Philip Yancey is my favorite Christian author. Some evangelicals criticize him as being “mystical”, but his writings have been extremely helpful to me. He is just so authentic, transparent, and honest when it comes to issues of faith. The titles of his books alone are revealing … Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, Church: Why Bother?, Soul Survivor, What Good is God? … you get the idea!
On his website (http://www.philipyancey.com/), you can find a variety of information. Including a thoughtful Q & A section. I particularly appreciated the Q & A on faith and doubt, and have copied part of it below. (I suppose it is okay for me to do this?) Do check out the site for yourself! By the way, the book Rumors of Another World has been re-published under the title A Skeptics Guide to Faith.
You talk openly about your doubts, whereas many Christians tend not to.
Doubt is something almost every person experiences at some point, yet something that the church does not always handle well. I’m an advocate of doubt, because that’s why I became a Christian in the first place. I started doubting some the crazy things my church taught me when I was growing up! (This was a most unhealthy church, I must say.)
I’m also impressed that the Bible includes so many examples of doubt. Evidently God has more tolerance of doubt than most churches. I want to encourage those who doubt, and also encourage the church to be a place that rewards rather than punishes honesty.
Lots of folks have given faith a try but have become disillusioned or disappointed with God. What do you say to those folks?
I say, I have just the book for you, one I wrote called Disappointment with God! Just kidding. First, I tell them that they’re in good company. When I speak to college students, I challenge them to find a single argument against God in the older agnostics (Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Lamentations. I have respect for a God who not only gives us the freedom to reject him, but also includes the arguments we can use in the Bible. God seems rather doubt-tolerant, actually.
Is there a danger in not facing our doubts?
As a child I attended a church that had little room for inquisitiveness. If you doubted or questioned, you sinned. I learned to conform, as you must in a church like that. Meanwhile those deep doubts, those deep questions, didn’t get answered in a satisfactory way. The danger of such a church like that—and there are many—is that by saying, “Don’t doubt, just believe,” you don’t really resolve the doubts. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.
Inquisitiveness and questioning are inevitable parts of the life of faith. Where there is certainty there is no room for faith. I encourage people not to doubt alone, rather to find some people who are safe “doubt companions,” and also to doubt their doubts as much as their faith. But it doesn’t help simply to deny doubts or to feel guilty about them. Many people, after all, have been down that path before and have emerged with a strong faith.
You talk about speaking to people in the “borderlands of belief”—who are they?
People who have a strong hunch there is something real about the whole spiritual thing, but who haven’t found that realized in a fruitful way in a church setting. They suspiciously circle the church wondering, “Is there a God? How can I know? What difference does it make in my life?”
And you wrote the book A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith for them?
I meet many church-going Christians who would find it difficult to articulate why they believe as they do. Perhaps they absorbed faith as part of their upbringing, or perhaps they simply find church an uplifting place to visit on weekends. But if asked to explain their faith to a Muslim, or an atheist, they wouldn’t know what to say. As a matter of fact, the thought hit me personally: “What would I say?” That question prompted the book, which I wrote not so much to convince anyone else as to think out loud in hopes of coming to terms with my own faith. Does religious faith make sense in a world of the Hubble telescope and the Internet? Have we figured out the basics of life or is some important ingredient missing? C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book titled Mere Christianity, and I’ve narrowed that range even further, to Even More Mere Christianity.
The great divide separating belief and unbelief reduces down to one simple question: Is the visible world around us all there is? Those unsure of the answer to that question live in the borderlands. They wonder whether faith in an unseen world is wishful thinking. Does faith delude us into seeing a world that doesn’t exist, or does it reveal the existence of a world we can’t see without it?
How reasonable a position is it, in your opinion, for people to exist in the “borderlands of belief”?
I’m not sure people in the borderlands spend much time thinking through whether or not their position is reasonable. They live in the borderlands because they sense a spiritual reality yet do not feel comfortable committing to a religious structure. Sometimes they’ve been wounded by the church—I hear from many such people—and sometimes they find organized worship an alien experience, almost a different subculture. Frankly, I have a lot of sympathy for these people, because at times I’ve found myself in exactly that situation. I would add, though, that I encourage people to move out of the borderlands. True faith cannot be practiced in isolation from others. We need community and we need tradition, which G. K. Chesterton called “democracy extended through time.”
Given that there are other religions, many claiming divine inspiration, why should anyone take seriously Christianity’s claim that Jesus is THE way to God?
