Is There Room for Doubt?

Is There Room for Doubt? September 6, 2015

photo Jrwooley6 (CC BY 2.0)
photo Jrwooley6 (CC BY 2.0)

Whatever else you can say about my mother, she is nothing if not persistent.

She and I don’t have many one-on-one conversations these days, mostly because those tend not to end particularly well (her being quite religious and politically conservative and me being…not), but recently she brought my attention to a campaign being hosted by a number of churches in my area called Room for Doubt (presumably because she’s still holding out hope for my return to the Christian fold). As it happens, I have a connection to the campaign, which I’ll explain in just a moment.

The website describes the campaign’s mission as such:

Room For Doubt is intended for youth or adults who have sincere questions and even doubts about the Christian faith. The program pursues several important activities:

  • It offers a variety of resources on this website (and its FaceBook page) with the opportunity for site guests to submit troubling questions about the Christian faith in a non-threatening environment.
  • It is producing a six-week message series and curriculum for churches that is especially designed to encourage open discussions and candid conversations.
  • It presents workshops and seminars for conferences, conventions, and churches.
  • It provides an array of learning experiences through publications, special university events, college classes in metropolitan settings and online communication.

Currently, the program is being hosted by 20 local churches and will feature sermons on the following topics:

WEEK 1   What’s the upside of doubt?
WEEK 2   How can we be sure God actually exists?
WEEK 3   Isn’t the Bible full of myths and mistakes?
WEEK 4   Why do Christians say Jesus is God’s Son?
WEEK 5   Why would God allow tragedy and suffering?
WEEK 6   Tolerance, truth, & the exclusive claims of Christ

If it weren’t obvious enough from these titles, the “Questions of Faith” section should make it clear that this program is about apologetics, as should the fact that some of the “key contributors” include a “Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics” and a name some ex-Christians might recognize, Lee Strobel (author of the various The Case For… books, of which I have read several).

The program is a project of Lincoln Christian University (hereafter LCU), a local Christian college in the Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell) tradition. Over a decade ago, I briefly attended this institution, when it was still called Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, as a music ministry major (although that program was then transitioning toward its current title of “worship ministry”), which is an experience that I sometimes credit with sparking the fire that would eventually melt away my faith. (Not exactly their goal, but hey, it happens. I’m not the only person to lose faith because of a religious education.)

Apparently, this all started two years ago when the university obtained a grant from the Loftis Foundation, a 501(c)3 in Moore Haven, FL, that has apparently been in existence since 1994 (and for which very little information is readily available online). According to a special edition (warning: PDF) of the university newsletter, the Restorer, the Loftis Foundation awarded them a multi-year grant (although it isn’t mentioned how many years this term will be) of $225,000 per year. At the time, the project had the working title of The Apologetics Project and explicitly included plans for an apologetics textbook to be produced.

Ever since I looked further and discovered this information (although I suppose I’d have known sooner if I didn’t immediately throw away the copies of the Restorer that come to my house even still), I have been curious: Why the shift in framing? Apologetics is about defending the faith. Why has this campaign become about doubt instead of taking that defensive stance outright?

In that special edition, there’s a quote from the book You Lost Me by David Kinnaman (president of the Barna Group) that I find illustrative:

A generation of young Christians believes that the churches in which they were raised are not safe and hospitable places to express doubts.

And in rotation on the Room for Faith website:

It may seem redundant to say that doubt causes people to struggle with faith, but it is important to remember that doubt is not always faith’s opposite. – David Kinnaman, You Lost Me

I believe unexpressed doubt is one of the most powerful destroyers of faith. – David Kinnaman, You Lost Me

Doubt is probably a permanent feature of the Christian life. It’s like some kind of spiritual growing pain. – Alister McGrath, The Sunnier Side of Doubt

So there is simultaneously a recognition that many people think that churches are not safe places for doubt (because they largely aren’t, as I think many people, ex-Christians and Christians alike, can attest) and at least some awareness that this stance – that doubt is no good and very bad and must not be tolerated – is not one that churches are going to win on. Indeed, there is an explicit recognition that the choice is either 1) tell congregants to just shut up about their doubts or 2) give them space to explore their doubts, with the declaration that this program is meant to do the latter.

Here is where I get really conflicted: I think that churches should provide that space for doubters, but I don’t trust them to handle it right. And I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.

Just judging from the website, the approach of Room for Faith is this: Have Christians tell you their doubts, and shovel the same kinds of apologetics back at them. But pushing apologetics is an established strategy that doesn’t seem to have had any impact. For the most part, this is because apologetics might be okay for the wavering believer, but it almost never holds up for a skeptic or serious doubter.

My colleague Neil Carter wrote recently about reading an awful apologetics book that nonetheless gets pushed on non-believers and doubters by their believing families, and this is basically how I feel about almost any of these works. Strobel’s books are some of the worst offenders as well; they are less the evidence of the supposed journalistic fact-finder than the story-stretching, glurgy embellishments of a fiction writer. If you have anything more than just minor doubts, it’s difficult to see how you would be convinced by Strobel’s own testimony (a conversion spurred in part because his wife converted to Christianity) or the “evidence” provided by those he interviews.

The way that the website handles questions submitted by visitors (and yes, you can submit questions as well) makes it clear that this approach will almost certainly hold true during this campaign. When someone asked about the unnaturally old ages of many people depicted in the Old Testament, the response, written by a professor of Old Testament, is not to appeal to actual evidence but to an internally consistent but externally unsupported explanation. A question about anti-gay attitudes in the church gets a reply that appeals virtually entirely to Scripture but doesn’t really answer the question. And so on.

The sermon series is scheduled to begin in the 20 churches in my area in one week. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll be following these messages (I’d simply go to some of these churches in person, but the logistics of that are a bit tricky), but I may have more to say about this program – which aspires to move to churches throughout America after this initial run – at a later date.

Until then, let’s just say that I have little faith that this campaign will give actual room for doubt, but instead the superficial appearance of it.

We’ll see how right or wrong I am on that.

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