Philip Gulley tells about speaking at a church where afterward they had a question-and-answer period. He was asked whether or not he believed in the virgin birth. He knew the motive behind the question, but nevertheless, he had to answer honestly. He chose his words carefully, but explained why he did not accept the orthodox doctrine of the virginal conception of Mary.
Later that day, he received a call from a woman who had been at church that morning. She asked if she could speak to him. Gulley invited her to his house. When she arrived, she was visibly agitated and said that she hadn’t slept the night before for thinking about her response. She said to Gulley, “Now I don’t know what to believe. If I can’t believe the virgin birth, I can’t believe anything.” Gulley pointed out that while he didn’t believe in the virgin birth, she was not required to agree, that many people in the church still believed it, and she was free to affirm it if she wished.”
She then asked why he questioned it in the first place, saying that ministers should not cast doubt on the church’s teachings. Gulley obviously disagreed. He explained, “The purpose of a spiritual teacher isn’t to be a propagandist. It’s my responsibility to discern the truth. Sometimes, I agree with the church’s historic conclusions; sometimes I don’t. When I do agree, I will say so. When I don’t, I will say so, and say why. But my goal will always be the discernment of truth.”
Then he returned to her original statement: “You said if you didn’t believe the virgin birth, you can’t believe anything. But I know many people who don’t believe that doctrine who have rich spiritual lives, who have a profound respect for Jesus, and follow his teachings with real devotion. In fact, I would like to consider myself one of them.”
As she began to share her spiritual journey she confessed that disagreement with the church’s doctrines was an option she had never thought possible. The church she was in discouraged any kind of theological inquiry that deviated from its traditional teachings. As she talked about her faith journey an image came into Gulley’s mind which he shared with her. It was the image of a rose that had never been told it could blossom. The potential was there, the flower had budded, but always stopped just short of blooming.
The woman left her church, stopped going altogether for a while, and then eventually discovered a church whose leadership encouraged spiritual exploration. There she blossomed. When Gulley ran into her again, a new joy infused her life. She said, “It’s funny. My friends in my old church have told me I’ve left Jesus. But it feels like I’ve finally found him.” (If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus)
Is it any wonder why people who have legitimate questions and doubts about the traditional teachings of the church have left the church altogether? How many churches do you know that are safe places, welcoming all kinds of people and all kinds of questions?
Here is a wonderful quote from Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to a Young Poet: “I beg you . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into an answer.”
Why has the church been so ineffective in helping her members live transformational lives given to the well-being of all people? And why are more and more deep thinking and truth seeking individuals avoiding church altogether? Could it be that the average church has become more interested in proclaiming platitudes and defending certitudes, than loving and living the questions into a dynamic, growing, risky faith?