The only way to take such a claim seriously is to examine the one who made it: Jesus. What kind of person is he? An egomaniac? Deluded? Trustworthy? Something about Jesus made people leave their jobs and families and follow him around the hills and plains of Palestine. Something about him attracts the allegiance of one-third of the people on this planet today. I’ve taken a look at the evidence and concluded that Jesus is who he says he is, the human expression of the invisible God. I’m mindful of a saying from the Anglican Bishop Michael Ramsey: “In God is no unChristlikeness at all.” That’s an abstract way of saying, If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. His combination of qualities—fierceness and yet compassion, absolute confidence and yet humility, brilliance and yet simplicity—I find in no other human being. For me, Jesus is a trustworthy guide.
What role, if any, do feelings play in faith?
A huge role. I see faith not so much as an intellectual assent to a series of concepts, but as a relationship with a living God. Feelings deeply affect every relationship. For example, I’ve been married four decades. Name any feeling, good or bad, and I’ve probably had that feeling toward my wife. Yet the commitment to marriage binds me to her regardless of the feeling of the moment. I confess there are also times when I have to “act as if” I love her when the feeling lags. That’s normal, I believe, in any long-term relationship.
You need only read the Book of Psalms to recognize the same pattern in a relationship with God. The psalms used to baffle me because they seemed so contradictory; read Psalm 22 (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) back to back. Now I see that collection of poetry as an accurate expression of the vacillating feelings in a faith relationship.
Why don’t more Christians discuss doubt honestly and openly?
Christians tend to be propagandists. We want to convince others, put on a good face, inspire. And we also tend to ignore the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are. The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners. Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends.
I deal with issues that people may think about but don’t vocalize. The church has sometimes chastised people who admit their weakness and failure, and our society has an aversion to suffering. So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they secretly hurt and doubt. Perhaps my books provide a relief for them to see someone actually voice those hurts and doubts in print.
The 15 years C. S. Lewis spent as an atheist gave him understanding and compassion for those who find faith difficult. I didn’t spend 15 years as an atheist, but I did go through my own period of rejection. I do have compassion for those for whom faith doesn’t come easy. I have to take each one of my own beliefs and crack it open and see if I can swallow it. I like to tackle the questions, and writing gives me the opportunity.
How can more Christians be encouraged to give intelligent and serious thought to their faith instead of adhering to the oft quoted, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”?
I meet a lot of those “that settles it…” types on the other side of faith, after they’ve ditched it. Jeremiah uses the image of a bush planted alongside a river. As long as adequate water flows in the river, the bush blooms. If the water dries up, the bush dies. Then he speaks of desert plants that send roots down deep. We need to develop that deep-rooted faith. I think of all the seminars people attend in order to improve their careers, or the energy people expend following sports teams or popular music. My goodness, shouldn’t we devote the same energy to the most important issues of life? The resources are out there; we simply need the discipline to use them wisely.
Discipline—not a very attractive word.
I once wrote a column, on my 25th wedding anniversary in fact, comparing mountain climbing to marriage. I live in Colorado, and recently completed a goal of climbing all 54 mountains higher than 14,000 feet (4300 meters). Mountain climbing sounds dramatic and exciting, and indeed it is—about 5 or 10 percent of the time. The drama occurs when you’re walking along a ledge with exposure on either side, or pulling yourself up to the summit, or dashing down a boulder field to avoid a lightning storm. By far most of the activity, though, involves putting one foot in front of another, again and again, over and over. When I reach about 13,000 feet of altitude the oxygen deficiency kicks in. I force myself to take 100 steps before a rest, then 50 steps, then 25 steps. And if I keep at it, plodding along, I’ll make it to the top. Virtually every human specialty is like that: think of the preparation Olympic athletes go through, and other sports figures, or great musicians. Sure, they have the excitement and the spotlight, but that represents a small percentage of their lives. Why should we expect anything different in the spiritual life? Much of it involves being faithful, developing disciplines, preparing for the few moments of true testing and usefulness.
Why do you think so many Christians avoid a serious inquiry into their faith, preferring instead to simply accept the church’s teachings without question?
Laziness may play a factor. Fear does too. Many Christians are afraid to look too closely at their faith. Like Peter, they’re afraid to step out of the boat. And some churches encourage that kind of “I’ll do your thinking for you” as a form of control. That’s always dangerous. I read the other day that 153 times someone came up to Jesus with a question, and 147 of those times he responded with another question. A good model, wouldn’t you say?