Q & R: Conceptual Backflips – appealing but not simple

Here’s the Q:

First of all, I’d like to thank you for your books. Though I’ve not read all of them, my reading of a couple of them–as well as other writers like N.T. Wright–has led me on a pilgrimage away from a punitive Christian worldview that is mostly about escaping God’s wrath toward a worldview that is more about being a blessing for the world through Christ.
Ironically, now that I’ve managed to come this far, I find myself struggling with doubts. Let me be clear: my struggle is not that I doubt the loving, compassionate God revealed in Christ that you and others have led me to, or that I would like to believe in such a God but can’t banish the punitive, scary God I was led to believe in when I was young (or not entirely). Rather, my primary struggle is now believing in any god at all. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m a Christian struggling with doubt or an atheist who feels trapped by faith. Either way, I’m feeling very lost and wondering if you have any wisdom to offer. Most of your writing appears to be addressed to people who have been damaged by conservative Christianity gone wrong–but after you’ve articulated “a Christianity worth believing,” to borrow Doug Pagitt’s phrase, there’s still the question of whether any of it’s true. Do you have anything to offer for those of us struggling with this question?

The question continues …

My main source of doubt is basically a form of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually true. And although the way of being a follower of Christ that you and others have articulated is certainly appealing, it is not simple. In fact, looking at the matter critically, it increasingly seems to me that both “liberal” and “emergent” theology is nothing more than a way to accomodate the barbaric, tribal worldview of the Hebrew Bible and the slightly-more-palatable message of the New Testament to the modern mind.
To take the authority of the Bible as an example: What we know today about science, history, archeology, contemporary ethics, and the Bible itself–both the way it came to be and the contradictions in it–makes it very hard to read the Bible as, to use your term, a constitution. Reading it as a diverse library is certainly more suited to what the Bible is and is not–but it’s a little complicated. For one thing, it requires a certain knowledge of history and literary form that would seem to make responsible Bible-reading the sole province of an academic elite. Not only that, but continuing to believe that the Bible is authoritative is a complex spiritual endeavor: I now must believe that God inspired the Bible, but that God’s authoritative message for those who read it is buried beneath primitive worldviews, norms of violence and exclusive tribal identity that are actually contrary to God’s will, and preserved through years of changed manuscripts, translations, and a very human process of picking which books were “inspired” and which weren’t. Isn’t it more likely that the Bible is just a human book like any other, interesting from a historical and literary perspective but with no real authority for our lives?
The same doubts arise for other beliefs: God’s agency in the world, Christ as the ultimate revelation of who God is, any special destiny for the world. I’d like to believe in all of it, but the conceptual backflips I need to do in order to believe in a way that’s palatable in the 21st century are just too much to bear.
It may not seem like it from the matter-of-fact way I’m presenting all this, but these thoughts have come with a lot of anxiety for me. I’ve built my life on following Christ–to walk away from the faith would mean walking away from much of what has made me who I am. It would mean walking away from my community, hurting many of my closest friends, my family, and my spouse. Also, ironically, I jump between complete unbelief and the hellfire-and-brimstone faith I thought I’d escaped–I’ll entertain atheistic thoughts, then suddenly be terrified that God will send me to hell for my doubt. Is there any guidance you can offer?

Here’s the R:
Thanks so much for this question. I’ve met so many people who have been afraid to just come out and ask what you ask here. So you’re doing a real service by putting into words the deep conflict many people feel when they begin to question their inherited or constructed theological system.
I have three preliminary suggestions, acknowledging that your question deserves much more than I can offer here.
First, I think it’s important, through all your questioning, to maintain primary spiritual practices … the kinds I talk about in Naked Spirituality. The reasons for suggesting this are many – but they’re related to your statement, “to walk away from the faith would mean walking away from much of what has made me who I am.” There is the intellectual dimension to this struggle – grappling with your beliefs, views, opinions, etc. But there is also the spiritual dimension – a posture or attitude of heart. In the end, I think this quality of heart is far more important to who you are than any individual belief or system of beliefs. The process of deepening through the process of questioning your concepts (in the language of the book) leads through “stage 3” to “stage 4” – and all I can tell you is that it is worth it.
Second, it will be important to expose yourself to writers/speakers who speak of God and the spiritual life from this “beyond stages 1 and 2” space. Thankfully, there are more and more of them – just to mention a few: Barbara Brown Taylor, Pete Rollins, Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, Nora Gallagher.
Third, I think you need to “inhabit” atheism enough to see that it too is filled with intellectual challenges. You might say it this way. In theism, you have the problem of evil to contend with … but in atheism, you have the problem of good, the problem of meaning, the problem of purpose. I remember back in graduate school when I was going through a tough period of questioning along with a good friend. He decided to become an atheist. One day we were standing in a fast food restaurant line, and he asked me, “How are you doing it? How are you keeping faith?” “It’s not easy,” I replied. “Well, it’s not easy having no faith either, believe me,” he said.
But I feel I should say that #2 and #3 won’t help much without #1 above. That’s why i felt it was important to write NS. The spiritual life isn’t an elective luxury to add on to the necessity of a theological system. I’m more and more convinced that it’s actually the real point.
You’re in my prayers today, and I imagine many other readers of this blog who have been where you are will join me in saying – and meaning – that.