Woensdregt column

Being Christian and asking questions

Yme Woensdregt

“Is it okay,” she asked, “for a Christian to question her faith?”

I invited her to tell me more about why she was asking. She told me a sad story about growing up in a church which discouraged questions of any sort. “Real Christians don’t question their faith or have doubts,” they told her. “You just have to try harder to believe.” She ended up thinking she was a second–class Christian; she just didn’t have enough faith.

They told her that if she was learning something about science (or anything else) in school which disagreed with the Bible, then she must believe the Bible and ignore secular knowledge. They told her that the Bible (understood as literally as possible) is the only and final arbiter of truth.

They told her that creationism is the only explanation for how the world came to be. According to Genesis, God created the world in six literal days and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, evolution is wrong and dangerous because it undermines Christian faith. They must fight it every step of the way.

They told her that Jesus was born of a virgin, and even though that didn’t make sense to her, she had to accept it by faith.

They told her that if people didn’t accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, they would go to hell. That’s why all other religions are false. It doesn’t matter how good or kind other people may be, if they don’t believe in Jesus, they are unbelievers and destined for eternal torment.

And because she was not allowed to ask questions, because she was just supposed to accept everything on faith, she just gave up.

She could not accept a worldview divided between those who are being saved, and those who are condemned to an eternity of hellfire. She had so many questions and she wasn’t allowed to ask them. She started to think that she didn’t have enough faith and that it was all her fault. She got tired of feeling deficient and left church. She gave up on faith. She tried to live without God.

Except … God wouldn’t let her go. She had been reading my columns, and she got in touch with me and asked, “Is it okay for a Christian to question her faith?”

And I said, “Of course it is.” We went on to have a wonderful conversation about the life of faith and our relationship with God.

For me, being a Christian has to do with growing and learning and discerning answers to some of the most important and significant questions in life. Brian McLaren puts it this way in his book, Generous Orthodoxy: “To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving community of people who are seeking the truth on the road of mission, and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.”

I like McLaren’s take on it. Two phrases stand out for me.

Firstly, being a Christian is to “be in a loving community of people”. Christian faith is a communal faith. The Bible knows nothing of solitary Christians. Rather, we live and work and praise the God of life within community. Jesus commanded us to “love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.” It’s not just about me and Jesus. It’s about you and me and you and you and you and God and you. To be Christian is to be in community with others.

Secondly, this is a community of people “who are seeking the truth”. We are always seeking. None of us ever possesses the truth. Life is not static and fixed. It is always changing and growing, and we grow and learn along with it.

The same is true of Christian faith. There isn’t only one way of talking about our faith which is good for all times. Rather, Christian faith is dynamic. The Holy Spirit continues to blow where she will, and as human knowledge changes and grows, Christians are always seeking to find new ways of talking about God in the light of those new discoveries. We are always growing in our understanding of faith, and we grow best when we can ask questions about what’s central. We continue to grow in our knowledge and in the way we can speak about the God who is involved in creation and who continues to create, who continues to bring life out of death and order out of chaos.

The church is at its best when we are trying to discern where God is active in the world today, and when we are trying to find ever new ways of speaking about God’s presence. As we seek truth, we also listen to others who are also seeking truth, whether they are Christian or not.

One of my favourite aphorisms is that “Christian faith is not about finding the answers; it’s about learning to ask the right questions.” Faith is a journey. Faith is a process of growing and learning and changing and evolving. It’s about being on a way in life. We ask questions because they are a necessary part of growing. We are on a journey, in which we humbly continue seeking truth wherever it is to be found.

In this way of understanding Christian faith, asking questions is a necessary and critical part of how we live. When we question, we acknowledge that we are still learning, still seeking to grow. When we ask questions, we imply that others have answers that we may not be aware of. We live together with others who know something of the truth. When we ask questions, we open ourselves again to the mystery of life, and seek to embrace truth and compassion wherever we find it.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook