There is an important holiday celebrated on October 31st that has nothing to do with candy and carved pumpkins. It’s a commemoration of the day when a young Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It is Reformation Day.
Luther spent many years trying to follow all of the right disciplines of the church. He went to confession, prayed, fasted, served liturgy. But something inside of him was dissatisfied, tormented by what he held dear as the kingdom of God corrupted by the trappings of an oppressive secular power. Luther began to question what he’d been taught and all that he believed, first privately but then publicly by nailing a letter of 95 complaints about the church’s practices onto the doors of the Castle Church. Western Christianity has never been the same since.
Yet how many of us dare to do as Luther did? Sometimes we may talk about the need for reform in our church. But how many of us contemplate reforming our own faith? It turns out that a lot of us do.
Televangelists will tell us to look to Jesus for all our answers. To trust in God. To pray, fast, light candles, and do all of the feel-good things that give others, and ourselves, the illusion that we are changing on the inside. But that’s not real reform. At least not the sort that matters.
I’m talking about confronting our own faith in such a way that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we dare to look at Christianity and all we hold dear and question it through the eyes of a skeptic. Let yourself be the troubled, hurting Christian who wants to believe but also to know the real truth. It’s what John Loftus calls the “outsider test for faith.”
That’s what Luther did on that late October day in 1517, at least when it came to the only faith he’d ever known. He certainly didn’t go as far as some of us in the modern world do. But it was a remarkable step, given his time, culture, and place. He questioned important aspects of the faith he loved and served.
I know how hard it must have been for him, because, though I’m certainly no Luther, I’ve done it, too. For many years I was tormented by my faith. I put on a good public display about it all, pretending to believe all of the right things and performing all of the right rituals. But my heart wasn’t always in it, must as it wanted to be. My mind wouldn’t allow it. I’d constantly ask myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here? Do I believe any of it?”
The only answer I could give was that I was supposed to be there, supposed to believe the right things. My faith was dead, or at least dying. Until I did what no one good christian is supposed to do, embrace the doubts and ideas that only “backsliding” Christians accept. Everything became subject to question: the Bible, the doctrines and authority of the church, and even whether or not I truly believed in God.
Yes, those are all forbidden things to question for many Christians. But so were Luther’s questions in his time. And just like the Reformation of the church, my own spiritual reformation hasn’t always been an easy thing for me. It has led to turmoil, both internal and interpersonal. I’ve lost some friends. And my faith is not what it once was.
It’s a faith that some would call incomplete or thin, no faith at all. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes I have no faith. Sometimes I, like the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby who recently said, “There are moments, sure, when you think, ‘Is there a God?’ ‘Where is God?’” (bbc.com/news/uk-29255318), I’m unsure of whether or not God exists. Sometimes I believe in God but not the Trinity. Sometimes I believe Jesus was simply a Jewish prophet whom Gentiles co-opted and made into a gentile savior. Other times I’m not sure what it is I believe. But that’s okay.
Let me say that again. It’s okay.
I don’t say that to make myself feel better. I say that because I understand what torment it is to think it isn’t okay. And if you are tormented by your doubts about your faith, I want to say that you are not alone! There are tens of thousands—probably millions—in this country alone who feel just as you do. And if you’ve decided to slowly embrace those doubts, despite how scary it can be, then congratulations. You’ve nailed your own 95 theses to the door of your heart. It won’t always be an easy journey. But in the long run, it will be liberating, because you will no longer be afraid of doubt.
A dear friend once told me to not fear my doubts. That was the first step on a long, continuing journey that I’m still on. Do not fear your doubts. Do not fear questioning authority, that of the church or even of God. We are not God’s slaves, but his children. And we are all in need of reform.
This is the lesson I take away from Reformation Day. Luther was far from perfect. At times, especially later in life, he could be a bigoted and authoritarian asshat. But he did what few others in the history of the church ever would: He challenged its self-proclaimed authority, its long-standing practices, and he brought about reform. Not only of the church, but of his own faith. If he can do it, you can too.
Chuck’s book Freedom to Doubt is available for the Amazon Kindle and in trade paperback. See FreedomToDoubt.com for excerpts and links. From October 30 to November 3, the Kindle version is being offered at a discounted price of just $0.99.