JUST A FEW dozen pages into Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed, evangelical pastor Jay Bakker pens what may be the best explanation for the Christian emphasis on church community that I've ever encountered. Noting that doubt can be "hard and scary," Bakker writes: "That's why we have one another, why we have community. We can go through those days of doubt together. I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for the people who have been there with me as I question everything."
Many writers have grappled with the challenge that doubt poses for religious believers. But in this honest, searching, and ultimately uplifting book, Bakker pulls doubt out of the shadows where many believers wrestle with it on their own and instead presents it as a reality that Christian communities can and should address together.
Bakker's approach to the often-taboo topic of questioning—or, as he puts it, "the sense that faith is crap, life is meaningless, there is no God, the Bible is a fraud, Jesus was just a charismatic man turned mythological figure if he existed at all"—is shaped by his childhood in a Pentecostal environment that left no room for doubt. As Bakker ruefully notes in the book's introduction, "I will probably be 80 years old and still introduced as Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye." That unusual background only provides the impetus, however, and not the substance for this book, which reads mostly as the stream-of-consciousness meditation of a man pushing and pulling at his faith to see if it holds up.
The beliefs that pull Bakker up short, that cause him to question what he's always been taught about his faith, aren't that different from what many of us are told in our own religious communities. Our membership is often contingent on accepting a certain concept of God, a certain idea of eternity and where people get to spend it, a certain understanding of the Bible. Above all, many communities demand certainty.
As Bakker points out, that certainty makes it possible for bad theology to propagate and for hubris to take hold of believers. One of the benefits of doubt, he writes, is that "[it] keeps me from thinking I've got a handle on God. Doubt encourages me to keep learning, to keep myself open to being wrong." One could imagine a little doubt being helpful for those who are so quick to, say, see God's wrath in a natural disaster or the mass killing of little children.
Although the book is about Bakker's own struggles with faith, his conclusion is that all individuals should feel safe and welcome to wrestle with questions within a religious community. He pastors just such a congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, called Revolution NYC, which meets on Sunday afternoons at a bar called Pete's Candy Store.
I wish that a postcard version of Bakker's message could be beamed to every person who thinks of him- or herself as "spiritual but not religious." Many of the growing number of Americans who don't identify with a specific religious tradition have been put off by congregations that forced them to believe or leave. It is so much harder, though, to work through issues of belief and doubt alone, and most exiles simply don't.
Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap.