Mistaking Our Religion for God

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we begin our discussion of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark (Zondervan, 2009).  I hope you’ve had the opportunity to get a copy of your own, because this is a good book, the kind that stretches your thinking and will likely impact different readers in different ways.

Having read the table of contents on Amazon, one reader e-mailed me to say he didn’t approve of my choice. “The first chapter is about questioning God,” he protested.

Read beyond the table of contents and you will find that when Dark refers to questioning God, he is specifically referring to the question—are we mistaking our religion for God?  This is a profoundly important question, probably the most difficult and life-changing question I have asked in my own faith journey, and a question with which the Church has wrestled for centuries. This is not an irreverent question, but rather a question that arises out of reverence.

Writes Dark, “It is only when we’re blessed by a feeling of finitude that we can begin to perceive the holy, that sense of a whole before which our limited understanding is dwarfed...Only a twisted, unimaginative mind-set resists awe in favor of self-satisfied certainty...More humility might characterize our talk of God if we believe that the whole truth can never be entirely ours and that our attempts to nail God down are always well-intentioned human constructs at best and idols at worst.” (pp. 22-23)

What prompted some of Dark’s questioning (and much of mine) was what he calls the “Uncle Ben” view of God—the view that God is an angry and controlling being who does not tolerate questions or curiosity or nonconformity, the view that God consigns most of humanity to eternal torment in hell for believing the wrong things about him, and the view that it is the duty of his followers to ignore their doubts and embrace him without question. 

He says:

Having faith in this brand of God is akin to Orwell’s ‘double think’—a disturbing mind trick by which we don’t let ourselves know what’s really going on in our minds for fear of what might follow. We learn to deny what we think and feel. The resulting mind-set is one of all fear all the time, a fear that can ender us incapable of putting two and two together. Never quite free to say what we see...We’re instructed to believe and to silence our questions and imaginations. Like Orwell’s Big Brother, Uncle Ben thrives when questioning is out of the question...We feel pressure to believe—or pretend to believe—that God is love, while suspecting with a sinking feeling that God likes almost no one. (pp. 12-13)

This describes my own experience almost exactly! Although I was raised to believe that God was loving and gracious and kind, the theological/religious teachings I encountered as an adult seemed to suggest otherwise. I was told that only born-again Christians had any chance at salvation, and that because of sin, God hated the rest of humanity—even those who never heard of Jesus Christ. I put two-and-two together and realized that this meant that the majority of the human population would be damned to eternity in hell, most without having the chance to be saved.  It meant that hell would be populated, not only by Adolf Hitler, but by the millions of Jews that suffered in his concentration camps.  It meant that, for most people, the good news wasn’t good news at all; it was terrible news.

This didn’t seem right.  It didn’t seem good or holy. It didn’t seem true.

So I started asking questions. Sometimes I felt like I was questioning theology. Sometimes I felt like I was questioning God himself. It’s easy to get the two mixed up—especially when you are told (as one of my friends put it), that “this isn’t Calvin’s view of God; it’s God’s view of God. Take it up with him.”

Like Dark, I no longer believe in this controlling and hate-filled God. But had I not aggressively questioned my assumptions about him, I might have remained in that dark and scary place where I pretended to love and adore God, but secretly feared and despised him.

I think that when Dark refers to questioning God, he refers to questioning our idols. This can get tricky, of course. Sometimes we are so convinced that we’ve managed to squeeze God into a certain theology, we don’t know how to question one without the other.

Prayer for wisdom is in order, as is prayer for skepticism.

I like what Dark says in Chapter Two about skepticism. “...redemptive skepticism is a religious commitment to avoid being swept up by bad ideas, especially ones that wear a godly guise and demand absolute, unquestioning allegiance.” (p. 31)

Although we must be careful not to equate our religion with God himself, religion is not all bad. Dark writes:

...Religion can, and should be, objected to, questioned, and talked about. Contrary to many adherents who demand unquestioning respect for their faith, religion is perfectly and wonderfully objectionable. In fact, what else in life could be more worthy of objection? Interestingly, most religious traditions are constantly objecting to themselves over the decades and centuries, challenging old categories with new, religious proclamations. This is how religions work. Devastating criticism of religion is always part of religion. The religiously faithful aren’t just permitted to critique and complain and reform; they’re bound to do as much by religion. Without it, there is no faithfulness. (pp. 33-34)

Some questions for discussion:

What questions have you asked about God in your faith journey? Have you encountered any idols in the process? Have you ever been criticized for being skeptical about your religious tradition? How do you respond to those criticisms?

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