O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Interview: The Hopeful Skeptic (Part 1)

nickfiedler.jpgI first encountered Nick Fiedler via “The Nick and Josh Podcast,” his popular podcast with Joshua Case. They’ve been at it since 2006, and have interviewed a diverse number of authors, speakers, musicians, theologians, and other people in and around Christian culture. When Nick published his first book — a book called The Hopeful Skeptic, about becoming “post-Christian” and re-examining his faith from an outsider’s perspective — I was intrigued. So I asked for a review copy from his publisher, IVP

I just finished the book last week and, as a fellow asker of hard questions, found it to be a fascinating read. I asked Nick if he’d be up for an interview here and he graciously obliged.
[JB] For those unfamiliar with the book, can you describe what you mean by labeling yourself as a “hopeful skeptic”?

[Nick] Labeling is a funny thing. We usually don’t like it when people label us, but we use labeling systems for everyone else, and in most aspects of our lives. In order to make it easier for people to not get confused labeling me as either a ‘Christian’ or a ‘Non-Christian,’ I thought I would help other people out. 

I have a lot of questions and doubts that would make a good number of Christians count me out of their group. Because of that, I tried to find a way to define myself outside of their labeling system. I combined the two largest aspects of my spiritual and mental life. The doubt side of my brain — the side that is ultra modern and enlightened in the classical sense — I called a skeptic. But the large field of skeptics wasn’t something I was completely at home with, so I combined that word with ‘hopeful’ to emphasize the hope that I find in the life of Jesus, and the hope that I find in thoughts that point us outside ourselves. I married the two terms and it stuck. 
Now I feel like my label is an accurate one that no one has to argue for or against.
The Christianity-as-an-arranged marriage metaphor that you use at the beginning of the book is a powerful one. Lots of us grew up in those kinds of automatic faith structures. What can we gain by re-examining that relationship? Is this something you think everyone who has “grown up in the faith” needs to go through?

I don’t know if I am the first person to use the arranged-marriage metaphor, but a lot of people are telling me that they have never heard it put like that before. I agree with you, I think that a lot of people have grown up in a belief structure, and I think that most of us follow in the faith of our fathers (and mothers). I think the key process we need to go through is acknowledgment of that. 

I would never ask someone to leave the faith of their parents just because it is their parents’ faith, but I think we all need to do the mental work of finding out why we believe what we believe and own the part of it that is solely inherited. Many of us have created our own belief structure, but some of us may be in a belief system mostly because it was what they grew up with. I think we grow in maturity when we challenge ourselves to find what is uniquely us and what we just held on to because we received it growing up. 
And yes, I think this is something that everyone should go through, even if the end result is finding that they are just like their parents.

You admit to liking the humility of agnosticism — the idea of going through life admitting you could be wrong — and admit that you have something of that spirit in you. Can there be such a thing as a Christian agnostic?

I absolutely think there can be Christian agnostics. I have met plenty of them. I have one friend in particular who wrestles with the existence of God daily, but couldn’t be more devoted to the Christian story. I think the reality of the situation is that even though there are plenty of Christian Agnostics, we wouldn’t admit it out loud. If we define ‘agnostic’ in a general sense of the word, we can think of it as having no completely sure knowledge of God. Every Christian, at some point in his or her life, has got to think “God are you really there?” or “God is this really true?” 

In my mind, a Christian agnostic realizes they can’t always believe everything 100%, but they trust in their overall belief in the Christian story. I think we just don’t admit it all the time. 
If you asked me if I believe that my wife always told me the truth, I would say yes. But do I think that in four years of marriage that there hasn’t been some form of deception? Well, I can guarantee that there has been. I know it for a fact. On multiple occasions, there have been deceptions to throw me off the track of secret parties and gifts. Whereas I won’t identify myself as a wife-truth-agnostic, I am a realist (I think), and I know there will be misleadings. People get hung up on the negative label of agnosticism and don’t realize that we all have moments of it.

One of the big belief categories you re-evaluate as “major skepticisms” is your relationship to Scripture. I’m always surprised (and disappointed) how little people know about the Bible, including textual and historical criticism. Why is it important for Christians to study the Bible beyond a surface-level devotional reading?

