Struggling with Faith: Questioning Religious Teaching

Unpopular opinion: it is impossible to say “Christians believe” without being wrong. You wouldn’t know it from listening to certain politicians or commentators on certain news networks but there is not, in fact, a single clear definition of what Christians believe about anything. (Nope, we can’t even agree on what Jesus said.) Which means that if you are struggling with faith you are not alone, and you don’t have to throw away your religion or your relationship with God because you have questions.

Which sort of makes it silly that we are so often afraid to question religious teaching. After all: whatever you’ve been taught there is someone out there who claims to be a member of the same religion who believes something completely different.

It’s true for Christianity, and my experience is that it’s true for most other religions as well. We human beings are far more diverse and complicated than we would like to believe.

Questioning it all

If you found your way here you are probably already questioning something, or wondering how to question without throwing away everything you’ve been taught. (Or your kids are questioning everything you ever taught them and that’s a pretty panicky feeling.) The good news is you can question, grow, and change without having to toss out everything.

It is possible to question, even to reject certain things from your religious tradition without having to leave your religion or give up on the Divine. (In fact, it’s probably the healthiest thing you can do.)

Partly that’s because our beliefs and practices should change as we grow and mature. It is unnatural for us to stay the same as we were when we were children. A child’s religious understanding is simply not sufficient for an adult. So start with this understanding: to question is natural and healthy.

Setting the stage

You’ve got questions. I don’t have answers. Well, actually as a clergy person I am chock full of answers that I totally want to share with you, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily correct. So let’s set the stage with a few bedrock principles.

  1. There is no such thing as a human being who has all the answers about the Divine. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Any definition of the Divine small enough to be totally understood by a single human being is far too small and simple to be worth the title God.
  2. Change, growth, and curiosity are natural parts of being human and they are not evil.
  3. Change makes people anxious and uncomfortable. You can’t control anyone but yourself, and you are not responsible for anyone else’s anxiety about the questions you ask or the ways your beliefs change and evolve.
  4. Bedrock principle: if the Divine isn’t at least as loving, generous, and patient as a mediocre human parent then She doesn’t deserve our attention or worship. So let go the anxiety about offending God, there isn’t anything God has heard or seen before. God can take it.

questioning religious teaching

Guidance & Advice

So, you have questions. Great. It is possible that your pastor/priest/faith leader will welcome those questions. If they don’t please don’t let that shut down your curiosity. Every question you ask is like an archaeologist dusting off another precious artifact.

You cannot get closer to the Divine, or your own growth, without questions. So find yourself a companion on this journey, (or more than one). Find people who will welcome questions and help you wrestle with them; who will offer thier experiences in answer to your questions but not expect you to stop there.

Especially find guides and fellow travelers who know how to say I don’t know. Someone who thinks they have all the answers will be no help to you as you question religious teachings. Only those who know how little they know will make suitable guides.

Begin within

Start with yourself. This might seem obvious but often our questioning begins with say a break in trust with a person or institution which can leave us wildly unmoored and suggestible. Start by exploring your own beliefs, assumptions, and context. Get really real about what your bedrock principles are. Figure out what values drive your life and what you’ve been doing just because it was culturally assumed.

This matters because it gives you somewhere to stand as you question big important things.

If you aren’t sure how to do that try this exercise: download my values finder and do the exercise, then grab your journal and write your autobiography (briefly) using the values you identified to mark the decisions you have made that brought you to where you are now (both those that aligned with your values and those that definitely don’t, none of us are perfect).

Avoid scapegoating

It is very easy to use religious questioning to get back at, or blame another person. But it isn’t helpful and it won’t help you get to the root of the issue. Brene Brown points out that her research shows that most people are doing the best they can with what they have. That doesn’t mean there aren’t religious frauds out there bilking people out of billions (there are), but it does mean that most of the people you encounter in religious communities (your parents, your peers, etc) are doing their best.

When you begin questioning religious teaching it is likely to make people you’ve known and loved uncomfortable. They will often have very real fears that you will throw them away with whatever teachings you reject. Keeping it about the teaching or belief, not those who hold those beliefs will help.

questioning religious teaching

Do your homework

Here’s a scenario: a lovely rabbi I know will post something about Hebrew scripture, or rabbinical teaching and someone invariably turns up in her mentions asking a ton of questions that could be very easily answered via Google or Wikipedia. Don’t be that guy. That isn’t to say that we religious nerds don’t want to answer questions because we totally do. But do some basic homework.

