deist

My friends shuffled their feet, coughed, avoided eye contact with me and then silence hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. I had just shared a story with my Christian peers about how I had taken a risk in making some dramatic changes in my life without any guarantee that I would be successful. I had prayed about those changes for months before and had several mentors help me discern what to do. So I shared with my peers what I would call a celebration story about how I felt that God had miraculously provided for me even though I was riddled with fear and doubt about what I was doing. I had felt like I was jumping off a cliff without any back-up.

Would God catch me?

As it turns out God did catch me and more. He provided for me in a way that was beyond what I could have imagined. But after I shared my story it was met with a hesitant pause rather than joy. Genuine questions followed from my friends: How could I be certain that God had provided uniquely for me? Why does God show up for some people but not others? Wasn’t I endorsing a form of prosperity theology which abuses the Scripture, “Ask and you shall receive”? What developed was a lengthy discussion around God’s interaction in our world and our individual lives. We all believed that God was our good heavenly Father but could we trust him to provide for us in the reality of our day to day lives?

It was a good conversation which gave me a lot to think about. However, as I walked away from that meeting I couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of sadness. When I thought about it some more, I realised I was sad about the “hermeneutic of doubt” that had pervaded the dialogue that day.

I have noticed recently that among many of my friends be they Evangelical, post-Evangelical, Progressive or any other label we might use, this hermeneutic of doubt is a framework that is being increasingly used to assess experiences with God. On the one hand I am grateful for a healthy skepticism which helps many Christians grow out of a glib expression of faith which unthinkingly reinforces a private, consumeristic and, individualistic embodiment of Christianity. Sometimes Christians can sound embarrassingly patronizing, condescending and too heavenly-minded to be able to relate to anyone. Often, a more mature faith emerges as a person experiences a faith-crisis. This has happened to me and it caused me to seriously question for a season whether there was a God who was interested in me. When we grow up in an environment where we are told that we have our very own personal Jesus, it comes as a huge blow when we inevitably experience a disastrous event in our lives which causes us to question that. We realize that the whole world does not revolve around us but instead around God’s story. We have a choice then; Do we go deeper into our faith or do we farewell it?

However, when a healthy skepticism perhaps also mixed in with an unresolved faith-crisis, turns into a hardline hermeneutic of doubt, this can encourage Christians to embrace a philosophy that I think is perhaps more dangerous than opting out of Christianity altogether. Christians can become functioning Deists.

Deism emerged in the age of Enlightenment when scholars became disenchanted with the idea of miracles, supernatural revelation and concepts which were seen as too mystical such as the Trinity. With the backdrop of Isaac Newton’s universal law of gravitation, he and others conveyed that God was like “a clock maker of the universe.” God set everything in order and then stepped back, distant and removed, watching but not necessarily being involved with the day to day activities of the world. This is an overly simplified account of Deism, but my point is that while it is not new, I think a lot of Christians today are deistic in their day to day lives with respect to their relationship with God.

A hermeneutic of doubt causes us to relate to God in a distant way without any attempt whatsoever to try and figure out whether he is interacting with us in more intimate ways than we might imagine. This hermeneutic also stops us from believing in intercessory prayers. Why ask God for things if in effect, you believe that he has already set the world in motion and lacks responsiveness? Charles Taylor in A Secular Age uses the term “disenchantment” to label an outcome of the Enlightenment’s obsession with reason, doubt and secularism. He said that as a result we become “specialists without spirit, hedonists without heart” (1) . All the mystery and magic gets taken out of life.

This is not orthodox Christianity.

Christianity believes in a very personal God who came as a human being and was intimately involved in the day to day life events of his time. After going to be with his Father, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit that we might continue to experience the immanence of God in our lives. I’m concerned that our fear of personalizing Jesus excessively, our hesitations around dodgy prosperity type theology and current critiques of glib expressions of faith are driving us. We might inadvertently be giving muscle to this hermeneutic of doubt which exists gladly in our culture already, causing us to act like Deists which makes us miss out on the joys of a personal relationship with the God of this universe.

I was a functioning Deist for some time. After my faith crisis I wanted to hold onto my faith even though I couldn’t provide a rationale for a personal, interventionist God anymore. It seemed the only way I could do this was to embrace deism. I never defined it as such. But in effect that is what I was practicing.

However, increasingly, it didn’t seem to make any sense to me. Increasingly I saw God provide, show up, intervene in ways that my doubting mind couldn’t doubt anymore. I still retain that element of doubt in the expression of my faith. But I won’t let it become a hermeneutic. At least I try not to let it. And I ask God to help me keep it in check. I plead with him sometimes to do that because I don’t want to lose my ability to relate to God on a daily basis in a very mundane sort of way. Interaction with God does not have to be spectacular, it’s simply knowing that he is present, he provides and that he will intervene when I pray. Maybe this sounds naive to some people. Perhaps it even sounds wrong to put that kind of pressure on God.

I think however, this is what people are calling out for.

In a conversation I had with someone recently who does not follow Jesus she explained to me her love of new age crystals and all things spiritual. When I inquired a little further she shared with me stories about how her friend had performed a “cleansing ceremony” in her home and now she does not feel the presence of evil anymore. It seemed to me, she wanted a God who she could connect with and who would help her in life. I realize that in thinking of God in this way we can fall into the trap of creating a god in our image who is like a genie in a bottle and must be present to meet our every wish as soon as we call. However, I discerned a different tone in my new friend’s voice. It wasn’t selfish, it wasn’t demanding. It was a tone of gratitude and longing for a God she could relate with.

This open posture towards a personal God is necessary for our missional witness. As Gary Tyra argues, “If this is true that some of the most influential missiologists of our day see a crucial connection between ecclesiology and pneumatology…does this not imply the need for a missional pneumatology – a theology of the Spirit that can enable evangelical churches in the West to respond to its increasingly post-Christian environment in a missionally faithful manner?” (2)

Will we let fear and doubt primarily drive us or will we be driven by the definitions and freedoms of our faith which have been established by God? If we chose the latter it will certainly be more messy. We will have to accept the mystery of God in a more profound way and that we don’t have answers for why it seems as though he does not show up many times. But I think it’s worth it as we live in and breath the air of a culture of doubt, skepticism and cynicism in our society.

We must ask God to help us use doubt to deepen our faith rather than to define it.

  1. John Patrick Diggens. “The Godless Delusion” New York Times Sunday Book Review, December 16, 2007.
  2. Gary Tyra. The Holy Spirit on Mission (Downers Grove; IVP, 2011).