DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Who is permitted to question Christianity?

Written by: on January 24, 2018

Much like last week’s text, the title of the work for this week seems oxymoronic. What part does theSoul have in doubt? For Dominic Erdozain, there is an historical connection between Christian naysayers and the core of the faith but, his premise suggests that genuine opposition is fertilized in the soil of Christianity. “His claim is that religion’s secularist critics (and those critics who have subsequently and misleadingly been identified as secularists) developed their attacks on the basis of criteria that were ultimately internal to Christian thought itself.”[1] This is quite a bold proposition yet, one that if validated may alleviate some of the angst surrounding the feared demise of the Church in the contemporary world.

 

Not only is unbelief not a new phenomenon, a threat to the Christian faith and the institutions it upholds, it is not the external existential threat many have feared. In fact, the bulk of unbelief has come from within, or from those outsiders who desired the Church, and the faith it espoused, to be all it claimed to be, eschewing the hypocrisy of power and comfort that became ingrained. Doubt has been a key component of faith from its inception, why else would the writer of the Gospel of John highlight the interaction between Jesus and Thomas in the upper room? One might expect that writers trying to convince an audience would eliminate all aspects of doubt in the telling, or at the very least have Thomas chastised for his apparent weakness. Yet, the story is there at the end of the Gospel and Jesus lovingly and affirmingly brings Thomas to the realization of his resurrection. Doubt and questioning, therefore, are integral to very core of the faith.

Challenge and doubt are not the frightening things the contemporary church makes them to be. “Indeed, Robert Swanson argues that ‘doubt and insecurity were much more accepted among the faithful than is usually recognized, and were actually acknowledged as part of the process of attaining faith.”[2] The sense is that the Western church is losing its moral grip on society and thus secularism is winning the day. Erdozain himself suggests that the fear regarding “secularization was often a code for unwelcome cultural change.”[3] Perhaps, behind that fear is the realization that the positions of power and influence that have been coveted are no longer reserved solely for those who possess a ‘Christian’ worldview. In fact, doubt and the demise of the Western church may be the result of the influence it once held. “Wesley as cited by Max Weber makes a poignant lament: the increase of religious virtue necessarily increases industry and frugality, which increases wealth, which may in turn diminish the appeal of religion (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons [1992], 118–119).”[4] Even Wesley recognized that doubt, it seems, comes from within as a result of the ‘success’ of the faith. Further, as Erdozain himself claims, in many respects one could predict the rise of antagonism based on the battle lines the church chose to draw. “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.”[5]

Particularly interesting in this text were the periodic references to George Fox. As the namesake of our institution it seemed meaningful to pursue what it was about that man that not only inspired people to name a college after him but also warranted discussion in an academic text regarding the Church and doubt. For Voltaire and Spinoza in particular, the Quakers were a welcome contrast to the religiosity that they found so unappealing. For Fox and the Quakers their faith was an internal, rather than an external, experience. In their reckoning; “spirituality [was] conceived as an escape from religion.”[6] There was a spiritual verve evident with Fox and the Quakers that belied that which passed for most other iterations. It seems, according to Erdozain, that several of those recognized as contrarians to Christianity were consistently heartened by what they observed within the Quaker community. For these antagonists, it was apparent that the Quaker’s faith was a more genuine example of was perceived to be the essence of the faith they represented. Perhaps what George Fox and the Quakers prevented by the style of faith they chose to live was a softening of the vitriol aimed at the hypocrisy of the Church. Who might be the Quakers of the contemporary age? Are we so concerned about the rise of secularism that we are missing the lessons of history? Perhaps secularism in the contemporary world is a modern iteration of the challenges brought to bear by the likes of Voltaire and Spinoza. If so, the answer to heightened secularistic condemnation may be to become more aware of the hypocrisy in our current faith practice and work to rectify those issues.

In the end I am convinced, even more than before, that doubt is nothing to be feared and should actually be anticipated and celebrated. Debate, challenge, controversy, questioning and mystery all provide fodder to deepen faith while reducing the risk of complacency. Whether this doubt comes from within our faith community or from those on the outside calling us to be all we claim to be, we would do well to listen intently and apply the lessons learned from history. If we desire to remain relevant, we have no genuine option but to answer the questions asked of us with the grace and humility demonstrated by the many who have gone before that chose to go against the tide of maintaining the status quo of power, prestige and influence.

 

[1] Hyman, Gavin. “The Soul of Doubt.” The Soul of Doubt | Reading Religion. May 20, 2016. Accessed January 21, 2018. http://readingreligion.org/books/soul-doubt.

[2] Methuen, Charlotte. “The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx.” The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx | Reviews in History. Accessed January 21, 2018. http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/2031.

[3] Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016. P. 1.

[4] Pecora, Vincent P. “Dominic Erdozain. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. | The American Historical Review.” OUP Academic. October 03, 2017. Accessed January 21, 2018. https://academic.oup.com/ahr/article-abstract/122/4/1300/4320369.

[5] Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016. P. 265.

[6] Ibid P. 85.

 

About the Author

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Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping young people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.