Tough Question Indeed January 14, 2009Posted by caseyww in Faith, Personal.
The beginning of each year at Coast Vineyard the pastor endeavors on a preaching series titled “Tough Questions” where he solicits questions from the congregation which are supposed to address the areas that faith is most challenging to live out in the real world. Past flavors included: Should Christians legislate morality? Does God work through other religions? Homosexual marriage?
Pastor Jamie sells this series as a conversation starter so I hope this week’s post will be exactly that.
How do I know God is there and that He cares for me when I don’t feel Him? was this week’s topic. In all honesty I’m not a huge fan of the question itself. It has two unstated major premises (both more interesting topics) which, when not seriously vetted, handicap this question from the outset. If the first premise, ‘God is there’ and second ‘our feelings are a reliable way to detect Him’ are granted de facto, which I certainly don’t think they should be, than this question boils down to encouraging people to pursue God no matter what they’re feeling. Not exactly the tough stuff of yesteryears.
In short, Jamie sought to reassure believer’s who aren’t feeling right that it’s extremely common for people of faith to go through a Dark Night of the Soul and that one need not worry. God has proven himself faithful for many believers before in times of doubt including CS Lewis (reacting with anger and bewilderment towards God for the loss of his wife in A Grief Observed), Mother Teresa (whose personal letters reveal that she struggled immensely with the very existence of God) and even the coup de gras, Jesus himself (as he questioned God’s will before being crucified). Their examples are an effective precedence which should help us to keep the faith even in times of feeling distant from the almighty. Even more, we should have hope that our doubts will ultimately be assuaged because Jesus’ story is redemptive in that it did not end with his crucifixion but instead with his resurrection.
I count three key logical fallacies:
1. Card Stacking: Conveniently, all the examples were of believers who persisted in their faith even when they had serious doubts. What about the many believers who have felt distant from God and subsequently rejected faith? Stacking the deck in favor of faith with supportive examples skews what evidence is here to make it seem more normal for believers to seriously doubt and return to faith than may be justified. What if the examples Jamie provided are exceptions and not the rule? They’re certainly not encompassing a complete spectrum of people’s faith experiences.
2. Implied Tautology: Closely related to card stacking is a tautology which implies that ‘genuine Christians submit to God even when they don’t feel him.’ This is a tautology because it automatically allows one to discount the testimonies or arguments of those who don’t submit or who reject faith because they are immediately labeled non-genuine Christians whose experiences should not inform those of true faith.
3. Unstated Premise: Another unstated premise is that ‘doubt is dark’. What if doubt and skepticism are healthy and fulfilling ways to pursue truth? Using only examples where doubt is associated with emotional distress isn’t a fair characterization of many peoples’ experiences. In fact, for many skeptics the opposite is true.
However, even if we limit our discussion to the examples above, it’s still not clear that someone like CS Lewis wasn’t actually closer to truth in his doubt despite the deep levels of sadness that initiated it. Consider his example from another perspective. Maybe it took the slow, grating, painful death of his wife to show him, even for the briefest of moments, that his faith in a loving, personal God was misplaced. We characterize his doubt as a “dark night of the soul” because, from the Christian perspective, there was a dawn of faith and emotional contentment that followed. However, this betrays that we’re linking Lewis’ grasp of truth to his relative happiness. What if Lewis was happily in the dark from the moment of his conversion, only to be awaked briefly by such a staggering tragedy as his wife’s death, and then lulled back into darkness as his grief subsided?
All this to say that I found the question How do I know God is there and that He cares for me when I don’t feel Him? fatally biased and poorly argued to the point of removing any teeth from what could have been an interesting challenge for faith.
No, the real tough question for me this week was instead a personal one. Through the disappointment in the sermon I couldn’t help but ask myself: What did you expect? Are the above arguments about logical fallacies and unstated premises really fair standards to hold a community of faith to?
I’m really split on this issue.
On one hand I recognize that Coast is built on faith and not reason. Faith that Jesus died and rose in order to reconcile us to a real and existent God. Thus, the unstated premises I’ve taken issue with in Jamie’s sermon aren’t just arguments to be refuted, they’re articles of faith, and as such are not really up for serious discussion. Could I really expect Jamie to ask a tough question that may end faith for some if it was answered honestly? Is church about this kind of vulnerability? No matter how much I think it should be, I have to recognize that there is a doctrine that binds the community together in an important way. People are not showing up on Sundays to have their faith questioned but instead to have it encouraged. Admittedly, this is a substantial responsibility that a pastor bears.
On the other hand, I hold that we should have a commitment to pursuing truth no matter what the consequences are or which venue we are in. This is especially true for those we endow with leadership roles. Further I would argue that a church setting, where peoples’ worldviews and metaphysics are being shaped in real time, is the place where we need the most clarity and where subtle logical fallacies can be the most dangerous. I’ve argued before that if what we believe is true such a level of expectation and criticism should not be a threat.
What do you think?