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?

I grew up in Texas. Texas is very deep in me. I come from a town of about 200,000, a sort of a small town. My father was a Disciples of Christ pastor, both grandfathers were, and my great-grandfather was a Disciples of Christ lay preacher. So the tradition is very much in my genes and in my bloodstream.

Dad pastored a church of about 1,000 members. It was an early example of a church that thought of itself as a seven-day-a-week operation. Lots of sports activities, lots of community activities. My dad really wanted the church to be a kind of a community center.

So I grew up in a church that was linked in all kinds of ways to the larger culture. It did not see itself as a kind of refuge from, a fortress against the culture. That has influenced my own sense of the relationship between church and culture.

My father was a remarkably open, free-ranging kind of person. His library had more novels and poetry in it than it had traditional theology. He believed his responsibility to his congregation was to know as much as he could about the life they were living. And you did that not from Biblical commentaries, but from novels and poems.

In fact, in many ways the open, adventuresome Christianity I'm talking about, that is at ease with and indeed welcomes mysteries and doubts and uncertainties, is not something I had to learn later. It's the way I was brought up.

You speak of the appeal of a Christianity that is comfortable with doubt and questioning. But the trend seems to be that people are seeking out religion because it provides them with answers to life's questions. Some of the denominations that are seeing the most growth are the more con- servative, more fundamentalist churches.

I suspect that over the long haul, some of these much more assertive forms of the faith are going to prove inadequate for people. When the experiences of Job start happening to people, they may agree with the comforters, "God is punishing you, God is testing you." But there will come a point where they want to say with Job, "This doesn't make any sense to me at all."

I also believe that there is more life and vitality in what used to be called the mainline denominations than newspaper and statistical reports would suggest. One of the things I would hope is my book might give some encouragement and revitalization to this more traditional, mainline, centrist kind of Christianity. I hope that people will find in something like my notion of ironic Christianity an alternative that will in fact energize them, will in fact deepen their faith.

What I really hope the book will generate is people's doing this kind of reflection for themselves. I hope people will find it interesting that I have found the marks of God's grace in the world here, there and in other places. But the book will do its work if they start saying, "Well, where in my world have I found such marks, where have I been found by the grace of God?" Sometimes, lots of times, it seems to me all people need to start that process of reflection going is just a suggestion that it can be done, that somebody has done it.

One of the things the ironic Christian does is to sort of do theology naturally. You don't have to ask anybody's permission. You don't have to have a degree. You just have to let your mind play itself out.

This is theology out of the academy, but I don't see that as particularly remarkable. It's just where it ought to be.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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