Doubt in the Academy, the Seminary, and the Pews

Australian Dr. Val Webb has posted the lecture she recently gave on a book tour in the UK about her updated book, In Defense of Doubt. This particular bit leapt out at me (emphases mine):

‘Why weren’t we told?’ became my question the moment I entered my first course of New Testament studies, when I discovered that the doubts I was not allowed to express from the pew had been discussed by long lines of theologians before me. Some of my classmates were ordinands training for ministry within my denomination and responsible for telling what they had learned once they graduated but, like many before them, they would not. I was incensed that faithful lay people in the pews were giving sacrificially so that these students could have free theological education, yet the same laity were being kept in ignorance by these same people with respect to their doubts.

My own wording of this refrain was (and is) “I can’t believe I had to go to grad school in order to find this out!”

Then later, she discusses how Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God was received in the wake of the 1959 Billy Graham crusade:

…[this little book] grabbed public attention, raising many of my questions — but it was condemned in most Australian churches now filled with Billy Graham converts. Thus Robinson’s message did not get through to laity and, for clergy who responded to Robinson’s ideas, the attitude of ”Let’s not pull the rug out from under the laity” prevailed — and this attitude continues to rule in many churches today, even though the rug under many laity is threadbare. Why is it there is often more pastoral concern about keeping one group of church members in their innocence than about feeding serious searchers who are quietly walking out the door?

THIS. So much this.

I am by no means the only person I know who gave up attending “adult ed” classes at church when they consistently turned out to be too superficial, too carefully guided away from any discussion that might raise serious questions or reveal that there were differences in what people felt, thought, or believed. Some, like me, end up in grad school or seminary or some other form of training for ministry, despite feeling no particular call; some read and study on their own, in isolation; some give up on ever getting spiritual food that’s fit for those who have outgrown milk.

There’s a real, serious disconnect between the academy, where theologians do their work; the seminary, where clergy are trained; and the pews, where the vast majority of the church practices the faith. This disconnect is why I can, for example, describe what I’ve learned about the Bible from a historical-critical perspective and now take thoroughly for granted, as do all the thoroughly mainstream theologians I’m studying, and have friends tell me “I never heard of that.”

This disconnect is a real, serious failure of our religious education system, which is one of the institutional expressions of the church’s ad intra task of formation. And I cannot help but think that it must be seriously contributing to both the polarized situation within many churches, and the difficulty in getting the fruit of ecumenical dialogues off the dusty shelves and into the living church.

Go read the whole thing.

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3 Responses to Doubt in the Academy, the Seminary, and the Pews

  1. Excellent post. Thank you the link to the lecture and to the book. I was not familiar with Dr. Webb’s work previously and I look forward to learning more.

    I definitely agree that doubt is a necessary step on the road to a mature faith and that aspect of spiritual maturity is severely neglected. This is most unfortunate as the positive attributes of doubt echo throughout Christianity, from the Bible, to St. Augustine to Pope Benedict’s “Introduction to Christiantiy”. I know in my own case I doubted for most of my early adulthood and it was only when my spiritual life was hitting a dead-end despite apparent external success that I really examined those doubts. This process kindled a passion for the Divine and opened up Christianity in a whole new way. I feel like the character in Plato’s cave who lived most of his life in darkness and now I am finally seeing the light.

    I also agree that there is a significant disconnect between theologians who often discuss doubt and lay Christians who almost never do. I have done a six-part series on my blog titled “Embracing Doubt to Grow to a Mature Faith”

    W. Ockham

    • Belated thanks for the comment and for the link to your series! I sometimes think that young people raised in the tradition actually have a much harder time coming to faith, because even if their parents and pastors say that it is acceptable to question (rare enough), there’s nevertheless an expectation that “…but of course, your questioning will bring you back to what we believe and have taught you.” Kids pick up on that even if it’s never said. And then, I wonder if both pastors and parents have little enough faith in their own faith, that they find it either threatening (if they have unacknowledged doubts of their own) or anxiety-provoking (if they are intensely convinced that theirs is the only tradition that can keep a person from eternal damnation).

      We sure do need better conversations!

  2. Dr. Peter Enns describes a somewhat similar issue in the Evangelical churches, in his post titled “If They Only Knew What I Thought”:

    Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path. . . .

    It is a cycle repeated generation after generation, but not because there is something deeply flawed about the students. The problem lies, rather, in that the same apologetically driven, and inadequate, answers to perennially difficult questions keep being repeated in the classroom.

    Once students leave the environment where such apologetics is valued, they find that the old answers are often inadequate, and in some cases glaringly so. When they return to an Evangelical context, they try to work toward some synthesis to bring old and new into conversation, but too often that very attempt, however gently put forward, is deemed out of bounds. And so, they either keep quiet or look for another job.

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