Cracks and Questions

Asking questions is a means God often uses to help rid ourselves of limited and wrongheaded notions about God, so that we catch a larger and expanded vision of Whom we love and worship.

David Vanderveen

When I heard Leonard Cohen proclaim in his song “Anthem” that there are cracks in absolutely everything, I sensed he was describing my life. The cracks, Cohen croons, as if we should all know it by now, are how the light shines in, and it is only by remaining aware of our imperfections that we remain open to redemption and reform. When we have questions, illumination is possible. Otherwise, we’re closed and no light can enter.

David Dark

During the four decades of my teaching and pastoral ministry, I have had a lot of experience counseling those who have come to question the god they had inherited and had come to believe in. Sometimes their questioning was initiated by intellectual reasoning and doubt. Other times their questioning was the result of “life bumping real hard into them” through some betrayal, tragedy, or injustice. This questioning and the attempt to resolve the tension resulting from such doubts had one of two results: either a rejection of all faith in God or a deepening and broadening of their faith. My observation was that the deepening and broadening of faith occurred only in those who never gave up on the pursuit of truth. They stuck with the process through all the pain and disorientation that inevitably accompany such a pilgrimage. 

I want through such a process my last year in college. Through the practice of compartmentalizing all that I had learned in a liberal arts education, I had postponed the crucial discipline and integrity of relating all the truth I had come to understand to my Christian faith. I simply had not reconciled what I had learned in history, science, psychology, and sociology to what I believed as a Christian. The school year of 1969-1970 with all its upheavals (Vietnam War, Kent State) was when I faced the biggest “crack” in my life. I took two courses in religion taught by a professor whose teachings threatened virtually every tenet of my belief system. I went through six months of agony. I lost weight, suffered from several colds, developed mouth ulcers, often could not eat or sleep, and was an emotional wreck. When I turned to the religion professor for help, he said, “I don’t have time for such foolishness.” I received no help from the associate pastor in the church I was attending. In fact, I think he was more threatened by a bigger truth than I was. 

But I didn’t give up. I stayed with the questioning and doubts, and the God who emerged from those questions and doubts was so much bigger and better than I had ever imagined. I realized that if the fundamental truth of the gospel is true—that God is love—I had nothing ultimately to fear. I began to work out my own theology and discovered that many theologians throughout the history of the church had already come to the same conclusions I had. I spent all my spare time reading these theologians. I realized the god I grew up with was too small, petty, limited, and irrelevant to most of the problems and issues of life. I have spent the past fifty years building and expanding the theology I discovered in 1970. I still have questions, but I now know that those “cracks” and questions are often the only way my faith can grow and deepen. 

Here is an analogy I have used to explain what happened to me and what I have witnessed happening in so many people who have the courage to face their questions and doubts with honesty and integrity. We might compare our limited theology to a lit candle providing the only light we have. We stare at the candle with all our might and attention because we believe it is sufficient and necessary for our wellbeing as well as our standing with God. But over time it becomes harder to see the candle. Slowly it seems to disappear. We panic and struggle to focus on that precious light we have depended on for so long. And then it happens! We realize that there is a bigger light shining behind the candle—a bright sun which allows for more illumination than we ever dreamed possible. That’s why we could not see the candle. Its light was subsumed by the greater light. Perhaps that candle was what we needed or all we were prepared to see during that earlier phase in our lives. But now we need and are ready for more light. 

We must surrender our petty and inadequate images of God so the real God can appear.

This analogy teaches us that “god” must die for God to live. We must surrender our petty and inadequate images of God so the real God can appear. Of course, this process never ends—at least, this side of glory. If God is more than any or all of us together can understand, then we must be open to that “more” if we are to grow in our faith and experience transcendence. If our God is the same now as God was twenty years ago, one of two things has happened: either we now know all there is to know about God, or we have settled in a place in our own faith which can never allow us to grow from one degree of glory into another in the likeness of our Creator. I think that’s why people who have been in church for many decades seem so stale, complacent, and comfortable with the status quo. They take those last words of the Gloria Patri to heart: “World without end. Amen. Amen!” But what they don’t realize is that the world they assume in those words is nothing like the ever-expanding horizons of God’s dream for this world and all within it. It is that world ceaselessly unfolding from God’s own heart that will never end. God loves us too much to allow us to stay as we are. Eternity begins now and extends beyond our human capacity to fathom. With this God, we have only just begun. And, therefore, we have only begun to grow and change. 

Questions and cracks are two ways God can use to deepen our faith, encourage our growth, and give us great joy. Those who dread such a route very often have a religion based on fear. If they question or doubt, they are afraid they will go to hell or face some terrible punishment. But once our minds have expanded by asking a question or harboring a doubt, they can never return to their original size. Bit by bit those questions and doubts will plague our minds, hearts, and souls. We may deny, repress, or conceal our struggles. We may, out of fear or anger, become bitter and angry proponents of that which we doubt and question. In doing so, we may be like the preacher who wrote in the margin of his sermon, “Point weak. Holler louder.” But we will never be free of that question or doubt until we face and resolve it. And we will never know the joy and freedom which await us on the other side of our struggles. 

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