Full text of Bible teacher Greg Tonkinson’s talk: Faith and Doubt at TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity conference. In this talk, Dr. Tonkinson explores the relationship between faith and doubt especially when faced with challenges of life.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Greg Tonkinson – Spiritual Life Director, and Bible Teacher
This is a 2005 Ford Taurus. This is what the same vehicle looks like, after it has been hit by another vehicle traveling at a speed of 75 miles an hour. When this happens, the amount of energy that is transferred from this speeding vehicle to the vehicle that’s at a standstill will not only cause this kind of damage, but will actually launch the car up into the air, causing it to land, in this case, right on its top.
Now, I would love to be here, giving you another breathtaking TED talk of how I was the one in that vehicle, and somehow miraculously survived. And while this is a story of my recovery, it’s not because I was in that car. But rather, when this car became a nodded configuration of plastic and metal, I was at home with my three children.
It was a rather uninteresting Saturday evening, best I can recall. Kids were in the living room playing, dad was watching TV, when our evening was interrupted by three knocks on the door. And the rest played out much like a movie.
“Good evening. Are you Greg Tonkinson?”
“I am. How can I help you?”
“Sir, my name is officer Prather. This is one of our child caseworkers. This is one of our police chaplains. May we come in?”
“Sure. What can I do for you, officer?”
“Sir, is your wife Leigh Ann Tonkinson?”
“She is. Why?”
“Sir, you may want to sit down for this.”
“No disrespect, officer, but if you need to tell me something, just go ahead and say it.”
“Well Sir, at approximately 7:45 this evening, your wife was killed in a car accident. She was at a stoplight, two miles from here, and was hit from behind. Best we can tell, her neck was broken upon impact, and her passing was immediate and painless. But Sir, we are so sorry for your loss.”
And so, on March 6, 2010, myself along with ten-year-old Kayden, six-year-old Bailey, and four-year-old Malia, began our journey of life without our wife and mother. It’s been a journey of grief that has been burdened by an assortment of emotions, including rage and anger, joy, hopelessness, frustration, even moments of serenity.
But what has made this trek so especially demanding for me is that I’m a man of faith; not casual faith, but a faith that has defined me for over 30 years; a man of the cloth if you will. My current occupation, my academic achievements, the way I raise my children, all have, at their nucleus, faith.
So, what do you do when your faith has been traumatized by such a traumatic event? What do you do when your identity has been rolled up into a worldview that promotes blessing and favor? When you’ve enjoyed such titles as pastor, reverend, ordained minister, teacher? What do you do when you’ve told people time and time again to trust, and follow, and obey?
What do you do when you earnestly begin doubting the very Subject and that’s with a capital S that you’ve been promoting your entire adult life?
One of the conclusions I’ve arrived at is this: when we talk about faith and doubt, I believe that honest doubting can be a normal experience for a person of faith. This was my last text to Leigh Ann. Somewhat amusing in a rather more rose way to consider that when I asked her this question, she was no longer alive.
I think that’s what makes this issue of faith and doubt so complex; much more complex than the well intention but rather insubstantial comments the kids and I received in the days that followed the accident, telling us that we were going to be okay or that she’s an angel looking down on us.
I believe that this complexity is derived from these fascinating brains we have; brains that will spend the days that follow such a dreadful event, trying to piece everything together as if somehow we could prove in a courtroom setting that the event shouldn’t have taken place. and well, if that’s the case then history would have to be reversed and our suffering would cease, and so we contemplate and wonder, we fixate, we become consumed with the what-ifs, as if somehow that would change something but we realize that our present days simply are marked by how many days we got out of bed and how many days we didn’t.
I believe this issue was also complex because the human experience of grief involves so much more than that initial event, a cascade of new questions immediately demand our response. And so, they sit at the base of these fascinating brains and they hound us day and night, what will the future hold for you now? Who are you in light of what just happened? How will you ever make it on your own?
I believe we were designed for peace, and now our lives are anything but that. Of course, this leads to frustration and anger. When I found myself with my highest grievances, levied against none other than God Almighty. A unilateral prayer I had with God, five days after the accident, as was recorded in my journal.
“Dear God, the pain that’s beginning to set in right now is so intense. I can’t see your goodness. I know you’re near but I don’t want that; I want my wife back. I wanted us to grow old and to die and to experience heaven together. So, what happened to that plan? Why was that plan so wrong? And why do you find it so appalling for me to want to watch my wife love on our kids for a few more years? And now that you’ve taken her, God, when’s it my turn? And how awful would it be if you decided to take me home and leave our kids without a mother or a father? You couldn’t have changed your plan by one minute? One minute and that stoplight wouldn’t have been red. One minute. So now, I can’t see your goodness. All I can see is you allowing my wife to be killed. All I can see is you allowing my kids to live without a mother. So, how wrong is that, God?”
