On refusing the fear of doubt… an advent meditation

A

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

A few weeks ago, I had one of those conversations with one of my oldest friends. He had made a comment using Christian language that I no longer hear often, and I rather flippantly challenged it. This led to a two hour skype conversation that ranged far and wide over faith, doubt, the origins of the Bible and the meaning of faith and doubt. Unlike most of these discussions, my friend kept this one respectful and listened carefully to what I said, but I honestly think he was shocked be some of it. Perhaps he should not have been, because I have made no secret of my relationship to the spiritual discipline of doubt.

A few years ago I wrote about it on this blog. In hindsight, I remember it as a clear choice- I had spent so long fearing the loss of faith. There were so many thing about the tenets (both stated and unstated) of the religion I had known that bothered me, but for years I coped with this by NOT asking questions. It was easier to focus on the ritual, the shared practice, after all I was busy making music and facilitating the religious expression of others. When I moved to Scotland, it eventually became harder and harder to live with the contradictions however, and there came a point when I decided no longer to fear doubt, because if my faith was worth anything, it could survive my clumsy questions. Any faith named after the man who turned over tables in temples should have no sacred cows.

For a while it seemed as though my faith would wither and die- but it did not. If anything, it made me determined that ‘Truth’ would not be my theological straight jacket, rather it would set me free.

Not that we should ever pretend that this will be easy…

Truth is hard to come by
Harder than Love

Love is hard to recognise
harder than Need

Need is hard to justify
Harder than Dreams

Dreams are hard to testify
Harder than Hopes

Hopes are hard to simplify
Harder than Choice

Choices are hard to live by
Hardest of all.

Tommy Randell

So where has all this doubting taken me? Ten years ago, I started to read voraciously. I discovered other famous doubters, including many who had been grouped together under the (now curiously dated) label of ’emerging church’. Sacred cows started to wander off into distant pastures. We could list them- all those totemic beliefs that we use to define of theological positions. We could display them as sliders and tick of our position on the spectrum of belief (perhaps we started to do this in that conversation with my friend mentioned above) but it would all be a waste of time, because I simply do not think this is the correct way to measure faith.

If faith has value, it has to transcend religion.

Does that make sense? Let me try again.

Religion codifies belief. Think of it as a magnificent cathedral, built from once-molten rock, carved and shaped and rigid. But even though faith might be helped by the shapes and spaces created, faith is not stone.

I stood before this edifice of faith

And it was magnificent –

The curve of the certain arch

The immovable pillars

The knowing eye in all this carving

The soaring ceiling shaped by countless songs of praise

But there was this penetrating drip of doubt

I could ignore it for a little while

Until the swelling laths shed horse hair plaster

And the stalactites point down from on high

The end of everything

Like any fool under falling stone all I could do was move

Out into the sunlight and the gentle rain

Looking backwards to see what might still be standing

Whether it might be anything more than just a

Magnificent ruin

But a ruin holds age with pride

Through the open vault light falls dappled into shadow

And the song of birds blows in on the wind

Chris Goan

Some will rightly accuse me of descending into just a post-modern, pick and mix, me-first faith, in which I have shaped God to fit in with my needs, wants and prejudices. I say ‘rightly’ because we ALL do this, myself included.

This is why I must also doubt the God I have created. 

This is why I must also set aside the distractions of doctrinal correctness and stop pretending that ‘truth’ is more important than love. I must doubt that kind of truth, particularly when it is mine.

After all, if we read the gospels, is this not the preeminent message of Jesus? 

This is not a surrender to unbelief, it is the promotion of a higher mission. One that is much harder.

A time for the sent ones of God
To follow the rough roads
Into the barren broken places
To look for the marks left by Jesus
On the soft tissue
And brittle bones
Of the Imago Dei
The stinking, wretched
Image bearers of the Living God

Time for the revolutionaries of God
To follow the long hard march
Unyoked and with easy burdens
Looking for the soft places where people are
Where freedom flickers
Where hopes soar
And we seek out the Participatio Christi
With weak but willing hands and sore feet
Learning to partake in the labours of love

Chris Goan

As advent unfolds, may our walk towards faith be not shadowed by unbelief. Rather may the tread of doubt take us closer towards love.

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