Q is for Questioning (an alphabet for penitents)

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. -1 Cor. 8:2

“What is truth?” -John 18:38

Questions are the prerequisite to the spiritual life. If you want to grow in your understanding of God (or really anything), learn to ask good questions.

Small groups often pose questions to get people to begin to share their perspective and life together.  Good mentors learn to ask questions which help us clarify our vision of the world. Throughout the Bible, God even asks questions which invite self-reflection about where we are and how we got there (see, for example, Genesis 3:8 and God’s question, “Where are you?”). My scriptural study is most fruitful when I ask probing questioning of the text and try to chase down the answers.

We know the value of good questions, but we often view questioning with suspicion. Ask questions but don’t question the leadership. Ask questions but don’t question the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Ask questions but not too much, and some of your questions are off limits. In the Christian tribe I grew up with, I was taught to hold tenaciously to certain beliefs, and to not be so open-minded that my brains fall out. We formed our questions rhetorically in order to show that Jesus was the answer to what ailed us.  We were taught to regard scientific and skeptical questions as an attack on the Bible and the Christian worldview.  When people’s questions made us feel uncomfortable, we prayed that God would reveal to them the truth.

People avoid questions for two reasons. Either they feel assured in their knowledge of something or they are afraid of the answers. Those who are self-assured have stopped growing in either their field or faith: those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought. Those who are afraid of the questions don’t move past a surface and superficial understanding of the matter. What if asking a question is like pulling a string on your favorite sweater? If you follow where your question leads, will the whole garment unravel, leaving you tangled in doubts?  Is there a risk? Yes, an answer unearthed to a serious question may change everything.

I have not asked questions for both of these reasons. I can remember telling a Sunday  School teacher when I was twelve (the age Jesus was when his parents found him in the temple court asking questions), “Tell me what you were going to teach on today, and I will tell you all about it.”  An arrogant retort, but I didn’t leave such self-assured arrogance in adolescence. As an adult, and occasionally still, I offer up pat answers to tough questions, believing I know all there is to know about that (whatever ‘that’ is).

At other stages of my spiritual journey, I thought entertaining certain questions would shake the foundations of my faith. What is the relationship between science and faith? What if evolution is true? What insights can we gain from philosophy? From other faiths? Did Jesus really do that? Who did Jesus save us from? In what way does the cross effect our salvation? Dangerous questions,  but I learned to ask them. My faith did not implode, though it certainly changed. I am more confident today that Jesus is the answer to what ails the world. My faith grew through questioning, not avoiding the question.

Not every question deserves an answer. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has merit, but he didn’t ask it honestly. It was a cynical retort he asked before leaving the room to see who he could pawn Jesus off on. On the other hand, Jesus never turned aside the honest questioner. It is in asking of good questions that we find ourselves on holy ground.


Waving Bye and Hi to God: a ★★★★★ book review

This isn’t an apologetics book, though I took from it what I normally get from one (a rationale or some ground for continued belief). Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, doesn’t set out to convince you of your spiritual path. Finding God in the Waves is a memoir of McHargue’s own spiritual journey. I love memoirs, especially ones with a Hobbit-like shape ( There and Back Again). McHargue describes both losing his faith, and finding God again (SPOILER ALERT) in the waves. Along the way he shares the scientific and philosophical axioms which allow him to hold on to faith in the face of science, reason and doubt.

sciencemikePodcast listeners will be familiar with Mike McHargue from his Ask Science Mike podcast or from The Liturgists podcast which he does with Michael Gungor. The name Science Mike, a vague discipline combined with his personal name, doesn’t really communicate anything substantial about McHargue’s credentials. It is kind of like calling yourself Humanities Jane, Literature Harry, or Theology Bob. Rob Bell christened him as Science Mike, so what are you going to do?  McHargue’s bio doesn’t tell you what kind of scientist he is (or if he is), you just have his assertion that his years as an atheist, when he could examine evidence without religious ideological lenses, made him a better scientist. Perhaps, but this book is more science-y than anything approaching hard sciences.

