A Doubter's Guide to Christmas
Can I believe through you?
For Those Who Can’t
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This post is for people who can’t believe in Christmas.
As I wrote last year in “Christmas and the Deification of Meaning,” Christmas serves as a heightening of the so-called meaning crisis for many of us. This meaning crisis contributed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s public conversion from atheism last month and has driven years of interest in Jordan Peterson’s post-Jungian Christian thought that attempts to reboot Western civilization through revival. Like many post-liberal religious reconstructions, each has been criticized from both atheists and the flock as lacking something important: a devotional core that only comes from genuine belief.
This meaning crisis is not as personal a problem for Christians, except in wondering, “What does it mean that the pews are still empty?” For others, the timbre of the holidays is more nihilistic. “What is my relationship to this bogus thing that, despite myself, I miss not being bogus?”
After leaving Christianity in my early twenties, sometimes I would show up at my family’s church and wonder who knew my little doubting secrets. In retrospect, it was a strange conceit for us doubters to stay hidden, as the pews are never more filled with doubters than when families are drug in from college, out of town, or their teenage bedroom to take in the music and the candles and one of the two sermons you hear all year. But our doubters’ eye contact agreed: better to share a conspiracy of silence around our outgroup status than to ruin the mood for the believers, especially for a holiday that is more and more only about the mood. No matter that on the outside of faith, the mood was often just oppressive, insistent joy.
Back in the day, in the safer quarters of podcasts and bars, my fellow ex-Christians would often commiserate, “I wish I could believe, but I just can’t.” And it was always true on both counts. Pascal’s wager was always dumb because nobody can “ought” themselves into true belief. But that didn’t make it any easier to miss true belief, even from our intellectual superiority of non-belief. Who doesn’t want to live in a world enchanted by God?
Even years after reconverting and responding to a call to ministry, I confess I often feel I’ve somehow betrayed my former belief outcasts. After all, they are most of my friends since my early twenties, and I still often feel more comfortable among them than in any culturally Christian thing. But I’ve reneged on our silent conspiracy. Now I fear I have become an outsider to outsiders.
As explored in the first two weeks of Advent, I still have many questions: “In a season about waiting, what exactly are we waiting for?” “Where is the fire of my life that once burned hot?” For our third week of Advent questions, I am wondering about the personal and collective natures of belief. And I have more thoughts to think about John the Baptist, who still remains a better model of the church than the church has been: already/not yet and inside/outside, just gathering sticks for the Fire.
This is because I’ve been talking to more friends who really, really wish to believe in Christianity, even investing time in trying to find new pathways into it, but intellectually just can’t. This is for them. Because when it boils down to it, my hope is for atheists, agnostics, and doubters of all stripes to have an intellectually honest and meaningful Christmas. It is also to remind Christians that doubt is welcome in the church and woven through the Word.
Our Certain Dilemmas
The Dilemma of Crumbling Societies
You don’t need stats from Ryan Burge or to hear it from a millennial that our generation is not, nor our bordering generations X and Z, very certain of anything about Christianity. This is beyond general beliefs about Jesus and the Bible, long collapsed by New Atheists and old-school agnostics like my undergrad professor Bart Ehrman. It’s also not just changing beliefs about the afterlife to be less and less heaven-centric (sometimes remixing loosely-held insights in secular terms that sound nearly identical to progressive Christianity with extra steps). No, it’s not just about the beliefs. People aren’t certain anymore that—even if they could believe in it—Christianity is a place for genuine connection. Christianity thus loses a social certainty that once included moats of “country club Christians.” People aren’t certain that Christianity is a force for good, and they aren’t certain that sitting in a pew will be a Sunday morning well spent.
As the epochs turn, faith seems to rise in both very healthy, strong societies where much is certain, as well as struggling, broken ones where one’s safety is anything but. The type of pop faith that reaches critical mass in empires is a luxury belief, acquired when all the other certainties are taken care of, like the last hierarchy of needs on Maslow’s pyramid. The ultra-wealthy can indulge themselves to have a little faith as a garnish. Conversely, in suffering nations where death is common and the life that lasts is hard, faith can be strong in seeking a refuge of spiritual certainty in an otherwise uncertain life.
