Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Interview with Jason Boyett, author of O Me of Little Faith

Jason Boyett is a writer, popular blogger, and the author of several books, including his latest called O Me of Little Faith. In his book he takes on a daunting topic: the existence of doubt in faith. It is an incredibly honest, self-revealing look at doubt that starts with his own story and his movement from a fundamentalist background to a more intellectually rigorous version of the Christian faith. What's perhaps most impressive about Jason's book is how he manages to tackle such a heady, intimidating topic with grace and humor. It is not only insightful but also accessible.

When I read in the book Jason's repeated confessions of his introversion and the role that has played in his faith and in his interaction with the church, I knew that I had to interview him. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions, and we'll start with those pertaining to his introverted tendencies.
Here's a quote from your book: "I am not an emotional person. I’m an introvert. So in a Christian subculture that equates emotion with the presence of God, I shouldn’t be surprised that I “experience” God less than everyone else." I and many of my readers agree with you on this statement, that evangelicalism exalts an overt "passion" and that those of of us who don't show our emotions as openly might be considered less devout. What are some other features of contemporary evangelicalism that you think can be discouraging or marginalizing for introverts?
JB: Like you, I think there are hurdles throughout the church that disconnect introverts from the rest of the body of Christ. Contemporary worship is one of them, because it can seem you're not "into" it if you don't immediately respond to the worship leader's suggestions. "Everyone lift your hands in praise tonight!" Um, no thanks. "Now jump up and down with me, people of God!" Sorry, nope. It's not that I don't see the value of physical displays of worship, it's just that 1) I don't like doing something I wouldn't otherwise do just because someone tells me to (there's that thoughtfulness you write about) and 2) outward exuberance just isn't my style.

The forced "passing of the peace" interaction -- or, in less liturgical circles, the time when we welcome guests and give handshakes -- is also awkward. It almost always feels fake, because if you were really glad to see me, wouldn't you have greeted me during those five minutes we sat next to each other before the service started?

But I think the biggest discouragement I've felt in my church life has been the weekly invitation and its emphasis on a public profession of faith. Especially during childhood. When you wanted to "make a decision for Christ," you had to walk down the aisle of the church (while everyone else sang, for instance, "Just As I Am") and pray with the pastor, then be introduced to the church and tell them about your decision. Because I was a nervous, shy 7 year-old who had no desire to do this in front of a thousand people, I put off this decision for years, out of nothing more than extreme discomfort with the process. And I lived with a lot of guilt over it, combined with a fear of dying and going to hell before I could build up the guts to respond to the invitation. Many evangelical churches are jettisoning the public invitation these days, and I think that's a worthwhile trend.
How do you think that introverts might process doubt differently from those who are more extroverted? How might this difference be harmful and how might this be helpful?
JB: I think this goes back to your descriptions of introverts as possessing a thoughtful temperament and a slower, deeper interior life. My faith is not showy and external, but internal and reflective. Which is great in many ways because it can be deeper and more nuanced than a cookie-cutter kind of faith. It's a real faith and I own it, but it's also susceptible to doubt. Most of my doubt is intellectual -- not the relational doubts of "Can I trust God?" or the experiential doubts of "Where was God when...?" but the even bigger questions of logic, anthropology, literary influences and science. That's an analytical kind of doubt, and once it takes up residence in your brain, it's tough to shake. I think extroverts may process doubt more on a relational level -- "I don't feel close to God" -- and those are feelings that can resolve and seasons you can grow out of. You get better over time. But when you process God on an analytical level, feelings have nothing to do with it. You don't grow out of or away from knowledge. Once you know something you can't just ignore it or let it go, and so many of these intellectual doubts then become a constant challenge to your faith. And, being an introvert, you're not always likely to want to talk through them, so it becomes a private burden, a daily argument in your intellect. It can lead to an even deeper level of isolation from the rest of the church.
What would you say to the critique I've seen recently that some Christians now seem to treat doubt and uncertainty and struggle as virtues, and certainty and assurance and confidence as faults?
JB: I've heard that critique made of others and also have seen it directed at me on a number of occasions. It definitely has legs these days, but that's only because doubt and uncertainty seem to be trending in this religious climate. To me, I think the critique is one of semantics. Critics equate certainty and confidence with faith, and faith is a good thing. A virtue. So they see me seeming to embrace doubt or uncertainty and it means I'm taking a position opposite something they hold dear. But as I write in the book, faith is NOT certainty. Faith is trust despite your hesitations. It is action taken alongside doubt. To me, uncertainty is related to humility...which is still a good Christian virtue, right? I think it's humble to admit the Bible can be a messy, confusing set of documents, a lot bigger than my intellect. It's humble to say I do not have it all figured out, or to confess that my understanding is limited. For me, a personal faith marked by certainty and assurance would be an arrogant put-on. It would be a lie, and so I choose the road of humility...which means acknowledging my doubt.