McHargue grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. He said the sinner’s prayer at the age of seven, grew up as an evangelical praying to Jesus and believing. Hormones and playing in a band transformed him from an nerdy fat kid into someone more likeable and cool.  For a season he broke from the church (which frowned on premarital sex), until he fell victim to the flirt and convert. Jennifer Carol Frye, a girl he was smitten with, demanded that if he was serious about her, they attend church together. So he did, trading bar gigs for church camp and a worship band. By the time he was twenty-five, he and Jenny were married and McHargue was serious about his faith.

Then his faith fell apart. The cracks came when his dad left his mom for another woman, after almost thirty years of marriage. McHargue saw no biblical ground for divorce and  wanted God to fix his parents’ marriage. He began reading the bible through at a voracious pace and praying fervently. He noted contradictions in the Bible which he didn’t know were there before (i.e. the differences between the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts) and doubts began to form. Reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis helped him move past the need to fix his parents marriage and showed him that you could be honest about your doubts in the life of faith.

His Christianity weathered his parents divorce but not its next challenger: Richard Dawkins. An atheist friend got him to read The God Delusion. McHargue read it, along with dozens of other works from skeptics. His faith fell apart, particularly as Dawkins parsed the evidence against answered prayer. He became an atheist albeit a secret one. He had no desire to undermine the faith of his wife or others. He continued to teach Sunday school and be a deacon at his church. Eventually his wife (and mother) uncover his collapsed faith, but he remained a secret atheist to everyone else until he was roped into attending a religious conference put on by Rob Bell.

Remember I mentioned the Hobbit shape of this memoir? McHargue does make it back to the shire of belief, but just as with Bilbo, the landscape changed for him because of the journey. Rob Bell, a beach house and the waves, shake him out of atheism into an Eucharistic encounter with the divine, but he doesn’t return to the fundamentalist, evangelicalism of days of yore. He finds a progressive church that he feels comfortable worshiping in and writes axioms which allow him as believing skeptic to give a rational account of subjective religious experience and its benefit (i.e. the physiological benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer).

I really liked this book and found McHargue’s story a compelling one. I found I could relate to parts of his journey. Like him, my evangelical parents’ marriage dissolved after almost thirty years and I was left there to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Like him, my reading of books by skeptics and believers alike stretched my understanding of God, the Bible and the life of faith. I haven’t ever walked away from the faith but I know the experience of dissonance between outward expression of faith and doubts swirling around my insides.

McHargue doesn’t provide trite answers to tough question or cherry-picked evidence that demands a verdict. However, his axioms are a starting point for others on their way back to belief. These axioms make smaller and more general claims than the orthodox Christian tradition about God, prayer, the afterlife, salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or the Bible. I am unhappy with McHargue’s axioms as guiding principles for life and faith but I  appreciate the way he frames what he says. Each axiom begins by explaining what each element (i.e. God, sin, salvation, etc.) are  “at least.”  He gives skeptics a provisional place to begin their explore God. Just enough.

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Those who have wrestled with religious doubt will appreciate the honest way that McHargue explores his own doubts. Not every skeptic will be helped by his answers and many believers will wish he voiced things with a little more theological precision and substance; Yet if you have walked this road, you will appreciate the way McHargue names the in-between-places. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review.

Doubt Has Its Limits: a book review

Some people think faith is about swallowing Christian truth claims full-sale and never doubting again, ever.  As the saying goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it). However when you become a Christian, you aren’t really supposed to leave your brain in the front closet.  We need our minds to help us think through problems, wrestle with ideas and to be able to discern truth properly.  Faith and doubt work together to help us press into God’s truth and experience al that God has in store for us.

Christina M. H. Powell is a person who knows well the tension between doubt and faith. In her day job she is a Harvard educated  biomedical research scientist conducting research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God.  When asked if she has ever questioned her faith, she answers, “Sure I question my faith, but I also question my doubts” (17).  Faith takes us into a realm beyond human reason, but Powell knows professionally and personally there is real value in doubt.

So in Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith she showcases the value and limits of doubt. In three sections, she unfolds some of her own faith journey and struggles and how she has resolved them, both as a scientist and as a person of faith.

