Story blogs

The story I’m willing to be wrong about

My friend and fellow political scientist Dominican priest, who was my teaching partner in our “Faith and Doubt” colloquium during the spring semester that just ended, is kind enough to be a regular reader of this blog. He’s mentioned to me more than once over the past few weeks, most recently at our usual Friday afternoon beer get-together, that he’s interested to see how closely my blog posts follow our work courses this semester. If he had read my blog longer than last year, he would know that this is not unusual. My teaching intimately informs my writing (and vice versa); I’ve often said that I’m never sure how I feel about a particular idea or topic until I start writing about it.

Another way of saying this is that over the years writing has become my primary form of spiritual practice. In unreserved faithlast semester’s final “Faith and Doubt” text, Rachel Held Evans expresses this much more eloquently than I ever could (I hate it when people do that).

Writing has taught me a special patience that I’m finally learning to apply to my faith. I find myself repeating the same mantras on a day of doubt that I repeat on a day of writer’s block: be patient. Do not rush. Long live the questions. Let this unfold.

Although “living the questions” is an overused trope in some circles that often doesn’t mean much, it resonates strongly with me because it connects my life as a philosophy teacher to my life as a person of faith.

I tell my students from the start of almost every course I teach that after almost three decades of doing what I do for a living, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I landed on my basic definition of philosophy: Philosophy is the art of asking better and better questions. This is really how I conceive of philosophy – the definition also has the merit of making some practical remarks to my students at the start of the semester.

  • For STEM majors or for the growing number of business majors on our campus – in other words, for those waiting for the questions to be answered definitively – the philosophy is likely to be frustrating at first.
  • Philosophy is the “perennial” discipline par excellence that never gets old. It addresses questions that really don’t have definitive answers – such questions are beyond the reach of our natural abilities to answer definitively – but human progress (if you believe there is such a thing) provides us better ways to ask questions.
  • Philosophy as I conceive it sends us back to our childhood curiosity. It is natural for humans to ask questions about everything – just ask anyone who has ever spent time with a small child. One way or another, this is overcome by most of us as we “mature” and become adults. The philosophy reminds us of our youth and our natural state of wonder.

What does this have to do with the life of faith? Both philosophy and faith call us never to stop questioning ourselves, never to stop questioning ourselves, and above all never to fall into the trap of certainty.

One of the last books we considered in “Faith and Doubt” was by Tomáš Halík Patience with God. It was my first time through this evocative and dense book suggested to me by my teaching partner; I’m sure it will pop up during my writing this summer.

For today, however, it is enough simply to appreciate the title of the book and the notion that God is something or someone with whom we must have patience. I think most believers, at least occasionally, wish the God they believe in would manifestly do something, preferably in answer to a specific prayer. But “Let it unfold” and “Don’t rush” are precisely the kinds of phrases that resonate with my own faith journey.

In his excellent 2013 book Still, Lauren Winner tells the story of a friend, the daughter of a pastor, who, at age twelve, on the eve of her confirmation service, told her father that she had doubts about whether she had to be confirmed. She didn’t know that she truly believed all the things she was supposed to believe, and she was especially keen to profess before the church that she was ready to believe those things forever. His wise father replied that “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe it forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will struggle with forever.

As the child of a preacher myself, I greatly appreciate this pastor’s loving response to his daughter. The larger religious world I grew up in was all about certainty, inerrancy, and doctrinal purity. My father was a minister in this world, but over the years I have watched him steadily wrestle with history, evolving from National Vice President of the Independent Basic Churches of America to a Tongue-Speaking Charismatic whose main focus was to facilitate the health of those who had been damaged by bad religion. Although we had few explicit conversations about his evolution, I learned by observation that “adventuring with God,” as he would have described it, was exactly that: an adventure. Plus, it’s not for the faint of heart.

I introduced our Faith and Doubt students to Rachel Held Evans during the last week of our semester by watching together a lecture she gave at Lipscomb University in 2015. Lipscomb is a conservative Protestant university, but Evans had the courage to be honest and direct. on the doubts that were her constant companions as she evolved from hardline conservative evangelical Protestant to one of the most important and dynamic voices of progressive Christianity before her untimely death in 2019. Towards the end of her speech, she addressed the question which I am sure many in the audience that night were asking.

Why am I still a Christian? Because even though this story is hard to believe, it’s still the story I’m willing to be wrong about.

I often quote Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that understanding human behavior and morality begins with realizing that we are narrative creatures. Human beings are animals that tell stories. And our life-defining stories change and transform as we grow. My own story of faith has evolved and changed so much over the years that those who still live within the confines of the version of history I started with frequently claim that my story is no longer recognizable to them. But that’s okay, because the larger story is wide and dynamic enough to accommodate many versions.

Once a few years ago, I asked a seminar of twelve freshmen a question that stopped them in their tracks. Our texts for the day were Luke, Acts and Romans from the New Testament. I teach in a Catholic college; I knew from previous conversations that the majority of my seminary students had been raised Catholic and educated in Catholic parochial schools. “What if it could be proven definitively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus never existed and all of these stories are just that – stories?” I asked. “What difference would it make to your faith? Will you remain a Christian?

After what seemed like an eternity of silence, a young woman who rarely contributed to the seminar raised her hand. “Yes, I will always be a Christian,” she said, “because being a Christian helps me to be a better person than I otherwise would be.” By the age of eighteen, this student had already learned something about what makes a story true. The truth of a story has little or nothing to do with the “facts” of what did or did not happen. The truth of a story is revealed in the impact it has on life. Some stories are worth risking being wrong.