Can You Doubt Too Much? An Interview with John Ortberg

Photo by Willow Creek D/CH.

This article is part of a series celebrating the release of our newest Sticky Faith curriculum resource, Can I Ask That? Co-author Jim Candy caught up with his mentor John Ortberg, a popular author, speaker, and senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, to ask him about the role of questioning in faith. Ortberg is the author of Know Doubt and a host of other books.

JIM: Ok, first question. Why are doubt and questioning important to faith development?  

JOHN: Doubt and questioning are critical to faith development because young people need to make the faith their own. They can’t simply inherit or adopt it from their parents or other family members. It’s very important for churches to understand that faith cannot be conjured up by an act of the will. A young person’s sense of certainty about faith is a result of studying, learning and pondering. It’s not something that happens just by direct effort.

JIM: Got it. So can you doubt or question God too much?  

JOHN: Well, my friend Dallas Willard used to say, “We should ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.”  So I don’t think it’s possible to sincerely ask questions or follow trails we don’t understand too much. It’s a very good thing to do.

However, we are not just computers or machines. Our thoughts are tied to feelings and our desires, and it’s certainly true that we all have a vested interest in what we want to believe. Some people want to believe in God and so they are more likely to do so. Others don’t want to believe in God and they are more likely not to do so.

If my behavior is lined up in a way that makes me not want to believe in God because I don’t want to be accountable to him, then I’m likely to have more doubts. They aren’t doubts that simply reflect intellectual processes; they reflect the behavioral pre-commitments I have already made. Discerning with folks when wrong behavior or flat-out sin is producing doubt, as opposed to the process of sincere questioning, is one of the most pastoral functions for church leaders.

JIM: Ok, but then how does the Church decide what challenging issues are critical to agree on and which issues leave us room to disagree?

JOHN: Well historically the church has laid out what beliefs are most central by way of creeds, and that’s one of the reasons why creeds can be helpful. When it comes to faith, we want to focus on the beliefs that are most central and make the largest difference to our lives. 

Does God exist? Is there a Trinity of mutual self-giving love that is at the core of reality? Do the Scriptures properly understood and interpreted give us unique knowledge about this God? It’s very important for the church to help young people understand which claims are most central to faith, and what issues are just controversial and hotly contested, but don’t rise to the level of creedal affirmations.

JIM: Right, but even though there is agreement in certain areas, do you think there are ways young people are being left unprepared for faith when they leave high school?

Young people are all too often leaving high school without the deepest, most thoughtful, most reflective views of the Christian faith on critical questions. Science in particular is an area where young people are often given not only bad science, but also very often bad interpretations of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis.

Young people need to have close relational connections with folks they know and trust. A great deal of the preparation of the mind doesn’t involve just “the right answers.” It involves a relationship with somebody before whom a young person can muse, reflect, express doubts, and be able to think things out themselves. There is simply no substitute for being able to think for yourself.

JIM: Right, but that's pretty scary for some people. Can churches help? How do you think churches should be addressing controversial issues of the day with young people?

JOHN: I think the church ought to be asking young people, “What are your main questions?”  

We then ought to bring folks in who are able to speak into those questions fairly, accurately, and civilly. At our church a couple of weeks ago, we actually had a worship service where representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Secularism, Judaism and Christianity each described what their own faith tradition believes about central questions so that people in our church could hear them directly. Too often, non-Christian views end up being portrayed inaccurately or even caricatured by people inside the church. People inside the church may have good intentions when they do this, wanting to reaffirm students’ faith, but ultimately, a failure to listen to or accurately represent another viewpoint will undermine faith because people will be led into doubts when they realize they have been misled. Controversial issues ought to get an even-handed hearing in the church.

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