Finding faith by embracing doubt

Patrick Henry believes that the road to becoming a good Christian is paved with uncertainties. IDEAS: RELIGION


Patrick Henry calls himself an "ironic Christian."

By ironic, he doesn't mean he takes a "Seinfeld"-like cynical view of the world. Rather, he defines himself as a believer willing to let go of dogma and certainty, to wrestle with doubt and embrace wonder.

Through several jarring life experiences, including his father's 1983 suicide, the church historian began to question assumptions about his faith and life he had always taken for granted. He began, he says, to see Christianity as a journey rather than a set of certainties. He became more comfortable with doubt and began urging others to do the same. As a result, he says, he saw signs of God's presence in the world, of grace, in some very unexpected places.

In his latest book, "The Ironic Christian's Companion" (Riverhead Books), Henry says that by examining and questioning belief and encouraging doubt, we can ultimately arrive at an authentic experience of God.

"An ironic Christian inhabits a world that is more 'as if' than 'just like,' a world fashioned by a God of surprises," he writes. "When I know the grace of God, it's nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward. Grace as I have experienced it makes me an ironic Christian."

Henry, a distant relative of the Revolutionary War patriot of the same name, was a professor of religion specializing in early Christianity for 17 years at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. He is now executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. In Baltimore recently to address the faculty at Loyola College of Maryland, he sat for an interview.

The obvious first question is: What in the world is an ironic Christian?

One day it occurred to me, and the term seemed right and it has stuck. When I've mentioned it to people, they say not necessarily 'I know what you mean by it,' but 'It sounds like me.' That is, there is something about putting irony and Christianity together that strikes people as just sufficiently askew, just sufficiently off-center, that they recognize it as appropriate.

By irony, I mean a kind of ready acknowledgment of and delight in the difference between the way things look at first glance and the way they turn out to be. So many people say a Christian understanding involves knowing exactly what's going on. You look at something and you have a Christian interpretation, a Christian spin on it. And I get very uneasy in the company of people who too quickly, too easily put a Christian spin on and say, "This is what God is doing here. I understand, I perceive instantly what the divine will or the divine meaning of any particular thing is."

My point in the book is that this ironic attitude, this ironic expectation, is not a second-best option for people who just can't manage to get it right. I think this gets it right. I think that's the nature of the world. I think the Bible is full of stories of people who think they understand and don't. To me, it's terribly important that the Gospels portray the disciples as over and over again not getting it. And if they didn't get it, but they eventually got it, then maybe that can be true for the rest of us.

I suppose many non-ironic Christians would say that I don't trust God enough. I think my trust is actually deeper. My trust does not require that I understand it all immediately.

In the book you describe sev-eral experiences that helped to transform your world view. One of those was a typo you made -- you were trying to type the year 1975 and your finger slipped and you typed 19756. And you said that broadened your view of human history, that in a sense, we're still in the era of what would be the early Christian church for people of the 198th century.

I think maybe what it did was to jolt me out of a human generations scale to a more geological and even cosmological scale.

You also talk about your father and what a shattering experience for you his suicide was, and how dealing with your grief changed your life.

It was a fairly shattering experience and it was more shattering than it needed to be. I tried to forestall it. I do not claim to know what it means. I do not claim to know that it was a good thing for my father to die this way. I think anybody who tries to tell me what that means I am going to be rather suspect of. There have been times when I have tried to tell other people what their experiences meant and subsequently, I realize I have no right to do that -- I'm using theology as a bludgeon. So the experiences where I have bludgeoned others or others have bludgeoned me with theological jargon, theological language, theological concepts, all that has fed into my hesitation to claim knowledge that I don't have.

What's your religious background? What kind of a church did you grow up in?

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