Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Church is for answers, not questions!

I have a confession to make. Secretly, deep down, in a very dark place, I am a fan of Desperate Housewives!! Now I’m out of the closet, I need to regain some dignity by making a few pious comments on this week’s episode.

Lynette, mother of five, who has survived cancer and a tornado, decides she wants to go to church. She watches her neighbours leave for church on a Sunday morning, and realises that she has a lot to be thankful for, as well as a lot of unanswered questions. So, for the first time in her life she goes to church. Unfortunately, when she gets there, she discovers that church is not a place for asking questions. Watch the clip of her visit to church here.

The punchline comes in the next scene, though, when her church-going friend, Bree, informs Lynette that she should not ask questions in church because, “church isn't a place for questions, it's a place for answers." Church, she explains, is a time to listen and eventually, if you have any questions, they will be answered by listening.

At this point, Schof rang me (much more stimulating than Desperate Housewives, of course), so I have no idea how it ended, but it really struck a chord with me because I’ve been going to church most of my life and for most of that time I’ve been desperate for the church to answer my questions, but it was never interested in them. It never seemed to be a group of people asking and investigating the divine, but a group intent on telling everyone their answers. (Is that too harsh?) I’m not trying to say that there is value in indecision. Constant prevaricating can certainly stop us putting our beliefs into practice. It seems quite reasonable that we land on some convictions that prompt action. But, these convictions are always held to with a light touch, aware that we are dealing with questions of God and life – questions that cannot be empirically tested. Isn’t that what faith is all about. It just seems to me that God, by his very nature is mysterious, beyond us, someone we enquire into, not one we essentially can ever have sewn up.

I’ve always felt a bit like Lynette – like a square peg in a round hole – like I’d completely got the wrong idea about what church was about - asking questions no one wanted broached, let alone answered. In fact, had I declared myself a non-Christian I think people would have given me more time, but a Christian is in. His journey has stopped and he now has the answers, not the questions.

Of course, I realise that it is highly threatening for some people that their faith is being questioned. I realise I’m not as sympathetic about this as maybe I should be – psychologically many do not have confidence (faith?) that their beliefs will still hold together after intense probing. Faith (that conviction about things we cannot be certain about) is replaced by certainty.

Anyway, this isn’t a moan. I am personally reconciled to what church is. This is more of a thanks to all you bloggers out there for providing me a context for the first time in my life where I can ask questions and get things wrong and retract things and no one is defensive that their faith is under threat.


mark said...

Schof, how do I add a video clip to this blog?

Ben said...

This post really struck a chord with me. But sorry Mark, it's not because I share your highly dubious TV tastes. ;-)

Doubt is such a normal part of faith that I'd be surprised if anyone doesn't feel it at one time or another.

But churches aren't really equipped for doubters. Like you said, before you're 'in' you can say anything you like, but once you've stepped over that line people feel threatened if you appear uncertain or start questioning important things like whether God really exists.

And perhaps it's even worse for people in responsibility in a church... how does a home-group leader or a 'minister' express doubt? - because they surely have them. Perhaps they can confide in a couple of close friends, but how destructive is it to appear strong, faithful and unwavering on the outside when inside there's turmoil?

And this is one of the things I'm trying to work out about church... to what extent do people need structure, tradition and patterns to follow? Because these things require leadership, which inevitably puts somebody on a pedestal.

How would a church work, where doubt can be openly expressed, and difficult questions asked, without anyone feeling threatened? Do people need a leader to look upto - someone whose faith is stronger than their own? Or can Christian communities work without leaders like this?

Apologies if my thinking's a little confused - Am I mixing different things up here...? Some clarity would be much appreciated!!

DS said...

Dear brothers -

Brother Mark - What!!! + I'll call u on the video + ok... nice post:-)

Brother Ben - great questions! Hey if its all true than what do we have to fear by bearing our true selves to God 'true love casts out fear (fear of punishment)' 1jn 4v18.

In fact, of course its not all true because we tend to skew, slant, box it to make it easier to get/do so we feel better about ourselves - when really this should come from opening ourselves fully to God's true love.

As you say 'Come as you are' is surely not just for 'non Christians', with an alternative 'now pretend' for us insiders. Perhaps the best way to show and share the good news amongst ourselves and others is to make sure its always about Gods unconditional love, true 'fore'givness and unearned (through forced fake intellectual assent or 'works') grace.

Then we can all help each other 'as iron sharpens iron' to shed the rusty and blunt closeted, closed, calloused bits of our life of faith that are perhaps more protected and salved than exposed and healed by religion.

I know I can often be less myself than anywhere when 'at church' which is, I am learning, a v bad idea for me and those around me. It stunts my health, relationships and growth in 'grace and good works'.

Whilst the times I have dared to be really honest (which are at first very scary!) I have found real growth, deeper relationships, a grace that is truly beyond all that can be imagined and also a more outward looking hope that I actually really 'want to' live out in humility, kindness, justice and mercy - and the mad thing is I feel more secure in it all!

I used to be very committed to a particular 'form of church' ('Household') now i am (trying to be) committed to a form of faith (simple, real, meaningful in me and the world).

When I was younger I used to be scared of doubt - as if I might lose God. In reality of course that's impossible but also in a way losing God is a good thing because lots of things i made God he never was in the first place - he was always so mysteriously, fearfully, wonderfully more. If I never let myself and him out of the box i never would have realised that.

