More than it seems
Every weekday I drive the kids to school. We cross a bridge spanning the Arkansas river on our way. It’s not the ideal river, kinda shabby looking, but it’s ours. Rarely full, multiple sandy bars and shrubby trees dot the center.
Even though we’re in the car we explore our river: a large rock standing alone near the shore, lots of different plant growth mid-river, and even some pelicans. We wonder together about how the rock rolled to that exact location. We imagine where the seeds came from and how strong their roots must have been to not be washed away.
We laugh how my son Emery kept confusing the word penguin for pelican. How delightful to imagine penguins too!
When my daughter Claire noticed something sticking straight up in the middle of the river, she thought it was the weirdest thing.
“Why is it sticking straight into the air like that? It looks different!”
Since it was extra-trafficky that day I didn’t see what she was talking about. I gave a “this makes sense” answer. I explained how trees have to grow straight up so they can reach the sun for light and all that.
Claire countered, “But this one is super straight and doesn’t look like it has any branches or leaves. It’s so smooth.”
So then I explained how the tree might have been alive at one point, but then it died for whatever reason and all the dry dead limbs might have fallen off during a storm. I felt really good about this answer. I took her seriously and addressed all of her concerns.
It was a really great story I came up with: “the life and death of the old river tree.”
Except: my story didn’t satisfy her curiosity. Claire asked about the tree every time we crossed the bridge but for whatever reason (paying attention to the road like a responsible driver?)
I kept missing it. She asked about it so much I began to get frustrated. Why wasn’t she satisfied with my answer?
Finally she pointed it out when I could catch a glimpse.
It wasn’t a tree, or even a trunk. It was some sort of rusty industrial pipe sticking straight out of the water. It had coloring similar to a tree trunk but she was right- it was too straight and smooth to be a tree. I also had (and still have) no clue why it was there.
We both learned a few things.
1) Pipes don’t usually stick up out of rivers, but sometimes they do.
2) It’s good to keep asking questions if you aren’t satisfied with the answer.
3) The story you’re given doesn’t have to be the story you believe.
4) A satisfying answer might lead to more questions.
The moment Claire noticed something was off she questioned it.
Because I didn’t see it I devised an entire story based on what was most likely but also completely wrong. She trusted her innate senses that told her something did not fit and she wasn’t satisfied with the first and easiest answer.
Stories we live by
By some combination of nature and nurture we form stories about how the world works, who we are, and our role between the two. As children we learn in generalities, our brains literally wired for taking things literally. Growing older we discover new and different ways of approaching life. Sometimes we notice it, like Claire noticing the pipe. Sometimes others point it out to us, like how I didn’t notice the pipe until Claire pointed it out to me.
Anomalies illuminate our limitations and add nuance to our lives (if we pay attention). When exceptions interrupt the rules we’ve used to form our stories, it is an invitation to examine and adjust the stories we tell ourselves. Exceptions to the rules offer us a chance to ask questions and engage in critical thinking. Wisdom is waiting in the margins, found in the exceptions.
Faith like a Child
My faith story was formed within a tight-knit loving community of charismatic Christians. Through childhood I collected a long list of answers to both structure and navigate the my life. The story written for me was clear: be a good Christian girl. I don’t remember questioning it as much as I tried to be it. I put my heart into the role, trying as hard as I could.
The few times I questioned either the people I asked didn’t have an answer or I was given a really complicated answer that didn’t really satisfy me. I knew what I was supposed to believe but it didn’t quite fit. I shaped my life around the idea that what I felt and what I wanted was secondary to the ideal of a perfect Christian girl (and eventually woman). I didn’t think there was another option so I powered through for years.
I honestly thought critical thinking applied to faith was actually criticism. Most questions felt rebellious and sinful so instead of examining anomalies I learned to quickly look away. It was much easier to defer to the story given to me than to form my own. I knew what I saw wasn’t a tree but I went with that story anyway.
I thought Christianity is based on absolute truth and that absolute truth doesn’t change. Absolute truth means the story is perfect as is and anything that doesn’t fit the story becomes the problem. I was rebellious. I was a sinner, I was the problem. I have to change to fit the Christian story.
