I recently came across a comment from a thoughtful and deeply spiritual person who, while raised in the church, gave up as an adult any allegiance to Christian faith or any  participation in church.

In a conversation with William Segal, Dorothea Dooling, founding editor of “Parabola” magazine explained her reason for abandoning church saying,

I realized that those who have taught me anything, or helped me in any way, have never given me answers; they only helped me to deepen my questions. And the idea of a “set of answers” is, in fact, the reason I left the church I was raised in. Churches have sets of answers – dogmas. And that to me is the degeneration of search, not the way toward that reality that you were speaking about. It’s the way away from it.”

In the age of the Internet, it is unrealistic for any institution to expect that the assumed understandings and dogmas that established members have held for generations will not be forced to confront serious and often challenging questions.

Ask any medical practitioner how many times the answers derived from traditional mainstream medicine have been questioned by a patient. The days of “Yes Dr….” have passed.

What is the prevailing wisdom in the educational world today? Is there a prevailing wisdom that governs education? The proliferation of alternative schools testifies to the constant quest for new ways 0f delivering education.

In the church we may believe that our doctrines and beliefs are revealed directly from God. But we cannot assume that our cherished “revelations” will not be put to the same scrutiny to which all belief systems are subjected. Why would we assume in the church that all we need to do is trot out the answers and dogmas that work for us and everyone will flock to sign-up for our program?

Twenty-two years ago a city-wide evangelistic mission came to town. The organizers planned for months. They brought in a “big name” speaker, assembled fabulous musicians, rented the biggest venue in town, and blanketed the city with publicity announcing Their theme and inviting the crowds to flock to our planned events. The theme for this great crusade was, “Proven Answers.”

This was not an invitation to people to bring their questions. I remember the first evening address. The speaker began immediately to inform the gathered crowd exactly what their questions were. He then of course went on to provide the “Proven Answers” to the questions he had just told us we brought with us for the evening.

“Proven Answers” are a blank wall. They do not invite openness, participation and mutual respect. We may lament the fact but providing “Proven Answers” is unlikely to work for most people in our current cultural climate at least in the western world.

I wonder if the church still seeks to present itself to the world as a purveyor of tidily packaged dogmas that will answer all the questions they might ever face.

In this age of skepticism and deep questioning, are we seen as a place that wants to hear the real questions people are actually asking? Or is the church seen as an arrogant know-it-all who demands that, in order to join us, you must agree with our answers, sign on to our dogmas, and toe the party line?

What would it look like for a church to be a place in which questions are genuinely encouraged? How might the church communicate to people that we respect their questions, value their doubts, and admire their desire to seek for themselves the answers that feel authentic and genuine in their lives?

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Ten years ago, in our Diocesan Paper, I reflected on the experience I described above of attending an Evangelistic Crusade in our community. At the time, I wrote:

Disagree With Me Please

An evangelist comes to town. His publicity announces that he has Proven Answers. I am not sure what questions this itinerant preacher is asking, but I suspect they may be similar to those that trouble me at night when I lie late and sleepless into the hours of dark or that I hear in my office as one more broken person wrestles with the painful realities of living.

As I listen to the visiting preacher, it seems we are indeed wading in the same deep and turbulent waters. He speaks of emptiness, loneliness, dissatisfaction with life. He portrays a world gone wrong, a break down of morality, confusion in families. He talks eloquently of doubt, insecurity, and pain. He draws a picture of people who have lost their way. It is a portrait with which I am familiar.

I know the feeling of life out of control, and I too want Proven Answers to these intractable problems. I want Proven Answers to offer hurting people and to comfort my own wounded spirit.

As the preacher builds to his answer, I wonder if perhaps he really does have an answer with the power to make sense of life and to satisfy the deep longings I experience in myself and see in so many others. At the high point of his pitch, the evangelist suggests I open my heart to Jesus and accept him as my Saviour. If I just take this one step, he promises, the deepest desires of my heart will be satisfied. The chaos of life will be solved. Order will return to my world. It is as simple as that, as easy as ABC.

I am disappointed. His words now sound hollow in the vast space of the half filled auditorium. I know he is using metaphor when he instructs me to “open my heart to Jesus.” He is not recommending a surgical procedure by which that organ beating in my chest is cut open and some foreign substance implanted. But since the speaker does not explain his picture language, I wonder how many of his audience are bewildered by this strange image.

When the preacher moves from description to prescription, he loses me. He has promised too much and delivered too little. His Proven Answers prove nothing.

He promised what God never intended: to make sense out of everything in my life and take away all the pain and turmoil. But the God who knows me in all of my darkness, weakness, and conflict is the God who promised, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33, NIV) God did not come into the chaos of human life to provide ABC techniques for tidying up the mess. God does not make life run smoothly and easily all the time.

Life is much more complex and mysterious than the God of ABC. I need a God better suited to the complexities and confusion of human existence.

The God I find in the deep tradition of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures allows me to wrestle like Jacob, to wander in the wilderness like the Hebrew people, to search and cry out like the psalmist when I cannot comprehend the mystery of suffering and injustice. For God to give easy Proven Answers, in a world where people die of starvation while others feast on abundance, would be to remove the challenge of joining God in the suffering of the other, and offering love and forgiveness in the face of injustice and violence.

One of the greatest observers and analysts of twentieth century society was a Trappist monk living the cloistered life in the rolling farm lands of Kentucky from 1941 to 1968. These were years of extraordinary unrest, turmoil, and transition in society as a whole and particularly in the Roman Catholic church. Thomas Merton was a priest and a monk who reflected and wrote deeply about the turmoil he witnessed both within his own monastic order, in the church and in the surrounding society. He never wrote directly about “fundamentalism.” But many of Merton’s observations point the way beyond a religious dogmatic world view that depends upon the security of Proven Answers.

Merton knew that Proven Answers have a compelling power.

The preacher who promises that I can somehow avoid the torn realities of this world is a person I want to hear cautiously. The words I need point to the sources of light in the midst of all the confusion and encourage me to strengthen those tiny points of light wherever they may be discerned. To be insulated against the pain is to be separated from the instrument God uses to make me vulnerable to this broken world.

I do not need Proven Answers. I need to let the questions open my heart. I need to allow the uncertainty in which I live to be the birthplace of that faith which is born in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty when these painful realities are embraced in hope and love.

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