If you made a list of Christian clichés, near the top of it would be something akin to the following: ‘Being a Christian is not easy, there are some tough times.’ In corporate speak, it’s called managing expectations. We do it all the time, and as Christians we may similarly try to change according to how things change around us. In our hectic lives, we relate God to our most present experiences. It’s so natural, so human. Our circumstances – the relationships and stories that envelop us every day and for seasons of time – shape how we think and talk about God.
Seasons come and go, and in periods of doubt, questions may arise that prompt us into uncertainty. Only recently the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘admitted’ to having doubts about faith and God. It was a brave step, judging by the gasps of disbelief from some quarters of the media, to be so open and vulnerable. But he was merely articulating some of the common questions that many Christians seem to have.
Pete Rollins, a radical theologian who will speak at a conference organised by SCM and PCN next month, said recently that, "you can't be satisfied; life is difficult; you don't know the secret." Freedom is found not in embracing the same old ideas, but in letting go of our struggle for knowledge and certainty. Reading and digesting this has made me reflect on my own faith and grapple with the value of certainty, truth, doubt and pain.
Sounds like heavy stuff, which is why I’d now like to share a dodgy metaphor to lighten the mood.
Playing a Role
Imagine a courtroom where Jesus is on trial. God, acting as judge, is presiding, while a jury made up of people around the world is keenly listening to every argument. The prosecuting lawyer is questioning one of the witnesses, trying to find holes in the story. The defence team sits patiently, listening to the unfolding drama.
Which role does the Christian play? Are we supposed to be the witnesses – advocating for Jesus and speaking absolutely about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Many Christians would see themselves serving this role, embracing their duty to act as apologists and defenders of faith. Others would see themselves acting as lawyers, asking questions and building up a picture of what the truth looks like from various fragments of evidence. They represent the cause of Jesus through a range of experiences and stories. Some might even – on occasion – take on the role of judge, deeming what was right and wrong.
These roles aren’t fixed, and we may play each one in different situations and to different people. Which all begs the question: are there absolute truths about the Christian faith that demand certainty?
For me, there are some truths that are unshakeable. If they weren’t, my faith would be subject to changing tides. My test for ‘truth’ is set against who I know God to be (or at least the very limited glimpse of who God is to me), and the God that Jesus revealed in the Bible. As someone who cannot dream of claiming authority over many things, I think this is a good starting point.
I believe God is good. I believe God is a God of justice, a God for whom nothing is impossible. I believe Jesus is the son of God, who gave us a glimpse of what following Christ might look like..
What is driving our doubt?
Speaking to different Christians about this issue, the reasons that are driving these questions are numerous and complex. Personal experiences inevitably shape how people think. But our exposure to the world is also changing. Twenty-four hour news cycles confront us with suffering, conflict and injustice every day. Where can God possibly be in all this mess?
Opinions seem to be diversifying, and our knowledge of the dizzying array of experience that makes up humanity is growing. Consuming such a diversity of experience and thought is driving us towards uncertainty and deeper exploration.
It’s worth celebrating, but also worth pondering where it might lead us.
We would do well to remember the moments when justice broke through and rang out in a world that seems to lack so much of it. Those glimpses offer us hope and assurance that God indeed is good, that our doubts may subside to reveal a fresh determination to seek what is good. That is an idea worth pursuing, and a truth worth embracing.