I knew Jesus wanted me to have faith like a child. I always thought that meant obedience. Adults tell you the way things work and then you believe, no questions asked. Believe the story you are told more than you believe yourself. The problem with this view of childlike faith is it is nothing like children.
Children question everything!
Their faith is more like doubt than unquestioning belief. They are driven by questions, test the boundaries, and are never satisfied until the answers to their questions makes sense. Children know they are small but desiring to grow bigger. Curious and honest, their innate faith leads them to doubt claims there is nothing left to explore and the world as we know it will never change.
This is the kind of childlike faith I believe Jesus meant.
This faith refuses to be satisfied with a story that gives a lot of answers but doesn’t actually pay attention to the questions.
This faith invites questions and doubt and anomalies and exceptions to the rules.
This faith isn’t intimidated by critical thinking or even criticism.
This faith invites exploration so it can grow and change.
Faith and Uncertainty
The perfect way, the absolute truth, and the Christian life aren’t clearly explained anywhere with written words. These things are wrapped up in the life of Jesus, who, if we’re being honest, did a pretty bad job at giving clear answers. He answered questions with more questions. He told truths wrapped up in stories even the people closest to him didn’t understand. Even Jesus’s “red letter” words are translated versions of other people’s stories about him. Certainty isn’t the point.
Exploring different historical and present-day understandings of Christian faith gives me the gift of uncertainty. Learning how many different approaches to core Christian concepts like understanding the Bible, thinking about the Gospel, integrating science and faith, has clarified what I hold to be absolute truth and what I see as conditional truth.
Like the parable of finding treasure in a field, the certainty I had before doesn’t compare with the faith that remains. It is more precious, more powerful, more freeing than everything I had before. It is wider and more inclusive and more loving than I ever expected.
Suggestions for Cultivating Childlike Faith
- Exceptions to the rule are gifts not threats.
- It’s good to keep asking questions if you aren’t satisfied with the answer.
- The story you’re given doesn’t have to be the story you believe.
- What satisfies you matters and will lead you to expand your faith.
How have you formed your Christian faith? Did you trust charismatic leaders to do the thinking for you? Have you examined what you’ve been told is absolute truth?
Have you noticed exceptions to the rules? What are your questions? What do you doubt?
Maybe you’ve thought YOU were the anomaly. Maybe someone told you that you or someone you love is the problem. Is the faith you’ve embraced in the past no longer a place to call home?
Sometimes saying “I don’t know” is more satisfying than an elaborate answer.
WE Need Your Questions
It’s ok not to be sure. It’s good to say you aren’t satisfied.
If Nicolaus Copernicus stopped questioning then we might still think the earth is flat.
If Martin Luther stopped questioning then we might still think we have to pay cash for sins.
If William Wilberforce stopped questioning then we might still think slavery is God-ordained.
Christianity has not arrived.
We must question the faith we have been given to more clearly reflect the heart of God. We need to question the stories we repeat about who God is, what God wants, and at that means for all creation.
The next few weeks (who knows? -maybe months) I’ll be writing about my interaction with questioning things I thought were obviously Christian but now I’m not so sure. I want to let you in on experiences that led to questioning some ideas I deeply held close, but not anymore. My faith is different now, more childlike than ever before.
If you have questions, I’d love to hear from you. This is a safe place for you to question, to be honest, to doubt, and for faith.
(Also, if any Tulsa locals know why there is a pipe thingy in the river on the south side of the 71st street bridge please tell me!)
(Most of these books can be requested from your local library)
- “The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our correct beliefs” by Peter Enns (aka Pete Enns) https://amzn.to/32qpdrF
- “The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking how you read the Bible” by Scot McKnighthttps://amzn.to/2pTR7Po
- “Searching for Sunday” by Rachel Held Evans https://amzn.to/2WQki27
- This article by Jim Stump about Rachel Held Evans: https://biologos.org/articles/rachel-held-evans-1981-2019-asking-questions-of-our-faith
- “Out of Sorts: Making peace with an evolving faith” by Sarah Bessey https://amzn.to/2Cp9puJ
- “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright https://amzn.to/2WUKF6N