Thursday, October 18, 2012

When Doubts Arise: Vulnerability, Transparency, and Correction

A commenter on one of Rachel Held Evan’s posts about her love for the Bible,  bemoaning the (apparent) legalism of a recent review of Ms. Evan’s new book, says, “it breaks my heart that the BiblioGod of ‘innerancy’ will not permit such transparent vulnerability as Rachel’s.” Going to the review, the author does not attack Ms. Evans personally: On the contrary, she remarks how she enjoyed her brief personal correspondence with Ms. Evans. What the author does is attempt to critique not only the book itself, but where the book and its message comes from;  the author then explains why she believes it is not only wrong, but harmful.  So the question is this: Does disagreement, even forceful disagreement, necessarily mean exploiting vulnerability?
Continuing down the comments, there are more attacks on the review itself, its author, and the entire organization, while others questioned the reviewer’s motives, going so far as to suggest she had written the review only to curry favor with the higher-ups at Desiring God.
This is apparently the well-deserved backlash when someone dares to publicly disagree with someone who is being so “transparent[ly] vulnerable.”
But where, exactly, is the offense? If someone is “vulnerable,” are we not allowed to disagree with them?
Let’s investigate this a little more. Being “vulnerable” is desirous because it reflects a fundamental honesty, right? When you’re being vulnerable, you’re being honest about doubts you have, uncertainty you feel. And I agree: It’s good to be honest about doubts and uncertainties you have concerning your faith.
But where I get a little fuzzy is when we start saying that doubting and uncertainty is a kind of virtue in and of itself. When we begin implying that being honest about doubts somehow “validates” them and makes them good, makes them off-limits to rebuke or correction, we have a problem. Let’s go to scripture: In fact, let’s go straight to Jesus.
John 6:60. The day after the famous feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has just finished explaining some absolutely crazy theology using incredibly vivid imagery: whoever eats of my flesh, Jesus says, will live forever. Hearing this, many of his disciples turn to each other, dismayed and puzzled. “This is a hard saying,” they say. “Who can listen to it?”
These people, these disciples of Christ, are being incredibly vulnerable here. They are being completely honest about their doubts and their uncertainty. If this isn’t the very epitome of vulnerability, I don’t know what is.
And what’s Jesus’ response to this honest, uncertain vulnerability? He shuts it down hard. “Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?'” There is no apology. There is no hedging, no supporting words for those who are struggling to take it all in. From the very incarnation of Love Himself, there comes a very straight, very hard line. He continues, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”
And the result? “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” His words and teachings, spoken in direct opposition to honest, vulnerable disciples, actually caused them to turn away.
The original commenter uses the derisive term “BiblioGod of ‘innerancy,'” implying a stubborn unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This implication is, I think, extremely accurate of the God the reviewer believes in. We’ll just use shorthand and call that God, that stubborn God who proclaims hard truths and demand that we follow them even if we don’t understand them, by his name: We’ll call Him Jesus.
So then, back to the original question: What is the correct response to “vulnerability” and doubts? It seems that the “biblical” answer, the answer Jesus would give, is to set them aright, because there is nothing good in doubting in and of itself.
In those times where belief is paired with unbelief, where we allow our doubts to be rebuked, corrected, and set right, where we cry with sheer panic, “I believe: Help my unbelief!”,… there, Jesus is ready and willing to save us from our doubts, to take our unbelief and turn it into faith. But there we must realize that it is not our “vulnerability” or our doubts that are virtuous: How could doubting Jesus and his truth ever be virtuous? Jesus isn’t looking for doubt, although that is a nearly permanent facet of our faith: He’s looking for an eagerness to be put right.
But where we merely doubt because it is too hard, too strange, too foreign to us, where we doubt and are unwilling to be reconciled to faith, where we will only say, “This is a hard teaching: who can follow it?”…  That road leads away from Jesus, and He will not follow you down it. Our eagerness to proclaim our doubts mean nothing without a striving for security in faith.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.
“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.
“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”
Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.
But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for.
Later that day, I found myself  hunched over my steering wheel in a Bank of America parking lot, praying that God would give my friend notpeace, but an unsettling, uneasy, frantic desire for truth. I’d never prayed for something like that before (except for myself). I’d never prayed for someone to become less calm, to be more unsure about things.
I’d never thought about it before, but I think the prayer stuck me as so unusual because we tend to see “comfort” as something that’s always good, and nervousness and anxiety as something that’s always bad. “Don’t worry, be happy,” says the secular world, and Paul tells us, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving bring your requests to God.”
The world tells us not to worry because worrying doesn’t really help much. It reflects a certain Ecclesiastical fatalism: Everything might not work out alright, but worrying won’t help it, so we might as well be happy. This may well be the best answer the world has, but it’s still not a good answer. But the Church tells us not to worry because of who and where we are, as Christians.
As Christians, worry over our outward circumstances betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning who and where we are.  We are Christians; we are, in a very real sense, in Christ, and our position in Christ is so completely and utterly secure that Paul can go on at length over the many and various things that can never separate us from the love of God, including all of creation visible and invisible, natural and supernatural.
The same cannot be said for the non-Christian. The same cannot be said for the one hedging towards agnosticism. And indeed, it seems to me that agnosticism is infinitely more dangerous for the subject that even outright atheism.
This is because an outright atheist is, in many important ways, closer to Christianity than an agnostic. Atheism is, at least, an active position. It requires an active affirmation of certain beliefs, a certain intellectual engagement with those beliefs. The atheist at least believes that the existence or non-existence of God is an important subject, one worth thinking about and arguing over.
Not so for the agnostic. The agnostic (at least, this particular agnostic) simply doesn’t care all that much. Atheism has points in its favor, as does Christianity: Further research into the matter may yield more information, but who has the time? The agnostic simply doesn’t care enough about the matter, can’t be bothered to think seriously about it. He is settled and at peace.
And so I prayed in the bank parking lot. I prayed not for peace on earth, but for unrest and discord in the mind and soul of my friend. I prayed for God to make him restless, uncertain, even frightened of his position. I prayed that he would care so much that it would drive all other concerns out of his mind. Only then, I think, will he be able to once again seek God and find Him.