Churches should be willing, able to engage hard questions

by Bill Tammeus

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As I'm browsing through the surprisingly eclectic selection of books in the library of the Ghost Ranch education and retreat center here, I notice a thick white and black volume.

It turns out to be a 1993 book called Voices from the Catholic Worker, compiled and edited by Rosalie Riegle Troester. It's full of interviews from people with many connections to the Catholic Worker movement and its first leaders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

One of those interviews is with Michael Harrington, perhaps best known for his influential book The Other America which was instrumental in inspiring the War on Poverty in the 1960s.

Harrington tells Troester about why he abandoned the Catholic church of his youth:

. . .the immediate issue that caused me to leave the church," he says, "was the existence of the devil and hell. Particularly the notion that a finite human act, however monstrous, could be the cause of an infinite punishment. And my feeling was that it was all right if Adolf Hitler burned in hell for two, three, four, five thousand years, but there should be an end to it. And so I rejected hell, but was still trying to hold for God and heaven.

Then I said to myself, 'But if there is no hell, and everybody's destined for heaven anyway, why was this earth created so miserably?'

Later, he says, he said this to his cousin, a nun: ". . .if I'm wrong, and I wake up and there is a God, I will say to Him, 'Why did you mumble so?'"

These are the questions that the church universal often has handled badly. It's time we do better. We? Well, "we" are the church.

One way the church has handled the questions of God's existence, heaven and hell is by using its authority to pronounce final answers. In a world of contingency, of mystery, ambiguity, finitude, that's foolish.

But that's what Harrington said he experienced.

"I've often wondered," he said, "if I had been brought up in the church going into Vatican II, would I have left? I don't know … But I was brought up in that rigid kind of Catholicism. All of my teachers drilled into me that if you messed with any one doctrine in this marvelously symmetric, integrated whole, the whole thing came tumbling down. You could not pick and choose."

Harrington's experiences paralleled those of many Protestants who grew up in churches that identify as fundamentalist or at least theologically conservative. I have friends who finally had their fill of their church's refusal to let them ask hard questions and its insistence that it had all the right answers about theological mysteries.

Some of them have found a home in Mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) churches that encourage hard questions and an appreciation for mystery. But some have abandoned the faith ship and navigate the often-harrowing shoals of theological enigma alone.

Such lonesome sailors have given up on most of the meta-narratives with which Christian Americans used to make sense of their lives, and they somehow exist without the social or religious affiliations that remind us of something larger than ourselves. We are becoming an increasingly unanchored (some would say freer) culture, one that can't point to a cohesive story that somehow embraces all of us and gives us meaning.

What today, after all, is "The American Dream"? At times we seem to be set adrift in a sea of meaninglessness that threatens to move us toward what existentialist Albert Camus said was the only "really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide."

Today the American religious scene is full of Michael Harringtons, people who have raised important questions about faith but who find that their faith communities are unwilling or unable to engage those questions.

That kind of failure — no doubt rooted in fear and insecurity — is how churches die.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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