In his insightful and engaging book, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx Dominic Erdozain takes a look at some of the great ‘doubters’ of history, the situations they arose from and the religious, philosophical and spiritual thoughts and movements they were responding to.
As I was reading this week, enthralled by how so much of the doubt and unbelief of some of histories greatest was, as should be pretty apparent by the title of the book, was grounded in and, in fact, spurned on by faith and belief.
While I was reading and thinking and processing the depth of history and theology that sprung from this book, which seemed especially pertinent after reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, two things kept floating into my mind.
The first of which is the scripture verse that I pulled this blog post title from, Mark 9. In the familiar story, Jesus encounters a large crowd fighting for his attention and a father pleading for help for his son, grabs it. Jesus hears that the boy has been possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of his speech and caused other problems. Let’s pick up the story at verse 21 and go all the way through verse 24, which is the source material for the title:
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” 23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
I love this passage so much. There are lots reasons why this is a favorite of mine, but central to all of it is the presence of doubt and Jesus’ response to that doubt. The miracle is, of course, great. But as a follower of Jesus and, especially as a pastor, I think it is important to recognize Jesus’ verbal response to this: He doesn’t send him away, he doesn’t rebuke him for doubting, he does’t say ‘well, if you had believed enough, he would be healed’.
The father’s response to Jesus, in some translations simply, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ is maybe for us a model for how to live this life of faith and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We are called to believe and trust – but, along with that there is this reality that that believe and the desire to trust in God doesn’t make the doubts and questions, fears and anxieties of this life magically disappear – even after a miraculous event.
This highlights for me the truth that our life of faith is not simply a straight line, a connect the dots picture or a step-by-step instruction guide. Trusting in God is a gradual process that often involves a step forward, then a step – maybe two – back and sometimes a lot of sideways steps as well. The critical piece is not how far we have come, but who we are travelling with – are we there trying to trust and believe? Do we show up to Jesus and say – ‘I believe, help my unbelief’.
Erdozain quotes Hans Denck, a prominent spiritualist in the 15oo’s who says something that, to my ear at least, sounds not too dissimilar to the quote from Mark. Denck’s quote came as he was on trial in 1524, and it is his explanation for moving away from evangelical piety:
For a time I prided myself as possessing faith, but I have finally become convinced that it was a false faith, because this faith did not overcome my spiritual poverty, my inclination to sin, my weaknesses and my sickness.” (Erdozain, 37)
Denck’s quote, is an indictment of the church of his time and it is an indictment that is still all too valid. This brings me to the second ‘thing’ that I have been thinking about all week as I read. This was an encounter I had with a student when I was a youth minister 10 or more years ago. The student, an intelligent, friendly and seemingly-happy young woman was the kind of kid you want in your churches and in your youth group. She was committed, she seemed to want to be there, she took the Bible study time seriously and would engage in the questions being asked, etc.
So, when she asked if I could meet with her, in my office, before a Wednesday night dinner and Bible study, I assumed it was to ask for a recommendation or something like that. Instead, she came in and sad down, and, very nervously hesitantly began to explain that she had some questions – and, she paused here to reassure me that ‘I still believe in Jesus and everything – but, maybe she just didn’t understand everything and, maybe she had a few ‘doubts’.
At this point she was in tears, ‘does this mean I’m not a Christian?’ ‘Why do I have doubts if I want to trust in God and if I believe in Jesus?’ She was saying, in many more words, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’ We had a long talk and I gave insight and explanations where I could and when I thought it was appropriate, but I began with affirming her doubt. I emphasized that God is big enough to handle her questions and even her doubts. I encouraged her to keep asking questions and honestly wrestling with her doubts and fears. And I also strongly encouraged her to continue to believe in the midst of those doubts and questions.
While I found this book fascinating and insightful, Erdozain’s main claim, that assaults against orthodoxy have not come primarily from ‘outside’ the church, (i.e. the boogeyman of science or reason, etc.) but from questions that arose from a distinctly Christian perspective (Erdozain, 5) was not surprising to me at all.
If we create churches, communities and structures of faith that require order and ascent and do not allow for questions and doubt, we are not only doing a disservice to the gospel and the witness of Jesus Christ, but we are also fueling the fire of criticism, intellectual and moral assault against those structures, systems and communities.
Our God is big enough to handle our questions and doubts, our denominations, our churches and our own lives of faith need to be as well.
I believe, Lord, help my unbelief