Church– A Safe Place for Unsafe Conversations?

I was watching a TED Talk of Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon (“Idea Drawings”) Editor at The New Yorker. He was talking about the anatomy of a humor cartoon… and humor in general. It was both fun and informative (You can click on it HERE).

He described effective humor in terms of Tension or Conflict. One brings together two ideas… or even two unrelated areas of life, that don’t fit. In a sense this is what is done with metaphors. So humor and metaphors are related… perhaps even on the same spectrum… but metaphors are more for providing insight, while humor is more to produce a visceral, emotional response. Frankly though, both good humor and a good metaphor should have qualities of the other. Humor also has another tension or conflict as well– it exists in terms of DANGER AND SAFETY… or VIOLATION AND BENIGNITY.

These terms really don’t go together all that well, do they? But consider three examples:

  • Rollercoaster. A roller coaster is a device that throws the rider around, has big accelerations, twists, and turns that could potentially kill the participant. However, a rollercoaster has all sorts of safety devices, inspections, and carefully analyzed and tested design elements to ensure safety of the riders. Without the danger, it becomes a kiddee ride (ever try the “turning teacups”). For many of us, that would not be enjoyable. On the other hand, most all of us would not enjoy a rollercoaster that has severe design or maintenance issues that make it truly risky to ride.
  • Horror movies. Horror movies try to scare the viewer, while maintaining an impenetrable barrier between the movie world and the viewer world.
  • Zoo. Bob Mankoff’s example is going to the zoo to see a tiger. The experience is enjoyable if and only if there is a real, and perhaps menacing, tiger, as well as bars or other barriers to provide safety for the visitor. If a visitor looks into the cage and finds no tiger, the experience is unsatisfying. But it is also unsatisfying (in fact terrifying) if the tiger is between the visitor and the bars, rather than the bars being between the tiger and the visitor.

What relevance does this have on this blog page? Consider spiritual conversations? Such conversations can be:tiger-face-4

  • Evangelistic in nature perhaps, or
  • Ethical in nature (determining right versus wrong), or
  • Issues regarding people’s religious or philosophical beliefs, or
  • Concerns regarding specific religions.

People can fall into a wide range of responses to this. At one extreme are those who consider such conversations as BORING. Others see them as DANGEROUS… SCARY.

For one extreme the issue is pretty obvious… people think “spiritual conversations” are boring if they are seen as irrelevant to themselves. However, spiritual matters have to do with the big issues of life:  How should I live? What is my purpose in life? What does the future hold? These are important and… dangerous… questions and concerns. Perhaps some people were presented with spiritual conversations as a Teacup ride or an empty cage. Spiritual concerns can get watered down to the point that they seems safe, benign, irrelevant. The content, the tiger, cannot be removed… but must be presented in such a way that it can be appreciated and valued… safely.

But let’s consider the other extreme for a moment. Some spiritual conversations are truly scary. I get that. Far too many people (Christians most definitely included) express spiritual conversations much like salesmen– hard-sell salesmen. I have literally heard “street evangelists” SCREAMING in the faces of passersby six inches separating noses (the uncaged tiger). I struggle to imagine who could think that being particularly effective. No one really wants honest doubts and concerns about life to be turned into a polemic sales pitch for a “spiritual product.”

In response to that, many people just avoid spiritual concerns. Many groups will have explicit or tacit rules… NO RELIGION OR POLITICS DISCUSSED HERE. In other cases, spiritual conversations may be discussed but so hobbled or watered down to seem benign, as noted before, moving from the ethical to the aesthetic.


What are needed are safe places to deal with unsafe concerns. Really, the best place for this SHOULD be the church. People should be able to go to any church and express theological, or spiritual, or existential doubts/concerns and find those who are willing to accept them, acknowledge their struggle,  and help them work through them… sharing burdens with each other.  A SAFE PLACE TO DEAL WITH THAT WHICH IS UNSAFE. But churches typically squash such conversations— choosing to drift to being an unsafe place to be for those with concerns… or avoiding unsafe issues, choosing safe or benign issues only.

There is a price to pay for this. An interest article was written based on research from Case Western University. A summary of it is on a blog post

Avoiding Spiritual Issues May Be Bad for Mental Health

Consider a quote from this article:

According to the study, struggling with spiritual issues did not lead to mental health issues. The problem was avoidance of challenging topics. Mental health was more likely to decline when people feared engaging with challenging philosophical and spiritual issues.

The study determined avoidance was not an effective strategy for pushing away existential thoughts. Participants faced spiritual questions even when they attempted to suppress them. The study’s authors suggest continually being plagued by existential questions can be psychologically upsetting, particularly to people who find these questions socially unacceptable.

I would argue that this avoidance strategy comes, in part, because of their inability to find safe people and safe places to deal with these unsafe topics.

