Last week we were assigned Charles Taylor’s 700+ opus text, A Secular Age, which I quickly realized would take me the better part of a decade to digest. When I saw this week’s text, The Soul of Doubt, by Dominic Erdozain, I looked forward to quickly reading the 266 pages and getting my post written early. I started making my way through the text on Monday afternoon.
It’s now 10:45pm on Thursday night and our posts are due by midnight, if that tells you how far off base I was in my assumptions. This small book is packed with ideas and insights that deserve to be explored at a much more leisurely pace, without a looming deadline or panicky realization that I need to write SOMETHING, even if I don’t feel ready to do just that.
Erdozain’s book is intriguing and offers a fresh perspective on historic Christianity as it has crept toward what Taylor refers to as this secular age. Where Taylor told us HOW the stage was set for unbelief, Erdozain discusses WHY doubt and unbelief are products of healthy faith. The chapter on Luther alone makes this book worth the price, as it helped me flesh out my own issues with Luther and, to be honest, a big part of the Reformation. I have always felt that many of the Reformers actually became the thing they detested – gatekeepers and power-mongers. Or as Erdozain puts it, “a message of liberation looked like a doctrine of control…he replaced one kind of ‘servitude’ with another.” Charlotte Methuen summarizes Erdozain’s point, “that Luther moved from a conviction that faith could not and should not be coerced, to the implementation of a system of visitations in Saxony that required church attendance.”
It’s Erdozain’s conclusion that the strictures placed by the Reformers actually lead many believers to skepticism. “It emerged from an essentially moral intuition that a dangerous God cannot be real – cannot be the real God.”
I disagree with the idea that a loving, merciful God cannot be dangerous. Fire is good, but it can be dangerous, for example. I think dangerous is perhaps the wrong word here. Vindictive, cold, unkind, autocratic – these are words that come to mind when I think of the God often portrayed by the Church (Protestant and Catholic). It amazes me that any Christian feels that killing another human being based on a difference of beliefs could ever please God. I think skepticism grew as believers – be they philosophers, theologians, scientists, bakers, or artists – were faced with the cognitive dissonance of a reportedly loving God who, wrapped in sovereignty, seemingly directed Church leaders to punish anyone who did not believe or act according to the Rule of God (as interpreted by those leaders and no one else). Skepticism says, ‘This is not the God I read about or experience.’ Erdozain quotes war poet Wilfred Owen as writing this to his mother: “I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom.” A good paraphrase might be that I become more and more Christlike as I defy the gatekeepers of Christianity.
One of the things I struggle with is the idea that our secular age came from either science & reason OR doubt. Taylor suggests science and reason gripped the culture, Erdozain suggests doubt by people of faith. I think they are really saying the same thing. As Reformers questioned the actions of the Catholic church, as science began to show us that perhaps the earth isn’t flat and that an apple landing on your head is due to gravity, not a persnickety demon, the voice of reason/wisdom opened new avenues of thought among the masses. For those who were simply done with the church (and this continues until now), science provided an easy ‘excuse’ to embrace secular thought and set aside all religion as superstitious nonsense. On the other hand, as more and more people of faith embrace science, reason/wisdom allow us to see that science can point us to the Creator rather than away. This reason/wisdom is, I believe, what Erdozain refers to as the conscience. It did not suddenly appear during the Enlightenment; it was being explored in the pages of Proverbs, Psalms, and other Scriptures. It has simply taken awhile to get through to us.
One of Erdozain’s comments that has stayed with me about the Reformation era is that “the dominant emotion was fear.” The religious leaders who claimed to be bringing freedom in Christ, relied on fear to keep people in line. Fear of punishment, fear of death, fear of a cold, autocratic (but merciful) God. There was no room for open doubt, but that alone caused deep-seated doubt to grow. Once it was boldly written and spoken, doubt became public. Fear ruled for 20-ish centuries (and in some ways it still does) in the West. Christians have long used fear (‘you’re going to hell,’ ‘wait till you meet your Maker,’ ‘one day you’ll stand before the judge,’ ‘Do you know where you would go if you died today?’) to motivate salvation. Even our language about sin includes wrath and cold judgement. Now that we are in this secular age, people just aren’t afraid of God or judgement anymore. Sin doesn’t feel like a death sentence, and hell doesn’t register on most people’s radar except as an epithet. So with Erdozain’s discussion of the Reformers in mind, I think we have to start looking for ways to avoid being gatekeepers who promise pain and trade in fear. What kind of language can we instead use to discuss God, sin, redemption, etc.? How do we tell our stories from a position of trust, hope, and love?