(Actually i just read that back and when i was younger I would have been cool with 'doubt' but I saw the way to resolve it as repenting and realising the 'right answers' are still the 'right answers' and i need to lose my ego and just accept them. Now that's way different to really really being real with God and each other and there is not really any scope for growth of any kind.)

I could go on for ages and i do think a very empathetic sensitive and gentle approach is needed when people are not used to real honesty but what's the alternative? Super-Christians leading people to expect to be super-Christians whilst we all miss out on knowing God for real and walking with/like him everyday - through the valleys as well as on the mountain tops. You know most people i know are pretty honest when in a safe environment maybe church should be more about simply creating that kind of environment- then who knows maybe other people would be interested as well?

I'll close with a quote from the inimitable Meister Eckhart (check him out) to encourage all those teetering on the first step of doubt that may in fact be the first step of true faith

'The ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God'

mark said...

how reassuring that everyone is so unjudgemental about my confession!

DS said...

Oh- was searching brain for quote and think this is it -

'Doubt is not the opposite of faith it's an element of faith' Paul Tillich

Think that helps the 'not wanting to celebrate doubt' issue when really we would want to celebrate our relationship with god, our faith even when we hit hard lean times which in the end seem essential to the ongoing heath and strength of relationship/faith

ANYWAY!(off i go again)........ Ben, what I really wanted to say was - how would you explore an answer to your own question?

mark said...

Thanks guys, I’ve enjoying reading your takes on things, and I agree with what everyone has said (except my dubious taste in TV!) and I certainly think putting leaders on a pedestal is a bad thing – it only models ‘pretending’, and encourages guilt, because we are not good enough. I don’t think it genuinely inspires growth in faith and knowledge of God.

To be honest, Ben, I think your questions reflect some of the things I’ve been struggling with over the last few years. Whether I’ve got any wisdom on this, I doubt, but when did that ever stop me putting my penny’s worth in?

I personally think there are different personality types out there. There are some who really do need the security of an unwavering faith. In fact, many churches are built to provide such certainty. This is something I’ve really struggled with where I am. These people do not want questions or doubt. They want certainty. I’m not convinced it’s a particularly healthy place to be, but what do you do about it? Do I ask questions and express doubt when people just can’t bear it? I don’t think I have the appetite for unsettling people if they don’t want to be unsettled or inviting them to ask questions, they don’t have. I think I’ll leave it to God to do the unsettling.

But, on the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are in the minority but hold sway over the majority who dare not ask questions, out of fear. If this suspicion is true it is certainly worrying, particularly for all those out there who really must ask questions – I mean those who are suffering in some way and really need to express their doubt, and don’t want to be slapped with a Scripture and moved on – where are they ever going to be able to ask questions?

And how do we accommodate these two different types in the same church? And how on earth do they even begin to communicate with each other?

I guess you have to judge it according to the situation you are in. In the church I’m in, I really don’t think asking questions or expressing doubt would be particularly productive. But, I need to find a place where I can ask questions and I guess that is what Engage is for me. But it is still unsatisfactory. There are plenty of people in our church who probably need more of an outlet to ‘explore’ their faith than they are getting.

I’m interested in what you said about leadership too. But, I think I’m convinced that whatever model you take, someone always takes a lead (sometimes they are good people to do that, sometimes they are just the loud ones, or overbearing ones). This doesn’t mean I like the leadership model churches have adopted in the West. I don’t think the one-man, professional ‘minister’, or the worship-leader model is particularly helpful. But, I think there are models of leadership that are egalitarian and don’t involve pedastals. I just think that the church in the West has adopted an elitist, professional model of leadership that means that we can hardly imagine anything different.

Sorry, too much rambling and I think there are more questions here than answers – but I guess that’s what we said was important so it can’t be a bad thing.

Ben said...


I hope you weren't offended by my comment on your dubious taste. My taste is far more dubious... ;-)

Thanks for the responses... how would i explore an answer to my own question? I guess what I'd like to do is look at different patterns of church, and church leadership, and see if there are any which allow doubt to be explored and don't require leaders to keep their struggles hidden. Mark you suggested this was a uniquely Western problem - perhaps you can elaborate?...

But more practically, I think I need to start opening up a bit with people I've previously been reluctant to share doubts and difficult questions with, and see what happens. Hopefully I'll be surprised. But that needs to be done pretty sensitively - it may not be the loving thing to do if they're Mark's 'type A' person...

ANyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

mark said...

Ben, I'm not at all offended... In fact, Desperate Housewives is just the tip of the iceberg!!!

My comment about the leadership we've adopted being quite Western...

I'm really no expert on this, but I understand that in the Arabian peninsula (until relatively recently) tribes were run with a strict seperation of responsibilities - the women ran internal affairs and the men looked after external affairs. The issues themselves could be debated by the men or women for days or weeks. I'm not exacty sure how leadership functioned, but I think some gained respect through age or just for making wise contributions. It has always struck me as to how much more relational and consensual this form of 'leadership' is than the models involving people having an 'office' that gives them the right to do as they please. Also, although I hadn't thought about this before, it sounds like it allowed for doubt. I'm not suggesting churches necessarily adopt the model, I'm just giving an example of a non-Western model.

I hope it goes well with you, starting to open up discussion with people. Its a brave thing to do, but I bet you'll be surprised by people's responses.