Friday, October 23, 2009

Reading Into Doubt?

Royalty-Free (RF) Clipart Illustration of a 3d Green Man Pondering And Looking At A Question Mark About a year ago I posted a blog article here entitled The Need to Read. I was honoured to have it published in the Record a few weeks ago. In that article, I suggested that it was necessary to read widely in order to have a robust faith.

I was reading the Letters to the Editor section in the latest Record where Adrian Contant, in Queensland, wrote in response to my article:

"I have to agree that reading widely can be good. But not so with religious books. I have seen many good Christian friends read themselves into doubt and become critical, losing their faith. That is just how Satan wants it.

"There is only one religious book that we should read, the Bible—God's Word. Other religious books express earthly writers' opinions. Be very, careful [sic] you don't lose your spiritual anchor." (Record, October 17, 2009, p. 12)
Is is possible to read oneself into doubt by reading religious books other than the Bible? I believe this is exactly what reading for learning and growth is all about.

Let me explain.

Doubt is not the issue. Unbelief is. Many Christians mistakenly believe that doubt is the opposite of belief. But the opposite of belief is actually unbelief. Doubt is faith in two minds trying to decide which way it should go. Reading may lead to doubt as we come across ideas that are different to those we currently hold. But those doubts are normal as we move beyond what we already know.

This doubt is absolutely necessary for learning. Without some degree of uncertainty regarding what we think we already know, it would be impossible to entertain new ideas that may lead us further into new understandings. This form of doubt is not to be feared. It is to be embraced. Without it we would stagnate and possibly blindly go along believing error.
"This doubt is absolutely necessary for learning..."

This avoidance of doubt is particularly concerning if it is related to the religious domain. The only alternative is intellectual blindness and, sometimes (often?) dogmatism. In essence, the suggestion to avoid wide reading of religious books is to avoid religious conversations with others who may be able to teach us. A book allows us to enter into dialogue with another person's ideas. It is arrogant to think we can travel our spiritual journeys without the input of others.

The letter author's implication that reading non-religious books is safer than religious books is also misguided. Dividing reality into the sacred and profane, and not recognising the sacred nature of all life, leads to a retreat from the real world and the fear of being "contaminated". As Christians, all reading, whatever it is, is to be read from the perspective of a comprehensive world view. The newspaper might not be religious but understanding the newspaper from the perspective of a Christian world view is essential in developing a spirituality that is down to earth rather than "pie in the sky". If our spirituality is not informed by the so-called "non-religious", then it is difficult to see how it can be a useful spirituality.

The fact is that it is how we read — not what we read — that is important. It is possible to read the Bible incorrectly and unthinkingly. We can see that in the fanatical evil that is sometimes perpetrated in the name of God. Whatever we read, whether it is religious or not, needs to be read critically and thoughtfully, testing all things and holding on to what is good (see 1 Thessalonians 5:21).

All of this is not to say that we should lack confidence about what we believe is true. We are to 'rejoice in our confident hope' (Romans 12:12 and elsewhere). But being open to the possibility that we have things to learn is absolutely essential to spiritual growth. Ellen White recognised this when she wrote:
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed. (The Review and Herald, July 26, 1892).
Reading widely, including religious books, is not the problem. Nor is doubt. Instead not reading widely, especially religious books, may lead to a determined persistency that could ultimately lead us very much astray. So read, doubt and learn! And when you doubt, pray for wisdom (James 1:5), think deeply, and allow your doubt to lead you into new possibilities for spiritual growth.
— Steve Parker