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Tough Question Indeed January 14, 2009

Posted 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?


Apply Yourself December 9, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Personal.

This week I thought I’d share a little more information about myself via an application my church has their volunteers who help with the worship ministry fill out.  A little back story: I’ve been helping run the sound system at my church for a while now and was recently asked to answer the following questions.

(By the way, this post is in no way a criticism of the application itself or of Coast in general.  While my answers may not be exactly conventional the application is certainly appropriate.  Even further than that, Coast’s response to me has been one of acceptance and grace even in doubt.  Therefore, I do want to preface sharing these thoughts by saying that I appreciate Coast’s uncanny welcoming of dissent and the space for me work out faith.)

Personal Relationship with Jesus (Describe how and when you came to know Jesus):

Bang! Right out of the gate huh?  The old go to answer that I’ve typically relied on is: “I was raised in a Christian home with devoted parents where, for as long as I can remember, I was always encouraged to involve Jesus in my life.  Therefore, I can’t pin-point a moment of conversion…He has just always been close.” But if we want to speak frankly this isn’t quite honest.

The truth is that for a long time I’ve been worshiping a vague incomplete construction of Jesus.  My image (and I would argue ‘our image’) was shielded by my refusal to engage glaring inconsistencies in the church’s portrait of Jesus.  Can I claim to ‘know’ Jesus without seriously vetting the problems with the Gospels (like conflicts between Matthew and Luke in the genealogy of Christ or why Mark doesn’t see fit to even mention the virgin birth)?  If I’m willing to admit that the Gospels aren’t inerrant (which by internal conflicts alone we can assume they are not) what does it mean to ‘know’ at least some false things about Jesus?

Now I suspect I’m twisting the way you meant ‘know’ and that you are really asking about when I ‘knew’ that Jesus is the resurrected son of God and that these historical snafus didn’t really matter in the long run.  I’m not there yet.

Understanding of Worship and Coast Vineyard worship philosophy (Describe your understanding of what worship is and what it is for):

Worship is about attention and pursuit.  We all worship many things with our committed action.  Things that vary from sex to friendship to food or yes even the divine.  At best our attention is fixed on that which is most mysterious in humble awe.  At worst our attention can be compulsive in expectation of vain reward.

However, I think you’re asking more about Coast’s worship cocktail (post modern evangelical served neat with a twist of multi-ethnicity?) .  All kidding aside, the tradition of holding service and gathering people in song is a great way of focusing community attention.  However, we need to be very careful with the responsibility endowed by a congregation when directing their worship lest we lead people to drink at mirages by dimming the lights and playing flawlessly.

Desire to be a Worshipper (Describe your experience with worship and the place of worship in your life):

I’ve played a lot of songs and bled on my guitar plenty.  Mostly I was trying to be authentic but at some point I realized I was trying too hard to force faith to feel a certain way.  Sweeping.  Worship at Coast is mostly a place of inner conflict for me these days.

For example: where once I found it really easy to let “God of wonders beyond our galaxy, You are Holy” roll off my tongue I now find myself wondering “Do we have any idea how vast and  beautiful the universe really is?”. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to make a blunt declaration about the galaxy and our place in it without seriously discussing black holes, relativity or the big bang and even further, how our view of divinity is or is not in contention with the real expanse of the universe.

Personal pursuing of God and integrity in personal life (Do you feel that you are spiritually ready to take on the responsibility that being in front of the congregation brings.  Explain.):

Well this fits nicely with the responsibility I was alluding to earlier, doesn’t it?  I believe I am more spiritually genuine and honest today than I have ever been before.  However, I don’t expect to be judged as such by my community.  I understand that my answers above look more like crisis when viewed on Sunday mornings.  So this question is really for you.  Am I spiritually ready to turn knobs from roughly half way back in the congregation?  Are you comfortable with serious doubt controlling your mix every other week?

Calling by God for Ministry (Explain why you believe that God has called you to minister to Coast specifically in the area of worship ministry):

I can’t say I’ve been called.  I have no supernatural revelation on which to base my service at Coast.  I do know that I value community and that helping out is an important part of investing in relationships to me.

Personal Journey in Multi-Ethnicity (What is your experience and/or journey in the area of multi-ethnicity either in your life personally and/or at Coast?):

I value multi-ethnicity because I believe it is one of our only tools in combating covert racism and xenophobia rampant in the church and American culture at large.  We all have a natural tendency to trust those who look and act most like us which has evolved through thousands of years of tribal group dynamics.

However, in a global world we can no longer trust these instincts to accurately inform us about who is most worthy of our friendship or compassion.  Only by systematic exposure to those who are different than us will we ever overcome inherent bias.  Forcing our community to sing uncomfortable songs or touch foreign skin tones helps us to be better global citizens by redefining the scope of our tribe.  What a beautiful goal.