In part I, she begins by ‘thinking through doubts.’ In chapter one, she takes up Isaac Newton’s challenge to ‘build more bridges than walls’ (17-8).  Rather than seeing doubt and scientific inquiry as antithetical to ‘real faith,’ Powell sees the value of science, doubt and inquiry for examining and exploring our world and weighing evidence. Faith takes us beyond on the realm of  measurable evidence and experience toward hope and expectation. Powell would have have us doubt and investigate even in the midst of faith  because both science and faith have important things to teach us (29). Chapter two explores deeper the ‘interplay of influences’ between faith and facts. As a scientist and a believer Powell has a keen eye for aspects of each that have shaped her calling and experience (48). Chapter three and four describes the value of doubt and questioning for discernment and growing in knowledge and understanding.

Part two explores the sources of doubt. Chapter five describes the limits of human reason. Sometimes doubts arise because are ability to reason and read the evidence only takes us so far (we see through a glass dimly). Sometimes we doubt because are questions remain unanswered (chapter six). Still doubts are not always intellectual. Sometimes our doubt is born out of real-life-pain (Why would a good God let this happen?) or disillusionment (why is the church so hypocritical?). Powell gives good strategies on how to hold out faith in the face of tragedy and how God uses disillusionment in our hearts to turn us into agents of change (chapters seven and eight, respectively).

Part three speaks about resolving doubts, not in the sense of getting an answer to every question, but in making your peace with them. Chapter nine talks about the authentic journey. Rather than trying to stuff doubts down, Powell shows that there is real power in honestly wrestling with them. In Chapter ten she talks about ‘retracing the path’ and the reality that a ‘reason’ for something is not always apparent in the moment. Sometimes we see God’s hand most clearly  in hindsight.  Finally Powell closes where she began with a passioned plea to ‘build bridges’ between faith and science:

I remain confident that the key to a greater understanding between scientists and minsters will come from making connections. If pastors reach out to scientists within their congregations to learn more about their work, then science might not feel so intimidating.  If scientists share how they integrate their faith and their profession with seminary students, then the next generation of pastors will be better equipped to minister to those with technological backgrounds. The friendships that form between individual scientists and individual ministers will become the bridge betwen the two professions. With mutual respect in place, dialogue will become much easier. (192-3).

What the above summary doesn’t fully reveal is how much Christina Powell shares her own journey: existential crises, discernment, clarifying her sense of call and making peace between science and faith. This book is not a detached, abstract ‘thought experiment,’ but describes her own journey of faith (and doubt) and offers the insights she has gained. She weaves together her own story with biblical reflections and insights on faith and science.

I think that pleasantly surprised me about this book. When I picked it up, I thought it was a new book on apologetics. It is that, but it is also is a book for Christians to how to better think through their faith. This will certainly be helpful for new college students (sometimes youth graduate church when they graduate high school because they were never given tools to think through their faith). But I think it can also be useful for deepening a conversation in church on the relationship between faith and doubt, God and nature, the scientific method and Revelation. As a pastor, I appreciate Powell’s challenge to be a better bridge builder and commend it to you.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Truth Told Slant: a book review

i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson  by Kristin Lemay

Emily Dickinson is a poet warmly appreciated for her wit and insight, remembered both for her prodigious output (mostly published posthumously) and her eccentric  manner. She lived to age 55 but never left her yard after her late thirties.  When she passed away her sister found nearly eight hundred poems in the bottom drawer of her dresser (as her poems were collected, nearly 1800 were discovered).  Her poetry is colloquial–punctuated with dashes,full of slant rhymes, irregular meters and unconventional capitalization.  A cursory read of her poetry does not reveal their full meaning. Her poems were meditations on various themes and therefore require a slow meditative reading.

But what are we to make of Emily’s spiritual life? Her poems touch on God, on Christ, on death, on immortality,  on beauty. She is sometimes claimed as a doubter and skeptic but her poems show her as a an occasional believer who did not so much eschew faith as easy faith and formulaic spirituality. Emily is more complicated than her portrait as a rebel, spinster waif. Her faith is also more complex than it may seem at first brush.

