New Doubts, Bad Jokes and an Old Lesson

The old joke runs like this: “I have friend who used to be a Southern Baptist, but he converted to Unitarianism. So now he has his doubts, but he’s very insistent about them.”

My wife has stopped trying to change me. She knows that deep in my bones I’m not only an Evangelical of the Liberal sort, but I’m also an incurable evangelist. If I like something – the Red Sox and Patriots, the Adirondack Mountains, CAO Brazilia cigars, homebrewing, Vermont microbrews, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe, sardines, Isaac Asimov novels, and Ale-8 ginger ale – I can’t help but try to convince everyone else to like it as well. She calls it being bossy, but I like to think of myself as a sharer; one who finds something that works and makes me happy and wants others to have a part in that same joy.

Historically, Evangelicals have wrestled with a similar dynamic. To outsiders we may come across as pushy know-it-alls, but confront most Evangelicals about their proselytizing efforts and you usually get one of two answers. True, many think of themselves as working to keep souls out of hell. But many others conceive of day to day evangelism as the simple effort to share their joy with others. The last thing I would ever want is to strip Evangelicals of this joy in sharing.

But should everything be shared?

I have my doubts, but I’ll keep them largely to myself.

Helmut Thielickle once wrote a tiny little book called A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. I was given this book when I left college for Harvard Divinity School and its lessons have remained with me. Among other recommendations based on a long career in the academy and the church pulpit, Thielickle advises his young interns not to preach when they are at the beginning of their seminary education. Rather, he suggests that they begin to hone the pastoral skills that they will need through other activities in the church and among the parishioners. Doubtless this is sage advice, but Thielickle goes on to explain his refusal to let young theologians preach by calling attention to several early experiences he had with fresh-faced seminarians in the pulpit. Inevitably, he noted, these young pastors would launch into intricate discussions of source criticism, realized eschatology, or some other such theological minutia, minutia that they found personally exhilarating, but that fell on deaf ears.

The disease of the young theologian, as diagnosed by Thielickle, was joy; joy in the sheer freedom of expressing one’s deepest fears and doubts and finding answers and further questions amid deep study. In many young seminarians this joy runneth over, but for evangelicals and especially Liberal Evangelicals this joy comes with a particular danger. The very doubts and subtleties that many of us Liberal Evangelicals find liberating can cause real pain among others in our congregations. So when do we share? As Evangelicals we long to share with others, but where and when should we stop

As a father I know all too well the challenges posed by theological sophistication. As I read children’s books to my son, books about Jonah, David, Noah, and especially Jesus, I am thrilled to be introducing him into the compelling world of the Bible. But I am also occasionally appalled about the lack of sophistication and nuance presented in children’s Bibles and popularized version of biblical stories. Yes the animal couples are cute, but do I want a simplistic story about critters and boats to overshadow the deeper lessons about sin? Yes David vs. Goliath is compelling drama even for a toddler, but does this simplistic good vs. bad story do justice to the nuanced relationship between David and God? Most disturbingly, many kids’ books turn Jesus into a kind of grandfatherly do-gooder and rush right past the crucifixion. I certainly don’t think that my son is ready for Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but the sanitized Jesus of so many kids books rings hollow to me. So where is the balance between accessibility and nuance? How can I bring my child into the biblical worldview without selling out in a naive way to a particularly literal understanding of that worldview?

I don’t yet have answers, but I do know that there is something to be avoided here: I have to find a way of coming to grips with my own worries, a way of seeing my own doubts as merely one location on the theological spectrum. When teaching my son about Jesus I can lean on the knowledge that there is plenty of time for him to grow into a mature and nuanced Christian faith. I can rest secure in simply sharing the biblical stories and introducing the main characters and moral themes. I’m thrilled at his eagerness to pray before meals, even as he exercises a tyrant’s prerogative to decide who will pray that particular evening (Usually “me and mommy – not daddy.”), and I’m not worried that his prayers echo a variety of the Arian heresy – three year olds are not naturally drawn to the subtleties of Nicea. I know he’ll grow into a sophisticated faith because I know that my wife and I will guide him there. But I am stuck when it comes to other Evangelicals. My honest worry – and it’s my hunch that many Liberal Evangelicals struggle with the same thing – is that I won’t be able to navigate the narrow straits between paternalistic condescension and overbearing criticism.

Danger #1 Overbearing Criticism: This is what Thielickle worried about when counseling his young interns. Many of us who spend considerable time engaging in theological study and speculation, even when it takes place outside of educational institutions, find the ongoing dialectic of questions, doubts, partial answers and further questions challenging and stimulating. We find a deeper encounter with and appreciation for God in this process. As Evangelicals we sometimes rush ahead to share the joy with others, but in so doing become overbearing and bludgeon others with our concerns, doubts, questions, and sophisticated hermeneutical strategies for quieting our own fears. I’ll risk an analogy: It’s as if we’ve discovered that we have a passion for fine micro-brewed oatmeal chocolate stouts – to pick one example completely at random ; -). Upon making this discovery we long to share it with others, but we must first convince them that there is something wrong with the boring lite lagers they’ve been drinking. “That’s crap! You should try a real beer.” The problem here is that we’ve discovered a solution to our own problem, but in the rush to share our solution we sometimes miss the fact that not everyone has our problem! Thielickle’s interns were assuming that their struggles and fears were universal, and in the eagerness to share the solutions they had found, they unwittingly created fear and doubt where none had been.

Danger #2 Paternalistic Condescension: “Oh, let’s not bother them with all of this sophisticated jargon and theology. They live busy lives and just want to be comforted on Sundays.” I worry about this attitude as well. There is more than enough condescension toward the theologically “uninitiated” among those in positions of leadership in the churches. We worry about weakening the faith of the already weak, instead of challenging their faith as a means toward strengthening it. The last thing I want is to look on my fellow Christians as somehow an intellectual or spiritual subclass, unable to scale the heights of nuance and sophistication that I myself have reached. The danger here is real.

So, is there a middle way between these two dangers? Is there a way of avoiding the attitude of the regenerate-Baptist-turned-Unitarian? I very much like the idea and attitude behind the title of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. Is there a way that we can be intellectually generous without spewing our doubts and fears and demanding that others join us in searching for solutions, even if our particular problems have never troubled them? I hope so. I hope that the spirit of generosity and tolerance that is growing among Liberal Evangelicals will lead us to be tolerant not only of those with different beliefs, but also of those with our without our questions and doubts.

If a spectrum of beliefs and practices is ok, and is in fact to be encouraged, then why not a spectrum of doubts, criticisms, and theological nuance?

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