The Spiritual Journey Part 4: Belief, (Un)Certainty, and Why Everyone is a Person of Faith

After my three recent posts on construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, I had a few extra thoughts I thought worth sharing.

To begin, this whole process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction is all about going through a time of serious doubts regarding your faith. It’s a period of profound questioning, one many experience. Some find that they lose their faith altogether. All you have to do is Google “Christian deconstruction” and you will find several examples of prominent Christian leaders and celebrities who have recently deconstructed but not reconstucted their faith. They have left Christianity completely. Others who go through such a season reconstruct their faith so that it is more “progressive,” which means reimagining or even jettisoning some traditional Christian beliefs.

But it is possible to go through this process and simply become more resilient and confident in your faith.

It all depends on how you go through the process, the resources you find to help you, and whether or not you are willing to be honest about your questions and are also willing to doubt your doubts. Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and know a lot of committed believers who are living out their faith with integrity, you should be willing to take your time. You owe yourself (and those who helped you construct your faith) that much.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a simple and neat process. It’s not necessarily a straightforward, linear path. Nor do I want to give the impression that once you enter the reconstruction phase that all of your questions and doubts will go away. I think part of the experience of this process is not so much ridding yourself of all questions and doubts, but of learning how to deal with them in a more mature, honest way. That is, I think our doubts and questions as Christians are a part of being on this spiritual journey.

Of course, there are some who want an absolute 100% certainty when it comes to questions about their faith. They want definitive, unassailable proof that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that what the Bible says is reliable and true. Beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Here’s the thing: we can’t be that certain about anything. Not in a modern, scientific sense that people often mean. I would even say that it’s even unreasonable to expect that level of certainty. Indeed, I think this is even true of scientific knowledge. Not only that, but proof is not the same as evidence. I would say there is plenty of evidence that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that the Bible is reliable and true. But can I 100% prove it? No, I cannot.

But there’s more to it than that. We’re not merely intellectual creatures. It’s not just our rational thoughts that determine how we handle doubts and questions as people of faith. Our experiences, our relationships, our emotions, our temperaments–all of these things bear significantly on how we approach big theological, spiritual, philosophical, and existential questions.

Think of it this way. You might be familiar with the so-called “new atheists,” people like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Well, the truth is, there was nothing really new about the intellectual arguments these writers used. In fact, in some cases their arguments were quite poor and demonstrated very little understanding of religious faith and the intellectual case that can be made for faith. What was new was the vitriol with which they wrote and spoke. There was almost an anger, or at the very least a deep disdain for religious faith and belief. This is particularly true of Dawkins. Given this, I have to wonder if there is much more going on than simply intellectual questions and arguments.

Whatever their reasoning is for their atheist stance, there is definitely an emotional, personal dimension to their attacks on religion. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Consider the following words from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

So when it comes to doubt and decontruction, remember that it’s not always about ideas. And I think we know that. We know people–maybe you’re one–who have left faith behind because they’ve been hurt by other Christians. Perhaps a trusted pastor has broken that trust in a profound way. Or maybe something in their church experience has made them question their faith. There are people who go through deconstruction who do so precisely in reaction to a legalistic upbringing or a painful experience.

And a process of deconstruction and reconstruction might very well mean having to come to terms with issues that are personal and emotional rather than theological or intellectual. Because of a poor experience of growing up in the church, what you were taught to believe is guilty by association. This fact speaks powerfully to how the credibility of what we believe depends significantly on how our lives reflect (or fail to reflect) that belief. No wonder Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16).

And anyone having a conversation with someone for whom this is their experience needs to proceed with great sensitivity. If someone says they don’t believe in God or that Jesus is true, it’s quite possible that what they are saying is about something else much deeper. This is really about that. About the fact that someone in their church abused them when they were young. About the fact that though they grew up in a Christian home, their parents were strict and cold. About the fact that when they expressed doubts or asked questions, they were told to simply believe or were criticized for having weak faith.

Deconstruction is never only intellectual. Often there is something else going on.

That said, let me add this: being disappointed in a Christian leader doesn’t disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Having had a negative church experience doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t reliable and true. The worst of childhood experiences with respect to church and faith needn’t permanently lead anyone to reject belief in God.

So while we our experiences can have a profound impact on our faith, we cannot base our faith (or lack of it) purely on our experiences. When we find that our experiences fall short of our faith, intellectual, historical, and theological arguments and reasons can genuinely help us to trust God.

Another important point to consider is that everyone has faith. None of us believes everything we believe because we have 100% incontrovertible evidence. Being a scientist takes faith, being an atheist takes faith, and being a Christian takes faith. Life requires trust–in someone, in something, in that which is outside of ourselves. Life requires holding beliefs that we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt. Living otherwise is sheer nonsense and impossibility. It’s never a question of whether one person has faith while another does not. Instead, it’s a question of where (or in who) you place your faith.

The Christian life always includes questions and doubts. Because none of us who follow Jesus can lay claim to having perfect or comprehensive knowledge of everything–including what we claim to believe. Yet we can still have good evidence. One intellectual position–atheism or Christianity–may be more persuasive to someone for various reasons. I believe Christians can make a persuasive case for their truth claims. For that reason, I also believe that this is the reason we can make it through periods of deconstruction with a robust, defensible worldview. That said, as in deconstruction, more is at work in this process than intellectual arguments. Christians who seek to build up and defend their faith, and persuade others of it, need more than well-thought out theology. We need to trust that God is living and active and will draw those to himself who are open to him. Because, ultimately, faith is not an accomplishment, but a gift of the living God to whom our faith ought to be directed.

