Doubting on Your Part Does Not Constitute a Crisis of Faith on Mine

Doubting on Your Part Does Not Constitute a Crisis of Faith on Mine

One of the amusing things I have noticed in the last twelve months or so has been a shift in the rhetoric used by members of the older generation (40 plus) surrounding what twenty- and thirty-somethings will believe.  Five years ago, I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by Leonard Sweet, provocative and stimulating as always, in which he argued that the younger generation was finished with old ways of doing church, with big conferences, and with doctrinal debates.  Instead, it had moved decisively in favour of questioning old dogmas and of preferring a more relational, less propositional and traditionally institutional, form of Christianity.  At around the same time, Phyllis Tickle started talking about how the emergent/ing church was the kind of movement which came along once a millennium and was set to seep all before it.

In addition to these kinds of hyperbolic claims (and any categorical claim made about the present which can only be verified in, say, fifty years time, is hyperbolic), the Christian world suddenly seemed deluged with a vocabulary apparently derived from a kind of cut-price, non-teleological Hegelianism.  Truth as assertion, truth as rest, was out; truth as journey or conversation was in.  The thrill was not in arriving; it was in the traveling itself. It is, of course, a view of truth which sits perfectly with the coffee house Christianity of the comfortable West; I am not sure if it could have inspired the Apostle Paul to remain confident through all the trials and tribulations he had to endure in the first century.

For those of us who think that it should be a capital offence to use the term `journey' for anything other than a trip between geographical Point A and geographical Point B, these were disturbing times. Even 'conversation' was problematic as a term.  First, my experience of theological `conversationalists' was that they were not interested in working together to establish a common viewpoint, a type of Socratic dialogue; rather, they generally aimed to  establish merely a common understanding of differences. That is in itself a laudable aim; but for most of church history, it has constituted the merest preliminary groundwork for future constructive dialogue.  

Second, as I pointed out to one local conversationaphile, his merry band of conversation partners regarded as beyond the Pale anyone who actually believed that the end of the conversation was not the conversation itself.  Indeed, they immediately regarded such a one as not actually being part of the conversation on the grounds of being obviously either mentally deficient or implacably evil. I think this person considered me to fall into the latter category; but I may be flattering myself there.

The problems with all the above are manifold and obvious. The younger generation today are arguably no more iconoclastic and questioning of traditional authority than previous ones.  The sixties were scarcely a bastion of mindless submission to the received wisdom of parents, police, politicians etc.  And, for all of the posturing about the uniqueness of the postmodern condition, its underlying skepticism is as old as philosophy itself. It may have had many guises over the years, from Academic and Pyrrhonian through that of Pomponazzi down to the postmoderns of yesterday's papers.

Sociologically and theologically, a further problem that has recently emerged is the Young, Restless and Reformed movement.  While this loose coalition is certainly not above criticism - serious criticism - at some points, it does rather put the lie to the idea that young people in their twenties and thirties will not believe things like doctrine and propositions and traditional orthodoxy.    

So, there's a surprise.  All those pundits and gurus in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond were not quite as tuned in to what that group reified as 'the younger generation' would or would not believe.  Youngsters - or at least some of them - still believe in old-fashioned truth, doctrines and Christianity.  And while the millennium-shaking emergent movement seems to be retreating to shabby Woodstock pastiches, the YRR boasts a number of vibrant conferences, organizations and even (to the delight of us old school types) churches with elders, ministers and a touch of polity.

This is where the shift of rhetoric comes in. Some of the emergent critics of the YRR have spoken darkly of a movement of reaction involving a desperate quest for certainty in the wake of the abolition of such by the triumphant rise of novel skepticism (for the rise of skepticism, see above).  Others have ditched the relatively positive language of `youth' and `younger generation' which they used when they thought they were in the vanguard for sniffy references to the `twenty-something crowd' who cluster round John Piper and company.  How swiftly the scorned suitor's love turns to contempt.