That’s a dangerous place to be, questioning and arguing with the God of all creation. And I think I would have been swallowed up in that doubt, had it not been for the many examples I found while reading ironically the Bible. God’s autobiography is filled with examples of his creation, arguing with, doubting, lamenting, questioning him.
And so, I would read these passages over and over again. I would even speak to audiences about them. I felt like I’ve been initiated into this new fraternity of anguish souls who felt free to lash out at their creator, seemingly without penalty. I was finding great solace being around those who truly understood what it felt like to question God. And it was good for me to conclude that finite beings can, in fact, express their displeasure to an infinite being.
Somewhere along the journey, I arrived at a question that I needed an answer to: Is this going to be a long-term experience for me? Will my journey of faith now forever be embedded with this overtone of doubt? Are faith and doubt inextricably linked? Is what I was experiencing normative? Was I simply just late to this understanding?
Can you maintain a healthy relationship with an infinite being, all the while expressing and experiencing your doubt? Some would say yes. Author Lesley Hazleton gave a fantastic TED talk on faith and doubt, claiming that faith and doubt yes will forever be linked. Hazleton said that faith has no easy answers; that it’s difficult and stubborn; that it involves this ongoing struggle. She said that faith and doubt will forever be joined, and that those who don’t doubt really aren’t experiencing faith.
I certainly agree that faith, by its nature, is difficult and stubborn. But I also think that Hazleton, a self-proclaimed agnostic, took a rather humanistic view of this topic, if you will, looking at it from the ground up. If one’s premise begins with there may or may not be a God, and that challenges naturally produce doubt, then yes, this line of thinking should be advanced.
If your morality, what is good, what is bad, is derived from experience, and your experience with trials and tragedies, leads you to question the existence of or the control of a higher being, then yes, faith and doubt will forever be joined together.
I’d like to offer another opinion, another viewpoint to this topic. Perhaps the reason we doubt isn’t because we’re seeking answers or we’re expressing a raw emotion, but could it be that the reason we doubt ultimately is to change minds? My doubting God allowed me to think I had some control in this event. My doubting God allowed me to believe that I still had some skin in the game; it fostered this notion that I could take my affairs to the God of all creation, and not only would he listen to my concerns but that ultimately, he would acquiesce; he would reverse history.
My doubting allowed me to go to God with my plan B, or at the very least, question his plan A. Somewhere along the line though, the exhilaration of doubting Him was replaced with a serious decision I had to made, a conclusion I had to arrive at. And that was either God is in control, even of my trials and tragedies, or that God isn’t in control and will forever put up with my doubting and speculating, even change the course of history based on my suggestions; but if that’s the case, then isn’t it true that a higher power by definition ceases to be just that a higher power but rather is reduced to a glorified peer, just with much cooler titles.
This piece that I had known because of my faith for over 30 years was being eroded, and I wanted that piece back. So, I arrived at a significant crossroads, and that was either I’m going to spend my remaining days doubting God’s plan or I’m going to spend my remaining days doing His plan. Both options, admittedly, are imperfect; they are confusing and messy.
Currently, I’m choosing the latter. Part of that plan seems to be using Leigh Ann’s death for good. And I don’t find any uniqueness, in that I’ve talked to many people who have gone through a tragedy where some good has come of it. I was greatly encouraged at her funeral to see how many people’s faith increased as a result of listening to the way she lived her life here on earth.
Several children have been named after her. I take great pride in knowing that one day when those kids grow up and ask their moms and dads, ‘where did my name come from?’ Leigh Ann’s going to be mentioned in that conversation. An International non-profit was started by Leigh Ann’s best friend. Leigh Ann was a pediatric nurse, and now thousands and thousands of children’s blankets are going all over the world, helping little ones in need.
I got remarried. And I’m watching this beautiful messy relationship unfold between my children and their new stepmother.
I continue to doubt, but I’d like to believe that my doubting is framed more the way that Jesus Christ framed His uncertainties that night before the cross. He went to God with His concerns. But in the end, He asked for God’s will to be done; not His.
I often do not possess that kind of strength. And so, I believe wondering why this happened will always be a part of my faith journey. I have landed on the side of this discussion that promotes asking God for wisdom as opposed to doubting him. But let me readily admit that not only is honest doubting something that should be expected when someone goes through a tragedy. In some paradoxical way, I think that doubting can increase one’s faith, as I experienced just that.
Perhaps author Brennan Manning gets it just right when talking about his own faith. He claims that he is simply a bundle of paradoxes. He believes and doubts; he loves; he hates; he hopes and gets discouraged. Manning claims that he often feels like an angel who also has an incredible capacity for beer.
Tragedy is universal. We’re all in this together. Perhaps we would be better served if we opened up more spaces free of judgment, for people to come and share their aches and anguishes and agonies, regardless of our religious dispositions.
I’ve learned that there is incredible power in understanding and empathizing with people who are in pain. So, may we rejoice and weep together, and may we do it well.