when God doesn’t make sense (exactly, yes, thank you, join the club)

My line of work brings me into contact with all sorts of Christian pilgrims on different stages of their journey. The fact that I’m not exactly sure what my line of work is is beside the point, still, for me there is something holy and at the same time deeply human when people feel the freedom to dump their god on me. Recovering or recently-having-recovered Fundamentalists especially seem to find their way to me.

Just the other day, I spent a couple of hours with an old friend at the local pub–and, if you will permit me an aside, I’ve heard it said that theology should never be discussed without a pint in one’s hand, as this is as certain as things get in this life. People are honest and afterwards they just want to hug. Discussing theology and life in sterile rooms with stiff chairs tends to encourage grandstanding, and nothing gets accomplished other than protection of turf and deeper entrenchment of one’s own views.

So, like I was saying, we are in the local pub, and my friend, who’s been around the block once or twice in his life, and also has a strong scientific training, is having one heck of a time holding on to his faith.

His work in the sciences makes sense. He knows what will happen when he mixes certain chemicals together, or that gravity takes things down, or that the earth moves around the sun. He has a sure foundation to come back to that keeps many aspects of his life ordered and predictable.

His life, as the theologians say, has epistemological certainty–he can actually know certain things are true.

His crisis is that, now, after years of pushing it down into the lower back quadrant of his brain, he is seeing that theology doesn’t work that way. He does not have “epistemological certainty” about God.

God, unlike the other sectors of his life, doesn’t make sense.

He was raised to think that the Bible is the foundation, the go-to source for absolute certainty about God. But the problem now–and stop me if you’ve heard this one–is that he is reading the Bible closely, and his honest scientific mind won’t allow him to pass over those parts that make you go uh…yeah…that’s weird–and there’s no need to go into specifics here, but one of his issues is the contradictory histories of Israel in the Old Testament (Kings vs. Chronicles) and of Jesus in the Gospels, not to mention serious issues with that old bugaboo “science and faith.”

With epistemological certainty about virtually every area of life, it is hard for him to adjust that his faith–the center of his life–lacks that same certainty, that his faith requires faith.

So we talked about how, maybe, God isn’t a “thing” out there about which we have certainty–a topic of intellectual inquiry–but, as they say, he is “closer than your next breath,” a “person” (metaphorically speaking) with whom we are in a relationship, and relationships tend not to have epistemological certainty.

Maybe the whole God thing doesn’t work like these other dimensions of our lives. What if faith requires a letting go of our “knowing” and instead trusting, not because we are “certain” but whether or not we know as we are used to knowing?

What if God actually doesn’t put up with being treated like the back end of a logical argument or a calculus equation? What if epistemological certainty, which objectifies what is known, is precisely the very thing that needs to be repented of and surrendered?

What if this rationalist, modernist, Enlightenment driven view of what faith is–and which American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism seem to hold to like a mother bear protecting her cubs–gets God wrong?

What if God, whom we believe is responsible for an expanding universe and also subatomic particles, can’t be “known” the way we are used to wanting to know? (A pleasant irony for me is that scientific knowledge is actually driving us to see the inadequacies of a “scientific” model of theology, but that’s another post, or 12.)

What if union with God in Christ is more than a theological proposition about which we can have epistemological certainty, but demands to be a lived reality that is more–if I may use the word–mystical, experiential, and immediate (e.g., John 17:20-24; Gal 2:20; 2 Pet 1:4 for you prooftexters out there) than an idea that has to be filtered through our heads first in order to be true?

Maybe, as Brazos author David G. Benner says, “If we listen with our heart and spirit, not simply with our mind, we might sense a longing to live in these larger places that lie beyond our present horizons.”

Maybe. At least I hope so. The other way doesn’t seem to be working all that well. I


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  • SpyPlus

    Excellent post. I feel as that was me in the bar with you discussing why I am struggling to keep my faith. Reading through the Bible critically (instead of reading it presupposing it is true and how I can apply it to my life) has raised some serious questions. Similar to what your buddy raised, why believe something incredible when there is no evidence backing it up? Take the resurrection for example the single most important event in the history of humanity to us evangelicals. Where is the evidence outside the Bible? Where is the empty tomb? And none of the 500 people that saw Jesus after his resurrection didn’t think about writing this incredible event down external to the Bible? No Romans or Jews wrote about saints of old walking around the streets? Do I accept this as true on faith but reject eye witness testimonies about people getting kidnapped by UFOs? Again excellent post I wish other Christian bloggers would be so honest.

    • Phil Smith

      This is good observation.

      Often (not always) reading “critically”, or in a “demythologising” manner does exactly the same thing as a literalist (presupposing its details are ‘true’) reading. In that both approaches take the content/detail of the text and either (1) accept it as history, or (2) accept it as invention.

      But perhaps it is myth, AND it is true. True myth, as in in the Girardian sense.


