Critically Oriented: Seasons of Study and Doubt

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the boggy depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods overwhelm me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is dry.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
Psalm 69

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Psalm 40

Three Seasons of Psalms

For those who don’t know me,
I’m a University web developer,
A keen traveller and reader,
And an amateur student of theology.

Today I want to share a pattern from one of my favourite Biblical scholars,
Play with it a bit, add a layer or two,
And use it to map a common journey of Christian students.

It’s from Walter Brueggemann’s Message of the Psalms (1984).[1]
Psalms can be classified into various literary forms.
Brueggemann boils them down into three human experiences.

There are times when life is good.
Our homework is done and our stomachs are full.
Life is tidy and the world makes sense.
Psalms of Orientation describe this happy season.
Hymns of stable blessing and reliable justice.
Nature declares the goodness of God. (Psalm 19)
Those who obey him prosper. (Psalm 1) [2]

Then there are times when life falls apart.
Our world comes to an end in chaos and confusion.
Psalms of Disorientation express our despair.
We sink in the miry bog, the slimy pit,
And the waters rise up to our neck. (Psalm 69)
Like the Psalmist, we lament, our throats dry from calling,
“Where are you Lord?
Why have you forgotten me?” (Psalm 42:9) [3]

Then, one night when we’ve almost lost hope,
We’re surprised by a new gift of God.
He lifts us out of the bog, the swamp, the surging deathly waters,
And sets our feet on rock.
In Psalms of New Orientation,
We are filled with gratitude,
Our mourning turns to dancing,
We sing a new song of joy.  (Psalm 40) [4]

Three types of Psalm for three seasons of life.
Orientation, disorientation, new orientation. [5]
Which describes you right now?
What sort of Psalm are you singing?

The first time I met this scheme in Brueggemann,
I loved the way he marries
Old Testament exegesis and human experience. [6]

I’ve shared this cycle of seasons with several friends,
Who’ve been blessed by it too. [7]
Some sent me personal reflections
That describe their own disorientations in personal Psalms of Lament:

“There was a time of great loss – my future seemed blank – I couldn’t see any hope for my life.”

“I felt my life was lost and I was in the deep pit of chaos, with no way to escape.”

If you are lost in the bog today, disoriented in a pit,
God can give you a new orientation,
A firm new place to stand.

Hear the witness of my friends, in their own Psalms of Thanks:

“All of a sudden, there was a reversal of fortune, deliverance from my circumstances, and hopefulness.  God gave me a new life and my heart is filled with gratitude and thanksgiving.”

“God raised me from dying experiences such as fear and depression.  He reached out his hand to pull me out of the pit of darkness.  He turned my sorrow into joy and pain to praise.”

This year I’ve been painfully disoriented.
These responses reminded me: our God brings new seasons!
I’ve felt broken and bewildered,
But with these words my heart danced.

Marrying Spirit and Books

I have fond memories of my university days,
So when I meet students, especially of theology,
I often ask two questions.
What’s been the highlight of your study, your favourite subject so far?
And what’s been the toughest challenge or struggle?

Some replies sound like Psalm 69.
Disoriented by academic demands.
Sinking in a bottomless bog of books.
The waters of unwritten assignments rise up to your neck.
Your eyes fail from typing all night.
Sound like anyone you know?

Some students feel the stress of study squeezes out their relationship with God.
Recently one asked me how to balance academic and spiritual life.
So I’ll slip in a few thoughts.

The first, of course, is time management.
One guy said he’d been taught to have his quiet time each morning.
It wasn’t working.
He switched to night, and it’s going better.

When I’m busy and stressed, I value the concept of Sabbath rest.
It reminds me that my life depends on God’s grace, not my achievement.
On Sunday afternoon I try to shut out all the things I should do – like assignments.
To let go and be with God.
I might go to a park and actually look at the trees,
Or relax with a book that calls my heart.
Do you schedule time like that?

Timetable tips like that might help.
But I think there’s a deeper issue to the study vs spirit tension.
I suspect some of us put devotions and academics,
Time with God and writing assignments, in separate, unconnected boxes.
If you are a student, how would your life change if your study was worship?

