Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Have you ever Doubted your Faith?

Someone asked me recently: have you ever doubted your faith? The question itself is interesting as a question. For one reason, it seems to be lacking a prepositional phrase specifying the object of faith. For example, have you ever doubted your faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible? Or perhaps the questioner intended that the word "faith" in the question evoke the entire spectrum of my religious beliefs. Or perhaps the question is more secular and the questioner was asking whether I have ever doubted faith in friends, family, or country, and in this secular form it has the general thrust of have I ever doubted the confidence I placed in something that I believe to be certain, like gravity, for example. If all these observations are possibilities, then I must refine the question and pick the subject that is most interesting to me.

Here is the question I choose to address: have I ever doubted aspects of my personal religious faith? The short answer is yes, and I suspect that every one of us has moments of doubt about aspects of religious belief. At least I hope so. From my perspective doubting something you think is certain is a positive ability, not a liability. Doubt is a warning mechanism of the mind that can lead to a correction of misplaced confidence.

Like everyone, my personal religious faith has never been static. It began with the child's prayer I was taught, "now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." But through the years it has become more sophisticated, logical, and rational with education, as my understanding of life and my place in the cosmos evolved. My faith began with what I was taught in a Southern Baptist Sunday School in the Mississippi Delta of the 40s and 50s. Hence, it was traditional and conservative. Since childhood, however, my faith has been a thing in process, shedding childish ideas and developing in, what I regard as more mature and philosophical ways. There is a statement attributed to the Apostle Paul (that he likely did not compose), which best characterizes the development and remaindering of the faith of my childhood: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (1 Cor 13:11 NRSV). Doubt has played a major role in developing and remaindering my religious faith. A major premise for me has been the following: faith may not require me to believe something I find to be patently false or impossible given the world as I experience it.

Briefly here are three examples of where this process has brought me. God, if God there be, is spirit and does not exist in the sense that we normally use the word "exist." As spirit, God is not an entity that occupies space and time, as we human beings do. God, as understood by human beings, appears to be an invention of the human mind, whose character and nature change with the confessions of each religious group and individual. God does not correspond exactly to any of the many ideations of the human mind that claim to describe God. And if God does correspond exactly to one of these ideations, how could we tell? The Jewish and Christian Bibles present at least three different concepts of God. Thus, God, if God there be, is shrouded in mystery. There can be no direct knowledge of God. We learn about God from what others tell us, from the study of religions, and from those who claim to have experienced God, but all these sources offer us radically conflicting opinions.1

Whatever else he may have been, Jesus was certainly regarded as a Judean sage, thaumaturge, and healer, or at least the author of the earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, regarded him as such, and those features are reproduced in the other three canonical gospels. His popularity with the masses and laxity in following the traditions of the elders ran him afoul of the Judean religious leaders. He was arrested, found guilty of blasphemy, and eventually crucified for political reasons by Roman authority. The early followers of Jesus, however, believed him to be much more, and used grandiose titles to describe him: God (John 20:28), son of God, Lord, the Anointed of the Lord (Christ), son of David, King of Israel. These honors are not verifiable by naked eye but rather are verified only through the eyes of faith. These days I prefer to think of Jesus as my brother in faith.

In Acts and Hebrews, Jesus is portrayed as a pioneer (archēgos), perfected through his own sufferings and his suffering qualified him to lead the way to glory for many other sons of God (Heb 2:10; 12:2). In this way Jesus, the Judean sage, became the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29). My view of Jesus may make me appear as an apostate or certainly a heretic (they are not the same thing2), since it by-passes divinity for humanity as a classification for Jesus. There were various views about the nature of Jesus in antiquity, and it depended on whom you asked as to whether Jesus was divine. People holding a view different than the so-called orthodox view must nevertheless be classified as being in the stream of Christian history.3 Whatever group was dominant became the judge of what was orthodox.

