Rachel Held Evans has helped many voice their questions, but embracing doubt is not healthy
While an aversion to the ‘name-it-claim-it’ approach to faith is good, Annie Carter believes we have now swung too far the other way and run the risk of fostering cynicism and scepticism
What was once scorned as ‘lacking faith’, the admission of uncertainty and doubt is currently gaining traction among leading Christian voices today.
In contrast to the ‘name-it-claim-it’ faith teaching that was popular in previous generations, many have sought to distance themselves from concrete black-and-white teaching that boldly proclaims to have the right biblical answer for everything.
With a particular aversion to twee Christian answers and cheesy religious trinkets and bumper stickers, this emerging group of dissenters have found writers such as Rachel Held Evans a breath of fresh air.
A self-confessed ‘doubt-filled believer’ on her Twitter page, Held Evans extols the virtues of questioning all things faith-related and urges readers to think for themselves rather than just accepting Christian leaders’ pronouncements as truth.
The positives of questioning
Millenials such as Held Evans, and those who grew up in certain evangelical churches where nothing was ever questioned and where the preacher could never be wrong, have found solace in discovering others who were also hurt by churches that discouraged them from ever expressing doubt about Christian teaching or beliefs.
Held Evans has found popularity in particular for calling out hypocrisy and for acknowledging that she is not sure of everything about her faith. Her appeal finds a broad base among those who are disillusioned with Christianity, and not just among millennials. Though it’s interesting to ponder whether Held Evans is herself (unwittingly) becoming a leading voice that is projected as ‘the correct one’, elevated to the sort of status that she seeks to undermine.
Despite this, there are several positives to Held Evans and others’ doubt-embracing teaching: First, there is an emphasis on humility and humanity, for it is rather humbling to admit that you don’t have all the answers and you’re not quite sure about everything.
We are welcomed with our struggles and our difficulties and given permission to barrage God like the psalmist with our ‘why’s’. This grappling with faith contrasts greatly with former times when preachers proclaimed that we just needed ‘more faith’ when our prayers were not answered.
Secondly, it means that we are encouraged to become thinkers who explore scripture and discuss those aspects of faith that are not clear cut, allowing room for differing views on peripheral issues. We’re welcomed to share our thoughts on various doctrines and are urged to subject our faith and our churches to scrutiny, rather than upholding teachings that have oftentimes been dubious (for example the assertion that only one version of the Bible is inerrant, or the “alcohol is bad” message of the 1960s and 1970s). It means we weigh up the messages we hear, even those from established preachers, working out their value or veracity for ourselves. These are all good things.
Is emphasising doubt really helpful?
There are other, less positive aspects to consider regarding this emphasis on doubt and uncertainty. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus doesn’t laud doubt as a good thing. He berates Thomas for expressing it and is disappointed when Peter demonstrates it (“Why did you doubt?”, Matthew 14:31).
James also points out the trouble with combining faith with doubt (James 1:6-8). This doesn’t mean we should return to being obnoxious in our proclamation of faith, always focusing on believing the right thing, yet having hardened hearts, as the Pharisees did, towards God and others. Jesus modeled patience with genuinely inquiring minds such as Nicodemus and Nathaniel, and spoke of the importance of the heart.
While we may have struggles and setbacks and questions, we’re not meant to be continually stuck at the ‘doubting’ stage. Our faith is organic, “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12), and is able to grow and be stretched.
The current focus on the need for doubt in our lives conflicts with trust and is not a spiritually healthy pursuit.
Paul teaches on the importance of “working out” our salvation (Philippians 2:12); it is a process we need to go through, not just an overnight transformation, and we all need to grapple with our faith. But the Bible continually speaks of hope and trust. The current focus on the need for doubt in our lives conflicts with trust and is not a spiritually healthy pursuit. It fosters scepticism and cynicism which can lead to the erosion of faith.
Are we also verging on becoming expert keyboard critics rather than modelling how Jesus taught us to live? Always reacting to the latest thing we don’t like in the Church’s flawed make up of followers and leaders?
It’s easy to critique, criticise and mock and put the Church to rights. It’s not easy to lead the flock, or to be a faithful follower of Christ.
I’m not against speaking truth or warning of error; I just believe that only a few are called to this. The rest of us would do well to heed some of the basics of our faith more than what we read online. Are we becoming a new kind of hipster Pharisee that smugly looks down on all those whose opinions do not align with ours?
Weakness rather than doubt
Rather than being ‘doubtful’, I think a better word is ‘weakness’. Paul writes of boasting in his weakness, never his doubts. We’re encouraged by Christ to believe and to have faith in him, even when storms and trials surround us.
While I agree with much of what Held Evans teaches, and admire her for her tenacity, I wonder if perhaps some of what she speaks is distracting followers of Christ from their main mission: to know and love him and to love others. Being stirred to action is one thing; simply being stirred to anger is not good.
Are we becoming a new kind of hipster Pharisee that smugly looks down on others?
A crucial question at this time is: Do we now risk going full circle? Instead of arbitrarily clinging on to our theology being right and our brand of church being correct (as our parents may have done), are we now open to questioning some of the firm foundations of our faith?
If marriage, creation and other biblical doctrines are now negotiables, do we not also now see reason to question the deity of Jesus or the resurrection of the dead? If everything is to be questioned and doubted, is nothing now certain? An over emphasis on doubt may surely lead to increasing scepticism and the conclusion that maybe we have been deluded all along and there is no God?
If we doubt and question everything, surely Held Evans’ brand of Christianity or beliefs is also up for critique and doubt? While there is merit to her writing, I find it helpful to keep reading and following a broad range of Christian voices.
Annie Carter is a writer and educator from Peterborough and the author of The Book Beyond Time, a children’s epic fantasy novel.
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