Maybe I’m weird, a nerdy bookworm,
Because I worship as much in the library as I do in church. [8]
I get most excited about God when my mind expands.
I’m with CS Lewis:

Many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.   CS Lewis

If you’re studying theology, I hope that happens for you.
If you’re in another faculty – science or commerce or arts,
I hope you also make time for substantial spiritual reading
To grow your Christian mind.

Something like my friends’ experience with Brueggemann.
They wrestled through the text, maybe taking notes.
Even without tobacco, their hearts began to sing as understanding dawned.

That’s appropriate, because in that book Brueggemann asks:
How can we combine spirituality and study?
Here’s how he puts it.

He says there are two separate traditions of Psalms interpretation.
Precritical: personal piety and church worship.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” warms our hearts.
On Sunday we sing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul!”

Critical: academic scholarship.
Socio-religious context and redaction history;
Hebrew conjugations and rhetorical structure.

Brueggemann says these two approaches seldom interact – sound like some of us?

What seems to be needed… is a postcritical interpretation that lets the devotional and scholarly traditions support, inform, and correct each other… so that we may speak more knowingly and more faithfully out of our faith situation. (16, 21)

I reckon that’s an excellent model for study, and for Christian life:
Heart and head should strengthen and enrich each other
Why?  So we can “more knowingly and more faithfully” speak God’s Word to the world.

When I’m writing an essay or sermon, I often remember a story about
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century theologian.
They say he’d written a treatise on the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.
He entered the chapel, knelt down, and laid his script before the altar.
Then Christ spoke from the cross,
“Thomas, you have written well of my body”.

Talking crucifixes, I don’t know, but the scene stays with me.
The sharpest mind of the age, perhaps, brings his essay to the foot of the cross.
That’s a “post-critical” attitude: study and soul together in scholarly devotion.

Another good model for us.
Whatever your subject,
Do you write your essays with humility and integrity?
Do your words speak “knowingly and faithfully”?
Do they honour our crucified Lord?
Good questions if you’re tapping out assignments.
Learn to pray as you read, and write in worship.
Then you won’t lose Jesus in homework.

Box to Bog: Saintly Disorientation

When I ask about their struggles,
Other Christian students have a deeper problem.
Especially in theology, though in other faculties too.

You came to college with a suitcase of clothes
And a tidy box of beliefs.
From the Scriptures you clearly knew
True and false, right and wrong.
You had a precious, pre-critical faith
That could sing with child-like trust,
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
In Brueggemann’s term, you were living in confident orientation.

Then you hit your first classes.
Critical thinking starts to unpack your box of pre-critical beliefs.
For theology students,
Your trust in the Bible is shaken by OT or NT modules.
Or your ethics are threatened by pastoral theology.
Or you’re anxious in world religions class.
A leader in my church nearly became an atheist through church history.

Other disciplines could also dent your box of beliefs.
Science lecturers may promote atheist evolutionism.
Humanities tutors may deconstruct every text in sight, including the Bible.
You may be unsettled by the cynical agnostic spirit
That often rules academia.

Some of you were warned by Christians at home,
“If you go to university or seminary, you’ll lose your faith!”
Now you wonder if those people were right.

A fresher once said to me,
“Whatever we read here, we have to critique.
If we criticise everything, what will be left?” [9]

The waters of critical thinking rise up to your neck.
Your box of beliefs is swamped in a flood of dialectic debate. [10]
Everything seems grey, uncertain, ambiguous.
Without a sure and certain foothold for faith,
You sink in a bog of doubt.

Or, to use another image from the Psalms,
You’re lost in a desert of criticism,
An academic wasteland where there’s no water.

If you’re in that place of disorientation,
In the bog of doubt or spiritually dry,
What should you do?

Firstly, don’t panic: doubt is not abnormal!
The last weeks as I thought about this message, I was amazed.
Almost every day someone told me
They’d had shakings of faith when they studied theology!
Kind of confirmed my topic.
I suspect, I don’t know, maybe half of first years struggle?
Good topic for a thesis!

So don’t hide in shame.
You’re not alone.
Tell someone – your mentor, a Christian friend, your cell group,
So they can pray and support you.
That’s why God puts us in community.

