My mother suffers from occasional bouts of vertigo. I can feel for her. I am prone to similar experiences of disorientation that leave me dizzy and nauseous. But then, we all are going through a period of imbalance at so many levels given the pandemic, the political drama, and the polarization and alienation that have so gripped our lives.
We have lost our bearings, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the spiritual realm. Some of this is captured in Leigh Stein’s op-ed this week in the NY Times. Entitled “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” she notes that some twenty-two percent of the emerging generation is no longer affiliated with organized religion given its teachings and stance on social issues. The preference is a belief system that is a blend of “left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology, and Dolly Parton.”
What concerns Stein is that her generation has found a different kind of clergy: personal growth influencers who aren’t challenging people to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood? We have shifted from pulpits to Instagram, where a lot of the “preaching” is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.” She concludes, “Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?”
It’s posts like these that confirm we need a book like A.J. Swoboda’s most recent one, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It. It is as relevant as anything I have recently read. He begins with a story many pastors have faced—a college student meeting to announce one is leaving the faith–and moves to address a necessary response.
Looking at the current landscape, Swoboda is convinced we have entered an age of “deconstruction” where a number of people are dismantling formerly accepted beliefs. It’s become liberating to set aside the past and tradition (even Dr. Seuss is no longer safe).
What makes Swoboda’s book so helpful is his belief that though deconstruction can be a perilous place to be in, it can be a legitimate place to encounter the living God. All of us go through seasons of doubt. Faith that began uncritically encounters critical questions as one grows, questions that begin to dismantle. Three walls play a role in deconstructing the building that was once there: experience (unanswered prayer), crisis (my youth pastor lived a hidden life of sin), and transition (entering a new chapter). But then, by the grace of God, we begin to reconstruct. We come back to our first love.
The second part of Swoboda’s book looks at the core practices that help in the reconstruction, that spiritually form a person, enabling one to get through doubt without losing one’s faith. They include coming to grips with who you are; being part of a believing community (“deep Christian community plays a disproportionate role in one’s lifelong formation); feeling everything; learning to tend (we’re inundated with increasing knowledge and decreasing margin to process it); practicing being wrong; discerning the truth; embracing the whole kingdom; and trusting the right way. Each chapter reflects careful thought, wide reading, and a clear grasp of theology.
Even as a seasoned believer, a retired pastor, a seminary professor, and writer who deeply loves God, doubts still creep in. Just yesterday, I finished an agonizing phone call with a husband whose wife has been given little hope of surviving cancer, and I can’t help but wonder why. Earlier in the week, interfacing with a godly family facing unspeakable injustice, I am on my knees asking God to help me understand this. Sections of Scripture I have read just this week have given me pause to ask—really? But I am brought back to Swoboda’s last sentence of the book, one I too embrace: “Is it possible to question our faith without losing it. One might say that’s the very goal.”