“Don’t question God,” my Sunday school teacher told me. What they meant was, “You’d be a better robot if you stopped thinking so much.” But what if the Church valued doubt as much as faith?
Maybe you had the same Sunday school teacher. Perhaps they told you the same thing. Free thought challenges the status quo. My Sunday school teacher felt threatened when I asked questions she couldn’t answer from her Bible or her teacher’s manual. She mistranslated my good questions as “questioning God,” which she deemed a sin. Unfortunately, the Church has spent thousands of years squashing good questions when those inquiries proved difficult.
Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s article “400 Years Ago the Catholic Church Prohibited Copernicanism” discusses Galileo’s trouble with the Church. The scientist taught Copernicus’ view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. In 1616, the Inquisition forced Galileo to retract his teaching. In 1632, when he could no longer keep his questions quiet, Galileo published a book contrasting the Copernican and Ptolemaic views. Finocchiaro writes:
This book was a reasonable, clever, and indirect attempt to circumvent the 1616 prohibitions. Unfortunately, Galileo did not succeed. The Inquisition summoned him to Rome, and the trial proceedings lasted from April to June 1633. He was found guilty of suspected heresy, for defending the earth’s motion, and thus denying the authority of Scripture.
“Suspected heresy” was not as serious a religious crime as “formal heresy,” and so his punishment was not death by being burned at the stake, but rather house arrest and the banning of the Dialogue.
Are Questions a Threat to Faith?
I wish this were a rare view of the church’s attempts to silence good questions from good people. Unfortunately, it’s not. Historically, the Church has thought that questions are a threat to faith, rather than viewing them as a means to grow in faith. But what if the church valued doubt as much as faith? What if the church appreciated good questions more than good answers?
When “Bad Christians” Become “Former Christians”
I know many good people who describe themselves as “former Christians,” who reached that point because they had some deep questions that were wrong for them to ask. They were told that they couldn’t be good Christians if they inquired whether evolution could be true, whether it was okay to be gay, or whether God was more like The Force in Star Wars than a grandfather in the sky. Since they couldn’t turn off the questions in their heads, and they were told they were bad Christians for questioning, they decided to throw in the towel. They accepted the moniker of “bad Christian” until they finally described themselves as “former Christians.” Then, as a result of their doubts, some got removed from positions within the church. Others felt they had to remove themselves, lest they be canceled or fired.
Jesus and Doubters
Is the Church acting like Jesus when it treats people with sincere questions this way? In his conversations with Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Rich Young Ruler, and others, Jesus engaged in compassionate conversation without forcing his views on anybody. In the right timing, and in the right way, Jesus expressed his perspective while welcoming the questions and opinions of others. One of the apostles, often called “Doubting Thomas” might have felt ashamed of his own questions. Yet, while Jesus blessed those who believed without seeing, Jesus also accommodated Thomas’ questions and met the disciple where he was.
What if the Church Valued Doubt as Much as Faith?
So today I ask, What if the church valued doubt as much as faith? What if we understood that questions aren’t so much a challenge to faith, as much as a means of growth? If, at the end of a person’s questioning, they come to conclusions that are different from yours, you’re going to honor their journey if you value their doubt. You’re going to realize that Jesus doesn’t want cookie-cutter Christians, but people who are strong enough to think for themselves and relate to him in their own way. No two people are alike. Neither is their faith or even lack thereof. Judging people for where they are on their journey is something Jesus never did—and something we should never do.
Allow Audacious Questions
So, what if the church valued doubt as much as faith? We’d probably have better conversations, better relationships, and more engaged church members. Then we would recognize that the Church is made up of believers, doubters, and unbelievers—all three. We’d embrace both with equal love. And maybe, just maybe, we’d allow the audacious questions of doubting people to lead us to consider some truths we never believed possible.
Maybe we’ll find out that the earth really does revolve around the sun. Perhaps we’ll find out that science is right on a few other things, and that we don’t have to run away from that. Maybe the less the Church runs away from answers that come from good questions, the more relevant it will be in today’s society. We’ll look less like a dinosaur and more like an explorer. We’ll learn to ask good questions ourselves–and we’ll find answers that will help us to grow.