After reading through my blog yesterday I realized that I didn’t say very much about Jason Boyett’s “O me of little faith”. Which is strange because it was supposed to be a review of his book…but it turned into an exploration of the mental process his book put me on. Anyway, apologies Jason, for not spending as much time on reviewing your book as I did on reviewing the thoughts that came up while I was reading your book.
Fortunately for all of you, Jason was also kind enough to answer some questions that I had – hopefully these will help tell you a little bit more about his fascinating foray into the subject of doubt. So, without any further delay, please welcome Jason Boyett! (That’s this chap ——->
1) I would imagine that many of those who read today’s post might not have heard of you before (except maybe those who read this blog yesterday). So if you could start off by helping us get to know you better – what is your favorite ice cream flavor, favorite type of candy, and favorite snack food? (To be honest, I’m not as interested in getting to know you as I am hopeful that you will agree with my own previous choices – you’ve kind of stepped into the middle of an opinion war here on my blog, and I’m looking for allies – if you could answer Turkey Hill Vanilla, Now N Laters, and chocolate covered pretzels, I would owe you BIG TIME).
My favorite ice cream flavor is one from a local place and it’s called Candy Factory Explosion. Vanilla with smashed-up Butterfinger, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, M&Ms, chocolate chips, and all sorts of other goodness.
My favorite candy is dark chocolate M&Ms.
My favorite snack food is Bite-Sized Tostitoes chips with fresh salsa.
So, in summary, you owe me nothing at this point.
2) So anyway . . . on to more relevant questions. This book is so different from your others – were there any particular circumstances that led to its inception?
Occasionally I fill in for our pastor in my church’s Saturday-night worship service, and one week in 2008 he asked me to speak. It was one of those times when I had no idea what I wanted to talk about. The standard thing to ask yourself in these situations is “What is God teaching me right now?” But I didn’t have an answer, because I was at a point where God seemed absent from my life. Privately, I was going through a pretty intense period of doubt. So in a burst of brilliance or self-absorption or something, I decided to use that sermon to come out of the closet as a doubter, and talk about the relationship between faith and doubt. It was so well-received — it turns out there are LOTS of churchgoers with the same types of questions, though we never talk about it — that I began thinking it would make a good subject for a book. I didn’t have the answers, like 5 Steps to Get Rid of Your Doubt, but I did have my own personal story. My thinking was that, by telling my story, I could offer some hope and encouragement to readers going through the same stuff.
3) Whenever an author writes about a difficult topic, I think it can be a real struggle to shut out those voices in your head saying things like: “You shouldn’t be writing this book!” or “How can you talk about this topic?” or “It’s going to be an embarrassment for your family!” Did you have to deal with any voices like this while you wrote “O me of little faith”? If so, what voices were the loudest? What were they saying? (we’ll call this question #3 even though, technically, it’s questions #3, #4, and #5)
Yes, there were definitely those voices. A few of the things I write about in the book made me feel pretty vulnerable — after all, the first two sentences of the book reveal that I’m not always sure that God exists — so it was a challenge at first to ignore the voices of self-preservation and ego. But the point of the book was to be honest and confess this stuff, so a book in which I self-censored some of my failures and doubts would have ended up being useless. Once I came to this realization, it wasn’t too difficult to be real. You can’t subtitle a book “True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling” and then spend it acting like you’ve got all the answers. In my opinion, any book that focuses too hard asking “What will people think?” instead of asking “What is the truth?” will not be a very good book.
In the end, the loudest voices weren’t the personal ones but the ones urging me to be careful in how I described my upbringing and my childhood church. I was hesitant to harsh on that church environment, because it helped make me who I am. I loved my pastor, my Sunday School teachers, and the whole thing. I still do. But looking back, certain elements of that subculture impacted my faith in ways that weren’t entirely positive, and whitewashing those elements would have weakened the book.
4) Did you find your own personal doubts escalating or receding during the project?
My doubts receded during the project, because as I set out to encourage others, I ended up encouraging myself. Once the project ended, though, and I was able to get back to my reading and study, the doubts escalated. It seems that the more I learn — about faith, theology, history, science, the Bible — the more I doubt. I’m not sure what the answer is for this problem. To stop learning because it leads to too many questions seems like a head-in-the-sand reaction, and that’s too intellectually dishonest for my tastes. I’m a big believer that Truth ought to be able to stand up to honest questioning.
5) In Chapter One, as well as on your blog, you are very up front about how you tend to trivialize mainstream Christianity’s spiritualization of chance, but in the last chapter you say that “one of the doubter’s most important disciplines…is the lifelong search for God…I keep my eyes open,” and later “we’ll start to see Jesus everywhere, thanks to something called the ‘incarnation’”. Can you help me better understand this tension?
