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The Way of Spiritual Fortitude explores faith and doubt


Powerful, personal stories punctuate the final installment of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities series

April 13, 2022

Dr. Jonathan Tran (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

For the final edition of The Way of Spiritual Fortitude sponsored by 1001 New Worshiping Communities, host the Rev. Jeff Eddings engaged someone with intimate knowledge of faith and doubt, the subject of the broadcast.

Dr. Jonathan Tran, associate professor of Philosophical Theology and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University, shared personal stories of doubt he’s faced with an online crowd of about 25.

“There are many doubtable things about Christianity,” Tran said. “We put our faith in an invisible entity who calls us to do doubtable things,” including cleaning up what we’ve done with Creation, ending racism and poverty and holding government accountable. “We think of Christian discipleship as the ongoing production of doubtable things.”

Warning viewers his personal story might be triggering for some, Tran talked about four consecutive miscarriages he and his wife suffered following the births of their two children. Finally, a pregnancy lasted into the 20th week, and the Trans brought their children along for a routine checkup, during which the doctor could not detect a heartbeat. Tran’s wife and children began crying, but he didn’t.

“I felt nothing,” Tran said. “Unbelief took over. At one point the world made sense with God in it, and at another it didn’t.”

One definition of faith can be summed up like this, according to Tran: “God is in the world in a certain way, or God isn’t. After that [death experience], something clicked and God wasn’t in the world.”

At the same time, Tran and his family was living on campus, where he was shepherding hundreds of Baylor students.

“My pastor worried about me. I was on the outside looking in on a life I didn’t feel at home in anymore,” Tran said, while acknowledging that the pastors and other faith leaders he was speaking to via Zoom “don’t have that freedom in front of a congregation. You have to keep on preaching and offering the sacraments.” Even as doubts enter in, “You put one foot in front of the other,” Tran said.

Several months after this experience, Tran heard a recorded interview with Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor. In his book “Night,” Wiesel describes the moment he stops believing in God, as he was heading into the German death camps packed into a cattle car.

“What did you do at that moment?” Wiesel was asked.

“I just started praying,” Wiesel responded, causing the interviewer to do a double take. “Why did you pray?” the interviewer asked.

“That’s what Jews do, and I’m a Jew. I pray,” Wiesel said.

Faith leaders who have doubts also get up in the morning, read the Scriptures and bless their children and their congregants, Tran said. “It’s what we do. We hope that God will give us the substance to go on.”

Tran said he’s unclear when faith “clicked back on,” but he relies on theologians including St. John of the Cross, who taught that a believer’s life has two seasons: one, when our faith is immature, during which God gives us spiritual milk; and another, “when God takes those away from you as a way to intensify your faith,” Tran said, which John identified memorably as “the dark night of the soul.”

Imagine the Christian life as taking a journey or climbing a ladder, he said. The closer we get to God, the more we realize — as our faith forms more fully — how far away we really are from God. That, Tran said, is “the infinity of God.”

“Do we see God in the world around us? The world has a lot of ugliness and injustice and death,” Tran said. “Scripture says God will make all things new and will redeem all things, but that doesn’t mean God will redeem all things in my lifetime. It won’t come in the timing we expect or want or hope for.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Wednesday, April 13, 2022, the Wednesday of Holy Week (Year C)

First Reading Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Second Reading Hebrews 12:1-3
Gospel John 13:21-32

Today’s Focus: The Way of Spiritual Fortitude

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Valéry Nodem, Associate, International Hunger Concerns, Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Clara Nunéz, Associate, Program Administration, Self-Development of People, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Lord, let us never forget the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Amen.

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