Doubt, Tradition and Better Questions

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“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?

Trauma, Worship & Life Together

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“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
– C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces.

One of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quintessential observations in the early part of Life Together is basically this: We need to cease with our idealism about church and embrace the reality of the Church. We are all in this struggle against God and one another and only when we surrender to the reality of the Church do we embrace the Church as it is.

I think this can be helpful, painful as it is. Our idealism, though rooted in genuine and even teleological (and eschatological) desire, does not make sense of this often agonizing span of time between the two advents of Christ. It is often a time we remain “faceless,” borrowing and living through the masks forged in insecurity and suffering. It is, as it were, a dark and bloody mess. So the way we are together matters. Moreover, the manner of our worship matters.

To Deconvert or Remain
But can Bonhoeffer’s observation of the Church account for those who’ve experienced the sort of religious trauma described in Michelle Panchuk’s excellent post on this blog? What can we say about the casualties of the absolute worst of the Church’s carnality – the presence of those who are so religiously corrupt, knowingly or not, that they victimize others in the name of their (versions of) God?

Panchuk’s two hypothetical examples are familiar: Victims of physical and emotional violence at the will of a priest and a parent, perpetrators whose faith should flower into care, certainly not abuse. Having walked and wept alongside victims of religious trauma or abuse, I’ve observed that relating to the Church is, at best, bewildering and isolating for them, never expeditious. They often know they are sinners, too, but how on Earth can they reconcile suffering in the name of God on the one hand with a faith that is supposed to be rooted in God’s reciprocated love on the other? To embrace intellectually what Bonhoeffer concludes about the struggle of Christian community is not enough, which is one point it seems Panchuk is making. How does such a wounded person move forward? Or should they move away and deconvert as the most rational response? She offers some helpful “lines of thought” at the conclusion of her post and my hope is to interact broadly with those, specifically a theory of worship,embodied religious experience, and communal faith conceived honestly. (I wish there was room here to interact with all of them.)

As a pastor, my general response is (at least) threefold: First, I believe in God’s gracious persistence in keeping people of faith, even as they suffer mightily. Secondly, I believe it will be very difficult for that deeply wounded person to remain if the form of worship, and thus belonging, is purely expressive and not formative. She will have a hard time entering into worship if it’s dependent upon her state. Thirdly, communal faith within the Church as a “dark, holy place” needs to make normal room for the traumatized.

On Keeping & Worship
To the first response: I suppose deconversion does make practical sense. But I am inclined biblically to believe a person of faith is kept in God’s love regardless of her experience or understanding, so she will find questionable satisfaction in living as though she is not kept. Much as deconversion might stand to reason, I believe it will ultimately be discomfiting and could possibly even compound the pain and isolation. Personally, I believe this is often why the wounded can’t or don’t leave. Many theologians and philosophers have reckoned with this tension of relationship to God despite suffering (Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, etc.). Consider the story of Job and the considerations of God’s culpability in his suffering. Consider his blaming, so-called friends. On some transcendent level, I believe the sufferer will live reckoning with this “keptness” – in some sense, drawn by it.

This leads to Panchuk’s question of those who do stay. How can they, as she puts it, “keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer?”

My second response is that worship is formative, not fundamentally expressive and makes room for the victim of religious trauma. Unfortunately, the western Church suffers mightily from distortions of the Enlightenment’s “brains-on-a-stick” framework. It is from this framework that some form of the “requisite affective states” Panchuk mentions spring, forming the basis of expressivism as worship. In other words, these states to which we intellectually ascend then move us toward acts of worship that center on what we do toward and for God. A trajectory might be: Think right + Feel right = Worship right. I grew up primarily exposed to this framework (which is why Christianity seemed untenable in early adulthood). Even if I came into the church grumpy, wounded,  doubtful or overwhelmed by pubescent fantasies of nakedness galore, there was no way I could express or experience worship as it was understood. Not really. Because it was, from stem to stern, up to me.

