The Gospel of Doubt

I came across Casey Gerald, a young African American man, through a video of his speech delivered to an august audience in academics and like-minded people in February 2016. He spoke a lot of his “Gospel of Doubt” which had arisen from various episodes in his life, bringing him to realize that he had done a full circle of beliefs, and as he termed it, had become a ‘false saviour’. Casey Gerald had a tough upbringing, but was at Yale University by 18 years of age, and later went on to Harvard Business College shortly after that. I was struck by the eloquence of his talk, his delivery, wonderful thought processes, his passion – whether or not at the end, he was correct in his submissions. However, I am not to relate all of his talk, but I really want to narrate the first part of his talk, and move on from there.

He says:”

Here we were, souls and bodies packed into a Texas church on the last night of our lives. Packed into a room just like this, but with creaky wooden pews draped in worn-down red fabric, with an organ to my left and a choir at my back and a baptism pool built into the wall behind them. A room like this, nonetheless. With the same great feelings of suspense, the same deep hopes for salvation, the same sweat in the palms and the same people in the back not paying attention.

This was December 31, 1999, the night of the Second Coming of Christ, and the end of the world as I knew it. I had turned 12 that year and had reached the age of accountability. And once I stopped complaining about how unfair it was that Jesus would return as soon as I had to be accountable for all that I had done, I figured I had better get my house in order very quickly.

So I went to church as often as I could. I listened for silence as anxiously as one might listen for noise, trying to be sure that the Lord hadn’t pulled a fast one on me and decided to come back early.
And just in case he did, I built a backup plan, by reading the “Left Behind” books that were all the rage at the time. And I found in their pages that if I was not taken in the rapture at midnight, I had another shot. All I had to do was avoid taking the mark of the beast, fight off demons, plagues and the Antichrist himself. It would be hard — but I knew I could do it.

But planning time was over now. It was 11:50pm. We had 10 minutes left, and my pastor called us out of the pews and down to the altar because he wanted to be praying when midnight struck. So every faction of the congregation took its place. The choir stayed in the choir stand, the deacons and their wives — or the Baptist Bourgeoisie as I like to call them — took first position in front of the altar. You see, in America, even the Second Coming of Christ has a VIP section.

And right behind the Baptist Bourgeoisie were the elderly — these men and women whose young backs had been bent under hot suns in the cotton fields of East Texas, and whose skin seemed to be burnt a creaseless noble brown, just like the clay of East Texas, and whose hopes and dreams for what life might become outside of East Texas had sometimes been bent and broken even further than their backs.

Yes, these men and women were the stars of the show for me. They had waited their whole lives for this moment, just as their medieval predecessors had longed for the end of the world, and just as my grandmother waited for the Oprah Winfrey Show to come on Channel 8 every day at 4 o’clock. And as she made her way to the altar, I snuck right in behind her, because I knew for sure that my grandmother was going to heaven. And I thought that if I held on to her hand during this prayer, I might go right on with her.

So I held on and I closed my eyes to listen, to wait. And the prayers got louder. And the shouts of response to the call of the prayer went up higher even still. And the organ rolled on in to add to the dirge. And the heat came on to add to the sweat. And my hand gripped firmer, so I wouldn’t be the one left in the field. My eyes clenched tighter so I wouldn’t see the wheat being separated from the chaff. And then a voice rang out above us: “Amen.”

It was over. I looked at the clock. It was after midnight. I looked at the elder believers whose saviour had not come, who were too proud to show any signs of disappointment, who had believed too much and for too long to start doubting now. But I was upset on their behalf. They had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and I had gone right along with them. I had prayed their prayers; I had yielded not to temptation as best I could. I had dipped my head not once, but twice in that snot-inducing baptism pool. I had believed. Now what?

I got home just in time to turn on the television and watched Peter Jennings announce the new millennium as it rolled in around the world. It struck me that it would have been strange anyway, for Jesus to come back again and again based on the different time zones.

And this made me feel even more ridiculous — hurt, really. But there on that night, I did not stop believing. I just believed a new thing: that it was possible not to believe. It was possible the answers I had were wrong, that the questions themselves were wrong. And now, where there was once a mountain of certitude, there was, running right down to its foundation, a spring of doubt, a spring that promised rivers.

I can trace the whole drama of my life back to that night in that church when my saviour did not come for me; when the thing I believed most certainly turned out to be, if not a lie, then not quite the truth. And even though most of you prepared for Y2K in a very different way, I’m convinced that you are here because some part of you has done the same thing that I have done since the dawn of this new century, since my mother left and my father stayed away and my Lord refused to come. And I held out my hand, reaching for something to believe in. “
This part of Casey Gerald’s speech made me gasp and struck in me such a chord of dismay just to think that what those people felt when all that in which they believed, came to nothing. I asked the question “what do you do when what you know as Gospel, or what is your core of belief, comes to nothing or is dashed to a million pieces like shards of glass of a broken mirror, never able to be made whole again?” So I got to thinking about what the effect this apocalypse had on those people – possibly I could not realize the full feeling because something like that was just too hard to comprehend.

My thoughts then went to the things people experience – war, loss of lives through disasters such as floods or fire, suicide of those close to us, family tragedies, separation of the family unit, dearly loved family members who commit unspeakable crimes or who are victims of terrible acts, disappearance of a friend or family member, global scams or economic crashes, or unsettled political situations, being homeless through a variety of reasons but perhaps the worst through natural disasters, of living in fear or being fearful of other people, feeling their hatred or disrespect. Still – hard to imagine because, thank God, I have never been part of that or had to face those challenges at that enormous level.

