MOST OF us who find ourselves in the troubling waters of skepticism did not end up there having planned to head out for a swim. In most cases we simply fell in or were pushed, perhaps by someone we met in passing, by a book we picked up rather innocently, or by facing some real-life crisis that forced us against our will to confront our religious credulity. It probably did not come at a convenient time or in an orderly fashion, and our state of mind about the situation was likely anything but hopeful.
Nick Fiedler may or may not have experienced the period of gloomy flailing that often accompanies the questioning of one’s deeply held beliefs, but his religious travel guide, The Hopeful Skeptic: Revisiting Christianity from the Outside (IVP Books), offers a cautious methodology for surviving it.
Fiedler, an Alabama native, left his corporate job and went overseas with his new wife for several years of backpacking—the authentic, dirty kind, he assures us, as opposed to the expensive, four-star sort. The Hopeful Skeptic is framed around his travel experiences, which began with him purging and packing his belongings, and deciding he should leave his religious preconceptions in the United States as well. Unlike the numbers of ex-Christian memoirists currently filling the shelves at your local bookstore, his un-conversion was not sparked by a shocking display of corruption in an institutional church. Instead, it seems to have been a careful process that reached a significantly more positive conclusion.
His book is targeted at young Christians who may still be as gung-ho about their faith as Fiedler once was. The voice is familiar and unmistakable: as breezily conversational as a serious book can get, lined with sort-of humor from Fiedler’s religious journey, and hedged so carefully as to be almost maddening to readers further along in the process.
But his painstaking efforts to say exactly what he really means, to map the unfamiliar, unpopular territory between labels, is the great strength of this timely little book. To swap around a Gore Vidal line, it is probably a good deal easier to read than it was to write. Fiedler spends a great number of pages unpacking the notion of “hopeful skepticism,” which he describes as neither “a traditional form of Christianity” nor “un-Christian.” He rightly describes how skeptics and agnostics have an unfair reputation for being watered-down, lukewarm, indecisive, or in-between. Instead, he sees them as people who are behaving responsibly with the information they have. Hopeful skepticism values the idea that one could be wrong—“holding our pieces of truth loosely,” Fiedler writes, “but not letting go.”
Most of The Hopeful Skeptic is about the things we should hold loosely, most notably scripture and the traditional view of Jesus as a magical, virgin-born Messiah. Without delving into academics or presenting arguments against what most of his readers will no doubt consider the pillars of Christianity, Fiedler is more honest with the “facts on the ground” than scores of more learned theologians. It wouldn’t seem so hard to observe as Fiedler does, that “we don’t have anything on earth written by the hand of God,” but then again, he admits it took him 20 years to accept the fact. He describes gradually accepting a realistic view of Scripture in college, and how revelations in his New Testament classes sent friends and classmates into spirals of hopeless disbelief. Fiedler decided to hold scripture loosely but not let go—one of the many ways he demonstrates his belief that vibrant faith is possible apart from textual fundamentalism and institutionalized religion.
There is far too much presumed certainty on planet earth, on the right and the left, among the learned and the unlearned, the believers and the unbelievers. None of them seem quite aware enough of the fragility and tenuousness of existence—a reality that should continually humble the triumphant and silence the boastful. Fiedler is one of few American writers speaking this message to the Christian community for the right reasons: that there is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting we do not know, and we risk hubris when we brandish our certainty as a banner to rally around. If the average Christian reader takes away nothing but an enhanced appreciation for the virtue of changing one’s mind, then Fiedler has done 170 pages worth of the Lord’s work.
Changes of the mind and heart are generally fueled by transformative experiences, and it’s a bit of a shame Fiedler did not embellish his narrative with more of his own. Fleshed-out scenes from his journeys might have made The Hopeful Skeptic a more literary work, and one suspects they inspired more impassioned insights on the skeptical life and leftist Christianity than made it into this book. But for what it is and who is supposed to read it, it’s an important entry in Christianity’s continued interaction with 21st-century Western thought. If you are a teenager from Alabama who would describe yourself as “on fire for Jesus,” reading it might make you a better human being. If you’re already a hopeless skeptic, weary of wandering through deep academic ruts, it might be the lifeline that keeps you afloat.
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