The Role of Questioning


The "On Faith" web site of the Washington Post has posed the following question to its blogging panel of theologians, columnists, and pundits: "What is the place of questioning in faith? Does questioning tenets or traditions make your faith less valid?"

One answer that I liked came from Susan Brooks, who wrote:

Questions are a life-long conversation with God.

In the Protestant liberal tradition, faith is understood as a journey. Questions are indispensable to the journey of faith because they help you illumine the path. A distinguishing characteristic of liberal Protestantism is its strong affirmation of the human reach toward the world, toward one another and toward God through the use of reason in the search for understanding.

It is my belief, as a liberal Protestant, that only when people are truly free to question religious authorities, received traditions, sacred texts and even God that they can truly find faith. A coerced faith is an oxymoron. No one can force you to faith—it is found freely and embraced without duress or it is not found at all.
The answer I found the least interesting came from Susan Jacoby, an atheist who, unfortunately, echoed the misinformed view shared by many militant atheists that assumes religious faith to be incompatible with human reason. She wrote,

Only in the realm of religion is doubt sanctified by being dismissed even when the doubt is well justified by the laws of nature. This is why it is ridiculous to try to argue anyone out of religious doubt or, for that matter, religious belief. People who yearn to believe will believe and will find a way to suppress their doubts.

In the realm of science, by contrast, where various claims must be verified by repeated observation and experimentation, doubt is the engine of progress. Even though theologians tried to stigmatize the heliocentric theory of the solar system, they could not shut up Galileo and Copernicus, or the doubt they unleashed, by declaring, "We believe that God's earth is the center of the universe: Let God (and the Inquisition) help your unbelief."

Ms. Jacoby is committing here a fundamental fallacy that confuses the respective roles of religious faith and scientific knowledge. Religious belief has nothing inherently to do with the laws of nature, and scientific knowledge has nothing to do with religious faith, except to the extent that it informs our theological understanding of God's activity in the world. Religious inquiry and scientific inquiry delve into completely different areas of the human experience. That isn't to say that there are people of faith who make the mistake of confusing the roles of religion and science, and who try to base their faith on the God of the Gaps; but they do not represent religious faith per se, but rather one simplistic expression of it. The straw man that Jacoby knocks down is the same one, unfortunately, that is commonly knocked down by many militant atheists, only made available to them for knocking down in the first place because it is erected by fundamentalists. It would elevate the discussion considerably if we ignored the straw men altogether.

Dissuading people from using their brains and freely questioning dogma is always a danger. In theory, most of the panelists who responded to that question came out in favor, at least to some extent, of people having the right to question and doubt. But the reality is that Christianity has historically had a difficult time dealing with "heresy". I think that religions can most easily let go of the need to enforce orthodoxy and dissuade people from questioning when they embrace religious pluralism and when they lack a theology of divine judgment against people for having the "wrong" beliefs. The result is that the consequences of someone's doubt leading to a full rejection of the faith then becomes not a matter of eternal hellfire, but rather simply the fact that someone has chosen a different path in their life. Which is to say, it's not such a terrible thing that people have different beliefs than we do on theological matters. The search for ultimate meaning is something that different people pursue in different ways; and part of spiritual maturity lies in accepting that.


Greg said...

Being the Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki fanatic that I am, I will quote her on this issue of questioning.

She says the very act of questioning “leads to one of the oldest definitions of Christian theology: faith seeking understanding. To probe the questions is to trust God in the very probing, knowing that God can handle all the questions we can devise. Questions can be a way of drawing us into deeper realms of faith, taking us from belief in our beliefs to belief in the God who is more than our beliefs can express. But if God is more than we can express, then there is freedom to think far and wide, critically exploring how we think and how we might think about the issues of faith. Faith seeks understanding.”

~from Suchocki’s book, “In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer”

Mystical Seeker said...

Greg, thanks for the reference. I've read one of her books, and as a fan of process theology I will have to check this one out also.

Greg said...

My favorite of hers thus far is "Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism." I am actually using that book as a basis for one of the academic essays required for the admissions process at Wake Forest Divinity School.

I've also ready her book, "The Fall to Violence: Original Sin and Relational Theology" which has an extremely good premise of original sin boiling down to voilence against humanity and voilence against creation. However, it is very deep and much of it is over my head at this point.