Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thoughts on Doubt

"Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action."
    -From The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton), by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman

Eugenio Colorni was the brother-in-law of influential economist Albert Hirschman and a big influence in his life.  I'd never heard of Hirschman until reading this article by Malcolm Gladwell.  I can relate to his fascination with so many different topics, eagerness to experiment, and geographically transient tendencies.  His warm acceptance of risk and doubt seem rooted in a humility that allowed him to comfortably accept the fact that he could be wrong or unsuccessful. When his curiosity birthed intelligent questions, this attitude allowed him to fearlessly explore possibilities.  He accepted the fact that there were limits to what he could know and understand, and that allowed him to test those limits.

As a Christian, Colorni's take on doubt got me thinking.  I used to view doubt, and certainly the admission of it, as weakness- something I wouldn't dare admit to others or even subtly reveal through questions asked in Sunday School.  Over time, however, I've come to view doubt as more virtuous than delusion.  Pastors who are secure enough in their faith to say "I'm not sure, but here's what I think and why. . ." instead of pretending they know, or avoiding hard questions altogether for the sake of unity (as if doubt is a communicable and spiritually terminal illness) stand out among many shepherds more motivated by fear of "wolves" and pride in numbers.  Even issues for which we won't come to a definite conclusion before the end of the world as we know it make great conversation!  Just don't pretend that your take on Revelation is golden, because it's not.

Every believer's soul is a custom collage of personal experiences, traditions, stigmas, superstitions, self-righteous hangups, unfounded convictions, goose-bumping 7-11 songs, denominational by-laws, cultural Christianese, Christian self-help lit, and an assortment of scriptural interpretations and misinterpretations in and out of cultural and literal context.  Even with that in mind, there's hardly anything more humbling, frightening, or liberating than to accept the fact that one's personal abstract composition of dogma/theology/spirituality is not God's Comprehensive Manifesto of Objective Truth.  Conversely, little is as cozily insulating, arrogant, divisive, or socially paralyzing as pretending that it is.

Does it take more faith for a Christian to attend church services three times a week, or to read and seriously weigh the thoughts and studies of Nietzsche, Ehrman, Dawkins,or Hitchens?  The former would indicate loyalty or devotion to a body of believers- good and healthy things, but I believe the latter would require more faith.  If one refuses to expose themselves to opposing viewpoints out of fear that their foundational beliefs could be uprooted (that is, the fear of doubt itself), are they really beliefs at all?  Maybe religion is just their security blanket woven from principles cherry-picked to live by that could go up in flames at the first spark of contradictory reasoning.  It's near impossible to truly believe in anything that one can't earnestly defend.  There's something to be said for familiarizing ourselves with differing viewpoints from the horses mouths (or pens) rather than haughtily focusing only on the smoldering straw-men propped and flopped in literature written by, written for, and marketed to believers.

Have the courage to consider things that a country-club church wouldn't dare sell in its bookstore.  When you get theologically frisky, do it prayerfully.  Approach it all as a respectful, doubtful skeptic.  It's very possible to find concepts that can't be proven, or that you don't agree with, intriguing and worthy of discussion without being utterly corrupted by them.  Actually believing (or disbelieving) something just because one likes (or hates) the way it sounds is just as stupid as believing something because a Christian rock-star sang it at a youth conference.  

The spectrum of Christian perspectives isn't as confined or well-manicured as you might think.  For a revolutionary take on what a church planted by the Apostle Paul might look like as opposed to the often heavily commercialized institutions,  consider Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity.  If you doubt that one person can sport a backbone, a heart, and an unapologetic stance with regard to the Bible, be inspired (or offended) by Douglas Wilson.  Explore the frontiers of faith (cautiously!) with some wild perspectives on emergent theology with the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, or be dazzled by a more mainstream and systematic approach to hard questions with Ravi Zacharias.  You might think Rob Bell has grown horns and a tail by the way he's been smeared by mainstream evangelicals over the past few years, but read his work and decide for yourself.  Ignorance never saved anyone.

