There’s a rising market of books geared toward the rising audience of ex-vangelicals, those deconstructing their faith, nones, and young adults who are also struggling with doubt in the Christian faith they were raised in. There are multiple reasons for this rising audience. How many were spiritually abused or saw abuse in their own churches or denominations? How many were shamed when they were honest about their doubts? How many saw the disconnect between the truths confessed and lives lived in the church? How many observed the tribalism and anger in debating (and squeezing out) over secondary issues? How many never saw or experienced love in the church and delight in Christ? How many realized their faith was really in an ideology that could not bring them peace? How many were just going through the motions, so when it came time to bear their cross they were seduced by the world?
I’ve been reading some of these books. My favorite so far is Joshua McNall’s latest, Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism. And I think we all should read it. It’s really written for the church.
One of the things that I love about this book is that it is playing my jam on the importance of the imagination in the Christian life. God created us with something amazing—the ability to discover, envision, and embrace beauty. And he continuously ignites our eschatological imaginations in his word. Here’s McNall’s challenge:
The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor. 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”
And so McNall builds his case, not only with theological argument, apologetic, and cultural analysis, but also by interweaving fiction throughout the book. And he pulls it off. To be honest, when I read the first section of the fictional story that he develops through the book I was skeptical that a professor of theology was going to pull that off. Stay in your lane, buddy. But as I read the other sections of fiction interspersed in his chapters I saw McNall‘s gifts in a whole new light. He can write. And teach theology. And care for his audience well.
It doesn’t feel right to analyze and pick through the whole book in a review, as that kind of works against what McNall is encouraging us to do. I will clarify a few of his terms and encourage you to read it yourself. And I think I will write something else next week on just one area that McNall ignited my perhapsing imagination.
First, he distinguishes between the doubt that seeks understanding and both the valorization of skepticism and the doubt the Bible warns against in being double-minded.
Second, McNall’s pushback against dogmatism isn’t a shooing of holding fast to the orthodox confessions of the faith. He is talking about posture, particularly a shrillness in engagement and “presumption of certainty on positions that are far from obvious.” We all have a lot to learn here.
These two postures are not as opposite as they look. McNall points out the irony that both “doubt and dogmatism often share a common core. They are locked in a symbiotic embrace, producing offspring in our churches and college campuses. For, in different ways, both bow before the idol of proof and make their sacrifices.”
Which leads me to imagination. He isn’t calling us to mere wishful thinking or living in a fantasy. Imagination is not the opposite of certainty. Imagination, he says, “is not so much the invention of something completely new but the making of connections between established truths that have not been adequately linked. Creativity comes by connecting the dots that are already there.” This reminds me a lot of the work of Esther Meek in that McNall is not calling us to escape reality, but rather to discover and step into it. That takes saying, perhaps. And it requires more than the left hemisphere of our brains—we need to use all the senses that God gave us. “Intellect is not the only aspect of our fallen personhood that stands in need of redemption.” As Meek says, “We do not know in order to love. We love in order to know.” And knowing isn’t merely cerebral.
Speculation is part of our growth in the faith. In his book, McNall shows this in Scripture and in our great tradition, while giving us the guardrails that keep us on the path of orthodoxy. “With these in place, a certain form of speculation can lead not to heresy or oddity but to a more robust orthodoxy, or to matters of orthodox indifference (adiaphora) that are nonetheless important for the wrestling match of faith.” He models “practicing perhaps” by looking into some of doubts people wrestle with such as the suffering and death of animals before the fall, free will and God’s sovereignty, and the afterlife. Additionally, he shows the value of art, music, and fiction in this endeavor.
Perhaps is a pivotal word, a humble posture, and call to wonder in our great Lord.