As I mentioned in the last post, those of us raised in the conservative evangelical subculture during the apologetics movement of the 80s and 90s grew up with the charge to “always be ready to give an answer” in defense of the Christian faith. For many of us, fighting the good fight of faith meant being prepared to debate the skeptics. It meant having intelligent and ready answers to questions concerning the Problem of Evil, religious pluralism, biblical inerrancy, evolutionary theory, and postmodern relativism.
I don’t know about you, but by the time I graduated from my conservative Christian college, I was pretty confident that I knew exactly what atheists and humanists and Buddhist believed… without ever having met any atheists or humanists or Buddhists in person. I was so sure that I could effectively dismantled and humiliate any opposing worldviews that it really unnerved when I began encountering things in my young adulthood that made me suddenly question my long-held beliefs.
From the AIDS orphan I held in my arms in India, to the passages of Scripture that seemed to condone genocide, to the persuasiveness of biology textbooks, to my encounters with people of other faiths—my interactions with the world left me wondering if rehearsed answers would be enough to satisfy my doubts about my faith.
As I’ve spent the past few years struggling with doubt and grasping for faith, I’ve found that being ready with an answer does not do justice to the seriousness of questions like, why does God allow innocent children to starve to death? or how does God judge Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims? or does the Bible condone slavery and the subjugation of women? This is especially true when such questions are being asked by those who are suffering, those whose lives are significantly impacted by the answers.
I’ve come to believe that the key to the survival of my faith has been a willingness to say, “I don’t know”—both to myself and to others who are asking. Having been taught by apologists and theologians that such a response represents weakness, I am continually surprised by how much strength and hope I find in embracing it.
It’s important to note that when Peter first penned the words “always be ready with an answer,” he was writing to the persecuted church.
“Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” he writes. “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”
This isn’t advice for a debate team. It’s advice for martyrs! Peter is encouraging his readers to look into the eyes of their persecutors with love and compassion, a disarming approach that is bound to generate some questions. This passage isn’t about fearlessly defending a set of propositions. It’s about fearlessly defending hope—a wild, bewitching, and reckless thing that cannot be systematized or charted or rationally explained.
With this in mind, I’ve come to believe that “I don’t know” is an appropriate response to tough questions, a response that may (at times) make a better case for hope than a five-point lecture ever could.
So here are ten things I don’t know about God, faith, and religion—ten things I’m not exactly “ready to give an answer” about. (In some cases, I have included links to past posts which explore the issues further.) Now, I’m pretty open-minded about this stuff, so feel free to post your own responses and ideas. (Perhaps you can convince me of your position!) Also, you may want to add a few “I don’t knows” of your own. In my experience, admitting a lack of certainty can be a strangely liberating and faith-building experience. What better place to do it than on someone else's blog!
1. I don’t know where evil originated or why God allows so much suffering in the world.
2. I don’t know if I believe in “just war.” (More on August 11 post.)
3. I don’t know which Bible stories ought to be treated as historically accurate, scientifically-provable accounts of fact and which stories are meant to be metaphorical. I’m beginning to believe that it might not matter, that these stories can transform my life whether or not they refer to literal days, literal fruit trees, or literal floods.
4. I don’t know which political party best represents Christian values. (More on August 18 and August 25 posts.)
5. I don’t know if I am an evangelical.
6. I don’t know how God will ultimately judge between good and evil. In other words, I don’t know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. (More on May 1 and May 3 posts.)
7. I don’t know the degree to which God is present in religious systems.
8. I don’t know why people are gay, or if being gay is a sin. (More on July 28 post.)
9. I don’t know which Church tradition best represents the teachings of Jesus Christ.
10. I don’t know why Christians (including myself) so often get it wrong when we are supposed to have direct access to absolute truth. (I’m thinking of the Crusades, the Inquisition, geocentricism, the persecution of the Anabaptists, the use of Scripture to defend slave ownership and segregation, young earth creationism, etc.)
Of course there are more…but I think this is enough for today!