In church I was never taught data about the Bible except for the most obvious information. Generally, I was taught to regard the Bible as "God-breathed"4 and to pattern my life on its precepts. My views have changed. I no longer think of the Bible as a "Holy Book" but as a collection of texts that reflect the evolution of the faith of two religious communities, Jewish and Christian. There are currently three versions of the Bible: the Jewish Bible, the Protestant Bible, and the Catholic Bible. Their contents are not the same. The Protestant Bible with which I grew up uses the Jewish Bible, which it regards as Old covenant books; to these texts were added certain new-covenant writings, twenty-seven other texts (the New Testament), which were assembled as a collection by the fourth century common era and added to the Jewish Bible. By the fourth century followers of Jesus regarded all these books in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as in some sense "inspired" by God. Modern Christians transfer that high value to its translation into modern languages, forgetting that no translation is an exact reproduction of the original.

I have only touched the surface of my view of the Bible today as compared to where I began. My hasty summary nevertheless shows that if the Bible is "inspired" by God (a view that cannot be proven), it is also to be regarded as a human product. Human beings collected and canonized the writings, and text critics established what they regard as the original wording of the texts and they still debate what words should appear as the original wording.5

I have learned to live with the evident lack of certainty in matters of religious faith. The major difficulty with religion is that too many are absolutely certain that their religious faith is the true faith.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1C. W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 168-70 and in particular: "Out of the Enchanted Forest. Christian Faith in an Age of Reason" pages 13-24 in When Faith Meets Reason (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2008).

2Hedrick, "How do I Describe Myself," Wry Thoughts about Religion, Friday, February 15, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2019/02/how-do-i-describe-myself.html.

3Hedrick, "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian," Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 221-233.

4But this could only refer to the Jewish Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint) for the New Testament had not yet been collected and given the status of "inspired Scripture."

5Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 87-102.


Elizabeth said...

Charlie, you write often about the subject of religious faith but you do not explain why it is necessary for a productive meaningful life. Do you believe religious faith is necessary and beneficial? You provide no examples of how faith has made a difference in your life.

It's inconceivable why anyone would have faith if one believes life is meaningless.
Many thanks, Elizabeth

bobinberea said...

Excellent, Charlie. Thanks!
Bob Fowler

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
I do not think religious faith is necessary for a productive and meaningful life. Many people find meaning and productivity in their lives without recourse to religious faith. I personally do not find life meaningless. I think that life has the meaning each one gives it.

Elizabeth said...

In that case Charlie, I would have simply replied that it's perfectly natural to have doubts when life doesn't happen the way you expect it to. For some reason Christians are made to feel guilty for having doubts of any kind- which is ridiculous and insane. We have enough to feel guilty about.

Usually when someone asks such a question they whisper so no one else can hear- "Hey Charlie, can you hear me? Have you ever doubted your... Oh hi Reverend! How are you today? Great sermon!"

These quotes partially explain my thoughts on the matter:

"So with this endless talking in church- by and large preaching does nothing but excite a sense of anxiety and guilt... And you can't love out of that. No scolding, no rational demonstration of the right way to behave is going to inspire people towards kindness and goodwill. Something else must happen. It's enormously important that churches stop being talking shops... You don't come to the temple to chatter (Center of conTEMPLation) but to be still and know that I am God."

"The far easterners were always amazed at how long and pointy the Western noses were... Look at you, you silly Westerners! You go around sticking your nose into everything, trying to convert people. You send out missionaries because you are so uncertain about your own opinion that you have to convert everyone else to agree with you." Alan Watts

What is the sin in simply admitting "I don't know"??? Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

My general view is that a given person will more or less be open to changing his/her mind about how to view the world in a productive manner.

Currently I think that the following are true and positively motivating:

1. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.

2. Prayer is not sacred and reason is not secular. Life is simply life, consisting of the actualities and potentialities of the world as each person discovers and chooses to value them.

3. A certain kind of valuing reduces threat to individual and community well being.

4. The ability to describe a god or God is not necessary to this process, but reverence for the world, as our only describable reality, is.

