In defence of doubt
If we are serious about our faith, writes Val Webb, we shouldn’t leave our minds at the door this Christmas.
The season of joy is upon us but, for many, this season can constrict the heart in a tight grip.
We will sit in church pews hearing about a star that stopped still over a manger, a woman conceiving without a man and heavenly angels talking to shepherds.
For as long as I can remember, I struggled through Christmas, squelching my doubts, knowing that, if I didn’t, like Alice in Wonderland, “believe six impossible things before breakfast”, I was bound for hell.
I longed for someone to suggest that these ancient stories could be interpreted other than literally. I wondered why, if this miraculous birth story was so central to belief, it was not mentioned in Mark, our earliest gospel, or in John, our most popular gospel, or even in Paul’s letters written so much closer to Jesus’ lifetime than the gospels.
Yet no preacher ever said anything about these elephants in the room.
More recently, Christmas worship has focused on themes of new beginnings and love as a subtle hint that these ancient stories raise questions, but hymns are still sung and Bible stories read as if the gospel writers watched these events first hand.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote a book In Defence of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure. It was written in “white heat” the summer we moved overseas.
After a lifetime of being a God-obsessed Christian struggling with my doubts about some of the “truths” with which I was raised, it was time to put on paper something that was composting within me — that doubts were signs of health, Divine catalysts urging me to more mature thinking, rather than shameful secrets to hide behind the door while squeezing my feet into someone else’s certainty.
Today, as hoards walk away from churches, vocal atheists protest in public places and science reveals knowledge about our universe that confounds many ancient beliefs, we need to face openly our questions about the religious stories we tell.
The greatest need in churches today is serious discussion about how we interpret our Bible for 21st century life, enmeshed as it is in ancient desert cosmology and law.
Unfortunately, many people find a more receptive space for such questions outside their churches.
When I ask clergy why they are reluctant to share with their congregations the evolution of these stories over time, something they all learn in theological college, they tell me, “I don’t want to pull the rug out from under the laity if they have not asked these questions,” yet the rug under many laity is already threadbare.
I remember, after finishing university religious studies, a clergyperson from my youth confided in me, “I never really believed in a virgin birth.” Yet he had preached it every Christmas of my childhood without comment.
Religious doubt is not an enemy to conquer. In all of life — science, arts, philosophy, experience — creative doubt leads to better knowledge.
Doubt has long been part of our religious history. The psalmists raged against God and Job refused to be quiet, yet, when Thomas logically insisted on seeing before believing, we labelled him, and any who question thereafter, “doubting Thomases” to shame and silence.
Martin Luther challenged his church’s teachings only after years of blaming himself for his doubts, always believing that “there were theologians hidden in the schools who would not have been silent if these teachings were impious.”
This should challenge all teachers and preachers who avoid raising the hard questions.
If we are serious about our faith, we need to verbalise our niggling questions this Christmas — about virgin births, wayward stars and singing angels — and not allow our questions to be brushed off or be labelled as doubters weak in faith.
No doubt (!) letters to the editor will quote Bible verses at me, telling me I cannot be Christian unless I believe all these stories literally. I am not writing for such people — I am writing for those who will again sit uncomfortably in pews.
I urge preachers to remember these doubters this Christmas and present these ancient stories in ways that do not demand we leave our minds at the door. Thus is will be a joyous season for all.
Dr Val Webb is an Australian theologian, a Uniting Church member and the author of ten books. An expanded second edition of In Defence of Doubt has just been published (www.mosaicresources.com.au), still celebrating doubt as part of a healthy life.