Here’s why: doing your homework is another word for taking responsibility for your own education and learning. If you grew up in the United States you are likely used to being spoon fed the party line. At church, at school, or wherever else American institutions aren’t great at turning out critical thinkers. We have fallen into an educational rut that is about regurgitating information that was poured into us by an “expert.” This is your chance to break out of that mold.

Curiosity

Most adults curiosity has been beaten into near nonexistence. So push back against that. When you run into something that immediately fires off questions in your head become a sleuth, an investigator. Get out there and research, research, research.

In the example of my friend above a quick Google of her name would turn up the (many) books she has written. Read some of them. If you still have questions, by all means ask. But you’ll be asking from the position of an informed and curious fellow investigator of the Divine. And that makes all the difference. (For you!)

Difference is not the enemy

Here’s how it usually goes. You are raised thinking and doing things a particular way, for whatever reason your beliefs or practices change. It is often tempting to be so excited by your new knowledge or experience that you try to get everyone else to be just like you.

We don’t all have to think alike, or act alike. One of the greatest gifts humanity possesses is our difference from one another. While we are all very closely related at a genetic level the sheer abundance of ways we think and act are staggering.

That does not mean that all beliefs are healthy, or that all actions are morally good (they are not, there is no such thing as a morally good Nazi. Genocide is always wrong. Oppression and abuse are always wrong.) But diversity is not our enemy. And it isn’t necessary that we convert everyone into our way of doing things.

questioning religious teaching

Define your bedrock principles

I was raised in a certain sort of Christianity. In that sort of Christianity women weren’t ordained, and to be LGBTQ was to be a sinful aberration. I didn’t reverse my beliefs on either of those things overnight. It took a lot of very deep questioning, reading, discussion and soul searching.

But both of those changes in my beliefs and others were first of all possible because of my bedrock principles; and eventually it was those principles that changed my beliefs.

How & Why

This is a little like values. But in theology or ethical argument you have to start with a given. You state right up front what that given is, it is the thing on which all your other statements are based. It is the starting point of your mathematical proof, the theory you mean to test with the scientific method, etc.

My bedrock principle was very simple: the Divine is the ultimate expression of Love in existence. This principle is something that shown through everything I’d been taught as a child, even when some other things I’d been taught conflicted with it. And I had direct experience of this principle. I had experienced God/Divine as love.

Once I realized that this was the one fundamental thing I believed to be true everything else was up for grabs. A truly loving Diety wasn’t going to reject me for asking questions after all. But it also led to a change in many of my beliefs because what I had been taught directly conflicted with this principle.

questioning religious teaching

Keep Learning

You might have started with one question, but the likelihood is that each time you question you will end up with more questions than answers. That’s normal. The more mature we become the less we are sure about. Children are very sure. They live in a world of black and white. But we can’t (or we shouldn’t) stay there. The world we’ve been born into is technicolor. It is complicated, diverse, and always changing.

Below I have created a list of a few great resources grouped into categories to hopefully make what you need right now easier to find. Explore, play, and keep asking questions!

Religious Conversion (ex-evangelical), change & questioning

Surprised by God by Danya Ruttenberg

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt

God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations by Desmond Tutu

Feminism & LGBTQ

Yentl’s Revenge by Danya Ruttenberg (Editor)

Are Women Human?  by Dorothey Sayers

Her Story by Barbara MacHaffie

Biblical Literacy

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney

The Meaning of the Bible by Knight and Levine

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg

Spiritual Practices

Nurture the Wow by Danya Ruttenberg (parenting specifically)

The Book of Creation by J. Phillip Newell

Theology

Where God Happens by Rowan Williams

Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Irwin Kula

This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Alan Lew

The Universe In a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Beauty: the Invisible Embrace by JohnO’Donohue

(Theology As Poetry)

I Heard God Laughing by Daniel Ladinsky

The Soul of Rumi by Barks

The Ordering of Love by Madeleine L’Engle

Thirst by Mary Oliver

 

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1 thought on “Struggling with Faith: Questioning Religious Teaching”

  1. I love this post, Jo. Especially “Any definition of the Divine small enough to be totally understood by a single human being is far too small and simple to be worth the title God.” SO TRUE. Keep up the good work, my friend.

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