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Everything Has Two Faces: Unbelief and the Soul of Doubt

Written by: on January 24, 2018

Everything has two faces.– Pierre Bayle

Some of my favorite people claim no faith, or proudly reject any association with Christianity or the Church. And honestly, who can blame them, these days? For instance, a friend of mine grew up in the church, came out as gay, was rejected by that community and left the faith, and now teaches high school theatre students empathy and the understanding of the Other, bringing confused and diverse young people into a theatre family of hospitality. In observing the way my friend showed his students how to understand and welcome one another, I saw an unbelief that “knew what a religion ought to look like.”[1] This is the general thesis of Dominic Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt, which explores the roots of unbelief leading up to and into the Enlightenment, only to discover that those roots are fertilized by faith itself. As Erdozain introduces, “modernity has been characterized by the internalization of religious ideas, not their disintegration.”[2]

The secularization of modernity was the other face of Enlightenment Christendom. This secularization would fit within Charles Taylor’s paradigm as Secular2, or neo-Durkheimian, as Erdozain limits the scope of his work to the modern era, although I would posit much of his thesis is compelling for post-modernity as well.[3] Elsewhere, Erdozain challenges the notion of secularization’s purity:

As a normative concept, secularization tends to exaggerate the religiosity of the past, to overstate the secularity of the present, and to falsify history as a single journey between the two…. The awkward fact for the secularization narrative is that some of the most dynamic and destructive thinkers of the Enlightenment era were inspired by faith.[4]

Erdozain’s walk through the history of modernity takes the path forged by Luther, past philosophers, scientists, artists and social theorists like Spinoza and Eliot, Darwin and Marx. Emerging on the other side of the secularization of faith, we are then more apt to understand those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” This label recognizes “a revolt against theological control rather than theology itself.”[5] I think in our core, we are mostly idealists, imagining and desiring a faith and community (church) that actually lives the words of Jesus. I see that longing for a just world, a kind world, in so many of my non-Christian friends. But more often than not, the Church (and “Christians”) lets us down. As Marx put it, “Christian cultures [are not] Christian enough.”[6]

Churches are not Christian Enough Either

Martin Luther King Jr., Erdozain writes, spoke prophetically against the churches of his era, quoting King, “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”[7] Re-reading this letter on MLK Day last week brought to mind William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, and his telling of the Catholic Church in Chile initially seeking to maintain unity within the country during the Pinochet coup.[8] Eventually, Cavanaugh challenged that “the Church needs to unlearn our ecclesiology in order to understand our identity as the Body of Christ.”[9]

Spinoza cautioned against this as well, says Erdozain: “The more closely a text is linked to injustice,… the more precarious it becomes. When the Bible becomes a battleground and the church a place of ‘ceaseless learned controversy,’ dissent becomes an obligation. There is a degree to which some people were forced into doubt.”[10] As I reflect on this reality, glaring on social media in front of me is John Piper’s most recent claim that, not only should women not serve as pastors, neither should they be seminary professors. While it may shore up the support of his base, this unfortunate statement does nothing to draw to Jesus people who live in an egalitarian culture (or rather, long for an egalitarian culture).

I want to listen to the dissenters, those disillusioned prophets, who long for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Because they may be closer to the truth of Jesus than they’ve been given credit for. And if, perhaps, the institutional Church had taken their objections a bit more seriously, I wonder if we wouldn’t be in a different place today.

 

[1] Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 264.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Erdozain agrees that he is indebted to Taylor, and in his brief critique of A Secular Age, captures a key missing component of Taylor: “the more prosaic truth may be that people are repelled by a religion that threatens to diminish them. It is an inner history of alienation, rather than an outer history of cooling conditions, that this study seeks to provide.” (5) It does that well, delving into the motives of the Scopes trial, the expulsion of Spinoza from the synagogue, and Eliot’s “revolt of conscience against creed.” (212)

[4] Dominic Erdozain (2017) A heavenly poise: radical religion and the making of the Enlightenment, Intellectual History Review, 27:1, 71-72, DOI: 10.1080/17496977.2016.1255458

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 261. I would shy away from that phrase today (“Christian cultures”) but would still argue that Christians are not Christian enough, myself included.

[7] Ibid., 3, quoting King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

[8] William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.

[9] Katy Drage Lines, “Torture & Eucharist: A 5 Course Meal” Portland Seminary, February 22, 2017. cf. Cavanaugh, 16.

[10] Erdozain, 265.

About the Author

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Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

6 responses to “Everything Has Two Faces: Unbelief and the Soul of Doubt”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Katy – #metoo: “I want to listen to the dissenters, those disillusioned prophets, who long for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.” Count me in. I think we are all so tired of the destructive teaching that keeps more teachers from teaching God’s word and people out of the church. We need more of God’s hopeful and life-sustaining messages, regardless who’s teaching it. We need his kingdom on earth. I’m grateful for your courage to answer the call and become a voice for the church. May these voices be louder as you feel supported and cheered on than the ones bent on creating division with bigotry claiming to be Christian.

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    What a great post, Katy. I just finished reading Jenn’s post and like her, you too have brought a unique perspective to the discussion of doubt the way we sometimes treat doubt in the church or those who publicly express doubt. It may be that those who speak from the margins have a lot to say! This would be a great 3-hour long discussion that the 7’s should have together sometime —after we complete our dissertations, of course! Thank you, Katy.

  3. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Katy it is so unfortunate that many within the church choose to use the Bible as a means to propel their own agenda forward instead of applying the Truths of God’s word in a way that causes them to exude love, mercy and justice.

  4. Mary says:

    I’m so glad you didn’t listen to Dr. Piper, Katy. With all due respect, if we listened to those who think they speak for the Bible as the self-proclaimed “Council on Biblical? Manhood and Womanhood” the church would suffer immensely more than it has. A world looking on and seeing that the spokesmen for the ‘orthodox’ position still relegate women to second class status can’t help but see the hypocrisy.
    Great post, Katy. Good reminder and very timely that MLKJr. is in the news again. What would happen if people sat down and looked at the objections of others? What do you think it would take to bring the Fundamentalists to the table?

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Katy,
    I too saw the social media on Dr. Piper. Christian leaders lacking in God’s wisdom, continue to diminish the legacy of the Ministry of Jesus. He was a leader who gave many opportunities to serve God and to know him.
    I appreciate your statement, “I want to listen to the dissenters, those disillusioned prophets, who long for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Because they may be closer to the truth of Jesus than they’ve been given credit for. And if, perhaps, the institutional Church had taken their objections a bit more seriously, I wonder if we wouldn’t be in a different place today.”
    Thank you

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    “When the Bible becomes a battleground and the church a place of ‘ceaseless learned controversy,’ dissent becomes an obligation. There is a degree to which some people were forced into doubt.”
    When I first started my spiritual formation journey, my spiritual director told me that life is hard for the dissenters/prophets because so few see what we see and no one appreciates a call to change. Had I known how right she was, I might have rethought my life’s direction. Unfortunately the Piper’s of this world make God look and sound so bad to people who really are interested in the community of the Body. And there is this sleepy insistence that everything is fine in American Christianity when it simply isn’t okay. I feel a new Reformation coming on, but I don’t want to follow some of the early Reformers and end up creating a new cage for the people I am trying to help free.

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