O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


David Sessions: The Hard Work of Faith

posted by Jason Boyett

I first encountered David Sessions via The CCM Patrol, which started as an anonymous blog in which “Christian music is allowed to get bad reviews.” This was in 2006, and CCM Patrol wasn’t around for too long in that early incarnation. But, man, was it funny. And fearless. It dissected nonsensical worship lyrics, deconstructed cheeseball album art, and did something so radical that it caused Christians the world over to gnash their teeth in confusion and dismay: it dissed Chris Tomlin.

davidsessions.jpgDavid was a college student at the time and he was already doing excellent work as a writer. Eventually he turned CCM Patrol into just plain Patrol, which became a New York-based arts and culture magazine (with an evangelical focus) and now has morphed into an insightful blog about Christianity and “the modern world.” He turned his work as the founding editor of Patrol into a number of other writing opportunities, and has since appeared in Slate, New York, Politics Daily, and The American Scene.

David is currently an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast. In the brief time I’ve known him — through his blog posts and other writing — I’ve seen him go wrestle with many of the same doubts that have challenged my own faith. So I asked him to write about them.

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The Deadly Consequences of Certainty, the Hard Work of Faith

Over the past few years of meeting, reading, and interviewing Christian doubters, I’ve come to a few generalizations about them: they tend to have had fundamentalist upbringings, had bad experiences with Christians or churches, or crossed major cultural boundaries–transplanted from rural town to large city, or the United States to a third-world country. In some way or another, they’ve all been forced to examine their own faith and culture from the outside, as either Christians wounded by their churches or as wayfarers pressed to defend their own presuppositions in a secular university or foreign culture. Often, doubters’ cultural roots pull them strongly toward faith, while their education, experiences, and adult contexts push them toward uncertainty.

My own experience has been a blend of most of the above, starting with a very conservative, literalist Christian background and primary education. I have deep respect for the family values I was taught and gratitude for the profound personal security that comes from growing up in a tight community. I loved God and had positive church experiences; most of the people in my life were sincere, authentic, and wonderful. The problem was the reality distortion field that kind of community can inculcate into a young person, a rock-solid certainty of your own rightness and the wrongness of the world outside.

Childhood education is hardly the first place most people go when they think about doubt, but its crucial role in future faith crises cannot be overstated. In my universe, Christianity was not so much a faith as a historically and philosophically indisputable worldview. Of course the Bible was God’s word, of course Jesus’ miracles happened. Of course the scientific facts supported Genesis, not Charles Darwin. Of course only Christians could be good human beings. The only people who denied these things were confused sinners and agenda-driven liars, whom if I stayed on the right path I would probably not encounter often. In fact, the case for Christianity was so unshakable, I had a difficult time understanding the concept of “faith” when I encountered it in Scripture. What was there to believe when everything can be–and had been–proved beyond a doubt?

People protected from vital information about the world are almost destined for a plunge into angst when their certainty is shattered. And considering how flimsy some of the “evidence” people like me were taught, it doesn’t take much. Circular arguments for the “inerrancy” of Scripture, cherry-picked science about the Earth’s origins, and prejudicial characterizations of atheists and liberals don’t survive much academic or real-life scrutiny. Maybe I’m more analytical and impressionable than most, but meeting liberal atheists who cared more about the fate of their fellow human beings than I did was profoundly convicting. By contrast, the hard-hearted self-righteousness and abstract moralizing of far too many of my Christian acquaintances felt increasingly disturbing. Forced to return to the books for ammunition, I found the siege mentality and intellectual corner-cutting of even supposedly scholarly Christians equally damning.

The thing about doubt is that people rarely choose to question what they believe. It’s a painful, unsettling experience. Before I knew it, I was reading obsessively, lying awake at night, and walking home from church dismayed. Being in the company of other Christians simultaneously comforted me and compounded my despair. I realized that no amount of evidence would ever restore the confidence I once had in Christianity, no argument would ever fully convince me to say with absolute certainty that God cares about me. My faith had come to an end virtually against my will, and in its place were uncertainty, anxiety, and no small amount of grief.

There was one thing left, though, one thing I wasn’t sure I had, in over two decades of being a born-again Christian, ever understood: actual faith. In the middle of those dark days of doubt and despair, it occurred to me that real faith might take more work than I had ever imagined. Not to convince my logical brain to keep quiet, but to look beyond self-absorption and admit the comically small reach of my understanding. Skepticism is an endless, self-perpetuating spiral; it doesn’t take much effort to doubt. Believing that there is something bigger than human beings, something better than the tragic world in front of us is hard.

I cannot say I have faith figured out, but I’ve resolved never to stop searching for it. In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about what faith is not: it is not radical certainty, it is not textual fundamentalism, it is not attempting to silence reason or facts. It’s not about having a cohesive worldview, a watertight theology, or absolute truth. It’s not about family values or moral judgments. Surely true faith can come only after taking full measure–really, deeply experiencing–the despair at hand. It’s about finding a way to hope in spite of the doubt, in spite of what, on some days, feel like overwhelming odds.

————-

Thank you, David. Keep up with David by following him on Twitter or his posts at Patrol.

