I'm currently at Camp Calumet, our Lutheran Camp and Conference center in New Hampshire, for their staff training week. In addition to preaching this sunday and leading the installation worship for the staff, Jim Doyle asked me to lead the staff in a discussion of faith and doubt. I leaped at the opportunity.
As the Christian narrative moves into it's 3rd millenium, I confess to being one of those advocates of exploring how our faith is being reshaped. That sentence alone will flood my email inbox. I believe it was Phylis Tickle who most recently articulated a need for Christianity to become more Jewish. What she means, and I agree with, is the need for a more conversational approach to our tradition. This is a hard move, especially for protestants, because we have been so propositional in our approach, i.e. we like to preach, and tell others the answer. What we need is dialgoue with people to explore the faith. That's a fundamentally radical new approach that impacts everything from worship and preaching to education and evangelism. (More on that another day)
Having spent more and more time with people outside of the church, I'm convinced that conversation or dialogue is the direction for us. The younger generations are also seeking a conversation. This has been evident during my time here at Calumet. I seemed to have opened the flood gates with a simple statement. "Our topic tonight is Faith and Doubt, and the most important word is the one in the middle." My intent was to affirm the value and importance of questions, of wonder, of curiosity. What happened next was not entirely unexpected, but still quite stunning. As over a hundred 17 to 23 year olds broke into small groups, and made lists of their questions and/or doubts, I realized there was a hunger in the room for honest conversation.
The lists they generated covered a range of topics from the humorous "What about the Lake Ossippee Sea Monster" to serious questions about "Is it true that people who commit suicide go to hell?" (No, I answered and described some history & psychology behind the origins of that idea)
A significant percentage of the questions resulted from a mispercetion of the Bible. Many people, not just these camp counselors, have a literalist view of the scripture. In other words, they read the Bible as if it was a newspaper report of events or a constitutional legal document.
The doubts or "I wonder about.." lists that were generated included questions about the 7 days of creation, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Noah's Ark, some of the miracles in the Bible. These young adults were questioning the literal historicity of these events, and by implication they were doubting or wondering about the rest of the Christian narrative.
I spent Saturday morning describing the Bible not as a single book, but as a library that contained different kinds of literature - biography, novel, instruction manual, maps, advice column, song lyrics, poetry,children's book (Jonah falls in that category for me, and like the best of this kind of literature it contains profound truth). My attempt was to help broaden their view of scripture as a collection of books. Therefore, we read poetry in the bible as poetry. The mistake we often make is reading a book like Revelation as history or newspaper account, when infact that book is more like The Lord of the RIngs - a fantastic epic that's suggesting deeper meaning.
The challenge here is simultaneosuly asking the questions, and yet still maintaining or honoring our understanding of scripture as the inspired word of God. But, that's a good challenge and a contemporary challenge. If we in the Christian faith are to recover our Jewish roots, we will recover conversation and dialogue about scripture as something to be embraced not feared. The rabbis called this work the Midrash, which was the attempt to engage the stories of the hebrew Bible with not just legal or moral commentary, but narrative engagement. In other words, they told more stories about the stories.
In an odd sort of way, I was attempting to start a Lutheran Midrash at Camp Calumet. I was using the topic of Faith and Doubt to open up scripture to conversation and dialogue. As is true with all first attempts, there were mistakes and a haziness to the process. It will be better next time, but it won't be perfect then either. It's a process, that, maybe the next generation will get right. But, I'm convinced this is where we need to go.
People want to talk about Faith and Doubt, because it leads us to understanding and engagement with sacred stories, whether those stories are in the Bible or the stories of our lives.
If this topic interests you, I have found the John Ortberg book titled "Know Doubt" (originally titled Faith and Doubt) to be tremendously helpful. It is a fairly accessible read for most people. I used this book years ago as the basis for a sermon series called "Faith and Doubt: Two Sides of the Same Coin."