mind was so firmly convinced of the notions it held, I thought I was upon safe ground in discussing with non-believers.

Convince me? Ha! My mind was expert at sieving out the claims contrary to my views. I anticipated I could compartmentalize the intellectual discussion from the conviction of persuasion. I only needed to understand the arguments; not be persuaded by them.

I gave the censors the night off. I allowed Freedom of Speech in my head. Not just the words, but the rationales behind the words, the depth of the arguments, the actual working with the hands of my mind to immerse into what the skeptic was saying.

And I found out that doubt is a good thing. It was so indoctrinated into me, when all this time my brain was saying, “This doesn’t make sense. You need to study this more.”

Sometimes our brain is saying, “Wait a minute. That ain’t right.” My youngest child will stand on the roof of our house; contemplate wind velocity, distance, height, etc. to determine what direction she must jump to correctly land on our trampoline, spring up and land in our pool. Me? I would have some serious doubting going on, envisioning all the horrible ways that plan could go wrong! Her? Not a doubt in her mind.

I see now part of the floundering of the discussion between non-believers and believers is that in even having the discussion we are asking the believer to dare doubt. To have less faith. To do the thing that displeases their God.


  1. Great reminder of the power of faith. It's just so hard for lifelong heathens to understand what it's like, and your post describes it quite accurately.

  2. Ah, good, TheNerd. I am glad you found this entry. I was wondering how to inform you I had stolen the title from a comment you made. Remember? Thanks. When I become insanely rich off this entry, I will be happy to share my profits for your contribution. *grin*

  3. Hey, that's right! And here I thought I had found a soul mate. But no, it was just a plagiarizer.

  4. Good thoughts, Dagoods. Erasing doubt as an option weakens faith in the long run. Doubt strengthens faith (remember even John the Baptist had his Q&A time with Jesus after he had filled the role he was called to do). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob doubted. Moses doubted. Each was growing in their faith, and doubt was a part of that growth. As you noted in your post, doubt can keep

    The fundamentalist isn't satisfied with that and wants to take inventory now. That's the wrong attitude to have as no one has ever exhausted all the questions they'd have for God. Anyone who says they have no questions or doubts is putting God in a box.

    In response to your last paragraph, Wittgenstein wrote that "Doubt presupposes belief" so in order to doubt something you must first believe it. If I'm told I can't drink alcohol, my first instinct is to consider the opposite, that I can. Then I'd go looking to find out why I can or cannot drink alcohol. Looking at all the references to wine and beer in the Bible, I'll find that it suggests drinking in moderation, NOT total abstinence. Now if I were an alcoholic, then I'd have to respond to that by abstaining from alcohol.

    In a nutshell, the fundamentalist errs by banning doubt rather than showing it to be essential to growing in one's faith. This is why the fundie church sermons are ostensibly an "Us vs. Them" affair.

  5. As you noted in your post, doubt can keep you out of trouble.

    Oh, well, I didn't go back to finish the sentence.

  6. **Within our human mind, it is impossible to precisely differentiate between the intellectual discussion and the empathetic notion of an actual possibility.**

    I'm glad you said this, because that was my first reaction -- how can you have an intellectual conversation about the divinity of Jesus unless you seriously consider the other side? As in, understand how they reach the answers that they do.

    It's just interesting -- you come from a background that insists it has access to absolute Truth, and yet almost does it all it can not to have that Truth challeneged.