Friday, July 27, 2012

Wrestling with Doubt at Penuel

Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange by 
Eugène Delacroix 
When I was growing up, I liked to be the one with all the right answers. I remember some of my classmates in elementary school asked me if I was genius, and now I have to wonder what exactly I was saying or how I was saying it that they lumped me in with such an abnormal group of folks. At the time, I depended on my book knowledge and ability to BS to make up for a poor self-perception. It's not easy to be the fat, four-eyed kid in grade school, but at least I had my answers.

I am no longer so overweight, and I usually wear contact lenses instead of glasses these days. I'm also still pretty skilled in BS. After all, what else should a B.A. give you? However, I'm not so sure about the answers thing any more. I still take pride in having a lot of knowledge in a variety of areas, but I'm a lot more comfortable with responding, "I don't know" to questions.

That includes questions about my faith.

I am undeniably Christian. I honestly do believe in almost all the points of the Nicene Creed, though at some points I might want to qualify my beliefs a bit. I even believe in the physically impossible things, like the immaculate conception and the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As I believe in an omnipotent deity, it's not difficult for me to believe that God could or would suspend the laws of physics to make a really good point.

However, the really tough questions, the ones about suffering, the existence of evil, the tightrope walk of Arminian free will, sometimes require an "I don't know". And the confession of uncertainty easily leads to doubt. If I don't know exactly what the origin of evil is, then how can I be sure of the benevolence of the God I worship? Or even her existence?

In the church we have few safe places where we can safely ask those questions. An awful lot of our ecclesial programming involves a confident leader proclaiming "truth! truth!" and the assumed response from the pewed followers is "truth received". And then we sing another song and go our separate ways, our lingering questions trailing after us like shadows before the twilight hour.

I think this tendency to leave hard questions and lingering doubt at the church doors also plays out in the kind  of discussion we do have during Sunday school, Bible study, and other programmed time. Many church-goers avoid controversial social issues because we will likely find disagreement, and disagreement violates the "truth proclaimed-truth received" equation.

I was reminded of this when I was in New York City with the newest cohort of young adult missionaries of the United Methodist Church. I was co-facilitating discussion about community organizing and worker justice, and I posed the question, "what has been your experience of justice in your faith context?" Several of the missionaries admitted that their churches never talked about justice. I had to admit back to them that my church had rarely talked about justice when I was growing up.

Of course there are theological reasons why a church may not discuss social justice issues like labor, women's rights, peace, and the environment. That church may follow a theology of glory, recognizing that this world is awful and broken but Jesus Christ will deliver us from evil in the next life. I personally disagree with such an emphasis on glory, siding much more Martin Luther in a theology of the cross, where Jesus Christ is present with us in all the tears and blood and shit that we encounter in our temporal lives.

However, the problem is that we have little space to discuss these important theological differences. Our consumerist culture begs us to continue shopping and watching the Olympics, which is, by the way, brought to you by Ralph Lauren. I think we often try to consume our faith in a similar way, but authentic faith is not to be swallowed whole. Authentic faith comes in the form of an unexpected opponent with whom we wrestle until daybreak, and even then we leave with a hip out of socket, a form that Jacob called "Penuel" because he saw the face of God and survived (Gen. 32:22-32).

I pray that we will create places we may call "Penuel", even if we must leave that place limping. However, if we leave limping in doubt, I have faith that God will carry us even when we are unable to walk.

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