We suffer through “normal” life occurrences, death of a loved one, loss of a job, depleted fortunes, daily crime, ill health – mental or physical, and our heroes who disappoint us. If one puts these events in perspective, how ghastly are these in comparison to that heart-stopping and mind-numbing event like the non-event of the second coming of Christ in East Texas? Yes, life’s occurrences are real and life-changing and so sorrowful where we can be bereft of any feeling, but we invariably recover from them.

I think of those people in East Texas, who all their lives, carried on a hard and exhausting life, kept hopeful by believing in the Second Coming of Christ. After all, who better to know but their pastor, a wise and honourable man, who was ‘a man of God’. What did they feel or think when what had been built up in a crescendo, deflated without a sound? And what of the pastor – would he be more devastated than his congregants? I would imagine that bewilderment would be the common feeling. And the utter sadness that what had been promised was actually nothing, like a puff of dust disappearing in to the sky. Then, perhaps the fear of facing the imminent danger of the unknown, or having to question one’s belief. No doubt the question arose of “what now”?

Since hearing this speech and letting my thoughts take their own course, I realized that I never spoke to my father about what he felt when he was discarded by his church. He was a devout Christian who supported his church through being an Elder, teaching Sunday School, and who tithed a 10th of his salary every month to the church – probably close on 35 years – only to receive a rather curt notice, if I can call it a letter of demand, from the church, when he was unable to contribute any more money when he had to take ill-health retirement. And, ignored and disregarded for a number of years including when he lay in hospital, dying, – only to be visited by another church to be given hope, love, and salvation. I know now that he suffered the loss of his religious/Christian family resulting in severe disappointment and loneliness, but his love of God never wavered.

It struck me that in dealing with life’s losses, that a ‘grieving process’ would have to be traversed – going through various levels – first, the disbelief, then anger, then depression, then healing and recovery.

Disbelief – that whatever had happened was just a lie, some evil person spreading rumours, that you were not actually part of the event, and in East Texas – perhaps an out of mind episode that this wondrous moment was still going to happen. Following any disaster, people frequently feel stunned, disoriented or unable to integrate distressing information.

Anger – perhaps intense rage against everyone, the world, God, Jesus, oneself perhaps; perhaps wanting to strike out and strike back at that which has caused you this terrible pain. Intense or unpredictable feelings can be the order of the day. And in East Texas, anger of being duped – by the pastor, perhaps by God or Jesus Christ himself

Depression – the aftermath, when it sinks home that whatever happened was an actuality. And as we know, depression can knock you flat, bringing about anxiety and a non-interest in life itself, existing but nearly not breathing, isolating, questioning your existence in this life, or if God actually existed. Depression negates your core of belief, and can completely debilitate through intense anxiety. Depression is a very lonely experience, and very difficult for those around you to know how to help, and this can lead to strained interpersonal relationships through increased conflict. Profound sadness is common, as are physical ailments. The emotional toll that disaster of any nature brings can sometimes be even more devastating that the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business, or personal property.

Recovery and healing – whether or not it meant that you could go back to your life as you knew it, or that a new life was discovered or had to be found – could take any length of time. Perhaps a decision would be made when it was realized that recovery could never be attained, because the grief was too great to bear, and that life’s essence could not be recovered.

Through the recovery process, you will need to give yourself time to adjust, to feel emotion again in a wholesome genuine way – no longer giving out in a perfunctory way, the reaction that people expect you to give – such as laughter.

Recovery is not a programmed and scheduled process – and you would need to give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life and your nearest and dearest will need to try to be patient with changes in your emotional state. So, ask for support from people who care about you, and who will listen and empathize with your situation. Social support is a key component to recovery. Family and friends can be an important resource, as are those who have experienced the same of similar event. Also, reaching out to those not involved may be able to provide greater support and objectivity.

Communicate your experience – express what you are feeling in whatever ways feel comfortable to you, and establish or re-establish routines. Of course, this is not the time to make any major life decisions.

Going back to East Texas, the Second Coming was going to change the lives of those people, it would bring about miracles every day, and promised the enchanted excitement of living at the same as this omnipotent Saviour – promised deliverance from hardship, promised a profound protection, promised the chasing out of the Devil’s work, promised the banishing of evil people and their cruelty, promised divine wisdom, promised divine deliverance.

But really, all that it promised, we have now anyway. No, we cannot actually sit at the feet of this human being, but we have a greater opportunity in knowing God’s Way through our private conversations with Him, in seeking his Counsel through our quiet time. We are able to be close to him when in a group of like-minded people in a loving Sanctuary. We are able to receive teachings at any time, by being aware of his Way, and when in need.

Going back to Casey Gerald’s views on the Gospel of Doubt, we need to seek our own truth, and it is perfectly acceptable that your truth can be different to another person’s truth. Whether or not you find the answer is itself questionable, but you are given the opportunity to question and be discerning. These answers can come from anywhere, including from the God who guides you in your everyday existence. If you have a glimmer of doubt, continue asking questions. Despite all the disappointments and revelations you will come across, continue to seek your truth – what is real to you.

The human spirit is so strong and we can deal with the dreadful feelings that may well up in us when we realize that what we were convinced to be the truth turns out to be false. It shakes our very core, whips the carpet from under our feet and leaves us floundering. But perhaps not for long – we can recover from calamities, through divine interventions, guidance from God, as well as our own realizations.

Be content in the belief that you will never be forsaken by our God, for he is not a vengeful God, but a loving God.

Thank you.