But worship is formative. It’s not primarily up to me, but it does include me. It is based on what God has done and is doing. He sets the Table with his own love and life. Worship (like the Law) is a gift from God to us, meant to restore and dignify our humanity. He requires no such gift from us. Liturgy, as “the work of the people,” is thoroughly rooted in God’s initiative. God’s work first. This order matters. Sometimes we can bring no more than our kept bodies to it – even the ones hovering between dusk and dawn in an interminable dark night of the soul. So I suggest this view of worship makes space for even the most profoundly wounded soul to stay and even to worship. At the very least,this should be the relentless encouragement of the Church to them.

Kenosis for Worship as Formation
I would add that expressivism has displaced the sacraments as what they were for so many centuries. The Eucharist centers on our common need for the self-giving of Christ and its (his) sufficiency. No additives. Whatever theory of Christ’s atonement we might place at the center, each one rests upon his kenosis. Each one must. Otherwise he was not here for us. Furthermore, simply being a wounded voice and body remaining among the Body, all of us smeared with our mortality and in all manner of states, makes most sense of what the Church actually is at the Table. The requisite state for God’s love is human. Full stop. All yearning and pursuit and requisite states aside, the Church includes those whose suffering precludes them from anything other than simply being there with empty hands (a faith act) while others are raising them, with closed mouths while others are praying or rejoicing. I believe being present, whatever the motivation or wherever one is located on the continua of faith, hope and love, makes a difference. It forms hearts – because God is at work.

As an aside, it’s for this that the Book of Common Prayer was actually written – that regular people might be so human as to practice their faith in certain rhythms outside the church walls, and not just when it seems to make most sense to reason or emotion. It’s in these often rote practices that our hope, as liturgically-minded believers, might grow and our suffering might heal even if we bring nothing to them. Over against medieval Catholicism’s naturalized worship liturgy that arguably emphasized human effort as the basis for worship, Cranmer and other reformers hoped to recover God’s initiative and activity in worship. (Along with one of Panchuk’s commenters, I too would point the reader to James K.A. Smith’s seminal work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, as well as Ashley Null’s Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.)

The Hope of Honest Pastors (& Churches)
My third point relates to the shape and tone of communal faith. As pastors, we always hope that those who are following Christ will find increasing joy in doing so. If we are honest, we do not always experience that joy and, sometimes, for a longer season than we want to admit. My ability to admit this is what makes Bonhoeffer’s assertion helpful. 

On a brief personal note, my pastoral relationship to the Church can feel like living up to God’s expectations as my boss and, frankly, I often don’t want much to do with him as my boss (even though he is good). If that sounds awful, then you’re reading it right. Not many people want to leave work and have dinner with their boss. But this is what I navigate in my relationship with God. In my worship. I am continually reckoning with how I see him and how he actually is. I see myself in a hazy mirror and him through a thick fog. But I worship. Thankfully, the seasons of my heart do change.

That which makes the Church a dark, but holy place is the obvious presence of our intermittent “unfaith,” even the agony or malaise that accompany human lives oriented toward God. This is why God sets the Table. We are, nonetheless, doing life together around this Table. We would do well to actually be more together in our togetherness, the fulfilled with the floundering in honest empathy. We should aim for nothing less than being together in each other’s agonies and even our seasons of spiritual sterility, not merely rehearsing our knowledge and experience of the requisite states of faith and for worship.

To the extent we as leaders idealize the Church, we leave the traumatized in the margins without an imagination for belonging or an invitation to worship as worship really is and has been. In her reality as a holy place where the wisdom of God comes to bear, the Church can surely be life and strength. But she cannot be other than thick and dark like blood. I am a witness to the many victims I have known who have found healing from the Church herself in the Church, as the Church. But it’s never clear. Never thin.

Pastors + Academics: Life as Crucible and Classroom

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My first priest used to call the academy the “cheap seats.” Before your head explodes, know that he is also a life-long academic, a published historian tenured first at Southern Cal, then at the University of Denver and Wheaton College. Now, in his late 70’s, he teaches at a seminary while also serving his parish.

