When I was in my early thirties and recently ordained, I would meet retired priests at clergy conferences and they would tell me all of the things that they didn’t really believe. My sense was that they had never believed in the virgin birth or in substitutionary atonement, or hadn’t believed in those things for a long time, but they’d spent their lives proclaiming such doctrine from the pulpit anyway. It was only in retirement that they felt free to be honest. Before that, they’d felt a responsibility for the tradition that they had been ordained into, and they weren’t going to undermine that tradition, regardless of what they personally thought. I had some sympathy for these men (and they were all men), while at the same time resolving not to be like them. Back then, it was an easy resolution, because I was very orthodox and could honestly say that I did believe in the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and all the rest. And many of their objections felt like they came out of mid-20th century modernism, something that I, as a good post-modernist, had very little sympathy for.
I’m no longer so certain in my beliefs. My mother’s death has sent me wandering through an agnostic wilderness during the last ten months. I’ve been praying less, and when I do pray, I’m not really sure who I’m talking to. Yet, like many other people, I still consider myself a Christian. I don’t feel that my Christian identity is based in doctrine. But if it isn’t, what is it based in? An easy answer would be that it’s based in practice – I’m a Christian because I go to church and sometimes pray, and occasionally try to do good works in the world. But if practice is the standard, then I have to admit that, in this mourning season of my life, I’m not a very good Christian.
The one thing I continue to do with great regularity, that I can’t seem to stop doing, is question. I sit with friends over lunch and have long, rambling conversations about God. In this moment, I’m not a Christian because I accept the Christian answers, but because I can’t stop asking the Christian questions.
So what are the Christian questions? There are a great many, and I have only a partial list in my mind. But these are the questions that are most salient to me right now:
- Is life more powerful than death? Is death real?
- How do we reconcile suffering with joy?
- How do we become a beautiful community, one that honors people’s weaknesses as well as their strengths?
- What does it mean to be a disciple?
- Should our emphasis be on imitating Jesus or loving Jesus?
- Does God intervene in our lives?
- What roles should joy and playfulness play in our faith lives?
- How do we survive the absence of God as experienced on the cross and experienced in our own lives?
- What is the best way to practice love of neighbor?
- Is the body good or bad? Is sex good or bad?
I have no answers to these questions, but I want to ask them in the company of people who have spent a long time thinking and arguing about them. So I continue to go back to the places where these questions are raised, argued about, and left unresolved. Scripture is one such place, as is tradition, and history, and the current church. I’m not certain if this kind of questioning can really be called faith, but if belief simply means giving your heart to something, I’ve given my heart to these, and many more, questions. I believe in them.