I think the biggest problems that Christians have when it comes to the Bible is they have no idea how to look at it objectively. This isn’t completely their own fault. They are taught things very concretely about the Bible and I would venture to say that the majority of the church never gets a secular history of the Bible. 

If we aim to build our life around a book, I think we need a few tools to do that. Some of the major tools would be an adequate history (as much as could be possible), an understanding of ancient literature, and an unbiased viewpoint. I have no problem using the Bible in a devotional context — that’s great. I use plenty of things in a devotional/meditative context, but I want to know more about the nuts and bolts of something before I build my life around it, and I want to get an outsider perspective of anything I study. 
Sometimes a pastor with his or her point of view is not the best person to learn the history of the Bible from. This isn’t an area where I would say get rid of your Bible, your traditional understanding of Scripture, or your pastor. This is an area where I would say, ‘dig deeper’ — and not in the same place you have been digging.
Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this interview, in which Nick talks about dealing with biblical inerrantists, whether or not he should be identified as a Christian, and his willingness to re-examine the Christian faith if you’ll give him an iPad. (Yes, he’s serious.)
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Travis Thompson

posted May 27, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I would like to know some good resources to study the Bible from an “outside perspective”. What are some good books that take an objective look at the the Bible and it’s history?
I’ll read them, and you don’t even need to buy me an iPad.

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Jason Boyett

posted May 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm

If you haven’t yet read anything from Bart Ehrman, he’d be a great place to start. Ehrman is an agnostic and noted biblical scholar, but comes from a devout evangelical background. He first got interested in biblical scholarship while training for the ministry (prior to his de-conversion), so is able to write to Christian insiders while offering that “outsider perspective.” His books can be challenging to those who’ve only thought about the Bible devotionally (rather than critically) but the educational value is worth a little discomfort, IMO.
Start with “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Interrupted.”

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Travis Thompson

posted May 27, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Awesome, thanks Jason. I recognize those from reviews you’ve done of each of them (right?). I’ll put em on the reading list.
Anybody else got any?

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posted May 28, 2010 at 9:11 am

I have to agree with Jason, when I took my Intro to New Testament in College, Ehrman was the text we used and I grabbed everything he wrote after that class. Misquoting Jesus is a staple, but ‘Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene’ and ‘Lost Christianities’, were my two favorites from a historical perspective. Lost Christianities is slightly more academic than his newer books. Two other books that spiked my interest, but are from the more Xian Vein would be Jesus for the Non-Religious by Bishop Spong, and The Coming of the Son of Man by Andrew Perriman. The list could go on for me, anything by Joseph Campbell is stellar, he doesn’t talk Christianity as much as he talks about the Evolution of religion and myths in societies. There is an interview series he does with Bill Moyers that changed my life called “The Power of Myth”, you can purchase the CD’s online.
Sorry I better stop there. I am definitely not saying that these people I recommend don’t have their own short comings or agendas of their own. But they helped me step outside of myself and see things from another angle. I use other writers to help me step outside of these writers.

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Travis Thompson

posted June 22, 2010 at 12:44 am

Ok, I’m not sure if anyone will read this but Jason, but I just wanted to follow up and say I just finished “Misquoting Jesus”. I thought it was a great read and VERY interesting and enlightening; I will definitely be reading more of Ehrman’s books (when more of them come out for kindle…). Thanks for the tips.
The accounts of changes that have been made were interesting to read about; I had been wanting to read a book about that kind of thing for a long time. The last chapter, though, was the best. I loved how he said that reading a text is interpreting it and therefore changing it and we do this all the time. It reminded me again of what I mentioned in comments on your blog before about how when we read great literature, we don’t read it, it reads us. How we respond to it is what matters. I imagine Ehrman would agree to something similar to that.
I think my next book on a somewhat similar subject will be “Heresy” by Alister McGrath. Heard of it? Read it?

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Travis Thompson

posted June 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

oh–and “The Hopeful Skeptic” is on the list as well of course…

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Jason Boyett

posted June 22, 2010 at 7:34 am

Good to hear, Travis. I’ve not read “Heresy” but am a fan of McGrath. Let me know what you think of it.

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