Previous posts in the “Voices of Doubt” series…

Dean Nelson: Test Everything
Carlene Bauer: Prodigal Daughter
Larry Shallenberger: The Knight and the Fortune Cookie
David Dark on Sacred Questioning
Cara Davis: A Textbook Case
Matthew Paul Turner: Letting Them See My Doubt
Sally Lloyd-Jones: Where Did You Put Your Faith?
Chad Gibbs: When It Doesn’t Seem Fair
Leeana Tankersley: The Swirling Waters
Robert Cargill: The Skeptic in the Sanctuary
Dana Ellis: Haunted by Questions
Rachel Held Evans on Works-Based Salvation
Winn Collier: Doubt Better
Tyler Clark on Losing Fear, Losing Faith
Rob Stennett on the Genesis of Doubt
Adam Ellis on Hoping That It’s True
Nicole Wick on Breaking Up with God
Anna Broadway on Doubt and Marriage



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Charlie Chang

posted November 19, 2010 at 10:16 am


//I have deep respect for the family values I was taught and gratitude for the profound personal security that comes from growing up in a tight community. I loved God and had positive church experiences; most of the people in my life were sincere, authentic, and wonderful. The problem was the reality distortion field that kind of community can inculcate into a young person, a rock-solid certainty of your own rightness and the wrongness of the world outside.//
This summed up what I’ve been thinking. I know my doubt is not understood by most people at my church and may even hurt their feelings, and I think sometimes others think I come off as bashing church. I have a love for those youth group memories and Sunday School, etc. But there are a lot of questions.



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Will Phillips

posted November 19, 2010 at 2:56 pm


Well, damn.
Yet another post here that seems to describe precisely my experience in moving from fundamentalist Pentecostal/Charismatic to agnostic/diest.
Have to admit, I had written out an entirely different reply here until it hit me that my current shambles of a worldview might be more reactionary to my experiences than I’d like to admit.
Thanks for giving me something to chew on, guys.



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Joshua

posted November 19, 2010 at 10:23 pm


I can’t help but notice the difference between this kind of reasoning and that of the Jewish people, who have had nothing less than unshaken faith and unshaken certainty that God will make good on his promises, despite their heartbreaking history.



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~steveT

posted November 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm


there is something in the air, isn’t there? oddly enough, the freedom to express doubt and uncertainty, especially coming from these younger generations, be it yours, jb or david’s, actually gives me hope and brings, often, genuine excitement, that My Creator is more alive and well than i dreamed He could be.
thanks david, for being reasonable and having integrity in your thinking. thanks for your relentless pursuit in sifting through these important ideas and considerations. sometimes i try to imagine Jesus (as, of course, how only i can imagine Him to be ;-), lying in bed in bed at night and pondering these very same things….and getting turned on by the thoughts in the process.
i love this ongoing conversation, david…and jason. may you never grow tired of the search and journey.
~steveT



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MARTIN S.

posted November 20, 2010 at 7:29 pm


Yes, real faith is hard work;
but it is very rewarding and
worthwhile !!



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Tess Mallory

posted November 22, 2010 at 6:22 pm


“I cannot say I have faith figured out, but I’ve resolved never to stop searching for it. In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about what faith is not: it is not radical certainty, it is not textual fundamentalism, it is not attempting to silence reason or facts. It’s not about having a cohesive worldview, a watertight theology, or absolute truth. It’s not about family values or moral judgments. Surely true faith can come only after taking full measure–really, deeply experiencing–the despair at hand. It’s about finding a way to hope in spite of the doubt, in spite of what, on some days, feel like overwhelming odds.”
David and Jason — This is such a profound piece of wisdom. It sliced right to my heart and filled me with an overwhelming closeness to God. It reaffirmed to me once again that Christianity is not all of these empty statements of “I’m right, you’re wrong”, or being a pious Pharisee. It’s about believing in that which has not been seen. Bless you for having the courage to keep seeking faith, in spite of the doubt. I will strive to keep seeking and holding fast too. :)



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suzanne05

posted November 25, 2010 at 3:44 am


“Faith” used alone, is a very vague word. “Faith,” as in, Christian, does have a few absolutes in the definition. It’s important for that not to be lost in a discussion of “faith”. There are many peripherals that are not “watertight” or indisputable. But without some trustworthy record, some cohesive doctrine (that usually comes from a trustworthy record), and some literal belief, one cannot really define the Christian faith, or others, for that matter. Christian means “little christ”..so there’s not much point in calling oneself by that name if there’s not real faith in his person and the record of his words.



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Chris

posted November 25, 2010 at 4:27 am


I think this is one of the best topics I’ve read so far. My finding is that faith is not so much believing in the existing God, but believing that #1 he is good and #2 that I am of his “flock”. Suzanne05 brings an interesting point in believing in the person of Christ as a prerequisite to calling oneself a Christian I suppose. I wander why I believe in the person of Christ but don’t want to identify myself as a Christian. I guess it may be related to the doctrines of Christianity.



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Amy W.

posted December 20, 2010 at 10:28 pm


I linked to this from Sullivans page (which should be daily required reading of all lol) and I have to say it was the most moving and heartfelt piece I have ever read regarding someones faith. I would probably be considered a non-believer in most circles because I’m not too sure what I believe. I try to educate myself on all faiths and still have not reached a conclusion and I think that is what has had me so dumbfounded by those that are so certain or the I’m right you’re wrong crowd….but your blog has given me a great insight into how they can believe so strongly while I’m still so unsure… Thank you… Amy



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