Perhaps it is us in good ol’ Western Civ who live somewhere in between abundance and collapse—a decay that is just as much “already and not yet” as the kingdom of God—where faith can be expected to be diminished. Perhaps it is especially among the younger generations who want certainty of how to live a good life and be a good person that can’t afford luxury beliefs, at least not ones as crazy as Christianity. More materially and immediately, we want the certainty of a career that subsists, a partner who loves our authentic selves, and for those of us who dare to dream, kids and a house that isn’t owned by Black Rock.
And the problem is younger generations have already been betrayed by false certainties.
And the problem with that is a paralyzing fear of picking the next wrong certainty.
The Dilemma of False Certainties
This looming categorical problem of strong beliefs, the stuff of all rhetorical warfare, is the possibility that one might be certain of the wrong things.
I’ve traveled through a ton of different contender certainties in my life, and it is awful to realize you’ve been so certain of things that are utterly wrong. Once we start placing our bets on a certain certainty, we can’t imagine being wrong while we’re making that bet. Once we’re materially and socially invested, it can take forever to get out of a wrong certainty. For many, it’s too destabilizing to consider. Like belief, we cannot choose when old certainties become unbelief.
This doesn’t speak for everyone, but it must be at the core of some folks’ aversion to religion. It’s not the community, the shared ritual, or the service projects—we have reinvented those in secular packages more often than Oprah adds a book to her
self-care Bible study book club. We don’t avoid religion for the pragmatic upsides, but for the pragmatic downsides in believing something unreasonable.
Meanwhile, many devout religious apologists attack unbelievers on the outside as a projection of doubts inside.
The Dilemma of Investment
Some would resolve that the best way forward, as my ex-intellectual hero Alan Watts would say in The Wisdom of Insecurity, is to disavow certainty. But many of us came back to wrestle with religion despite ourselves because disavowing certainty didn’t work—it turns out the advice of a loquacious hippie is best only if we are certain that permanent itinerance on a pilgrimage to the ever-worshipped authentic self is the good life.
The rest of us need certainty somewhere, because certainty is a prerequisite for investment, and a flourishing world is an invested world. I don’t mean financially per se, but our deeper investments. Money is just the logical endpoint of a pre-monetary and otherwise faithful commitment; it’s “where your mouth is.” A world without any certainty is a world without mutual social investment, and a world with false certainties is a world with the wrong investments.
A world without mutual social investment is a world that socially collapses. Instead, we print counterfeit social investment, with social media often removing true investment in our neighbors, or twisting it into investment into ourselves with a veneer of sociality. We may not be certain of much, but we’re certain of our follower count.
The Dilemmas of Experience
In contemporary vacuums of belief, meaning, and hope in what cannot be seen, we tend to hold onto one of the few things that warrant certainty: our personal experience. But I learned firsthand hand this does not get us out of dilemmas, and I’ve written some about the idolatry of spiritual experience.
To be sure, the authority of one’s experience, “lived” or otherwise, can feel like a solid anchor in a storm of uncertainty. This may be like hugging a sand castle for those who have reason to doubt their omniscience or memory, but it still seems a bulwark against toxic ideologies, false religions, and the utter tyranny of vegetarianism that tries to tell me my taste buds are lying about what’s healthy.
But though religions manipulate and control through unfalsifiable things beyond our experience, the dilemma is that a world where personal experience is the only certainty is still a world where we are ripe for manipulation. A world where the only certainty is our experience is owned by those provide experiences. And while we can be certain of what we experience, we quickly conflate our interpretation of our experience as the experience itself.
As for what we make of all these dilemmas, we could do worse than John the Baptist in avoiding false certainties in our personal greatness:
They asked him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
If we must have certainty, we can begin with apophatic certainty which is absolutely sure of who we are not and who God is not. The only thing that John is totally certain of, at first, is what he knows isn’t true. But he believes that truth is around the bend.
3D Biblical Doubt
“All things can be done for the one who believes,” said Jesus. Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Doubters are a part of God’s story. While gospel writers at times frame it as a trait in direct opposition to Jesus, the complete picture is more complex.
Doubt should not be maligned as intrinsically evil. Humility is central to life in the Way, and doubt can be another name for a kind of humility. Skepticism is a healthy intellectual posture that is also fueled by doubt and undergirds rationality. However, Jesus does identify some forms of doubt as manifestations of evil. These doubts are a kind of inner “unfinished business,” an absence of the presence of God which true faith attests to.
