This morning I read another account of someone whose questions about particular difficult passages of Scripture had been squelched by their pastor as “lacking faith” or “prideful” or “showing a rejection of Scripture”.
This sort of thing I always find disturbing, and I’m very thankful I’ve never had to personally deal with a pastor like that.
I may be reading into it, but as almost all of these stories are American, it leaves me with the idea that this sort of pastoral attitude is a lot more common in the States than in Britain.
I guess that this should have been evident from the fact that certain quarters of our established church have long had a reputation for the preachers shocking the people with their unbelief, rather than the other way round, but this, too, is not completely fair.
Be it as it may, I’ve always had pastors who were happy to open difficult Scriptural questions and wrestle with the inadequacies of our pat answers. I’ve always been encouraged to approach my faith with the same questioning attitude as my science: the Truth is big enough to handle my questions and doesn’t need you, me or anyone else to protect it. When I had questions about the acts of genocide in the Old Testament, my pastor say down with me, gently gave me a few new ideas to consider, and encouraged me to keep wrestling with the issue.
So when I hear or read stories of pastors – truth workers – who treat any questioning at all as tantamount to unbelief and rejection of the faith, I am disturbed. This is Not Normal.
There is, I suppose, a certain attraction in a simplistic, pat answer. It’s easily memorised: when you are facing question x, you go to Scripture y and that is supposed to take care of the problem. You don’t have to do a lot of time-consuming and energy-sapping personal wrestling with issues; we already have the answers.
So actually taking the lid off and examining some of the real difficulties of interpretation of Scripture and possible conflict between the nature and character of God as we think we understand Him and the Bible as we think we understand it is dangerous. We might even be forced to say we don’t know.
There may be a generational gap here. Many of the disturbing stories I’ve heard about pastors shutting down the possibility of questions concern pastors raised in a generation that wanted and needed to have answers. As I understand it, the secularists of the day would attack Christians as operating in blind faith, “switch off your mind and just believe”, and not having any answers. It was important to show that faith was not irrational, that there were answers for these “insoluble problems”.
Cue a generation very attached to its answers. Questioning these answers was a rejection of the authority of Scripture and showed a prideful or unbelieving heart determined to raise problems.
Maybe things have improved among the more recent generation of pastors, and the situation has never been monolithic anyway, but maybe, too, there are still quite a number of people around who think like this.
It is, after all, quite an American trait to love black-and-white distinctions and instant solutions. American advertising is a case-in-point: whereas British advertisers go for the under-sell, unless you claim that your brand of toilet paper will radically change everyone’s life for the better, no-one takes you seriously.
The full truth is frequently more complicated and will not easily be reduced to a T-shirt slogan or Facebook image caption.
But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question without answering it, or to admit that our pat answers aren’t really addressing the heart of the issue and may actually be unhelpful. Look at the way Jesus taught: frequently he seems to employ the Socratic method of asking his hearers a question, and almost as frequently he lets them come to their own conclusions about what it all means. He spoke in parables; he didn’t spoon-feed the crowds the answers, but trusted them to work through it. Or not. If the questions are honest questions, the people asking them will be interested in finding answers. That’s the difference between hostile and honest questions. Some people are just throwing up objections so that they don’t have to face the claims of Christ personally, but a lot of people are just honest seekers who see a discrepancy and want understanding. Shutting down this type of question because we perceive it as a threat is the worst thing we can do; it drives people away from faith because they perceive faith and reason as opposed.
Sometimes the questions don’t have good answers. For generations before about the 1950s, the Biblical accounts of the Hittites were dismissed as pure fantasy. We didn’t have any archaeological evidence for them, we didn’t know where they were or what their kingdoms were like. And with the two ancient civilisations that we did know about (Egypt and Mesopotamia) both centred on large rivers, the fact that there was no third large river complex on which to base a civilisation led many scholars to dismiss the Hittites as an invention.
Today, we’ve excavated several Hittite cities in their Imperial centre in Anatolia, including their capital Hattushah, we’ve deciphered their writing system and know the names of some of their kings. No-one today would dismiss the Hittite Empire of the Bible as a pure invention and expect to be taken seriously.
The point is that just because we don’t know the answer, that should not prevent us from asking the question. Sometimes the first step in arriving at a solution is to recognise that there is indeed a problem. Look at Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem.
Somehow, many of us as believers seem to want to pretend that there is no problem. We have all the answers, see? If these answers don’t satisfy you, you must have a hard heart or be looking for reasons to reject faith.
Actually, there may be a real difficulty in our interpretation and understanding of events and situations from 2, 3 or 4 thousand years ago, recorded in another language that very few of us read or speak and dealing with a culture with very different starting assumptions.
Humility does not consist in suppressing our real questions in order to claim belief, but in admitting our doubts and fears and questions. God is a big God; He can handle my struggles to believe and accept.
There was an old British series of TV commercials for some kind of repair business (I forget exactly; it was a long time ago), that had as their tag line the answer to the question of “Can you fix it?” of “No, but I know a man who can!”
This is proper Christianity in a nutshell. We can’t fix your problem, whatever it is, but we know a Man who can. We don’t know all the answers, but we trust the One who the Bible names as “the Truth”.
Faith goes hand in hand with honest questioning. If the truth is really true, it doesn’t need me to prop it up, and if I’m believing something that’s not quite true, then I’m believing something that’s partly a lie, and that does not glorify God.
Maybe this is why I like the Apostle Thomas so much. Honest doubts honestly met by the Master. Thomas is not left questioning, but neither is Jesus threatened by his doubt crisis.