Secondly, doubt is not sin.
Questioning your beliefs is not rebelling against God.
Feeling like God is absent does not make you an atheist. [11]
In fact, great Christian contemplatives say:

You cannot be a person of faith unless you know how to doubt.  Thomas Merton [12]

Whoever has not God within, cannot feel His absence.  Simone Weil [13]

If your eyes fail, looking for God,
If you call and call and hear no reply, (Psalm 69)
You’re in faithful company!
Like the Psalmist, many saints of the church
Have trekked through the spiritual desert.

Google “Mother Teresa – Dark Night of the Soul”.
For 50 years she felt like this:

In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss,
of God not wanting me, of God not being God,
of God not really existing.
Mother Teresa, letter to spiritual director

Bog to Rock: Post-critical Reorientation

Thirdly, doubt can be a healthy stage of growth, especially in seminary.

In my first theology class the lecturer said,
Some of my colleagues think it’s their job
To demolish new students’ faith.
For me, he said, theology should deconstruct simplistic beliefs,
Then reconstruct them on thought-out foundations.
Shake up faith that’s built on sand; rebuild it on stable rock. [14]

That may be what your teachers are doing
When they push your boundaries and stir up doubts.
You’ll come out stronger,
Able to think deeper and cope better with questions.
In the end you’ll thank them,
Though half-way through demolition and reassembly,
Your mind might feel a mess, like a building site.

Many of us have been there.
It’s a common stage in learning, from physics to politics to theology.
Here’s why it’s worth it:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (attributed) [15]

On the other side of confusion is a more elegant simplicity. [16]
After disorientation comes new orientation. [17]
Beyond critical doubt is a deeper post-critical faith.

A faith that can trust God like a child again.
A new innocence, or “second naivety”.
A fresh sense of conviction.
But it’s not the same faith as at first. [18]

You’ve grown up from milk to meat.
Your box of beliefs has been broken open.
You’ve been through the bog of doubt.

Now you know there are questions you can’t answer,
Truths to hold in tension.
Mysteries too big for a box. [19]

You’re open to unboxed vistas of wide ideas,
And sometimes still splashed by the waves.
But you’re no longer full of fear.

Beneath the overwhelming floods,
You’ve found the foundation of Grace.
Now your feet aren’t slipping in the muddy mire;
You’re standing on Christ the Rock.

Maybe the greatest theologian of the 20th century was Karl Barth.
His main work, Church Dogmatics, was 6 million words on 10,000 pages in 13 volumes.
He once gave a lecture in the US.
At the end someone asked, “Dr Barth, can you sum up your life work in one sentence?”
(I thought this might be a myth, but it’s been confirmed.[20])

Barth quoted the Sunday School song,
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That’s a post-critical faith, a second naivety.
The child-like simplicity on the other side of 6 million word complexity!
Again, a good goal for us.

Conclusion: Waiting for Grace

Today I’ve shared some patterns of thought that grip my imagination,
Frameworks that help me make sense of my faith.

We’ve mapped a Christian student’s journey through Brueggemann’s seasons of Psalms.
Orientation: a child-like pre-critical faith with an unquestioned box of beliefs.
Disorientation: the confusion of critical study when you sink in a bog of doubt.
New Orientation: the fresh simplicity of post-critical faith that’s found the solid rock.
A faith that fuses head and heart in scholarly worship.
A faith that asks hard questions but also trusts like a child.

Can you see yourself somewhere there?
If you read and think about your faith, you’ll likely go through this sort of process.
If you’re in the boggy season, remember:
Doubt is not abnormal, it’s not sinful, it’s a stage of growth.

So how can we get out of the bog and stand safe on the rock?
Brueggemann is clear as the gospel.
We can’t climb out on our own.

New Orientation is a gift of God. [21]
The dawn of new faith comes only by grace. [22]

I have a friend who studied theology.
In his first year he thought he was an atheist.
Surrounded by believers, he felt like a fraud.
He planned to pack up and leave.

Then he was writing an exam essay on the incarnation:
Jesus leaving the glory of heaven to live as a human among us.
The question asked, why did Jesus do that?
And like a flash it hit him: Jesus did it out of love for me!
There in the exam room, he broke down.
He left the last question unanswered, went home, and wept.
As he put it, “God won”.
For the first time in months, he prayed.

My journey’s less dramatic,
But books are my friends in agnostic moments,
My seasons of disoriented loss.
I’ve linked to some of my favourite writers in the final endnote.
Even with friends and authors to support us,
It’s still not easy to go through the bog of doubt,
Or the desert that dries up your soul.

