A few years ago, I saw a video posted online, followed the link, and was hooked. The YouTube show was Good Mythical Morning, and this particular episode was, “Will it Jello?” From there Heather and I enjoyed the show and the hosts, both because it was an entertaining break from the stress of daily life, and because we learned that the two hosts, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, were old friends who came from a Christian background. Their story was a lot of fun to follow. Over time we drifted from the show for a few reasons, but always hoped (and prayed) for their steadfastness as followers of Jesus.
They rarely if ever openly talked about their faith, which makes a recent episode (set of episodes, really) of their podcast, Earbiscuts, so intriguing. I saw the episode posted, heard some snippets, watched some of the reactions to it on social media, and had a wave of emotions (both of us did). We took the time to listen to Rhett describe his spiritual journey from evangelical Christian to what he describes as a “hopeful agnostic”.
I have been a pastor of one kind or another since I was 18 (nearly 30 years). A lot of the experiences and authors he talks about have also been a part of my spiritual journey. I was also exposed to a lot of doubt – genuine, thoughtful doubt – at an early age. I am truly grateful that I had to wrestle with deep issues with friends and family early on and I am convinced that those experiences are part of what drove me both into the pastorate and through graduate degrees in philosophy.
So, as a pastor, to listen to this journey out of the faith as he knew it was heartbreaking. I have spent the better part of 30 years dealing with these journeys both in-person as well as through writing and blogging. There are some things to say in response to his journey, but first, I have to say I have a great deal of respect for how he has handled it.
I don’t have respect for many stories of deconversion where an individual has simply not treated this issue with the seriousness it deserves. There are a lot of those out there. Rhett’s story is not like that. I was not at all surprised to hear that he read, discussed, prayed, and struggled the whole time. If you watch their show, both he and Link come off as very thoughtful people. I am hopeful that this disposition of his (theirs) will keep him open to Christ.
Listening to his story is what you might call a “target rich environment” for someone schooled in philosophy and Christian apologetics. With one exception, I will hold those thoughts for the end. What I first want to reflect on is dealing with honest doubt.
Dealing with Doubt
I am so glad to hear that he had only good interactions with his Christian friends and pastors. That isn’t always the case. Often, someone’s journey away from the faith includes a lot of rough and short-sighted interactions with other Christians. It isn’t easy to listen to someone’s questions about the faith and admit that you haven’t thought about that before. You may think that you need to go through a similar process, and because a religious faith is rooted in the deepest parts of who we are as humans, asking questions about it can be very difficult.
As far as I can make out, two primary areas of questioning for him were evolution and the reliability of Scripture, and in many ways they overlapped. My one “exception” has to do with one author he read and appreciated – Bart Ehrman. Before he mentioned the name, I wondered if this is who helped shape his view of the Bible. Ehrman is an unfortunate author – his views on Scripture and its historicity have not held up well (he has changed his mind on one specific issue). For people who deal with these things on significant levels, Ehrman’s views are dealt with pretty easily (several of the resources I link below do that).
But doubt like his is a slippery animal. If your primary reaction to someone’s doubt is to get rid of it as soon as you can, it tends to only deepen the doubt. Don’t tell someone, “try not to think about it too much.” If you ignore it and act as if it will go away, a doubter will learn that you may not have much to say after all. And if you treat it as if it is an OK place to stay if you only change a few beliefs along the way, you are in danger of all the beliefs slipping away. Faith moves from salvation by grace to a generalized moralism.
Honest doubt requires patience, love, perseverance, and intellectual tenacity. In my experience it is perfectly fine telling someone struggling with doubt you think they are simply wrong about some things. After all, they may be asking you if you are wrong about a bunch of things, too. You should argue (in the best sense of that term), but argue with intellectual honesty. I have also learned that doubters have an enhanced “blowhard radar”. (Dishonest doubters have a wildly overactive blowhard radar – anyone who disagrees with them shows up on the screen.) Be just as honest with them as they are willing to be with you.
The kind of patience and love required in times like these are open-ended and prayerful. Someone honestly dealing with questions and doubts needs to be given the time to wrestle with them in ways and in the time that makes the best sense to them. Only then will solutions stick. Then they own it. When this happens, a resolution isn’t something you gave them to believe, but something they have come to on their terms. It is prayerful because Christians hope for a genuine relationship with Christ for that soul, and we believe God is active with everyone who doubts.
There are three good passages of Scripture that help Christians learn how to deal with doubt and doubters.