Even the Christians with the most rock-solid faith have ample experience with doubt in some form. Anyone who turns to scripture for any spiritual purpose does so out of a healthy doubt in ourselves and our alleged self-sufficiency. And if we’re honest, there is not a Christian alive who has never doubted any part of a doctrine. Where theological debates seem marked by posturing certainty, even those who passionately debate only arrived at their position if they first doubted themselves enough to research their argument for ammo.
It’s true that Jesus admonishes people for a lack of faith (especially his disciples), such as in Mark 9 and Mathew 17, as well as sayings in John that point to a certain exclusivity of believing in him. Along with this accompanies some judgment. While we are tempted to sanitize Jesus, we do ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise. Christ does call people into a life of faith. He is not blasé in inviting us to undergo a total heart transplant in awakening to the evil we swim in, nor in calling us to respond in goodness.
As Dr. Andrew Root has discussed, many forms of Protestantism have emphasized Jesus in his loving forgiveness and asserted he was non-judgmental. But as Root articulates, not only is this not supported by scripture, this one-dimensional Jesus actually removes something important from our relationship to God. In removing the judgment—the assertion of moral right and wrong—we neuter the meaning of grace. We think we are defending and preserving grace, but in fact, the power in God’s grace is precisely because it overcomes and transcends the paradox between justice and mercy.
In the same way, we also do no favors as Christians in pretending that Scripture does not make claims about exclusivity. From Jesus’ teachings to the epistles, there is a clear sense that there are standards, signs, and marks of belonging. As discussed last week, there are simultaneous insider and outsider realities in spirituality. And yet at the same time, Jesus (and later continued by Paul) is pushing even more insistently on inclusion beyond the world’s standards. It is not at the expense or obliteration of exclusivity, but it is exclusivity that makes the greater, more universal inclusion in God that much more powerful. And inclusion is always on God’s terms, not ours.
A helpful illustration from another religion is the “two truths doctrine” of some Buddhist traditions, which simultaneously affirms the truth in distinction and the truth in unity. These are the same two truths at the heart of Paul’s iconic “body of Christ” image: we are unique parts in a shared body.
To remove the judgment from Jesus’s mercy is like saying “the body of Christ” is just “the parts of Christ,” or conversely, “the part-less blob of Christ.” Again, it is the inherent contradiction between justice and mercy that gives rise to a third greater transcendent thing: grace.
In a similar way, when we set up doubt and belief as opposites, with “doubt” not belonging in the church, we miss something important. We miss that faith is a thing that transcends both doubt and belief.
In this spirit, Jesus simultaneously calls us to faith and meets us in the realism of our doubting humanity by overcoming it in a way that isn’t solely relying on our faith. He shows this in places like Peter’s near faceplant into the sea,1 or Mr. Doubt himself (Thomas) and his fingers itching for wounded truth.2 If the classic Protestant doctrine is “faith over works,” we must not make faith into a new kind of work that we can accomplish, but accept that we can only come to faith not by our own power, but as a gift that works through Someone else.
“Believing Through” and Digging Through
Let’s go back to those opening words from John 1:7—
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
It mirrors the same language written of Jesus four verses earlier in the famous prologue—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
I don’t want to force a particular translation of διὰ, the Greek preposition translated as “through” in both verses. It has a plethora of potential meanings. My former Greek professor Jim Skedros would confirm that I’m not the man for that job. But the translators picked this word for a reason: we are not created in isolation, but something of God is within us—our life is entwined with God. Likewise, any faith of any believer is not truly their own, but a faith that first emerges out of—through—the faith of another. None of us come to true faith without encountering true faith beyond us, faith that can only be witnessed from person to person.
Christ invites plenty of people to his birthday party who do not believe. And when we keep digging, we find people in scripture who never show belief of their own. Instead, they are transformed by the belief of those who love them; the faith of those who already believe.
Some of my favorite stories in the Bible are the stories of sympathetic, vicarious, and fully vivacious faith. Sometimes it’s a Roman soldier’s faith that is enough to heal a servant.3 Sometimes it’s a royal official’s faith on behalf of his kid,4 or a Canaanite woman for hers.5 It is not the faith of spiritual masters, or the “right” people. It’s the faith of an agent of the empire; an elite; a foreign woman….all outsiders begging not even for themselves, but for people they love to be brought inside of Christ’s love. Enough faith to serve two.
But my absolute favorite story is of the friends of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:
So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door, and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” …
“I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” And the man stood up and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”6
I remember reading this in my first baby steps back in the church proper. I was in a preaching class, and it was the week the world shut down for the pandemic. We knew we had one last in-person sermon to give before only-God-knew-what. A week of, “How is this real? How the hell is this happening?”