Are you drowning or parched?
Bewildered or broken?
God’s goal is good.
It’s one way He breaks down our defences,
Breaks through our illusions,
Breaks out of our boxes,
Breaks into our hearts,
To call us closer to Him.

I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.
Hosea 2:14

Disorientation is bitter, but it’s also a blessing.
After weathering grief, a friend captured it well:

In this season, God seems so far away from us and so silent.  We complain, lament, scream with pain with a broken heart…  God deals with us personally and intimately.  God breaks our idols and demands that we choose Him above everything else and live a surrendered life, because He loves us.

Sinking in the bog or thirsting in the desert,
The Psalmist kept on waiting for the Lord. [23]

So we also wait.
Wait in holy uncertainty for new simplicity.
Wait until He lifts us from the bog to the rock.
Wait for springs in the sand and a new song to sing.
Wait with minds that still seek Him and hearts that still cry,

Beneath the bog of doubt,
We long to believe anew.

Beyond the desert of criticism,
We wish to be called again. [24]
Paul Ricouer [25]

A psalm of David.
When he was in the Desert of Judah.
O God, You are my God;
Earnestly I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
Psalm 63

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.…
He turned the desert into pools of water
and the parched ground into flowing springs.
So give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.
His mercy endures forever.
Psalm 107 [26]

