A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt
By John Suk.
Eerdmans. Pp. 224. $18
Review by Dan Edwards
There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds. Tennyson
John Suk writes an honest, intelligent account of his journey and relates it to cultural shifts that impede faith. The author grew up in a conservative ethnic Calvinist “ghetto” (not meant disparagingly) but now questions the tenets of his tradition. Eventually he came to trust that his doubt is “covered by the love of Jesus” and that God can work with faith that does not measure up to the catechism. He calls himself a “Christian agnostic,” quoting the 1960s theologian Leslie Weatherhead.
The author and I come at faith from opposite directions. Suk has spent his life in a confessional church where “faith” means intellectual assent to propositional doctrines. Claiming liberty of conscience has been a struggle for him, and he has paid a price in personal attacks. I was an unbeliever who tried on Christianity as an experiment. My journey has been toward believing more and more, sometimes embarrassing my skeptical friends. Moreover, I found faith in a church that is fundamentally relational and creedal, but not confessional. Episcopalians have failings, but the precise doctrinal rigidity against which Suk is kicking is not among them. So, naturally, I am compelled to argue with Not Sure, but with genuine respect and appreciation.
Suk sees his story as a recapitulation of Christian history moving from enchanted faith (c. 30-1500/childhood) to literate faith (c. 1500-1970/young adulthood) to postmodern faith (today/maturity). But history is more complex than biography. Not Sure sometimes treats Christian history in a simplistic and dismissive way. The first 1,500 years of Christianity were not so naïve as Suk suggests and literate faith was not so exclusively literal and propositional. The enchanted faith era had Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. The literate faith era had George Herbert and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Suk embraces a postmodern critique of Christianity as a “co-conspirator in much of the world’s problems.” But he is frustrated by the subjectivity and emotionalism in “secondary oral” culture (Walter Ong’s term for our time when we watch screens instead of reading books). As contemporary culture dismisses the Church, Suk is conflicted about who is right, perhaps because he sees both sides.
Suk doubts the doctrines that denominations disagree over. He is right to do so. It is arrogant and partisan to try to pin down God’s truth too precisely. Ancient faith knew that. He doubts based on “moral rejection of injustice and suffering,” which indeed should make us doubt a God who would impose such things (as some Calvinists hold) instead of offering hope for deliverance from them. He doubts Christianity because of our historic complicity in so many wrongs. I hope Suk will write more about this, not as a mere armchair doubt on whether Christians are fallen people but as a passionate call for our repentance individually and as an institution.
I commend Suk’s courage and integrity in Not Sure. At times his description of doubt is mixed up with the anti-institutional subjectivist doubt currently fashionable. But, Suk is smarter and deeper than that. Not Sure is a Calvinist’s version of Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross. In the end, Suk latches onto a faith that is deeper than either his thoughts or his feelings. It is not our faith but God’s faithfulness that saves.
The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is Bishop of Nevada. This article was first published in the September 15, 2013 issue of The Living Church.