Some helpful critiques of Friday's post (“Is doubt an STD?”)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I'm travelling today, but hoping to get a few superlatives up later this afternoon. In the meantime...

I got a little bit of pushback on my post on Friday about Derek Rishmawy’s article “Who are you sleeping with?” and when that happens, I try to listen up and take your input to heart. (Okay, so first I get super-defensive; then I listen up and take your input to heart.) 

Perhaps because I wrestle with doubts and questions of my own, I still take issue with the article’s generalizations about young adults, particularly the comment that “it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience.”   And I maintain that the tactic of responding to such questions with, “Who are you sleeping with?” is a bad one, for a lot of reasons. The point of the post was to address the common assumption that doubt is typically a result of sin or a guilty conscience and that we should treat people with thoughtful questions about their faith with suspicion.  That's wrong, and it should be addressed. 

But I definitely don’t want to misrepresent Tim Keller’s remarks, overstate our differences, or gloss over the fact that, often, our experiences with doubt are indeed influenced by relationships, sin, or other personal factors. Several of you offered some helpful insights in the comment section in this regard, so I thought I’d share some of the critiques/thoughts I found most helpful, just to give us more to think about and to acknowledge that I don’t have this thing figured out. I want y’all to know I’m listening, even when we don't totally agree! 

The first comment comes from Derek himself, who spent a lot of time engaging with us in the comment section, for which I am grateful. He wrote: 

"Rachel was kind enough to tweak a few things but I thought I'd post the same clarifying points that I did at the article here:
1. I did not mean to imply that any and all doubts about God, philosophy, evolution, etc. are REALLY just about sex. What I was, apparently clumsily, trying to point out is that the heart is a complicated thing that will often construct rationalizations to protect itself. That said, sometimes doubts are really just doubts and having been a philosophy major at a secular college who had questions and wasn’t having sex, I get that. When my kids come to me about this stuff, I just talk to them about their questions taking them in good faith. If it comes up that there are other issues in play, well, then that’s a thing. I probably should have made this clearer. I never would want to discourage real, honest questions and wrestling. In retrospect, “It’s a pretty easy bet” was probably a poor choice of words and definitely should not be attributed to Dr. Keller.
2. Nowhere did I or Tim Keller call evolution into question as a scientific theory of biological diversity and origins. It’s just a very common issue that raises questions with college kids. It was an observational/descriptive point, not one about what should or shouldn’t be considered core doctrine. If somebody comes out with a blog post on this saying, “Tim Keller and Some Guy At Patheos say that Evolutionists are Fornicators”–just saying, I you’re misreading it. Which could easily be my fault as a writer too. In fact, Dr. Keller himself affirms some sort of theistic evolution and has gotten a lot of crap for it himself so I'm sure he's not dismissive of people who do as well.
3. As for the “tactic” I did note that Keller said it was almost too cruel to use. I myself never have. I don’t like “gotcha” moments. The point was illustrative. Indeed, I think I might have used the word, “illustrated.” Realize that the man wrote an entire book called " The Reason for God" in which he addresses most of the main, intellectual questions those same people has on their own terms, gently, graciously and with respect and all over the place talks about hearing people on their own terms. He didn't advocate that tactic--it really was an illustration. He never suggested that pastors actually use it or that we should go in and constantly check kids who had questions and demand to know their sexual habits. I know that's not my approach when I first have a kid coming to me with issues.
4. Any infelicities remaining probably should be attributed to my faulty memory, poor listening comprehension, or weakness as a writer and not Dr. Keller."

Ben shared some insights as a college minister: 

“I lead a college ministry and I want to affirm a few things: Doubts and sexuality are on the table for discussion. They are both too important to ignore. Sometimes they are related. Sometimes they aren't. But you don't know until you start talking and asking I ask my students about their relationships (my assumption is that people are sleeping together) because no one else will and our sexuality has a huge impact on how we live and interact with each other and God. Anecdotally: the times in my life where I experienced the greatest doubt/most considered throwing in the towel were the times I was experiencing the most sexual un-health and loneliness. I know that isn't true for everyone, but if that pastor had asked me that question, I would have said, "No one, but I want to."”

Micah reminded us that Tim Keller doesn’t usually talk about doubt in exclusively negative terms, so we should keep that in mind when weighing these most recent comments: 

Tim Keller's own words on doubt: ‘A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends' and neighbors'."