A better question: Can you help ME understand this tension? As you mention, I’m hesitant to attribute everything that happens in my life to God, as if he’s up there pulling strings and pushing levers and engineering every aspect of my day to fit into some master plan. I used to know a girl who regularly got lost while driving to certain locations, and on the times she never DID find her destination, she always ended up saying, “Well, I guess God just didn’t want me to go there.” I always wanted to say, “OR, you’re just bad at directions and you’re blaming it on God.” That kind of thing drives me crazy.
But you’re right. In the last chapter I talk about the importance of keeping your eyes open to God’s work in the world. And I’ll admit that, occasionally, that “work” might look like something I just described above. He seems to have done those kinds of things in the Old Testament stories. Was the ram in the thicket just a chance occurrence that ended up sparing Isaac’s life? Or did God get involve and provide?
I am the kind of person who doesn’t see God in every nook and cranny of my life…but I sort of want to be that person. While I suspect God intervenes less than we give him credit for, my hope is that he DOES show up every now and then — only in smaller, manageable doses. Like Moses being hidden in the rock and only seeing God’s backside glory, we may briefly get a glimpse of where he’s just been. Not the big picture. Just a sliver of Jesus every now and then in the people and world around us. The tension: I think it’s good to look for those slivers. But I think we need to be humble in our quickness to identify them with certainty.
6) One of my favorite quotes by Anne Lamott, even prior to reading your book, is that “doubt is not the opposite of faith – certainty is.” I think what she’s saying is that doubt doesn’t eliminate the need for faith, but certainty would. How does this idea line up with your thoughts on spiritual uncertainty?
I love that quote. We often tend to think of faith and doubt as polar opposites — you either have one or the other. But as Lamott says, we’re wrong. The author of Hebrews says that faith is “being sure of what we hope for” (11:1), and “hope” is a word you use only when the outcome isn’t certain. I wouldn’t say “I hope I’m married to my wife,” because I know that for sure. I have rational certainty that I’m married, and a marriage license to prove it. You only need faith when that absolute certainty isn’t available. Which means faith and doubt aren’t opposites, but companions. Without that element of doubt, you don’t have faith. Instead, you have knowledge. And there’s a big difference.
The point is that it is perfectly understandable for people of faith to struggle with spiritual uncertainty. We are finite creatures trying to wrap our minds around an infinite Creator, so of course we’re going to bump into some roadblocks from time to time. That’s when we doubt. And it’s OK. We don’t have to freak out about it or worry that our faith is crumbling due to the presence of these questions, because doubt is essential to faith.
7) I found myself arguing with you a lot while reading the first three chapters, something which at first really annoyed me (perhaps due to my non-confrontational nature, or my Anabaptist heritage), but as I continued reading I realized the cause of my angst was two-fold: first of all, I wasn’t comfortable staring directly at the things that caused me the most doubt; secondly, I needed to have a lot more grace for the expression of doubt within our Christian community. Do you run into a lot of un-graceful attitudes toward “O me of little faith,” (ie jerks like me) or are the majority of responses filled with things like thankfulness and relief that someone is addressing doubt out in the open?
I haven’t run into many jerks so far. Maybe a few who are uncomfortable with the questions I’m asking, but I totally understand that because not everyone gets wrapped up in the questions like I do. I get that not everyone can relate. Spiritual doubt is probably more widespread than we think, but it’s not universal. (And if every annoyed “jerk” handled it as gracefully and politely as you, Shawn, then I’d be really happy. You’re the best jerk ever!)
Mostly, though, the responses have been grateful, because it gives people the freedom not only to doubt without fear, but to be open about it. Our tendency in a performance-focused religious culture is to bury our doubts deep inside so we can keep up the charade of appearing to have it all together. And that sort of fakery leads to a lot of isolation and loneliness. It’s hard to connect with people from behind a mask. And that’s really what I wanted to do with the book — offer some hope and a safe place to discuss these questions. I know the loneliness that comes from doubt, and the freedom that comes from being able to own up to it and find a way to move forward.
Jude 22 says “Be merciful to those who doubt.” The last thing doubters need is judgment, arguments, and a suggested reading list. What we need is grace and mercy.
Jason Boyett is a writer, speaker, and the author of several books, including O Me of Little Faith and the Pocket Guide series of books. I blog about faith, doubt, and culture at www.jasonboyett.com, and I tweet a few times a day at twitter.com/jasonboyett.