"To believe is human, to doubt divine."
Those words are central to the self-described "incendiary theology" Peter Rollins preaches. Amid a Christian culture known all too often for its belief in absolutes and pervasive positivity, Rollins completed a pre-Easter tour in April to give these communities the permission to doubt and lament. The 10-city "Insurrection Tour" didn't take place in churches, but pubs.
That's because a message touting doubt, questions, and skepticism is often not welcome in our sanctuaries. Pubs and bars, however, serve as venues for discussing life's toughest issues nearly every night of the week.
Folks in the pews, Rollins asserts, doubt all the time. They have terrible days, feel oppressed and cheated, and wonder if there's anything to this Jesus-y stuff. And then they come to church and hear motivational pep-talks and putridly positive prayers and music.
Not only that, Rollins maintains that churchgoers expect their churches to do their believing for them. Though it isn't their reality, we eek our good feelings of faith off of our pastors and liturgies. But what if our pastors themselves stop believing? Well, last month, Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University released a study entitled "Preachers Who are not Believers." One full-time minister the researchers interviewed, "Adam," self-describes as an "atheist-agnostic." Here's how he says he handles his job on Sundays:
Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing.
He went on to describe why he sticks it out saying and doing things he doesn't believe:
I'm where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn't destroy my family, that's where I'd go.
How did we get to this point? Simple. We don't allow each other to voice our questions and doubts. Church isn't a place for questions, but absolutes. It's certainly no place for shades of gray -- black and white are our colors. We certainly don't get this from the narrative of scripture, where we find a motley cast of characters who are quite comfortable expressing doubt and anger -- even to God. Rollins paraphrased Kierkegaard, who, in his commentary on Job, advised the troubled man to yell at God because God can take it.
But the Insurrection Tour gave me hope for what is possible when faith communities not just allow doubt to enter, but embrace it. I was touched by the hauntingly beautiful poetry and music of Pádraig Ô Tuaman that reflected the pain and lament of the human soul. Johnny McEwan's moving beats and graphics complemented Rollins' provocative words and rounded out a night of spiritual exploration unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The church desperately needs poets and artists whose creations not only reflect the joy and beauty of life, but the pain.
What I and Christians everywhere need is the permission to be human, living and struggling daily with the range of human emotions. Sunday morning services -- with their "love songs to Jesus," as Rollins terms them -- would have us believe that Christians are "in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time." This is so far from the truth, it's not even funny.
What if, little by little, we started to believe that God is big enough to take our doubt and anger? What if we changed our culture of false pretenses? What if we began to not only share our struggles along with our joys, but were present to lend an ear to a struggling friend, without judgment? What if our hymnody, sermons, and prayers began to reflect more fully the range of human emotions, including doubt, fear, and anger?
We will become healthier and more effective ambassadors of love when our gatherings -- from the kitchen table to the Lord's Table -- become places where we can struggle with the existence and character of God. Because while a conclusion is the place we arrive when we've stopped thinking, struggling -- even with faith -- assumes movement. And in the kingdom of God, movement is rarely a bad thing.
Steve Holt seeks joy and justice in East Boston, Massachusetts. Steve enjoys gardening, being a husband, community life, and writing. He blogs about spirituality and his garden at harvestboston.wordpress.com.