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Monday, August 31, 2009

questions and doubts

Despite the name, Perl Monks is not a religious website. It's a computer programming forum; the monks' mission is to help novices grasp the mysterious complexities of the Perl programming language. But sometimes they teach a lot more.

For example, when an anonymous user posted a question with the title Regular Expression Doubt, monk Merlyn offered helpful grammatical advice:

I suspect you are not a native English speaker. I'm pretty sure you don't mean "doubt" there, which means "I understand, but I do not agree". You almost certainly want "question", which means "I do not understand".

For me, Merlyn's response is even more helpful, because it clarifies a larger issue I've been wrestling with for some time.

Some Christians are fond of saying that their faith contains elements of doubt. I've said it myself. For some, the doubts are a response to circumstances that make no sense; for others, the doubts are part of a long-term (possibly lifelong) struggle. Either way, it's an attempt to honestly assess the current state of our faith.

But there's something about that phrase that just isn't right.

It isn't that real Christians never have doubts. The gospels, in fact, record that even Jesus' disciples sometimes doubted:

Matthew 14:26-33
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

John 20:26-28

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

But in both cases, Jesus rebuked his followers for having doubts, and in both cases, apparently, the doubts immediately subsided.

Doubt is not an element of a healthy faith. If you read many atheist blogs, as I do, you'll see a fairly common pattern where doubts about the Christian message are the seeds that later blossom into "deconversion". You'll also see discussions on how to use doubt as an evangelization tool, to help move believers toward skepticism.

I've always thought these discussions miss the point, so far as my faith is concerned; but until now I haven't really been able to articulate why.

The difference between questions and doubts explains it, I think. I can't say I often reach the point in my faith where I understand but disagree (though I do disagree with some theologies); on the other hand, there are many things I'm unable to understand. (It may sound trite, but the more I learn, the less I think I understand.)

What I have are questions, not doubts. Maybe it's because I have a mystical or experiential faith. The God I know is beyond my ability to fully understand. I was not reasoned into my beliefs, and I will not be reasoned out of them. All I can do is dive deeper into the mystery, and questions often provide good entry points.

Questions can and do lead to a more mature faith. Genuine doubts do not. But why do some people have questions and others have doubts? That's another mystery.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

encountering coyote

Christine of Abbey of the Arts has an encounter of mythic proportions in the early morning fog of a Seattle cemetery.

Early in my pilgrimage among the trees and gravestones, there coyote appeared to me. It stood looking at me for several seconds as I remained still, breathing in that moment. Then it slowly began to slink away and disappeared into the mist.

Read the whole story.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

spiritual type

According to this quiz, my spiritual type is mystic. I think that's about right.

You are a Mystic, known for your imaginative, intuitive spirituality. You value peace, harmony, and inner silence. Mystics are nurtured by walking alone in the woods or sitting quietly with a trusted friend. You may also enjoy poetry, meditation, wordless prayer, candles, art, books, and anything else that helps you connect with God.

Mystics experience God best through rich images and symbols. You are contemplative, introspective, intuitive, and focused on an inner world as real to you as the exterior one. Hearing from God is more important to you than speaking to God. Others may attribute human characteristics to God, but you see God as ineffable, unnamable, and more vast than any known category. You are intrigued by God's mystery.

Some famous mystics, according to the site:

Thomas Merton | Enya | John (the Gospel writer)
Brother Lawrence (Practicing the Presence of God)
Desert mothers and fathers | Charlie Brown
Sister Wendy | Phoebe Buffay | Julian of Norwich
Luke | Anthony de Mello | The Who

Take the quiz from the Upper Room. Hat tip to Daniel McLain Hixon.

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