Why does LinkedIn provide me with such rich and varied material for reflection? Yesterday, there was a huge discussion about the Archbishop of Canterbury answering in the affirmative that he occasionally has doubts about God.
I find this reassuring. If a man who has had the life ++Justin has had , does not have the occasional qualm about the whole “Jesus loves me, God is unfailingly good and kind” schtick, he has either no brains or no heart. Neither deficiency makes a person a good candidate for the leader of a major Christian communion.
Neither would it be a good credential for such a person if s/he were to be asked, in a public forum (as the Archbishop was) whether s/he ever experienced “doubt”, to respond in the negative, if that were the truthful answer to the query. Indeed, that would provide at least one, and more likely two, further disqualifications: dishonesty, and cowardice. If you’re asked, and the answer is yes, say it (Matthew 5:37). (If you can’t do that, you’re probably adding a third disqualification–that of not being “biblically sound”, but biblical soundness is always a squishy area.) If you’re worried, as ++Justin clearly was not, that truthfulness on this issue is not fitting for someone in your position, you’re a coward.
And we don’t need heartless, brainless, dishonest, biblically illiterate cowards heading up major Christian communions.
Doubt isn’t about not believing in God. Doubt is about questioning and pushing past the simple formulaic explanations about that institutional religion gives us, while at the same time trying to maintain a relationship with the divine.
And trying to do that is possibly one of the most deeply faithful things imaginable.
We need to make a lot more room for doubt in the church. If there isn’t room for doubt, and safe space to discuss it honestly, the churches put themselves in big trouble. Not that they aren’t already there, but it’s just digging the hole a little deeper.
It’s time to stop digging.
If a person raises questions about the existence and character of God–either from philosophical investigation or reflection on his or her own experience–and the church silences that or refuses to engage the question, the inquirer has no choice but to leave. That may happen immediately, or it may take quite a few years. Eventually, however, when inquiry is unsatisfied or ridiculed (or demonized), the inquirer will have a choice between his or her own integrity and growth, or staying in an institution that chooses to diminish the person.
The fact that ++Justin was heavily criticized by a few people in the LinkedIn group indicates that some (not all) clergy are absolutely terrified that people (themselves perhaps included) could speak openly about “doubt”. Loudly denying the existence of doubt, or stamping it out like a potential forest fire if it flares up, seems to be the order of the day.
That doesn’t seem “faithful” to me–it seems unrealistic. When you’ve lost a child, been to places of devastating human suffering, or even suffered yourself (sometimes at the hands of the institutional church), and say that you’ve never had a moment where you weren’t convinced that God was with you, or that God was as wonderful as churchy-types like to tell us, well, that seems naïve at best, and dishonest at worst.
NaÏveté and dishonesty are exactly what most thinking people I know do not want in their churches, or in the men and women who are called to lead them.
We need to claim back our churches as places of real spiritual growth. That doesn’t mean believing fairy tales more fervently at their face value. It means reading scripture and praying together and questioning our experiences when they don’t make sense and when God seems so absent as to not be at all.
The God who seems to be more absent than present in my life right now is welcome to my sincere gratitude for an Archbishop with the courage and integrity which allows him to make a public admission of his own doubts–because that begins to create the necessary space in the churches for the doubts of all Christians.