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Essay

Light a Candle for Doubt

By December 4, 2015 10 Comments
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A student asked to talk to me after class recently. “I’m not sure I buy it.” “Buy what?” I asked. “Christianity. I’m not sure I believe the stories. They don’t make much sense. I don’t  go to church; I just can’t believe this stuff it true.” Awkward silence.

After a semester of professing, reading, discussing, arguing, storytelling…there it was—doubt.  So why was I relieved?

I wonder if we need to add a candle to the advent wreath—a candle for doubt. It seems to be an important part of the Christmas story—Israel waiting, Zechariah refusing to believe, Mary frightened, two-year olds slaughtered… So much of what we do liturgically hints at it—the dark minor tune of “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, the reading of the prophets, the jaded view of exile. Yet, the Christmas season doesn’t let us name it, even though we encounter the darkness of exile in the senseless violence all around us—the Paris attacks, the Christmas party massacre, the everyday pain and suffering that makes life unbearable. Who hasn’t, under these circumstances, wondered if our hope is in vain? Yesterday I noticed a post on social media that questioned the whole “thoughts and prayers” response people instincually give to tragic events. I know I’m supposed to disagree, but honestly?—it was refreshing.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; doubt is the ground from which faith grows. We need to nurture it, tend it, care for it, and make room for it as a part of our religious practice. Maybe along with faith formation we need a little doubt formation; advent seems like the perfect time to give it a try. The least we could do is light a candle to remember Zechariah’s disbelief and Mary’s fear.

So how did I respond to the student’s admission of doubt? I told him should be a theology major…

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

10 Comments

  • What Fredrick Buechner says about doubt has always been a comfort to me…”Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps faith alive and moving.”

  • Gene says:

    It’s time for the walking wounded and chronically “broken” doubters to man up or admit they have defected from the faith. We face a very non-squishy Islamic threat on the one hand, and a variably squishy and repressive state secularism on the other. The Liberal state befriends the Islamic fundamentalist while repressing Christians and treating us as the true “fundamentalist” enemy. If you go all squishy with “doubt” you are supporting the wrong side in this struggle.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Right… isn’t that the point? Isn’t that the difference between orthodox Christianity and every form of fundamentalist ideology? Biblical Christianity calls us to a form of love and grace that ruptures every attempt to control and oppress. Your call to “man up” seems contrary to the other four candles we light during advent.

      • Gene says:

        Orthodox Christianity is not pacifistic. We are in a war over whether our civilization will remain significantly aligned with its Christian and classical roots or be torn apart by Islamists and the weak sisters of postmodernism. If you equate all “control” with “oppression” then you are simply abandoning all responsibility for order — without which there can be no justice, no freedom, and not much space for love or grace. Doubters need to understand these stakes and make a decision.

  • Jon says:

    Yeah, doesn’t Jesus say freedom is the most important thing, and we need to kill all who oppose us in that? I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of verses saying how we should pay less taxes too.

  • Herbert says:

    Wait. Isn’t Christianity the one where you’re suppose to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? If so, returning violence with violence wouldn’t be Christian, would it? If I remember my history, first century Judea was a violent place, what with the Pax Romana and all. So, wouldn’t Jesus’ exhortation to enemy-love be as radical then as it is now?

    • Gene says:

      Fundamentalists from the left who absolutize that teaching to support radical pacificism will be the death of us, along with their revisionary non-fundamentalist reading of every text about sexual propriety.

      • Herbert says:

        Now you’re getting it! Early Christianity is filled with death and martyrdom. And the Church grew. The Church grew and not because of fighting and war, but because people believed that to live was Christ and to die was gain. What would happen if we had the same faith as the early church?

        But just so we’re clear: you don’t really think Jesus wanted us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Was he just making cute stories on a hill in the countryside?

        • Gene says:

          Jesus was making radically hyperbolic statements as a young bachelor who had abandoned his family responsibilities on the justification that the world would shortly end. Do you go and do likewise? Do you model your life on a wooden following of such sage advice and idealistic visions of a kingdom of perfection? Are you a pacifist and voluntarily poor?

          It’s possible to love and pray for enemies while also conducting a war against them.

          I think we probably are drawing close to seeing what it looks like when a mass of poor and poorly educated Christians again have an apocalyptic, martyrdom-seeking, eunuchs-for-Christ faith that sends a lot of men into military and government service while also seeing Christians as the persecuted enemies of a godless state. Whether that attitude is hitched to violent insurrectionary activity or non-violent protest, I see it as an unhelpful, dark, theocratic fantasy.

          The problem with “doubt” in American Christianity today is that it marks a failure among the more spiritually sensitive and intellectually honest to have prevented or to contend with this outcome.

  • Hal says:

    I would recommend psychology to the student. That way they could study people’s desire for religion, fanatical nationalism, or both.

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