      • SpyPlus

        Phil thanks for your response, I have read your link and from what I understand (please correct me if I am wrong), it would be possible to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as more symbol than literal fact. This does NOT agree with my evangelical upbringing lol. It would be very hard for me to view the Bible non-literally. What I mean by Non-Literal, for example when Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” this does not mean they were literal snakes, I would recognize this as a figure of speech. But for other parts, Resurrection, Israel’s enslavement in Egypt etc etc I have always seen these as facts.

  • Jon G

    Pete, excellent post as always. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to recommend two books that would really speak to your friend. 1) The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins does and excellent job deconstructing our desire to view faith as something in need of “certainty” and 2) What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell which really frames the discussion well that you are discussing.

  • Kim Fabricius

    I’ve heard it said that theology should never be discussed without a
    pint in one’s hand, as this is as certain as things get in this life.
    People are honest and afterwards they just want to hug.

    True. But the pint is for Discussion 101. In due course one moves on to wee drams of Laphroaig.
    And that hug – it probably has more to do with the spirits than the Spirit. 😉

  • Bev Mitchell

    A recent reread of your “Inspiration and Incarnation” along with with Chapter 4 (Postmodernism and Evangelicalism) of Alister McGrath’s “A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism” inspired the following summary which may be helpful in this conversation.

    Truth is a person

    For a Christian, truth should be a person not a proposition. When we underestimate the Incarnation, turn Christ into a proposition and downplay the Holy Spirit, we tend to overemphasize and overestimate propositions, look for proofs, depend too much on confessional statements, use Scripture as a mine for proof texts and generally act religiously.

    Christianity is more of a journey than a religion. It acknowledges way, truth and life as a person, the Son of God – God himself. It also acknowledges a human lostness that can only be overcome by life in the Spirit. It’s not a matter of finding the truth and hanging on against all opposition. Rather its a matter of releasing ourselves to be in truth, in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

    The propositions we often hold so dear are only as good as our minds, only as permanent as the relentless march of knowledge. Scripture is not a written in stone collection of words but a story of people who were being taught by God to be in him not about him. We are to enter into Scripture with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who instructed all those who had something to do with its development in the first place. Spirit was before the written word; the living word is eternal. It’s the Spirit of the Word that is our goal not the letter. And the Word, like truth and life and way is a person. This is also the way to freedom.

  • Cory

    Needed this. Again.

    I grew up in the Evangelical world, and studied at evangelical schools, so of course only now in my 30s have I begun to think about the sciences and the reasonableness of my faith in their light. I’ve appreciated your work here on the blog and have found helpful some of your recommended reading.

    But I began to find that all my new thinking, as helpful as it was, left me feeling sterile and empty. For a long time I’ve not only avoided what science has taught us, but also the “mystical” and “experiential” elements of our faith. So I’ve now found myself in a pit of sterile despair trying to answer mystical, experiential questions without any spiritual practices to help move me along the way.

    What’s more, this is all very inconvenient when you’re supposed to be looking for pastoral jobs.

    I think I just wrote this for myself.
    So, how are you guys?

  • Thanks, Peter…

  • mark

    What if this rationalist, modernist, Enlightenment driven view of what faith is–and which American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism seem to hold to like a mother bear protecting her cubs–gets God wrong?

    What if God, whom we believe is responsible for an expanding universe and also subatomic particles, can’t be “known” the way we are used to wanting to know? (A pleasant irony for me is that scientific knowledge is actually driving us to see the inadequacies of a “scientific” model of theology, but that’s another post, or 12.)

    It seems to me that Pete’s friend also has a “rationalist, modernist, Enlightenment driven view of what science is.” These two problems go hand in hand–understanding what faith is, understanding what science is. Epistemological certainty in science? When pushed to the limits, not as much as many think–that type of certainty is a hangover of the “rationalist, modernist, Enlightenment driven” worldview.

    Sadly, Christians have for far too long misunderstood what faith is, and this has prevented coming to terms with the nature and limits of human knowledge. But the same could be said of science and scientists.

    • Madeleine Alexei

      That was exactly my thinking as I read this post. Thank you for putting into words some things I learned from the pure sciences, chaos theory and a brief tour of quantum physics a few years ago.

  • Craig Vick

    Great post. I think there’s another kind of pressure as well, perhaps pushing in the opposite direction. Kierkegaard, via a pseudonym, illustrates this in a story about a man released from an insane asylum who, desiring to prove his sanity, keeps repeating the objective and certain truth that there’s a red ball in his pocket.

  • Beakerj

    Well, this post was just about written for me…my faith exploded a few years ago as my Mother was dying of cancer. The thing that ignited it was the deep deep epistemological uncertainty that having to even consider the doctrines of calvinism had caused to my sense of knowing that God was good & trustworthy in any normal sense of the world. When you see your best beloved on the very edge of eternity it really matters that you are sure that God is good. Turns out, I couldn’t be sure, & didn’t know how to be…& yet everything, everything depends on it. All those words I’d read so faithfully for years in the Bible turned out to be like a handful of confetti thrown into the night sky in the face of death. Not what I was expecting. I’m not sure now how to even think about repairing this breach, & putting so much trust in flexible & fallible words as a way of showing me God. I’m reading ‘The Bible Made Impossible’ by Christian Smith currently & finding his ‘pervasice interpretive pluralism’ rings absolutely true for me. I’m not sure of the way forward from here, or how to live without certainty about God’s character, it’s far too frightening. ‘Struggling to keep my faith’ doesn’t even come close to this fight….I feel for your friend.