5. If one would hold to the perspective that Jesus has risen into human consciousness, that is not a sacred or secular matter, it is rather among the potentialities and actualities of life/world.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Faith, trust, confidence, in the secular world I live is not total because it is moderated by the increase of knowledge. For me knowledge also became supported when in college by statistical analysis. Even with that tool, one must acknowledge that there are exceptions (Type I and Type II errors, for example) and omitted variables that can influence outcomes. Faith as “complete confidence,” at any rate, is impossible and changes as surely as the weather, because knowledge is fluid. My speculation is that only in children and cult members might complete trust be found in most societies. One of the memorable time worn but yet relevant quotes that speaks to faith I found in Sufi literature: ‘Trust in God but keep your camel’s leg tied.” Here is yet another view of faith. From I-an Chen one reads, “The old saying runs, ‘When there is enough faith, there is enough doubt which is a great spirit of inquiry ,and when there is a great spirit of inquiry there is an illumination” (Suzuki, Zen Buddhism,p,140).

I think, referring to Christianity, “religious faith” sort of hit the bumpy road of modernism, because the worldviews of “faith” and “science” didn’t match. These are stereotypes. Fundamentalists appeared, reading the Bible literally and grasping at straws of pseudo-science to prove the stories, without an allegorical or mystical bone in their heads, reacting not only to a modern world, but specifically to one aspect, to those who were using “higher” biblical criticism to attempt to find a historical Jesus with certain features. Evangelicals just thumped small portions of their Bibles for their faith to the tune of political demagogues, forming an unholy alliance with neo-conservatism. I see all three as attempts to “rehabilitate” faith, while most of one’s life (aside from Sunday mornings) relies on empirical knowledge. Few seem to emphasize that the ancient stories are not concerned with so much with facts but of meaning created within themes & motifs of story. They enhanced a mythic world of metaphor and allegory, which today is the domain of the poet, not the pious.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

These two statements of Dennis's really stood out to me:

"From I-an Chen one reads, 'The old saying runs, ‘When there is enough faith, there is enough doubt which is a great spirit of inquiry ,and when there is a great spirit of inquiry there is an illumination' (Suzuki, Zen Buddhism,p,140)."

"Fundamentalists appeared, reading the Bible literally and grasping at straws of pseudo-science to prove the stories, without an allegorical or mystical bone in their heads..."

And I would add to that second statement- also without a spirit of inquiry in their heads. That's my ultimate frustration with indoctrination at church- don't ask hard questions. Don't point out inconsistency. Don't rock the boat. Don't look at the original translation... Keep silent and nod your head in agreement. I love a spirit of inquiry. It's very liberating and life-giving to me. In fact- that is the meaning of life to me... Being free to see things from a new point of view, have my eyes opened to a new perspective I never considered before. I like things that cause me to stop and think and change my old habitual conditioning from the past.

Dennis when my husband was a student of Charlie's back in the late 80's, many of his classmates not only doubted their faith but lost their faith entirely when they found out the real history of the Gospels and the fact that they were written 30-50 years after the crucifixion. In fact, his own faith was shaken a bit and he talked privately with Dr. Hedrick about it. I don't know what Charlie told him, but it helped.

Have you or Gene ever had a friend who lost their faith when confronted with facts that contradict the orthodoxy they were taught from the church? Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

I’ve rarely, if ever, asked anyone, friend or foe, about one’s faith, because faith has little to do with “proving” or “disproving” facts. It is trust without need of evidence, which I understand, but suspect has more to do with association in a group than anything else. Christianity is a Sunday social event, a “mutual support culture” except during football season, where this faith is entrusted to the team of the fan, the officials and lucky breaks, though many pray for a favorable outcome. I found that many I knew who attended church didn’t really believe a lot of the doctrine and weren’t particularly interested in the Bible as reading material. Memes on social media were the extent of their religious intellectual endeavor.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall having that conversation with anyone else! I myself have felt unease about the threat to Jesus losing his risen into the consciousness of mankind status to back up his de-escalation of threat teachings.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

It's funny... I guess I had no idea what a fundamentalist religious upbringing I had. Everything, and I mean everything, was taken literally. Full disclosure- my parents were Bible teachers. Plus I went to ministry training school in my early 20s. I never met anyone who didn't believe the Gospels were literal eyewitness accounts, actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I'm glad I met my husband who opened my eyes to reality. You both are lucky to have been around normal churchgoers who take it with a grain of salt- and blessed to not have been raised by fundamentalists families. The people in my immediate orbit truly have a cult-like belief in the inerrancy of scripture. They could be referred to as "true believers." Many thanks, Elizabeth