Now, statements like "I choose the road of humility" make me seem all spiritual and stuff. But the truth is more gut-level than that. For the intellectual reasons cited in my previous answer, I have more questions than I have confident answers. It's not for lack of trying. I have prayed for answers and certainty but have received neither. I have studied, way more than most lay people. I have struggled to find assurance and have not found it. So what now? Am I just supposed to fake it with pretend confidence? Or am I not allowed to be authentic in who I am and where I've landed in my faith?
Many people will think that the way to deal with doubt is to launch an intellectual exploration of the issues they're struggling with. Yet you make some provocative statements about alternative options for what to do with doubt. While not denying the intellectual aspects, you define faith as "a commitment to acting on the things we know for sure." How might acting on the convictions we do have confidence in help us work out our doubts?
JB: We've come through a season of evangelicalism where the answer to doubts took the form of rational apologetics, The Case for Christ and so forth. But these arguments-into-faith aren't effective for everyone. They can even been detrimental -- I've talked to a surprising number of believers who didn't start doubting until they read these apologetics books or websites, because until reading those books, they hadn't even been exposed to those kinds of questions. Their first introduction to errors or discrepancies in the Bible came from people trying to explain those errors away! Oops.

Anyway, for some of us, an intellectual exploration of these issues isn't going to help. In fact, it'll probably make it worse. So it's a good thing that, when his followers asked "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus didn't give his followers a checklist of things to believe or doctrines that required intellectual assent. He told them to do something: follow him. Take action. Love others. Serve the poor. Doctrine is important, as it helps explain and give shape to our faith. But faith is not a checklist of beliefs. "I will show you my faith by what I do."

So to answer the question, acting on the things we know for sure is a legitimate expression of faith, and that kind of faith-as-action keeps us from spiritual paralysis. We can get stuck in the doubts and become spiritually stagnant. We can avoid church and distance ourselves from Christian spirituality. Or, we can act on the things we're sure about. I may have philosophical questions about God and the existence of evil. I may be trying to figure out the place of a loving Creator in a world in which the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and I may never reach any good conclusions on that stuff. BUT, I know how important it is to show love to people. I know the value in extending grace, in pursuing justice, in feeding the hungry. And so I do those things in the name of Jesus, and in many ways that becomes a living faith. I'm taking action -- doing what I know to be right -- even though I can't quite get rid of the intellectual uncertainty.
Recently the topic of hell has flared up (you see what I did there?) among evangelicals, with two pretty strong sides emerging. Does where a person stands on that debate have something to do with what they do with doubt in their spiritual lives?
JB: Well, it certainly played a role for me. I write a lot in O Me of Little Faith about how a fiery hell was a big part of my spiritual upbringing, and how as I've discovered the biblical case for hell is less cut-and-dried than I was taught, I've seen it become a significant source of doubt. Not that my faith rests on the existence of hell. It doesn't. But hell is one of those doctrines that shows a great deal of evolution from the earliest biblical documents to the latest ones, and appears to owe much of its development to outside religious like Zoroastrianism and the ancient Persian culture. Which makes it seem less divine and more human, and that's a significant doubt generator for me. If the details of doctrine could be more anthropological than divine, what other beliefs are, too?

But I don't think I can necessarily parallel my experience and others, or say that a person's view of hell is some kind of signifier for how they handle doubt. What I will posit is that those who are willing at least to ask hard questions about hell may have a tendency toward deep thinking and a willingness to entertain hard questions. And if you do those things, you're going to face some intellectual doubt at some time or another.
One of the most helpful aspects of your book is the way that you normalize doubt. You say that faith and doubt are not polar opposites but they coexist in everyone's spiritual life. What would you say to my readers who are currently in the throes of doubt?
JB: First, I'd say don't fear the throes of doubt. You're not alone, and the apparent cracks in your spiritual foundation don't automatically mean your faith is about to crumble. Doubt is a natural state for believers because we are limited creatures trying to figure out an unlimited Creator...which means we've got a few significant hurdles in our way. If you didn't have some degree of doubt in your spiritual life, you would have no need for faith.

Second, don't bury your doubt. Don't pretend it's not there, because pretension is not an ideal lifestyle for someone who, as a Christian, is supposed to be committed to truth.

Third, find someone to "come out of the closet" to. Talk about your doubts. Find a friend who will listen and offer you grace -- rather than judgment and rote answers -- while you ask questions and admit uncertainty. Doubt is best experienced in community because that keeps us from bottling it up as something shameful.

And finally, don't stop doing what you're doing. Attend church. Read. Worship. Serve. Pray, even if it feels like you're praying to a brick wall. Live out your faith the best you can, because faith is much more than what's happening in your mind and spirit.
Thanks Jason, for these honest and thoughtful answers. I will also add that people in the midst of doubt will benefit from reading your book. It might not answer all their questions, nor is it intended to, but it will certainly help them feel less alone in their questions.