Rob Bell, Peanuts, and Why Theology Doesn’t Save

Thank you, Charles Schulz.

I needed to say that first.

So, I think much of Rob Bell’s theology, particularly in books of his like Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is riddled with confusion and error. His positions often seem unclear. When questioned about what he’s written, his muddled answers only add to the uncertainty people have about his beliefs. Either his thinking is this murky or he’s simply being disingenuous. Whatever the case, while there is (or has been) much about Bell I do appreciate and admire, I’d have a hard time making the case that he is an orthodox evangelical. Certainly most prominent evangelical leaders have written him off as a false teacher and heretic.

I say all this, but I still might meet Rob Bell in heaven. Despite my objections to his stance on the doctrine of hell and his affirmation of same-sex marriage, he might very well still be my brother in Christ. And like others in this life who vehemently disagree with Bell over biblical interpretation, I just might have to spend eternity with him.

There’s only one reason I can say this. And it’s not that theology or theological beliefs are unimportant. Our beliefs are incredibly vital; profoundly so, in fact. How we think shapes how we live. What we believe shapes our actions. More significantly, there are beliefs that are true and some that are not. Truth matters to how we live, to how we worship, to our relationships with one another and with God.

So there’s still only one reason I can say that I might have to share eternity with Rob Bell. And the reason is: my theology is not what saves me.

If theology is really important to you, you might want to sit down and breathe. I will explain.

Part of what I want to say is that each of us has an imperfect, incomplete, even sinful theology. None of us has it altogether right. Between what we believe and what is truly the case there is a gap, a space that we will never be able to cross this side of the new heaven and new earth.

There is also a distinction between what I believe in my head and what God is doing and has done in my heart and in my life. Plenty of us were saved without having our creeds and confessions memorized and without having written a flawless statement of faith. Those of us who are followers of Jesus spend a lifetime growing in our theological understanding and maturity. Some of us never get past the basics of middle-school Sunday school lessons; others of us may end up wrestling with the theological giants of church history. Either way, the extent of our knowledge doesn’t necessarily determine our spiritual position or our spiritual maturity. I have Christian brothers and sisters much wiser than I am, even though I have studied theology at the graduate school level. That this can be the case is likely no surprise to anyone.

So, again, it is not what I believe that saves me. I can have impeccable theology. My grasp of biblical history might be disturbingly accurate. But I could be far from God. Intellectual pride might be an obstacle to repentance. Academic acumen is no barometer with respect to my relationship with God.

All that said, there remains a connection between theological beliefs and our relationship with God. Obviously, if I do not believe I need to repent of my sins but instead think that my good only needs to outweigh my wrongdoing, then this might be an indicator of where my relationship with God might be. If I think that human beings are intrinsically good, then my ears might very well be deaf to the gospel save God’s willingness to open them wide to his proclamation.

In any event, it is not the act of my believing in something that redeems me. Similarly, it is not my increasingly clear understanding of biblical Christology or my growing grasp of Trinitarian doctrine that restores me to God. Rather, these beliefs name (or try to name) who God is and what he has done to make such restoration possible.

One of the reasons I even wanted to flesh these thoughts out (and no doubt imperfectly) is that I often see Christians from one identifiable camp or tribe labeling believers from another group or camp. The tone of the discussion gives the impression that because so and so believes (or at least seems to believe) this that there is no way they will enjoy being in the presence of the Creator God for all eternity.

But while it’s true that someone’s theology might be all wonky, I think we need to stop short of judging their relationship with God. Yes, enter a theological debate with them. Ask hard questions. Press for clarification. But always do so in a winsome, kind, and gracious way. And even if we think that given their theology there’s simply no way they could be genuinely Christian, I think we should keep such judgments to ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I know full well that the Bible is clear that we are to watch our life and our doctrine closely. I know that there are basic beliefs that are non-negotiable. What bothers me is what seems at times to be a lack of humility in intra-Christian debate. There are participants who always appear so sure of their positions and therefore of the erroneous beliefs of their opponents. I’m not sure this approach either furthers dialogue or provides a sound witness to a watching world.

All I know is that there has to be a balance between standing up for theological truth and integrity and demonstrating humility and grace in doing so. Speaking the truth in love ought to be our approach. Speaking with the person you disagree with and not simply about them might be a start.

In the NT becoming one of the saved doesn’t appear to require absolute theological correctness. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Or as Jesus tells us, Repent, and believe in the good news. Theological maturation proceeds from rather than precedes conversion.

There is much in my own theology that is unfinished, wrong, and, no doubt, silly, influenced by culture, tainted by my own sinfulness, and in need, therefore, of repair and clarification. Whether or not my theology is closer to God’s truth than that of Rob Bell’s theology may be beside the point. Theology may in some sense be foundational but it is not fundamental. Our minds are to be transformed and renewed, yes, but this will happen to each of us with varying degrees of maturity and depth over the course of our lives.

Of course, in the end growing in our theological understanding takes intention and willingness on our part, the desire to grow in our knowledge of the God who has made us and redeemed us in Christ. And I dare say the presence of this desire to grow in our understanding of God because of his love for us says more about our relationship with God than does the level or quality of our understanding.