  • T. J. Luschen

    Or, “what if God doesn’t exist?” – or even “what if God exists, but is completely unknowable by mortals?” seem like simpler explanations.

    • Lars

      Seeing the angst that comes from trying to get a grip on God, and having experienced it myself, I’ve opted for that simpler explanation – that if God exists, He/It is unknowable and that is the reason we have many versions of God. If God disappoints, it’s not God’s fault, but ours for believing the mythology and the mythologists. While nature can be devastating, it can’t be credited or blamed like God often is. That realization gave me a certain existential peace, if not hope. God probably isn’t going to save our nation or our planet but that doesn’t mean we can’t play some small part in that process ourselves.

  • Evelyn

    Time to seek Tillich’s God behind the god of theism…?

  • Hello Peter, as a struggling agnostic Christian, this post really touched to my heart.

    Once we rejected Biblical inerrancy, I wonder how one might know what God truly did during the course of history or not.

    I do believe that an idea of God as a perfect being allows us to draw conclusions about his character, and that Jesus fits rather well this portrait.

    However I’m wondering if we should conclude that the Hebrew prophets got God wrong most of the time as they warned about His judgement, or that it was real.

    Certainly, anger and wrath against evil is morally justifiable and perhaps even mandatory, but oftentimes it seems to be turned against the wrong targets in the OT.

    This leads me to view it as a human book about God.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


    • James

      I’m not for rejecting anything about the Bible except sloppy interpretation. When we read it as deep, yet accessible, Christian truth holding the book of nature (including things ‘scientific’) in one hand and the book of daily experience (things personal and communal) in the other–the light of God through the Spirit of Jesus shines into our hearts and on the way ahead. This is a tried and true interpretive method modeled in the Bible itself. In fact, God breaks into our lives without any method at all especially when we are predisposed to receive him.

  • James

    I love the way GK Chesterton in Heretics talks a century ago about the purely ‘scientific’ mind. “A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters–except everything.” In our day we are audacious enough to envision a Theory of Everything that will nullify God once and for all. Good luck!

  • Barbara Blackburn

    Very nice. Very nice. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  • Bryan

    I highly recommend to your friend and others encountering an epistemological crisis Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, ‘After Virtue’. It is quite possibly the best book I have ever read. I say this as one who has been through the rigors of a Biblical Studies concentration which has deconstructed not only the scriptures but my faith as well. MacIntyre has brought order to chaos.

    It is a multi-disciplinary approach in which he critiques the hard sciences, social sciences and tells how the Enlightenment project failed by turning away from an epistemology which initially had it right and the inevitable fallout from this and its effects in the modern world. It is not imperative that God should be dismissed.

  • It’s true that the fundamentalist God doesn’t make sense to me. But the “what if” God that you describe doesn’t make sense to me either. You can imagine all sorts of qualities and mysteries that might explain the “hiddenness” of God, but this exercise in imagination is no more convicting, or appealing, to me than the sort of woo we get from Deepak Chopra. I “hang out” at sites like this because I used to be a Christian, my extended family would like me to still be, and I find liberal christianity interesting.

    I think I understand the longing for some sort of God that might lead someone to accept mystery and/or a God who makes it hard to have faith. I think the reason this approach doesn’t appeal to me is that I don’t feel a longing for God. I have been accused of lying about this, so I’ve tried to sincerely question myself and my experience, but I can honestly say that I don’t experience a longing or desire for God.

    From my perspective, the “what ifs” you present, just look like wishful thinking.

  • Lars

    I love this blog so much. How it lives on the Evangelical Channel is beyond my understanding.

    As with Peter’s friend, my relationship with God turned out to be more imagination and less epistemological (though I’m happy to say most of my other relationships have survived even the mildest scrutiny). If only we could share a pint with a sympathetic God and truly understand everything is under control, perhaps we would no longer have any need of faith. Until that happens, I will rely as much as possible on what is known. Because once you abandon knowledge, any thing – and any God – is possible.

    But not believing in a knowable God doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned any sense of Utopia, no matter how far-fetched that seems today. On the contrary, I have just enough faith in people to imagine such a place, in my mind as well as in my heart. And I’m happy to report that while you can live life without “epistemological certainty” of God, you can’t unask the questions that got you there. I have to say, I do miss ‘answers’….

  • Stephen Hesed

    “metaphorically speaking?”

  • ctrace

    “…or that the earth moves around the sun.” He’s a little behind the times. The second scientific revolution seems to have slipped by him. Introduce him to Einstein next time you see him. Maybe with that he’ll feel better about his faith too.