How Lent Can Help You Reconcile Faith and Doubt

Ryan Gear | OnFaith Voices By on

Even though Lent is a spiritually attentive time of year, for thinking people, this season of preparation for Easter can also remind us of the unanswered questions we have about faith.

Is there really a God?
Does organized religion do more harm than good?
Why does God allow suffering?
Why is religion in America so political?
Do miracles happen?
Does Bill Maher actually know something we don’t?

And, oh yeah, with Easter approaching…

Was Jesus really raised from the dead?

The loss of faith in America has become a cliché. The percentage of “nones” — those who claim no faith — recently grew by five percentage points in as many years. The Pew Research Center found that a whopping 32 percent of 18-29 year olds are unaffiliated with any religion.

It’s not difficult to understand why.

Pew put it bluntly, “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The so-called “culture war” reminds many (including me) of what they find repulsive about religion. This is in addition to the age-old philosophical questions. The perpetual presence of culturally backward, anti-intellectual religious voices makes it almost embarrassing for curious, forward-leaning people to search for guidance within the vast, rich Jesus tradition of mysticism and spirituality.

Lent doesn’t answer all of the questions, but perhaps Lent does suggest the initial reason human beings found value in spirituality in the first place.

I believe in thinking deeply about faith. I’m currently writing a Lent sermon series informed by Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists in which I acknowledge the hardest questions for Christians to answer. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Frank Schaeffer’s assertion in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, “Scientists and theologians can’t offer better than circular arguments, because there are no other kinds of arguments.” As subjective humans, we can’t seem to escape our own presuppositions.

Lent doesn’t answer all of the questions, but perhaps Lent does suggest the initial reason human beings found value in spirituality in the first place.

When Oprah interviewed Rob Bell for Super Soul Sunday last November, she referenced Rob’s suggestion in his book What We Talk about When We Talk About God that the starting place for spirituality is to be open.

In reply, Rob Bell articulated the struggle with faith and doubt that intellectually honest people experience:

First and foremost, to all the really smart, studied people who have been to the TED conference and have iPhones: It’s not crazy to acknowledge that there’s a God.

It may actually be the rational move is simply to say, “I’ve come to the end of my own logical powers and acknowledge there’s too much that’s beyond what we can sort through using these little brains that we have.”

And for 300 years the water we’ve been swimming in, that we’ve been handed by the enlightenment tradition — which has brought us medicines and hospitals and all sorts of wonderful things — has also brought us, ultimately, if you cannot explain it . . . I don’t know. And yet we’re fascinated as humans. We’re wired for the mysterious. We love it. We’re drawn to it. You can’t stifle it.

Oprah replied, “So you’re saying just be open to that.” Said Bell, “It’s okay to be open.”

Lent is about being open to the mysteries of life.

In an interview with NPR a few years ago, Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr said:

I’ve had the good fortune of teaching and preaching across much of the globe, while also struggling to make sense of my experience in my own tiny world. This life journey has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it un-mysterious. . . .

When I was young, I couldn’t tolerate such ambiguity. My education had trained me to have a lust for answers and explanations. Now, at age 63, it’s all quite different. I no longer believe this is a quid pro quo universe — I’ve counseled too many prisoners, worked with too many failed marriages, faced my own dilemmas too many times and been loved gratuitously after too many failures . . . People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know.

Isn’t life really about how we respond to the mysterious as it happens?

Your first child is born. You discover your true calling. You’re finally able to let go and move on.

Or . . .

You don’t get the job. The doctor says, “It’s cancer.” You get a phone call at 3 a.m.

Logical answers wouldn’t help if we had them. What really matters is how we respond to the mysterious — whether we allow the mysteries of life to help us grow or we’re closed off to it.

My friends Jeremy and Rhonda lost their six-year old son Gabriel to cancer in December 2011. Explain that. Even if you gave a scientific answer about cancer and its effects on the body, what good would it do for grieving parents?

But here is what openness looks like. Rhonda recently decided to go to school to become a clinical counselor and help others who are crushed by grief. That’s the creative, healing power of openness.

Either we’re open to mystery and grow into more whole people, or we close our minds to what we don’t understand and remain the same.

Both Lent and life require us to be open. Lent requires opening oneself to the transformation that necessarily occurs when we receive the resurrected Christ all over again. Life requires openness to changing, growing, and becoming a more whole person.

Isn’t that openness to mystery what attracts us to spirituality in the first place?

For Christians who follow the lectionary, this is year B, and the Gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark 9:2-10. It is Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. In this scripture, Jesus leads His three closest followers — Peter, James, and John — up to the summit of a mountain. Suddenly, Jesus’ clothes are transformed. They become “dazzling white,” and Elijah and Moses appear to speak with Him.

This is odd. It doesn’t fit my experience of hiking. When I finally get to the top of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, I just sweat a lot.

The Transfiguration is difficult to understand. It’s weird. It’s mysterious.

Much like life.

But in the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John meet God — with Jesus acting as the bridge between the human and the Divine. Perhaps it’s the same with life. When things happen that we don’t understand, it might be that this is the very place prepared for us to connect with God.

We wish we had answers to all of the questions that intrigue us, but we do not. What we have is a choice. Either we’re open to mystery and grow into more whole people, or we close our minds to what we don’t understand and remain the same.

Lent reminds us that perhaps faith and spirituality are not about answering all of our questions but about the choice to remain open to the mysteries of life.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.
Leader of One Church
  • Aaron Strietzel

    Great article here. I think part of it is we are moving from a modern, scientific understanding of the world to a more complex post-modern understanding where we realize that while science can prove some things, there are so many things that are left open. Just when we find an answer to one thing, at the same time it opens up two or three more questions! The last sentence was a great one.

    • Ryan Gear

      Thanks for reading, Aaron, and thanks for your thoughts. Agreed.

  • HildyJJ

    On the whole, I understand your opinions and agree with most of them. For myself, I put my faith in the human rather than the divine mind but I have no problem with those who choose to put their faith in a god, whichever god they might choose (and I respect those who believe that either all gods are worthy of faith, as in the Pantheon, or that all gods are a part of a single god). However, one phrase sticks in my craw. “In the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John meet God. . .”

    When religious belief demands faith in a written text rather than faith in a spiritual concept, things start to go wrong. Scriptures, not just the bible but all scriptures, are a product of their time and of the men that wrote them. It would be as if one rejected Einstein because he contradicted some points of Newton’s Law of Gravity. Science doesn’t work that way (some tenured professors excepted) and neither should faith. The jewish calendar, Ussher’s chronology, and Newton’s chronology (yes, the same Newton; he calculated one too) all point to a creation date around 6,000 years ago. To have faith in that when you have no other information is fine but it should not be unshakeable faith. Now that science has shown the date to be off by billions of years, one with faith in god can accept that but one with faith in the scripture fights for what we know is wrong (and too often carries the fight to school boards and textbook publishers.

    So have faith, but have faith in the mysterious, the numinous, not the mundane.

    • Ryan Gear

      HildyJJ, I think the Transfiguration is a symbol of the numinous. By using the phrase, “In the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John meet God. . .” I was simply retelling the story as it is written in Mark. Referencing the Bible is not the same as worshiping it. I do not encourage blind faith. In fact, I gave a sermon last Sunday in which I argued that faith in Jesus does not require blind faith. I think you and I are making the same point.