Doubt, Tradition and Better Questions


“In ordinary times we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is.”
– Dorothy Sayers

As a Christian pastor, it’s my role to help people understand what the Christian faith is and to experience it as a wellspring of hope and an impetus for a meaningful life, come what may and doubts notwithstanding. As a professor professes, a pastor pastors. I have to start somewhere in my pastoring (which also includes professing) and that place is the same as my spiritual forbears — the confluence of Scripture and tradition that together witness to the glory of God in his project of restoring shalom to a chaotic creation. I am not exceptional, nor is my moment in history.

Scripture tells the story of what God has done, is doing and will do. Tradition, at its best, normalizes our posture and place in that story alongside those who’ve gone before (and go beside) us. If Scripture is what, then tradition is how and who – as its outworking. Walter Brueggemann, preeminent OT scholar and mainline clergyman, calls it a “script” or “composition” to be performed, despite its diversity of genres. The whole, he suggests, compels us, the Church, toward a particular kind of life.

What follows is a consideration of the importance of both Scripture and tradition in light of contemporary pressures to deconstruct these reference points, beginning with this:
In a recent op-ed by Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times entitled “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?,” the self-proclaimed skeptic asks Keller about the virgin birth, the resurrection, doubt, skepticism and where the boundaries are for Christianity. Tim Keller is the long-time founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) in Manhattan and a popular evangelical author. Any cursory exploration of his views reveals he is clearly not among “Trump evangelicals” like those I called out before Trump won the primary, but the comment stream belies most of the NYT audience’s assumption that evangelicalism is monolithic and fundamentalist, lumping in civil religionists whose practices do not rightly privilege evangelical values over Republican politics.

Immediately after Kristof’s piece, I read a critical response to Keller by Peter Enns, professor of theology at Eastern University and author of The Sin of Certainty. After reading Enns’ response, I spent no less than an hour among his various blog entries and their comment streams. Basically, Dr. Enns doesn’t trust Scripture or Christian tradition as he once did, but does continue to make his living talking and writing about them with others who have found great freedom in persistent doubt.

I certainly share the generosity Dr. Enns extends to skeptics and doubters, as I regularly confront (or am confronted by) my own doubts and those of my parishioners. However, I believe the blanket of suspicion he drapes over Scripture and tradition is a cruelty to those who are honestly seeking, especially if he has any regard for how such questions even arrived on his plate or those of his readers here in the 21st century — through many toils and snares. (Feels to me like lavishly enjoying your inheritance while serially criticizing the means by which your parents acquired it.) I will return to Keller and Enns momentarily.

Dr. Aaron Simmons (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University) and I, having begun the Philosophy Goes to Church blog together, often return to the tension that the local church, even at her best, is generally not what many academics and intellectuals might prefer from such an influential institution – a free-flowing context for inquiry, exploration and discussion. It’s not that there is no place for these, but, as I understand it, the Church isn’t primarily about the pursuit or exchange of knowledge — even transcendent knowledge. It’s about worship.

According to historic and biblical Christianity, knowledge doesn’t reconcile us to God. Faith in Jesus does. Reconciliation to God is Christ’s fundamental achievement, not knowledge about God. The Church is more about the posture of worship and willingness that precedes having all the knowledge we might prefer, but, most importantly, follows God’s gracious pursuit of us.

In Ecclesiastes 3, the koheleth suggests “God has placed eternity in human hearts.” At the direction of Christ before his ascension, we are ever reconciling that desire for transcendence or permanence within this spiritual family he is gathering. We are certainly asking questions. Lots of them. But again, trust is the accelerant for our understanding. Jesus likens this to the trust of a child.

In my experience, the Church is made up more of people who are, with varying levels of trust and knowledge, seeking to tether their desires, resources, experiences and ambitions to the God of Christian scripture and tradition in the context of the Christian community. This tethering, so to speak, is what Jesus and his apostles called “following.” Obedience. Doing what the teacher does, as in the rabbinic tradition. We don’t get to be the teacher or the colleagues, but the students together. I, as a pastor, am a student. A fellow follower. A trusting child.

