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Defending doubt : welcoming Christmas questions

THE season of joy is upon us when we sit in church pews hearing about a star that stopped still over a manger, a woman conceiving without a man and heavenly angels talking to shepherds.

For years, I struggled through Christmas squelching my doubts, knowing that, if I didn't believe these stories as literal truth, I was bound for hell.

Yet I wondered why, if Jesus' birth story was so central, it was not mentioned in Mark or John, or in Paul's letters written closer to Jesus' lifetime.

There were also contradictions when the story was told.

Yet no preacher ever said anything about these elephants in the room and hymns were sung and Bible stories read – and still are – as if the biblical writers had watched these events first hand.

Seventeen years ago, I wrote a book In Defence of Doubt: an invitation to adventure.

After a lifetime of struggling with such doubts, it was time to put on paper something composting within me — that doubts are signs of health, divine catalysts urging more mature thinking, not shameful secrets to hide while squeezing my feet into someone else's certainty.

Today, hoards walk away from churches, atheists protest in public places and science reveals a universe that confounds many ancient beliefs.

We need to confront our religious stories and discuss from the pulpit how to interpret our Bible for 21st century life.

Unfortunately, many people find more receptive spaces for their questions outside their churches.

When I ask clergy why they are reluctant to share what they learn in theological college, they say, "I don't want to pull the rug out from laity who have not asked these questions''; yet the rug under many laity is threadbare.

Religious doubt is not an enemy to conquer.

In all of life — science, arts, philosophy, experience — doubt leads to better knowledge.

The psalmists raged against God, and Job refused to be quiet, yet Martin Luther only challenged his church's teachings after blaming himself for years for his doubts, believing that "there were theologians hidden in the schools who would not have been silent if these teachings were impious''.

This should challenge us all not to avoid the hard questions. An expanded second edition of In Defence of Doubt: an invitation to adventure has just been published (mosaicresources.com.au), still celebrating doubt as part of a healthy life.

If we are serious about our faith, we need to verbalise our niggling questions this Christmas — about virgin births, wayward stars and singing angels — and not be brushed off as weak in faith.

We should never have to leave our minds at the door.

Then it will be a joyous season for all. Dr Val Webb is an Australian theologian, Uniting Church member and author of 10 books