Katie made a good point:

 Rachel...I know that you noted: 'without focusing too much attention on Keller himself, I'd like to address why it's problematic,' and I appreciate that because you're right - there is something that needs to be addressed in this sort of thinking and deducing. But I feel like you went on to loop Keller back into your post several times, which effectively re-focused the issue - and this post - on his supposed-comments. I would be okay with this if we knew clearly what Keller did and did not say. It may be that Keller did indeed say those very things and did mean to imply all that is already being implied. (I went looking for a transcript or video clip last night to hear his words in context for myself, but came up dry, unfortunately). But it seems premature and not helpful to address such loaded topics based on some blogger's take on a brief Q&A exchange. I wish you had held off to see if Keller clarified or responded to Derek's post before writing this - or that you had focused your post on the faulty thinking, and not so much on presuming Keller said and meant. Just disappointed and surprised as this seems counter to how you usually approach things.
...And now the comments are exploding with lots of assumptions about Keller, which makes me sad as it all seems to be puting the cart before the horse and assumptively stirring the pot. Again - the topic itself is valid and necessary to address. I just wish Keller wasn't being dragged into it by so many based off of so little. Any further clarity would be welcome.

From Suzannah: 

Keller's wording is extraordinarily careless, but this was an on-the-spot Q&A as recounted by someone else, and I'd be interested to hear his point firsthand. Of course doubt is complex, even necessary, and *not* inherently tied to personal sin, but, I think his point stands: it's easy when I stray from faithfulness to begin to justify my own selfishness and attribute the distance I feel to anything but me. That doesn't mean that all dark nights or doubts are rooted in sin--not at all!--but I think there is a distinction to be made between honest wrestling and my own lazy excuses.”

From Josh (who always has something great to say!):

Cognitive dissonance -- that psychological term that refers to the way our brains respond when our beliefs and actions don't line up -- is also a very real thing. Our brains really don't like it when actions and beliefs don't line up, and more often than not, we change our beliefs to match our actions rather than the other way around. So it's a very real possibility that someone going off to college does some stuff that they were raised to believe was wrong/sinful/evil, and it makes them call into question those beliefs. "Is it really wrong? If it's not really wrong, then what else that I believe isn't real either?"
But even though these doubts might be due to actions, we should never assume that this is necessarily the case. That is hurtful to relationships and dismissive to the very real doubts. So yeah, asking "Who have you been sleeping with?" is just the wrong response. Wrong in every way I can think of -- it's dismissive, combative, shame-inducing, and patronizing.
The right response? "Remember that it doesn't matter if you believe in a young earth or an old earth; it doesn't matter if you question how an omnipotent, loving God could exist in the face of the existence of evil; or what you might have done last weekend -- God's grace is big enough to handle all the doubt you can throw at it." And then listen to the doubts and be with the person in their struggle.

And Catherine shared a little of her own questions/struggles: 

I agree w/ everything you’ve written in this post, but I did read that Q & A from a different perspective than you. As a young adult who attended large, secular universities and moved to NYC right after graduation, I have to say that what separated me most from my peers as a Christian were my personal choices regarding sexuality. Secular young adults care about the poor, community, philosophy and poetry as much as young Christians. Where they differ is on sexual choices, and frankly, the only solid argument the church makes about abstinence (if you are a confident, self-respecting and respectful adult) is that God asks it of us (which is no small thing but sometimes very hard to hang your hat on when you’re 23 and dating a hot poet).
Doubt, of course, can be intellectual and often is, but doubt can also be relational, which for someone like myself NOT rooted in the excesses of fundamentalism, was far more powerful.  I love that you’re doing this series on sexuality and the church, because it’s such a tough issue for young Christians. From homosexuality to abstinence for a generation not marrying until their 30s, what the Bible says about sexuality doesn’t seem to completely add up in our postmodern age. What should Christian purity look like today? I wrestle with this far more than evolution, which I’ve believed in as long as I’ve believed in God.

Of course many of you shared some fantastic points in agreement with my analysis. You can read them all here.

Just wanted to let you all know that I listen, even when we disagree Thank you so much for the community you bring to this space.  It’s such a joy to be a part of it. 

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