[1] Walter Brueggemann, 1984, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg.  Brueggemann’s slim Spirituality of the Psalms (2002) sums up the concepts in under 100 pages.  See my review here.
[2] “Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing. Matching this we will consider ‘psalms of orientation,’ which in a variety of ways articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law.” (Brueggemann, 19)
[3] “Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred. Matching this, we will consider ‘psalms of disorientation,’ poems and speech-forms that match the season in its ragged, painful disarray.” (Brueggemann, 19)
[4] “Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has been only darkness, there is light. Corresponding to this surprise of the gospel, we will consider ‘psalms of orientation,’ which speak boldly about a new gift from God, a fresh intrusion that makes all things new.” (Brueggemann, 19)
[5] Classical concertos often have three movements: a cheerful major key; then a slower, sadder minor key; then a more upbeat major key movement again.  I’m told that, for example in Mozart, the third movement may pick up and incorporate themes from the first two.  Its beauty and joy are deeper, because it’s lived through and triumphed over sorrow and loss.
[6] Brueggemann also maps this onto the history of Israel – the pain of exile, then restoration; and the Easter story – crucifixion and resurrection.  He observes it’s the pattern of Christ’s kenosis and exaltation in Philippians 2:5-11, and our dying and rising with Christ in baptism (Rom 6:4).  Plus it sums up salvation history: creation, fall, redemption.
[7] One guy wrote, “Though it was difficult to understand initially, later I found it very useful for my personal spiritual life”.
[8] In both I’m surrounded and encouraged by the great cloud of faithful witnesses, the communion of saints.
[9] The “paralysis of analysis”.  I had a friend who was a musician and repairer of woodwind instruments.  He said he didn’t want to study music academically because it kills your enjoyment: “you can’t wallow in it”.  Studying theology may, for a season, have a similar effect: you can’t worship in church ‘cos you’re analysing the lyrics of the songs, can’t read the Bible devotionally cos you’re considering its literary form or historical context…
[10] Though maybe out of context, these verses may apply: “They were confident; they come there and are confused.” (Job 6:20)  “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind.” (Deut 28:28)
[11] Old Testament and Jewish faith is often better at holding doubt and faith together than evangelical Christians are.  For example, there’s a story that in Auschwitz a group of Jews put God on trial one night.  Finally they delivered the verdict: God had betrayed his people, or wasn’t there.  But as dawn broke, they stood together to recite the Morning Prayer.
[12] “… Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” (Merton)
[13] “Console yourself, you would not seek Me if you had not found Me.” (Pascal)
[14] “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise, it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.”  (G K Chesterton)
[15] I first heard this idea from psychiatrist M Scott Peck.  His book The Road Less Travelled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety (1997) is structured according to this quote: Part 1 – Crusade Against Simplism; Part 2 – Wrestling with the Complexity of Everyday Life; Part 3 – The Other Side of Complexity.
[16] This is often my essay or sermon writing process: an initial clear inspiration, then convoluted chaos as I wrestle with details, write and rewrite in frustration until, hopefully, it finally comes together with clarity and simplicity.
[17] The learning and unlearning process may resemble a little death and resurrection.  A friend’s description of disorientation captured this: “In our comfort zone we cannot see how God works in our life…  Brueggemann suggests that God allows humans to experience seasons of change to learn new things.  To know things we must allow our old things or nature to die and let the Spirit of God transform us.”
[18] One writer described the sequence as: childish/innocent – cynical/sophisticated – childlike/new innocence, or young fool – old fool – holy fool.  James Fowler’s Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981) documents this progression in detail, which is simplified by M Scott Peck in his Road Less Travelled books.  This post summarises several such schemes of spiritual development stages.
[19] In a letter to his brothers in 1817, the poet John Keats spoke of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion explained negative capability as “the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.” (in Wikipedia, Negative Capability)
[20] Theologian Roger Olson checked it out here.
[21] “Precisely in such deathly places… newness that is not of our own making breaks upon us” and we are “surprised by grace, when there emerges in present life a new possibility that is inexplicable, neither desired nor extrapolated, but wrought by the inscrutable power and goodness of God. That newness cannot be explained, predicted or programmed.” (Brueggemann, 52, 124)
[22] It’s captured beautifully in a blog post here.
[23] “Even in the darkness, there is One to address”, as we like Israel have “a relationship with YHWH that is utterly trustworthy in the face of every threat”. (Brueggemann, 12, 152)
[24] In What is the Second Naiveté?  Engaging with Paul Ricoeur, Post-Critical Theology, and Progressive Christianity (2014, see here) Linards Jansons colourfully depicts various responses to the critical desert of doubt:
“For some, there is no further stage, for having perished in the desert of criticism, faith has come to an end. For others, the response is to beat a hasty retreat out of the desert; or, having gazed upon its arid terrain from afar, guard its entrance lest any hapless sheep wander into it and join the bones of liberal scholars littering its landscape. Still others concede that the insights of criticism are very interesting at a professional level, even while nurturing the pre-critical oasis of their personal faith…  The post-critical approach perseveres all the way through the desert of criticism, does not turn back to a pre-critical Egypt, but presses on towards the Canaan of a critically informed faith. This, I take it, is the call beyond the desert of criticism that Ricoeur writes of.”
[25] “Par-delà le désert de la critique, nous voulons à nouveau être interpellés.”  Kiwi Alan Jamieson’s book Called Again: In and Beyond the Deserts of Faith (2004) is inspired by this line. (See here)  Jamieson sums up many themes of this sermon via Ricoeur:
“Paul Ricoeur is a modern Jeremiah.  He points to the ways many people’s faith is both “uprooted, torn down,” “destroyed and overthrown,” while also pointing to the possibility that this need not be the end of Christian faith.  It is merely the clearing of the ground of the soul in preparation for God’s new “building and planting.”  For Ricoeur the deconstruction of an old faith creates the space from which we can be “called again.”  We should realise that being ‘called again’ can never simply mean being called back to… [what] we have left…”
[26] On my blog at I’ve posted short reflections on authors who’ve made springs flow in the desert for me, including theological fiction from C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald and Charles Williams, plus insights gleaned from psychiatrist M Scott Peck and historian of Christian spirituality Richard Foster (for all these, see here); mystical German novelist Herman Hesse (see here); Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, evocative meditations by Frederick Buechner, Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann, my favourite New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, and Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by doubt-wrestler Phillip Yancey (for all these, see here); and novels by questioning Catholic Morris West (see here).  I’ve written longer introductions to chef-priest Robert Farrar Capon (Flights of Fancy over a Pedal Note of Grace and Romancing the Word and Hunting the Fox), allegory by Hannah Hurnard (Gambolling with the Shepherd: Hinds’ Feet on High Places), novelist Chaim Potok (Painting Culture Conflict: My Name Is Asher Lev and the Work of Rabbi Chaim Potok), and J R R Tolkien (Heroes, Hobbits & Hope in the Bible & Tolkien’s Middle-earth).  In different ways, all of these authors have captured my imagination, stretched my mind, stimulated my faith, strengthened my hope in the midst of doubt, and inspired my love of Christ.