In addition to this, we might also note the current popularity of what one might call the Christian answer to misery lit.  Most of us are probably familiar with the secular phenomenon: all those books that detail bog awful childhoods marked by poverty or abuse or both.  These days it seems one can scarcely hope to succeed as a celebrity unless one has suffered terribly during one's childhood.  It puts those of us from good homes with idyllic upbringings at something of a disadvantage in later life.

The Christian equivalents are the autobiographies of those who have grown up in fundamentalist/evangelical households and have later gone on to repudiate the faith of their childhood, some by loosening up or rejecting various traditional doctrines, some by becoming Catholics, some by abandoning any profession of Christianity whatsoever.  The tale is often told as a subplot of a more direct piece of scholarship where a bad experience of evangelicalism/fundamentalism is the launch pad for a more serious intellectual critique of aspects of the movement as a whole.  Sometimes, however, the critique is part of a direct piece of autobiography.  Frank Schaeffer's brilliant Crazy for God and its disappointing sequel would fit into this category.  Published authors represent the merest tip of the icebergs: countless blogs and (pardon the expression) conversations would seem to indicate that the dynamic of reaction against an evangelical/fundamentalist upbringing is powerful in the religious development of many.  To repeat a phrase I have used before: one big advantage of not growing up in a Christian home is that, whatever else has screwed you up, it is not the religion of your parents.

These two phenomena - the `get with the program or get left behind' approach of those like Sweet and Tickle and the reaction-against-upbringing approach of Schaeffer and company - have one thing in common: a tendency for leaders to generalize from their own narrow horizons to the universal experience or condition of everyone else.  There is considerable irony in this as advocates of these positions often tend to oppose what they see as any act of interpretative imperialism which seeks to make one viewpoint normative for all. Connected to this, they also eschew notions of the stability of textual meaning which allow for the construction of universal systems of doctrine and ethics. Yet in making themselves the norm, they have done both of these things with a vengeance.

Thus, the emergent leaders hang out and have 'conversations' with those who like having conversations and dislike settling on any truth claim as exclusive; all others who do not share this position they dismiss as nutty, distasteful or wicked.  The conversation is the imposed norm; all else is deviant. Meanwhile, those who were brought up in evangelical or fundamentalist homes, for some reason (whether moral, intellectual or simply personal) decide that they can no longer believe what their parents or schoolteachers told them; and they then assume that all those who do not see the problems they see with the faith are stupid or in denial or, once again, wicked and in it just for the power it brings.

In both streams, the imperialist assumption is that their way of viewing the world or their problems should be your way of viewing the world or my problems too.  The fact that this is not so does not typically provoke self-reflection even at the level of `Maybe different people see things differently,' let alone `Maybe I am wrong and maybe this is not a problem after all.'   Rather, as I have already repeated several times, it merely confirms the turpitude, intellectual or moral, of those upon whom they look down.

Over the last few years I have read dozens of pieces that tell me that it is no longer possible to believe in the historical Adam, in the Pentateuchal narratives, in a Christological reading of the Old Testament, in the Incarnation, in the resurrection, in biblical sexual ethics, and in hell; that, in doing so, I am acting irrationally and am engaged in a desperate quest for certainty.   At times such sentiments sadden me; at other times they irritate.  A desperate, irrational quest for certainty?  How I wish that I might not be certain about a number of those things, given that they fly in the face of my socially liberal instincts.

My response to these criticisms varies depending upon the specific doctrine at issue but I would like to offer one general reply to those who write and email such. I am sorry that you have doubts; I am sorry that your Christian parents or schoolteachers screwed you up with their bad teaching; I am sorry that you can no longer believe the simple catechetical faith that you were once taught; I am sorry that the Bible seems like little more than a confused mish-mash of contradictory myths and endlessly deferred meaning.  But that you struggle with doubts does not mean that those who do not struggle in the same way are simply weak-minded, in denial or bare-faced liars.  Nor, more importantly, does the mere fact that you have doubts mean that those doubts are necessarily legitimate and well-grounded.  Doubting on your part does not constitute a crisis of faith on mine.