I used to collect fossils. When I was pastoring in Pennsylvania I found this huge fossil—about the size of a basketball split in half. It looked like a sponge on one side and like a coiled snake on the other. I had never seen anything like it before. At the time we didn’t have the internet—it was the dark ages; how did we ever get along?—and so I called Bucknell University’s geology department and a professor invited me to talk with him. We had a fascinating discussion. He told me what it was—I don’t remember though. However, one statement he made has stuck with me all these years. When I told him I was a pastor who was very interested in fossils and geology he said, “At one time, members of the clergy were one of the major collectors of fossils. I don’t know what happened, but now the church is the biggest opponent of my life’s work!” Ouch!
We find ourselves in a world where story-tellers share a narrative that highlights the triumph of science and secular thought over religion and belief in God. We live in a world were, according to Erdozain “’religion and unbelief’ are looked upon as ‘alien worldviews,’ locked in mortal combat.” Christians are concerned—rightly so—about this trend and so they tend to give negative attention to those who are part of or who pass on the story of the triumph of science and modern thought.
However, there may be another story where the Christian church has in part set the stage for the present attacks against religion and belief in God. This is Erdozain’s main thesis and an argument for which he presents solidly within its historical context in The Soul of Doubt: Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. Erdozain argues that the Christian faith itself has set the stage for this present unbelief. “The ‘secular’ critique of Christianity was a burning product of the religion it dared to appraise” . The author tells the story of “aggressive and articulate unbelief” beginning with Luther and the Reformation through the Marxist revolution and beyond. It’s a story of religious liberty, power, individualism, the search for meaning and acceptance. It is also a story of a faith dominated by fear of losing itself and therefore working harder at control. What is it at the core of the history of Christianity that would push people away from the church. Erdozain states, “It may be that people are repelled by a religion that threatens to diminish them.” 
This statement brought me back to Bucknell University and the conversation I had with the geology professor. Historically many people who are outside of the church look into the windows of the church and see an organization that preaches Augustinian, “doom, destruction, and selective redemption.”  These in-lookers have either lost faith in faith or are not inclined to look through the window again because of what they see and even experience.
To illustrate the point Erdozain turns to the Scopes trial and the announcement by the fiancé, “it wasn’t God he abandoned, only the church.”  This thought is similarly expressed today in the saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  Voltaire, he says, was searching for a father but instead sees a tyrant in God.  Concerning Spinoza he states, “Spinoza lived and worked with the kind of Christian that can embarrass a biographer, and he may have learned as much from them as they from him.” 
In these words, there is no sense that Erdozain is in any way attacking the church, as some might suggest. In fact, I think in his deep love of God and the Christian faith that he does the Christian church a service worth considering. Though Soul of Doubt is an historical treatise, the point rings clear today. It is important for Christians to understand how others see them. In the context of a discussion of Soul of Doubt, I’ve heard it said that Voltaire and even Spinoza where looking for beauty in the world; however, Christianity only brought them theory and a limited theological framework. It had altogether missed relationship.
At the end of the day, it always comes back to practice—the day to day living as the salt and the light that impacts people and impacts the world. Is it possible that in an effort to protect we might actually be hindering the mission of the church? Can the effort to remain true take the place of the Truth itself so that we are no longer purveyors of the Truth but purveyors of the “effort” to remain true? Faith is in the living, and living in the relationships we have first with God and then with others.
- Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief From Luther to Marx. 1 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 2.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 264.
- Ibid., 174.
- Barnes, Julian. Nothing to be Frightened Of. Reprint ed. Vintage, 2009.
- Erdozain, 148.
- Ibid., 71.
- Clark, Jason. Online Class Lecture. January 23, 2017.