Friday, April 11, 2014

Faith and Doubt

That's the title of a new column in the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader written by the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen

Her words:

I’ve always been drawn to the last few paragraphs of the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament.

The disciples — those who had been with Jesus for miracles, for teachings, for reprimands, for healings, for feedings, for deaths and for resurrections (minus Judas, but that’s another matter) — gathered at the Galilee mountain to meet with the risen Jesus.

Matthew makes a point of calling these men “disciples,” as opposed to, say, men, or followers, or friends.

And then, depending on how you read the Greek, Matthew either said that some disciples worshipped and some doubted, or he said that the disciples, all of them, worshipped and doubted.

That’s interesting.

The disciples, these men who had known Jesus for years, still weren’t quite sure what had just gone down, didn’t quite know whether they could entirely believe their eyes and ears and experiences.

Some, if not all of them, doubted.

And then Jesus said, “Go, make more disciples.”

Go make more worshippers and more doubters.

I’ve been invited to write this column, and it’s a column we’ve decided to name “Faith and Doubt.”

I like that title a lot.
My vocation is to be a theologian, and a systematic theologian at that. We systematic theologians wake up every morning and are awfully happy that we get to spend our days thinking and wondering about God.

But we not only spend our time thinking and wondering about our own notion of God; we also ponder how other people think and wonder about God. We know that there isn’t just one way, one system, of belief for God. Instead, there are closer to, well, gazillions of systems for thinking and wondering and believing in God.

And we know that how one thinks about God makes a difference: It makes a difference in terms of how people are parents and partners and citizens and voters and friends and sufferers and consolers. In short, how we believe, and in whom we believe, shapes everything about who we are.

This observation doesn’t necessarily imply a better or a worse way of being in the world. But it does imply — in fact, it straight-out means — that different beliefs make for different people.

It also means that no single person can believe that she or he has got God all sewn up.
There’s a pretty decent margin for error when we speak of God.

In my study, I have hundreds upon hundreds of books. One day, a gentleman made an appointment and brought along his Bible.

He pointed to a certain text and said, not with anger, irritation or defensiveness, but rather with conviction: “But look! This is what the Bible says and what it says is what it means!”
So I took a deep breath, and I blew it out, and I said, “Sir, I have an awful lot of books on my walls. Nope, I haven’t read them all. But I’ve read more than a few of them. There are books here from all across time and across the globe, and most of them have something to do with the Bible. If it were so simple to know what, exactly, the Bible says and means, then I wouldn’t need all these books, and I wouldn’t need all these shelves. I would need a small table, big enough to hold two books. One book would be the Bible, and the other would be a volume titled, ‘This is What the Bible Says and What It Means.’ ”
I’m afraid that Christians, anyway, believe that the Bible means only one thing, that faith only means one thing, and we sure hope (if not outright believe) that we’ve got it right. All too often, I fear, this mindset makes us afraid of wondering, afraid of learning and afraid of asking questions, because each of these habits might either hint of or lead to doubt.
As if that’s a bad thing.

Seems to me, if doubt is good enough for the disciples, it is good enough for the rest of us.
Even the word “faith” means trust in something not seen, not immediately present.

I have faith that tomorrow will come, but I’m not certain of it.

I can’t prove it.

But still and even so, my actions today are based a whole lot on the premise that tomorrow will, in fact, come.
To have faith means to trust, and to trust means to live and breathe out of a belief that something or someone is worthy of rearranging your life on its or their account.
I figure that such a commitment calls for an occasional look-see to check out whether what I claim to be right and true checks out against itself, and against my experience of the world.
Not only that, but although it might surprise some people, thinking about God — the act of being a theologian — is fun.

No, really, it is.

It’s fun.

There are so many quirks of history, word plays, insights and little-known facts about and in religious history that cause a person to wonder in amazement, to be utterly surprised and to totally impress family and friends at the dinner table. Some of them are worth checking out because they are simply interesting; some can change your life.

To be sure, there are some statements we can know, factually, to be true in religion.
For example, Moses came before Mozart.
We know that. We can prove that.

But there are all sorts of matters in theology that open up mystery, and questions, and probably a healthy dose of humility.

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, tells of an “Old Jew of Galacia” who said:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Why, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug and the worse kind of rascal.

I’m hopeful that this column will err less on the rascally 75 percent to 100 percent thug side of things, and settle in more between 55 percent to 75 percent right. I’m hopeful that this column will give some room for thinking about theology, religion, worship and communities of belief in new ways, offering a little something both to the faithful and to the doubters.

Freelance theologian Anna Madsen is director of OMG: Center for Theological Conversation in Sioux Falls. Follow her writing and speaking events at Facebook, Twitter and

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