In i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores the nature of Emily’s search for God. Emily claimed that she ‘could not pray,’ but LeMay mines twenty-five poems to see what they show us about the spiritual life as they relate to five broad themes: Belief, Prayer, Mortality, Immortality, and Beauty. LeMay is both analytical and intuitive in her reading of Emily and intertwines her exploration of theses poems with pieces of Emily’s biography and her own.

In discussing Emily’s Belief, LeMay explores Emily’s ‘conversion’ which meant for Emily letting go of her own life. She failed to have a ‘conversion experience’ but her poems reveal the process by which she continued to wrestle with God and the ways that her poetry were her working out her  own salvation. Likewise LeMay  delves into the way Emily wrestles with her understanding of Scripture (the Center not the Circumference), the way Doubt is a form of Faith, and the way that belief brings understanding.

As LeMay explores the theme of Prayer, she observes that while Emily claims she cannot pray, her poems are a means of prayer (what Emily eschews is prayer as a scientific experiment).  LeMay also reflects on the influence of hymn meter on Emily, the way she addresses the Divine and her understanding of God’s presence.  When so much prayer is technique and formula designed to force God’s hand, Emily’s critique is a good one.

Emily is sometimes described as overly morbid and obsessed with death. But Dickinson was surrounded by the death of loved ones and LeMay argues  that  Emily’s poems plumb the depths of human experience. And she does not regard death as a grim finality but holds out the hope of Immortality. However it is her exploration of Beauty where Emily speaks most profoundly about the ineffable.

I appreciate LeMay’s exploration of Dickinson and the homage she pays to her poetry.  LeMay is a teacher of writing and adept at analyzing these poems(i.e. the way Dickinson uses meter to enhance meaning, and her unique syntax and vocabulary).  While LeMay is sometimes intuiting what she feels is the best explanation of Emily’s faith, her observations are based in a detailed reading of Emily’s poems. She finds a kindred spirit in ‘saint Emily Dickinson’ as one who has struggled to come to terms with belief, Christian creeds, the experience of faith and the church. That being said, her own story and experience of faith is somewhat different from Dickinson’s and she is more forthright in sharing her own journey.

This book is a good introduction to the spirituality of Emily Dickinson and bears a certain similarity to Susan Vanzanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade Books, 2011). Dickinson was not an orthodox Christian and it is unclear how much of the creeds she could affirm. However, what Dickinson models is the honest struggle with faith and doubt. She doesn’t resort to pious formulas but asks hard question and irreverently balks at tradition which she cannot square with her own experience. But she isn’t so much a mocking skeptic as an honest seeker.   I would commend this book to those who are interested in exploring Dickinson’s faith or to her fellow strugglers. May we wrestle with God and not let go.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.  Below is a link to a book trailer for this book, which has a reading from a chapter called “Grasped By God” in the Beauty section of this book.

A Prayer for Easter, Week 2 (John 20:24-28)

Resurrection changed everything
    but one week later we sit in the house,
    frightened with the door shut.
Among us is Thomas, famous for doubts
   but he is just the most honest–
   we saw his broken body walk through walls
and felt his hot breath, but here we are.
We didn’t believe. . .not yet, not really.

Jesus came as before and smiled at the honest one.
    Peace be with you!
     Put your finger here. . .
     Reach your hand here
            Stop doubting and believe!

We saw all doubt and reservation melt from honest Tom,
       “My Lord and My God!”

Thank you Jesus that by your resurrection
    You brought hope to the world,
     You broke death and the power of darkness.

We confess that like your disciples,
   we disbelieve the testimony of others,
   we demand proof and have
   reservations about you.
Still you come to us in our woundedness and
    calm the storm raging
in our hearts.

Lead us to deeper faith
   so that in the face of war and destruction,
                                 misogyny and abuse,
                                 racism and systemic poverty,
                                 and countless other injustices that persist.
May we also gaze on You and exclaim,
        “My Lord and God!”