Asking questions is dangerous business. I have friends and acquaintances who, after completing an inquisition into their own religious beliefs, forsook their religion, kicked the dust from their feet, and hit the road for a stroll in the sun. You probably know such people as well. I know others whose questioning led them to embrace a faith life of one kind or another. Questioning can precipitate radical change.
Good that it does. I’m all for this dangerous business, and I say this as someone whose own self-examinations have gotten me a ride on an endless roller-coaster of a spiritual life. I’m told it’s best to build my spiritual house on a rock rather than upon the sand, but the stormy sea is more to my liking. If religious faith really entails an encounter with an infinite being, then, in my book, it shouldn’t ever be a stably anchored position on life. As if the divine could be so constrained! In my book, a complacent faith is no faith at all. I can’t tell you exactly where my belief ends and my unbelief begins. The line isn’t fixed; I keep it in question.
To frame faith as a kind of Gnosis or special, unassailable knowledge by which every truth claim must be measured and judged does a disservice to faith. Yet many of people of faith do just this. They question everything except the precepts of their faith. In their world, faith is a divine gift that enables them to see the real truth free of doubt and uncertainty. To question it is to sin against its very nature. If faith gives one access to certain knowledge, then to question that knowledge reveals a want of faith.
To be sure, this “gnostic” approach to faith has a long train of antagonists among the religiously devout. Augustine argued in favor of a metaphorical reading of the bible when a more literal interpretation clashed with the insights of reason. Pope Francis interprets the story of Jonah as a metaphor for the way in which human certainties imprison the mind and soul. For many a religious believer, science and history and philosophy serve as keys for interpreting religious texts. Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an Evangelical calling his fellow Christians to develop a habit of skepticism. Revelation may come from God, but it still has to be interpreted in light of what we know. Treat the bible as the instructional manual for morality, and you may end up justifying genocide and slavery and all manner of evils.
As I see it, faith is the willingness to act when one doesn’t have all the answers, when certainty hides behind a cloud of unknowing. The life-long commitment of marriage takes faith because neither party can know where life and marriage will lead them. Raising children takes a degree of faith. You might have good cause to believe that a particular style of parenting will work well for your offspring, but conceivably you could instead be harming their delicate psyches and setting them up for much misery. My religion takes faith because I neither see nor hear the God whom I worship. The tenets and rituals of my Catholicism were formulated by strangers long dead and personally unknown to me.
I think it prudent that engaged couples question their relationship before making the promises of marriage, that parents question the methods of child-rearing they’ve chosen to employ, and that religious believers question their beliefs and what the content of their beliefs mean. Uncertainty itself is good cause for raising questions, but we’re not exactly flying blind here. As our species develops, we have the chance to learn more and more, meaning we have good cause to rethink what we think we know and think we do not know and think we believe.
Image via NASA