Church should be like a comic in The New Yorker (or many places where ideas are expressed humorously to challenge how with think and view things). It should be a place that is safe to bring ideas together that are unsafe or challenging. A place to think,  with the freedom to disagree… or be profoundly changed.

Belief vs Doubt vs Disbelief IV

Cover of "In Praise of Doubt: How to Have...
Cover via Amazon

I was doing some lookups on doubt on the Internet. Very little good information is available. I took a class called “Faith and Doubt” at Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary. Our two main texts were “Doubt: A History” by Jennifer M. Hecht and “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic” by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. Both were interesting books, although neither was really good at categorizing types of doubt (at least in a clear fashion). The Internet doesn’t do a good job either. Perhaps this is because of the general disinterest in the topic.

Religionists reject doubt commonly. But anti-religionists commonly do as well. At most, doubt may be seen as an unpleasant transition towards the more positive state of belief or disbelief. After all, disbelief is simply the belief in the antithesis of what someone else believes. Doubt tends to dissatisfy disbelievers and believers alike. True believers (or True disbelievers) are often likely to be more angry at doubters than those who truly oppose them.

There seems to be a need for better categorization of doubt. I think this is well beyond me, but I can list a few common categories and a few ideas. Maybe something will develop from there in future work.

1.  Methodological Doubt: Cartesian Doubt. Starting from a position of doubt in an reasoning argument. In philosophy, one seeks to separate between the dubious, the probable, and the certain. Such doubt may not say anything about the beliefs of the individual… it is simply a position to start from in a logical argument. This can be a useful tool in analysis. Sometimes it bothers people. I have an Apologetics Study Bible. In it, it argues for the authenticity or reliability of the Bible. Often it will argue from historical, textual, or logical positions. Some react to this. “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” But that is not good enough for some people, so the writers of the study Bible develop arguments from a starting position of doubt to make their arguments relevant to a broader audience.

2.  Existential Doubt: The values and meaning I have… are they what I SHOULD have? This is axiological. What OUGHT I believe, think, value, and do? Paul Tillich considered existential doubt as foundational to faith. Major changes in one’s values and motives (such as in a religious conversion experience) requires existential doubt. It is necessary most likely for 2nd order changes… ones that involve basic change of belief, not simply change of method or action.

3.  Skeptical Doubt: I never did find a great definition of this. Seems to be more of an attitude than an actual doubt. Doubt that pushes one to disbelief. Of course, disbelief simply means belief in something else.

For example, if one goes to the website for Sceptic Magazine:

The Skeptics Society is a scientific and educational organization of leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors and teachers. Our mission is to investigate and provide a sound scientific viewpoint on claims of the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe groups, cults and claims between: science, pseudoscience, junk science, voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non science and plain old nonsense. “

It is clear here that the Sceptic Society has a large number of things that they have sceptical doubt (not just methodological doubt) about. But they also have some areas that they have very strong beliefs about. The name “The Skeptics Society” seems to be at least 50% misnamed.

4.  Pathological Doubt:  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is often called a “disease of doubt” because it involves an inability to distinguish between what is possible, probable, and unlikely to happen. Doubt can be healthy but at least some doubt needs to ultimately be resolved.

5.  Radical Doubt:  Term coined by Arne Unhjem and is defined as “the recognition– often implicit, rather than explicit– that there is no truth and no meaning that deserves man’s unqualified acceptance.” It seems to be true that man needs meaning in life. Radical doubt, whether justified or not, hardly seems to be healthy… not how we were made.

6.  Guilty Doubt:  I made up this term… but I am sure that the term exists, or a similar term exists for this. Like “skeptical doubt” this is an attitude or response. Doubt can generally be healthy, but some feel that it is wrong to have doubt. This can be exacerbated by systems (religious, cultural, academic, corporate) that seek conformity of view. Often guilt or shame is used within the social structure to deny doubt. Guilty Doubt can lead to conformity of members and the maintaining of the oppressive structure. Paradoxically, it can result in a complete rejection of the original belief. Two reasons: First, the person who finally acknowledges their doubt may feel that doubt is the same as disbelief. Second, the system does not set up a healthy environment for addressing doubt.

I am sure there are other categories worthy of listing, but if one looks at this list, the first two are certainly beneficial in faith (or at least can be). However, there are other ways to look at doubt. One way would be to look at it from a position of source.

A.  Cognitive Doubt would then be doubt of facts. This is an intellectual doubt.

B.  Emotive Doubt would then be a feeling of doubt. Perhaps the doubt can’t be put into an intellectual form.

C.  Volitional Doubt would then be a feeling of doubt about choices (kind of like existential doubt).

Perhaps one could add something like Self-doubt. We think of self-doubt as negative, but in this case, I mean the recognition of our own limitations as a human (limits in time, space, knowledge, wisdom). From this perspective, self-doubt is very useful… even necessary. Failure to recognize these limits is the realm of the fool and egoist.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts. Would love to hear more on doubt and categorization of doubt.