I still have those weeks in my faith life. I still think how ten years ago I was in the Hollywood Hotel basement for a comedy open mic, drunk on two-drink minimum Miller Lites, believing in nothing, hearing comic Simon Gibson sing a deranged take on John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town” as I waited my turn to bomb. Jump forward a few years and I’m an evangelist for psychedelics as the “future of religion” and the long-awaited savior of the meaning crisis. Now I am a stranger to those selves, some weeks feeling a faith that isn’t contingent on experience, other weeks wondering beyond wonder, wonderings that blur into fear and that condemnable doubt, “How do I know any of this is real?”
It was in that early pandemic surreality that I first reread the story of the paralyzed man’s friends. At the advice of preaching professor Dan Smith, I tried out Ignation reading exercises that invite you to vividly imagine scripture. I pictured myself in a dark cramped room with not nearly enough seating, hordes of dudes piled on each other to listen to this spiritual genius spin wisdom.
Suddenly, I felt crumbs, no, dirt. Sprinkles that caused me, my buddies, and even Jesus to look up. Then light beams. Then shock and laughter as four bros roped their friend down smack dab into the teacher’s lap. Soon, forgiveness. Soon, healing.
I remembered the words I had heard in a waking dream months earlier: Love gives us options. When we feel torn between fight, flight, freeze, and feeling there’s no other way, love finds a way. True faith will dig through the roof on behalf of those we love. And the love of God, as witnessed in the true love of friendship, will dig through the roof for us.
Just as God’s love goes through roofs, all faith comes through each other. If we cannot escape our doubt even if we wanted to, fear not, for those we could not believe for themselves, the healing began when Jesus saw the faith of our friends.7
The primary way Christians gatekeep each other is through faith. I do it without thinking all the time, and it is even appropriate for church leadership. But instead of transcending doubt as Christ does, Christians can either give the impression that individual faith is either utterly unimportant or so important that doubters are barely tolerated, if at all.
I don’t want to make this a neater bow than it is. If inclusion is intrinsic to the nature of Christianity, so is debating about what is excluded—and yes, even the most radically inclusive people we know do this too.
But I want to say for people who do not—cannot—believe at all, Christmas is still for you. A risk of this piece is being patronizing, and I don’t mean to be. Many have no such angst around belief. Many might laugh at the prospect of bootstrapping each other’s faith with a smirk. “Sure, okay, believe for me, can’t hurt.” You’re right — and we’ll still do it and even smirk back. But I also know there is a certain percentage of people who would really like to believe. They wish it were true.
Forgive us if we’re really in it for the doubters who yearn. For people in despair who don’t know their pain is felt. For the prayer before surgery they didn’t know they wanted until they’re about to be wheeled in. For the spiritual seeker bursting with soul but can’t make it fit in a Christian box. For the sage who kinda likes mystic Christians and maybe even sometimes some more traditional believers but the wooden pews and the creeds just say no. It is for all of you and more that I ask in sincerity: if you can’t quite believe, will you let us believe for you?
Because Christianity isn’t just for those who believe. Yes, I know, “the only way to the Father”, “narrow is the gate,” absolutely. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how there’s not a Christian alive who is any better than the thief on the cross next to Jesus just begging to be remembered. He doesn’t believe he’s getting anywhere close to any kind of kingdom. He just wants to be remembered when the paradise people get there.
And it is in the humility of doubt mixed in with the seed of faith in which Jesus says, “Brother, remember you? I’ll see you there.”
For those who believe in Christianity more than Christ, or believe in Jesus-the-guy but have had your fill of enough of his followers to say no thanks to accidentally becoming one…
For those who want Christmas to mean something more than “meaning,” who wish the Christian story could still mean something, could still mean what it meant when you were in the pageant as a kid, when the magic was real, when salvation wasn’t a punchline…
For those who mourn when you last really believed in a God who loves you, but for whatever reason, you just can’t…
You’ve had more prayers said for you than you knew. You at least got lumped into some nun’s marathon cosmic prayer. You have the true, hidden faith of the true, invisible church believing enough for you.
My third question this Advent season is one I pose to you: if you cannot believe in Christmas, can you believe through us?
And on the weeks when I need it, can I believe through you?
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Mark 2:2-5, 11-12