I’m incredibly thankful for academics. Some of the fondest days of my life not in the labor & delivery room were spent in the classroom. I read academic books almost exclusively. Some of my best friends and favorite parishioners have been academics. But what my pastor (and professor) meant was that academics can often view the church from a safe distance in the realm of ideas, assuming new and/or better ideas are fundamental to getting the work of the church done – or done right. Academics, by nature, stand on the stump of analysis and criticism, but that’s not the problem. The problem is when that is all they do. Academics are certainly helpful, but their resources are inadequate to the larger balance of what it means for the Church to care for souls. And to be helpful, their posture toward the Church should reflect that reality.

Being pastors puts us in the position of shepherding, after all, in an almost unmanageable diversity of experiences and knowledge (unless the pastor is so unfortunate as to lead a congregation that fosters a veneer of “having it all together” and, alas, is so content in being unbothered him/herself as to leave the prosthetic culture unchallenged). 

In my experience, most people without the stunting luxury of said veneer do not interact with Christianity based on its plausibility, but on its practical implications for their lives. Does it buoy them when they feel they are drowning in difficulty? Does it keep them humble and generous in their successes? Does it encourage them to make their words and their world better? Does it comfort them when they are burying their youngest child after a tree has inexplicably fallen on him in the back yard? (Yes, it happened.)  When it’s all said and done, will it “work?”

In over a decade of ministry, I have not seen new and better ideas, even the most profound theological ones, have near the impact that massive crises or even mild challenges produce, especially when they’ve been accompanied by a witness of the goodness and sovereignty of God at work beyond all explanation. I have rarely seen my words, rooted in solid ideas, have the impact of just being there at 2am when a teenager’s cutting has become life-threatening. Most people simply don’t live in the world of ideas most of the time. They live in the world of what works. Good marriage. Contentment at a less than ideal job. Wisdom with resources, in parenting and through conflict. Peace.

So many people are not in “the classroom of life.” They are in the crucible of life. 

And this is where academics can often create difficulty for pastors. The vocations are just so far apart because of context (classroom), duration (until graduation) and the aforementioned distance. The academic crisis is often one of knowing, not enduring. The pulpit is not simply a lectern. It’s a beacon, ideally, of hope. More than that, the altar, from which the body and blood of Christ are distributed, speaks a far better word than any of us. That should humble both pastors and academics enough to imagine how we can live, teach and care in concert with the mystery of the Eucharist and the ability of our liturgies to shape more than our ideology. To shape our souls beyond what we can qualify.   

Called to ministry, I wanted to study exegesis. The good Dr. and Father suggested I add some spiritual formation to my academic track. I’m glad he did and that I did. My right eyelashes fell out my first year of ministry because of the stress. 

Occasionally, in a hard moment, my mind returns to what lingers there from a particular course entitled History and Theology of the Care of Souls. I have buried first-born, still-born babies. I have cried out to God in search of comfortable words for the funeral of my best friend’s wife. I have sat with the mentally ill and had nothing but tears and prayer as my resources. The list goes on. But prayerfully peering into that history of caring for hurting people, and its biblical basis, helps me greatly. So, I’m thankful for my academic priest. 

The primary gift any academic can offer a pastor is help wrapped in humility. Because help, in the end, is the life’s work of a pastor. That’s our calling. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task. The medievals called it the “cure of souls,” but there is no curing the soul this side of Christ’s return. There is only caring for it. And if academics and pastors can link arms to care amid the diversity of crises, in the crucible of life so many of us hope to somehow escape, then I believe we can converse with great fruitfulness. 

I love ideas and want more of them. I love well-written theses. People need them and people need to teach and write them, because they can point us to what’s good, beautiful and true. They can help us sort through what isn’t. And in the context of the church, humility around such things will locate us all in our primary, shared vocation as a priesthood of all believers. 

What has been your experience, as a pastor or academic, in partnering (or attempting to partner) in the care of souls in the church context? What have been the challenges?