I know how distasteful this sounds to many of my contemporaries who might feel their individualism and intellectual freedom are at stake, but, after all, the Church baptizes people and we always have. Baptism symbolizes death and rebirth. Death to self, rebirth to God into his family. It is an entrance into covenant. Scripture is replete with this family identity metaphor. All this suggests we can’t reconcile our versions of freedom and God’s version except by surrendering ours in the trust that his is better.

This is what historic Christianity is known for, despite the given that there are mysteries and tensions that elude us, not only in the details but also in our doctrines. It’s not rare for me to have to rehearse how the Enlightenment and the American story have shaped the western Church, and that, nevertheless, we are not rationalists, relativists, moralists or nationalists.

All this to say, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Drs. Keller or Enns were to have assumed leadership and a platform within the ranks of the first century church, which of their theologies (or ideologies, if you prefer) would have A) been closer to the self-understanding, shared beliefs and views of Scripture of the Christian community of the time and, b) maybe more importantly, made it possible for that shared faith to extend to ensuing generations in the face of all the opposition it was already encountering?

I know that history, and especially Christian history, is viewed with suspicion or contempt among many of my contemporaries. In fact, I have often gotten very visceral responses to comments I’ve made that invoke historical Christianity as a valid reference point for understanding what Christian faith is. Except among more conservative Biblical scholars, I don’t hear much regard for tradition, which I think is best defined by Yale theologian, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, as “the living faith of the dead.” (He calls traditionalism, on the other hand, “the dead faith of the living”). After all, we believe the dead are still living — that we stand on their shoulders, as it were, especially the martyrs. And that they weren’t badly mistaken and deserving of our pity or contempt as we peer down on them from our 21st century bastion.

So, when considering what Christian faith is, especially in terms of a body politic that is salient in the New Testament, I do feel questions of history and tradition are vital. In fact, I think it’s worth considering what sorts of embodied Christianity were able to endure and give us the opportunity to reflect as we do today. To me, some of the more important questions are these:

  • What sort of Christian faith led to the breaking down of significant cultural and socioeconomic barriers, to Gentile inclusion, to the sharing of resources, among other radical departures from Judaism and Hellenistic culture?
  • What sort of Christian faith fostered a willingness to be branded as cannibals (the Eucharist), polytheists (the Trinity), and traitors to the state, to say nothing of the view that the gods may punish, say, all of Ephesus for the idolatrous antics of these Christ ones in their midst?
  • What sort of Christian faith sustained the earliest Christians in the Colosseum and the catacombs?
  • What expression of Christian faith made sure that its ancient texts were treasured, believed, and preserved not only as important reference points but as a miraculous joint work of the Spirit of God and ordinary men?
  • What sort of faith took the resurrection of the Son of God not only as historical and granted, but central to the ongoing validity of the faith and as the hope of a bodily resurrection for the dead?
  • What beliefs led the earliest Christians to establish and perpetuate creeds in the face of prevailing cultural pressures, ensuring that core beliefs remained intact amid so many attempts to reduce them to a form of moralism or Gnosticism, among other things?
  • What sort of faith has sustained Christians who have been marginalized throughout history? What was the Christian faith of devout black slaves in pre-emancipation America or the free black Church during many generations of cruelty and justice-seeking (and to the present day)? What did the confessing Church that remained in Nazi Germany believe? What sort of faith sustained the underground Church in China for generations despite the cruelties they suffered?

I can’t help but wonder which understandings of Christianity that persist today will ensure our legacy. Which ones, if shared by the faithful much earlier, are more likely to have left us with Jesus as barely a footnote in Tacitus and Josephus. And which ones made it possible for us to have the the conversations we do today? More importantly for me, which ones will ensure a robust faith, with some trustworthy reference points, and be available to our progeny 300 years from now? Or does it matter, so long as we can persist in deconstructing or unravelling it all, with some expectation that our best re-ravelling will hold something together for our children?

For me, it’s as practical and personal as it is theological: What faith can or will remain? And what will be my posture in ensuring it?