Skepticism is often seen as a lack of faith. Understandably -- we long for certainty. That’s why simplistic answers appeal to us. We like our worlds neat and tidy. We want a solid set of unchanging beliefs. That’s the appeal of religious fundamentalism and reactionary political conservatism.
The universe is, however, complex. Our knowledge of everything, including God and nature, is partial and subject to revision. Additionally, we look through the lenses of culture, background, education. We all have biases. The trick is to recognize them and remain open and teachable.
Skepticism is not a lack of faith. Conversely, skepticism and honest doubt are essential parts of faith. Skepticism is the sign of an open mind. Skepticism is a gift that leads to exploration, inquiry, and the formation and testing of hypotheses. When hypotheses are validated by multiple disciplines and converge in agreement, we can be pretty sure we’re dealing with reality. Such is the case with gravity, electromagnetism, and evolution, for example.
Theology is a structure we humans erect around ultimate truth. It is a way of trying to understand God. God is Ultimate Truth. Each theological system is an interpretation of what God is like. Epistemological humility requires teachableness, an attitude that recognizes the possibility of error. I may be wrong. My theology may need to stretch, grow, be refined. If it has been based on false premises, it may even need to be dismantled.
We humans have imagined gods that are angry, warrior-like, judgmental, harsh, capricious, jealous, manipulative, vindictive, and greedy. We have imagined gods like ourselves. We built them temples to rest in, ziggurats to ascend on, and fed them with sacrifices, hoping that in return, they would give us good crops. We imagined a warrior king helping us destroy our enemies. We imagined a celestial Santa Claus, a jolly old grampa whose main joy is giving us stuff. We imagined a Mr. Spock-like brainiac – emotionless, logical, distant, aloof – a watchmaker god. We invented gods who hate what we hate and punish others who are not like us. We’ve had tribal gods, national gods, and racial gods. We reduced God to a cosmic force, undefined, mysterious.
Enter Jesus, the Jewish rabbi from Galilee. We have a great deal of historically accurate information about him from eyewitnesses and people close to the eyewitnesses that has been very carefully preserved in texts considered sacred. We have no more reason to doubt the four canonical gospel accounts than we have to question whether Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox Court House.
Jesus did things only God could do. He commanded the elements, walked on water, turned water to wine, raised the dead, cured the lame, blind, and sick, and fed multitudes with a few fish and a couple pieces of flat bread.
Even more impressive, Jesus said things only God could legitimately say. He claimed to be able to forgive sins, said he was the truth, said no one could come to God except through him, said that he and God were one, and that anyone who had seen him had seen God the Father. He claimed to have preëxisted his birth.
Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The tomb was sealed and guarded 24/7. Someone broke the seal and set the stone off by itself. The tomb was empty. The graveclothes undisturbed. Over the following few weeks, hundreds of people on many different occasions and in multiple circumstances claimed to have encountered him alive in a physical body. Although most of them died painful deaths under persecution; none recanted their story of his resurrection. Millions of believers have been radically changed over the last 2,000 years. Jesus’ followers led the way in ending slavery, caring for orphans, establishing hospitals and hospices, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, ending child labor, and protecting animals from abuse.
Do not confuse the real Jesus with the caricatures that prevail in postmodernity. Forget the homophobic Jesus of American evangelicalism and the warrior Jesus of armed militias. Ignore the consumerist Jesus of the prosperity preachers, the sexist Jesus of fundamentalists, the vengeful Jesus of dispensationalists, and the racist Jesus of the political right. Don’t confuse Jesus with inquisition, holocaust, segregation, genocide, capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, or any political party.
The real Jesus is perfect love, the servant of all, the one who gives his life for others. The real Jesus forgives his enemies, turns the other cheek, goes the second mile, eschews violence, would rather die than kill, welcomes foreigners and strangers, embraces notorious sinners, enjoys a good party, and loves unconditionally. While being tortured to death, the real Jesus sees to his mother’s care, tells women not to weep, forgives those who are killing him, and welcomes a criminal to join him in paradise.
Jesus is the perfect reflection of God. If you want to know what the one real God is like, look at Jesus. You will discover that God is love. Perfect, eternal, unchanging, universal cruciform love created the universe and lies at the center of all reality. When we love unconditionally, we are acting like God.
If our view of God has been influenced by any of the false images of the divine, we will need to deconstruct our belief system. We need to be skeptical of ideas about God that are unloving.
I was raised in a scientific home, so skepticism comes naturally to me. When I was a teenager, I had a dramatic encounter with the divine. I was flooded with perfect love. A few years later, I fell in with some Jesus’ people. I quickly learned praise and worship, joy and enthusiasm. A bit later, I connected with some Anabaptists and learned the ways of peace, simplicity, and service. Then came Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel where I studied the whole Bible verse-by-verse.
But gradually, my tribe became increasingly fundamentalist, legalistic, and affiliated with right wing politics. I was taught pretribulation rapture eschatology (“Left Behind”). That lead to environmental neglect, escapism, and a schizoid view of Jesus who was loving back in the day, but vengeful in the near future. My theology needed a major remodel.
My fundamentalist, literalistic, dispensational, anti-science theology was crumbling. The more I learned, the less I could hold on to. It’s a scary process. At times, it feels like death. Churches and Christians reject you, call you a heretic. It hurts.
But under the theology is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t go anywhere. A more biblical theology allows you to get to know him even better. Your fellowship and understanding of God deepens; your love expands; your vision sharpens.
Do not fear theological and philosophical deconstruction. You won’t lose your mind or your salvation. Change is good. Skepticism is good. Asking questions and searching for answers is good. Only legalistic pharisees have it all figured out.