Book review: ‘A Doubter’s Guide to God’
When I was young, I had no idea normal people doubted God. So when I doubted, I was ashamed. Normal people believed. They flourished as Christians and at church. I wasn’t normal. I was bad.
Roger Martin’s treatment of A Doubter’s Guide to God would have been balm to my younger self. Today I need his views less urgently because I’ve encountered many Roger Martins, including Anna Frey, the Eastern Mennonite College English teacher with whom I rarely spoke except through writing papers for her — honest papers about the doubts. In the margins her red pen would offer back understanding, compassion and grace.
Martin isn’t precisely Anna or me, but his book unfolds in something like those same holy margins. So we learn about what doesn’t work for a Martin seeking meaningful religious experience and a nourishing faith community. He learns addictions don’t work. He learns that if you grow marijuana in your yard, your wife may call you at work to report that “a plane had been circling the house, low. I drove home fast. When I arrived, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents already were there.”
He learns the yearnings of his love life ask more of humans than they can provide. Through brokenness and anguish, he learns that what he sometimes asks of human presences only the presence of God can provide.
He also learns of complexities of fellowship with other Christians. Here I wasn’t quite sure how to assess his story versus others that surely could be told. As he describes journeys with a Mennonite congregation — Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan. — and the conflicts in which he ended up involved, I wondered how other participants would tell such stories, given that at the very core of conflict are conflicting viewpoints. Still, he speaks movingly of church as “a place where everybody keeps showing up, ready and willing to struggle through difficult and conflicting feelings.”
Martin learns wonderfully varied ways of picturing God. He can’t quite “see God as Cosmic Scorekeeper or Keeper of the Sinner Census.” He can see God in Mattie, the cat who with gentle paw gives spouse Barbara a “tap on the nose” to say, “Open the can, Mom.” As Martin puts it, “If God taps us on the nose . . . God may . . . be telling those who have such experiences that she’s hungry for their company.”
Martin can see God in the flow of our lives, as the music God plays through us, God’s instruments. He finds ways to see God in the links between dreams, religious epiphanies, the structures of our brains.
Drawing on a broad range of scientific, literary and theological sources and ideas, Martin spies opportunities to give us surprising, unexpected, fresh perspectives on God, ourselves and each other. And the fact that he didn’t grow up in the tradition allows him to offer astute observations about Mennonite faith and culture.
Martin can also see the shadows — sometimes in others, as in those conflict stories, but also in himself. He seeks to live out advice from Phillip Lopate, who urges the memoirist to “help us see the monster in you more clearly. Think against yourself.”
One way or another, in the margins of our papers on doubt and our yearnings to believe, Martin converses. He gives us space for varied understandings of the holy. He reminds me of one way I finally lived beyond primarily doubting: leaping into the possibility of God, whether I believed or not. And then to new discoveries: that this can “produce a tentativeness that provides space for other people and their beliefs” — and that “the more committed you are to God, the more real and ‘true’ ” becomes this God, who through Jesus shows us how to “quit ranting and raving about humanity’s flaws and betrayals and . . . to love people no matter what they do.”
Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University’s seminary and graduate programs.
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