Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Space for doubt…especially on Saturday.

Book Review: Reaching for the Invisible God
by Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey compares ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ as a progression from doubt towards faith, a journey which he says he himself has travelled. He addresses what it means to try and have a relationship with a God who can’t be seen or touched, often doesn’t appear to be there and is vastly more powerful than we are, but apparently doesn’t feel inclined to use much of his power.

The opening sections of the book are a place of loss and hard questions. Just as Yancey found a church who ‘formed a safe place for my doubts’ Reaching for the invisible God is a safe space to ask honest, challenging questions, knowing that you are in the company of not only the author, but Christians, atheists and agnostics down the centuries. As Yancey says ‘We all need trustworthy doubt companions’. The reader is encouraged to ask the same questions as the people in his stories: “Really, what can we count on God for”, “why does God allow horrific suffering?”, why does God not answer all our prayers and seem to remain silent when we most want Him to speak?. ‘

Doubt can eat into people, leaving them paralysed by uncertainty or it can prompt people to dig deeper for truth. Yancey doesn’t leave the reader to wallow in doubt, thrashing around in despondency; being destroyed by uncertainty. He leads us, by seeking out the lives of writers, saints and otherwise ordinary people, who have spent their lives reaching for an invisible God and asks what we can learn from their endeavours. Their lives produce a sense of reassurance (‘Yes, that’s how it’s meant to be – there is a way forward’) as well as immense challenge (‘How I’d love to be more like that’). Yancey offers a way in to the variety and richness of Christian tradition. Yet he never loses the puzzlement, mystery and amazement which keep him from offering trite soundbites and solutions. I finished ‘Reaching for the Invisible God’ feeling enriched and peaceful, but knowing that I have not just indulged in escapism. At the end of his book Yancey quotes George Steiner: “We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian knows of it as well. They know of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives…We know also about Sunday. To the Christian, that day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death.”

By asking ‘where is God?’ Yancey catches us where we are, in between Friday and Sunday, without trying to hide either from us.


  1. Very interesting review. Amongst religious people doubt must be the ultimate taboo. But taboos always exist for a reason, and isn't the reason for this one that doubt is actually a religion killer? If you believe the Dawkins view that religions are infectious memes, then doubt is the antidote! What I mean is that just as religion works its way into every aspect of peoples life, doubts can work their way into every aspect of religion and undermine it, so religions are right to be scared of it.

    I remember someone saying that it was a shame there wasn't really something that really was what the Alpha Course adverts claim it to be, i.e. a friendly relaxed environment for discussing the meaning of life, but unbiased. Of course, such things would always be hijacked by one religion or another. People with one agenda or another would make it uncomfortable for people unless they pretended to agree, then having made that sort of commitment people would agree to more and more...

    So, if I was trying to create such an organisation I would make the participants start every meeting by publicly declaring that they doubted everything and anything and probably make them sing songs about knowing nothing about the world and having no preconceptions and being all dounts. Of course, I wouldn't ever start such an organisation because I don't believe that many people are at all interested in truth.

  2. I share with you the worry that Alpha can push people towards a set of 'correct' predefined answers which leaves no room for further doubt. This is a misrepresentation of Christian faith which is not about a set of unassailable perfectly formed dogmas.

    However, I don't think that it's possible or desirable to have a 'neutral' discussion on the meaning of life. The Alpha Course is rightly clear that it's coming from a Christian perspective. And actually beliefs can only be tested when they are worked out and put into practice. Therefore a good Alpha course is closely knitted into a church community so people on the course what Christianity looks and feels like 'in the flesh' with all its paradoxes, richness and the failings of the people who follow it. "It is more interesting to know a Hindu than to know Hinduism; it is more rewarding to know a Buddhist than Buddhism, a missionary than missiology, wife than the `marriage and the family' course, Jesus Christ than christology."

    Discussing the meaning of life in a vacuum leads to an overly logical approach that bears increasingly little resemblence to reality and pointless ivory tower arguments. If that's what seeking truth becomes, I'm not interested either!