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“Faith & Doubt”: Surprisingly Alike

The book review in a moment. But first a story. I work part time in the San Jose, California area, although I live out-of-state. A few weeks back my wife Sherri flew out to join me for the weekend — just a relaxing get-away. But she chose that weekend because it also provided an opportunity for us to hear John Ortberg speak at his home church, Menlo Park Presbyterian. We first became familiar with John Ortberg half a dozen years back when he was the Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago, and we heard him speak when we were visiting the area. Since his move to California we have followed his ministry and periodically watch his sermons via the internet. He is, for my needs and temperament, simply the best speaker I have ever encountered.

The following weekend we were in Chicago en-route to a Thanksgiving vacation in Wisconsin. And when we pass through Chicago we try, if possible, to take in a service at Willow Creek. So we found ourselves, on Sabbath afternoon, sitting in the Willow Creek atrium, looking out over the lake and waiting for the 5:30 service. We had no idea who was scheduled to speak. I remarked to Sherri, "Wouldn't it be funny if the speaker was John Ortberg?" To kill some time we wandered up to their bookstore and by the checkout register was a big sign — "John Ortberg will be autographing his new book Faith & Doubt after the service tonight." I asked the register lady "Is John Ortberg really speaking here tonight?" "Yes," was her reply. Sherri & I looked at each other and literally laughed out loud. The lady wondered, I'm sure, just what was so funny.

I bought the book. So now the review.

Faith and doubt are flip sides of the same secret problem for Christians — that we should be full of faith and empty of doubt, or so we think. Not so, says Ortberg. Actually they are surprisingly alike. Both are concerned with issues of ultimate importance, and both are necessary.

Necessary? Yes, the necessity is grounded in the inescapable fact that we humans are not in a position to know anything with complete certainty. But Ortberg also argues that we need both. Faith, to decide for God when evidence alone is insufficient to seal the deal but neutrality is a worse choice. And doubt is needed to grow and exercise our ability to discern between truth and error.

Ortberg's book roughly separates into three parts. First a closer look at faith, what it is and the surrounding issues and mistakes we make. Then a similar examination of doubt. Finally he turns — pastorally and even evangelistically — to why belief in Christ is the better way, even in this inevitable environment of uncertainty.

In discussing faith he first identifies three types of conviction: public, private and core. Public convictions, he says, are what we want other people to think we believe. He illustrates:

Sometimes being part of a community of faith increases the temptation to pretend to believe what we really don't. The college I attended required faculty members to sign a document affirming that they believed in premillennialism, a doctrine that Jesus will return to take his followers out of this world before inaugurating a thousand-year earthly reign. Their jobs were contingent on this affirmation. We asked one of our professors why he subscribed to this, since it has been a minority position throughout the history of the church. 'My belief in premillennialism hangs by a slender economic thread,' he said.

Substitute a short creation chronology for premillennialism and you will have an analogous dilemma for some Adventist science teachers.

Private convictions, says Ortberg, are what I sincerely want to believe but may turn out to be fickle. Peter's betrayal of Jesus illustrates this. Finally, core convictions are the ones that really matter. They are what might be called the "mental map." I would prefer the term "world view," but I think the ideas are about the same. The book tries to help us sort through such differences so we can better understand what motivates us to act and what faith is really all about.

When he turns to examining doubt he is really pursuing the implications of what is generally called the Problem of Evil, and the companion problem of God's silence. This human longing for clarity and hearing God's voice provides a strong attraction for some to fundamentalist flavors of Christianity, where certainty is the reigning orthodoxy. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

And this is, I would suggest, an even more significant problem within the Adventist community than most other flavors of Christianity. Historically Adventists have told a detailed and confident eschatological story where the church plays a central and crucial role. And this story was validated by the prophetic voice of Ellen White, who also wrote authoritatively on a multitude of other topics. For many Adventists her prophetic status equates to near infallibility. So to discover, as, for example, Walter Rea did in the 1970s, that she was much more human than this, might precipitate a cascading sequence of destabilizing doubt. At least this can look alarmingly like the slippery slope to unbelief. So for many, legitimate doubting gets buried and covered by fear and guilt. But this Adventist version of the problem is just a more expansive case of the universal need to resolve the sometimes conflicting voices of authority and experience.

John Ortberg's writing has a conversational, even breezy style. Stories, quotations, humor. For a book dealing with such difficult and crucial core human concerns, it is a very accessible read for the so-called person-in-the-pew. Similar to Philip Yancey. As I read the book much of his material sounded familiar to me. And that's because it was. I'd heard much of it before because I have watched and heard him speak many times. And his sermon material has, in effect, been recast into this book. Now, that does not mean — as it easily could have — that the book is just a cut-n-paste job that rehashes old sermons into book form. No, while his material has a "sermonic" history, it also has been given careful and thoughtful organization and continuity.

Still his style is, I think, both the book's major strength and weakness. The extemporaneous style draws you in and keeps the material accessible — thereby widening the audience for a difficult subject that would otherwise bore or frighten the less reflective reader. But in so doing it risks oversimplifying an interlocking set of deep and difficult philosophical problems. So what we have is certainly not the definitive work on the intertwined topics of faith and doubt. Rather it is an extraordinarily lucid introduction — and bridge — to bring new readers into the conversation and stimulate important self-examination.

Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.

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