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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

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Jonathan Tran (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

LOUISVILLE — 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 Wednesday’s 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.”

In the depths of his doubt, a theologian friend invited Tran to pray the Rosary during Lent. The benefit of the repetition of the Rosary, Tran said, is that “it prays for you. Every day it’s the same prayer, several times a day. That was the ‘one foot in front of the other’ that got me through that time … Maybe my story is particular to me, but I doubt any of these things are unique to just one person.”

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.”

Tran said he also drew inspiration reading about the deep doubt expressed by Mother Teresa in her posthumous memoir, “Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.”

“She prayed for decades, but nothing,” Tran said of Mother Teresa. “We all know what Mother Teresa did [a lifetime of caring for Calcutta’s poor and outcast],” he said. “There had to be a strong sense of God, but she said no, there was a spiritual dryness for decades. She wondered when God would show up.”

“Aridity seems like a natural part of our journey,” Eddings told Tran. “How do we care for ourselves so we can care for others?”

Tran said Stanley Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” speaks to “human certainty and doubt.” Near the end of the book, Cavell retells the story of Othello, who is ready to marry Desdemona but is unsure she reciprocates his love. “He wants certainty over something he can’t be certain about,” Tran said. “Cavell portrays ‘Othello’ as a maddening desire for certainty, and the story ends with the tragedy of him killing his wife.”

The problem for Othello, according to Tran, is that “everything he needed to know was right there. For a lot of Christians, doubt looks like this. What is our evidence that the Bible is accurate as a description of history? We know what we need to know” but “we utilize the doubtable points to justify the reasons we don’t want to step into it. What would be required of us if this stuff is true? There is nothing more costly.”

During his younger years, books like C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” “taught me that Christians weren’t as stupid as I thought they were,” Tran said. Eventually, “belief was granted to me by the Holy Spirit at some point in my life. You can’t make yourself believe.”

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.”

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