Letting newly discovered ideas inflate the ego and make one feel superior to the seemingly less-enlightened can be a trip hazard to avoid.  There's something in all of us that wants to belong to a movement bigger than ourselves, and at the same time remain distinctly set apart in some way.  Adopting a provocative stance just to ruffle the feathers of others within your circle can be a sub-consciously tempting means of achieving such a position.  I believe that the realization of so many different takes on the same scriptures and the countless lines in the sands of grace between perceived legalism and lawlessness should have quite the opposite effect.  Opening one's eyes to see a personal black-and-white theology fade to gray in a sea of credible interpretations based on the same texts doesn't typically puff up.   

Accepting that the truth as we understand it will never fully come to terms with Truth as it stands should be humbling.  The overwhelming realization of our limited capacity for understanding can ultimately anchor hearts adrift in a sea of religious and philosophical ideas to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Grace is our only hope, love is the final answer, the rest is just fascinating.

The core of my faith can be simple and unwavering, while the rest evolves with discipleship, maturity, revelation, etc.  There are countless "truths" that I consciously and subconsciously believe,   but I'm more comfortable than ever before with the fact that believing isn't knowing.  If there's anything I'm sure of, thankfully, it's that if God's grace is enough to forgive my misdeeds,  it will certainly cover my misunderstandings.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Library

As one with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge ranging from instructional to useless fascination, a trip to the public library can be joyous, thrilling, overwhelming, frustrating, and humbling.  The experience usually follows in just that order.

At first, it’s like entering a Barnes & Noble with a gift card given to me by an elf named Infinity.  There is so much information at my fingertips in the form of the printed word, and it doesn’t cost a thing!  There’s how-to for dummies and idiots, foodie reads, social justice rants, freakonomical factoid collections, pop sociology, false-hope *ahem* I mean self-help,  reinforcement of every naïve political viewpoint . . . it feels so empowering to walk into the library.

About 45 minutes in, and I’m feeling so intellectual.  I just put a hold on Dallas and Melissa Hartwig’s It Starts With Food, now I’m scanning spines.  It’s good exercise for the body, too. . . it takes a lot of squats to review all those titles on the bottom shelves.

Another half-hour and the mood is beginning to shift.  I see yet another book I really want to read, but I’m already carrying five other hardbacks.  Without a financial consideration to help gauge my temporal capacities, I’ve got some tough choices to make.  A bookstore could be compared to a fancy restaurant where you choose one or two items from the menu, while a library is more like a free-for-all buffet offering all of the same food.  Instead of buying one expensive meal and relishing every bite, the dilemma becomes, “what of these limitless choices do I commit to my limited stomach capacity?”  My proverbial plate is filling up, and I still have 2/3 of the shelves to explore!  I reluctantly drop off What’s YourPoo Telling You? at the returns bin.

I’m overbooked.  Since I can only carry home what fits in my backpack, one title displaces another as I push through the books on politics, religion, self-help, psychology, and diets.  The gross absurdity of so many starkly conflicting viewpoints, approaches, and opinions intimately snuggling on the tightly packed shelves is getting under my skin.  Billy Graham’s biography sits a few feet from a Wicca encyclopedia and Killing The Buddah:  A Heretic’s Bible. 

When it comes to what you should eat, there’s ketogenic, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, locavore, Zone, whole-grain, no-grain, juice-a-phile, and plenty more.  Shallow political fluff from both sides of the aisle by Fox and MSNBC spinners is readily available.  It’s fascinating how various perspectives can fashion such a diverse array of tapestries by selectively weaving together threads of the same history we all share as the human race.  The older I get, the more malleable history seems.

The frustration of so many differing opinions in light of the fact that there’s only one truth is like a glass ceiling ultimately shattered by the humbling realization that none of us will ever master that truth.  We’ll never be as correct as we like to think we are, and we will always be more hypocritical than we like to admit.  So I pick up a book that goes against the grain of my personal roots, resolve to welcome and respect different perspectives, and head for the checkout.