In John 20:24-27, the unfortunately named, “Doubting Thomas,” has a hard time believing that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Jesus’s response is not to chastise his doubt but give him what he needs to believe. Jesus famously told him to put his hand and fingers into the scars of the cross and believe.
Jude 1:22 tells us to have mercy on those who doubt. Mercy is divine kindness. When we have an opportunity to show mercy to a friend in the faith who is doubting, we need to learn how to do that.
In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus calls his disciples to spread the good news. His calling included both those who believed and those who doubted (vs. 17). Doubt by itself does not disqualify us, so let’s not act like it does.
Some Apologetic Interaction
My big-picture thought after listening to him describe who he read and what he did to get where he is now was twofold: I understand his frustration at some of the authors he trusted, and I hope he reads better authors on these topics. If he is open to such things (if you are open to such things), here are some good places to go for sound science and reflection on both evolution and the reliability of Scripture.
Regarding evolution, I have become convinced that there is little to no evidence for the science *actually necessary* for the theory to be true. There are a lot of scientists who will tell you there is plenty, and often the details and overwhelming amount of publications can act like a smoke screen. But, following the issue, one quickly learns that the American scientific consensus is now behind much of the rest of the world, including China, Brazil, and the Royal Academy of Sciences. But a consensus is hard to break.
Rhett mentioned he spent time with Biologos. Bilogos is a project designed to support both the belief in some form of evolution as well as some form of (typically) Christian theism. My experience with this project is that those involved tend to be far more convinced of evolution than of their faith, and often their faith acts like a kind of taped-on addition to their science. I’m not a huge fan.
One tome that collects thinkers who interact with theistic evolution is, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. It is a serious and long work, but for someone into this, it is invaluable. Two others written by Stephen Meyer that take a serious look at the fossil evidence and DNA and information theory are, Darwin’s Doubt, and Signature in the Cell.
Darwin Devolves is a treatment of the latest in the science of evolution and how the claims are not standing up to the research. Douglas Axe is a researcher to look up and follow. His lab is doing the research into whether amino acids will evolve into their closest-related amino acids, a *necessary* prerequisite for morphology from one form to another – macro-evolution.
A website that does a great job of interacting with the science of evolution (including the scientist Rhett mentioned, Jerry Coyne) is evolutionnews.org. There is a treasure-trove of both scientific and philosophical information in that website and the others to which it links.
Regarding the reliability/historicity of the Christian Bible, there are too many good resources to mention, but a few in recent scholarship really stick out. Because of scholars like Ehrman and others who have taken a serious shot at this issue, there has been a kind of resurgence of other scholars dealing with those claims from several perspectives and coming to other, more traditional, conclusions.
One recent academic work is, Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History. Several other authors who deal with these issues in incredible historical and textual detail are Peter Williams (Can We Trust the Gospels?), N.T. Wright (The New Testament In Its World, The Resurrection of the Son of God), Craig Blomberg (The Reliability of the Gospels, Can We Still Believe the Bible?), and Craig S. Keener (Christobiography).
There are sound reasons to believe that the Jesus presented in the Gospels is who he is portrayed as being and that the resurrection really happened as stated. We don’t need to despair about the things we are told in Scripture, and we can believe it with our eyes wide open to all the views to the contrary.
One last thought on something Rhett brought up. Plausibility structures matter. He was absolutely right to talk about the difference in cultures between South Carolina (where he grew up) and Los Angeles. He flatly stated that living in LA gave him the flexibility to ask the kinds of questions he ended up asking. LA didn’t cause his spiritual journey, it was underway long before that, but it provided fertile ground for new answers.
I have often said in conversation and from behind the pulpit that healthy interaction with doubt or confusion need not lead us away from the church. This is often one of the first moves someone makes – they disappear. Rhett stayed close to his faith and his Christian friends. I’m thankful for that, and hopeful that it will help him on his journey. But the cultures we find ourselves in can put pressures on our belief structures in ways we don’t always anticipate, feel, or know what to do with. Because a culture allows us to ask questions and be OK answering them in new ways doesn’t make that culture right in any significant sense. The ultimate question is whether the answers to those questions are right and true.
Pastor Phil, this is such an excellent post on the subject of doubt and the references and suggested reading are in themselves invaluable. I am excited to have a longer reading list for 2020 thanks to your post. I agree that, as a pastor, if someone expresses their doubt regarding their faith, it is critical that the initial reaction be full of grace, so they feel they can explore and learn while continuing in their association with church and Christian friends.
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