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What About Doubt

Posted by John Sommerville on

A friend emailed me this week with a thought on faith and doubt. He’s a thinker and, like many, struggles with doubt. Over the years he’s been helped by the answers theologians and philosophers have proposed to his questions. He has also told me that he views faith as a relationship with God first, and only secondly as mental assent to a series of assertions. But in his email to me he mentioned something else he’s found helpful; to act as if his faith was true even in the midst of his doubts. I think he’s on to something. But before you think that he is advocating blind faith or abandoning intellectual rigor (he’s not), let me explain how I’ve come to understand how doubt and faith interact. Then I’ll come back to his insight.

 Within the church there are “true believers” – those who believe and never doubt. And there are “doubters” – those who doubt and struggle to believe. The first group is far larger than the second (in part because many of us are just lazy).

 It’s the doubters that disproportionately take up my time as a pastor, time I’m glad to give them. My doubters often have, paradoxically, a much deeper faith. When they come I try to answer their questions. But I also tell them that I can’t answer all their questions; that I too have my doubts. I’m not, temperamentally, a doubter. But I am a thinker. And in thinking about the nature of human reality and the universe the I believe Christian faith offers the best, most comprehensive explanation of these things there is. So I believe my faith is on solid ground. But I also know that it can be hard to believe, so I’m not advocating blind faith. But I’ve learned doubt will always be with us. Anne Lamott once said that faith felt like “taking a walk across a lake by jumping from one lily pad to another.”

 What has happened in many churches is that “true believers” control the narrative. They call doubt sin and so, unnecessarily, trouble those who naturally doubt. Doubt itself, is not sin. Indifference & unbelief are the opposite of faith, not doubt.

 But doubters also have a responsibility. Some use their doubts to hold God at an arm’s length. They complain God hasn’t given them enough evidence. With W.K Clifford they say, “It is wrong always, everywhere, & for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. If there’s even a hint of doubt, Clifford would say, we need to abandon our beliefs. The implicit assumption is that only what can be quantified, measured or tested is true. But this assumption fails, first, to acknowledge that our powers of perception are limited. And secondly, that science, if that’s the criteria we’re appealing to, is only suitable as a way to examine a subset of topics. Many of the most important things in life – religious belief and ethical values – cannot be scientifically proved. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Just that we can’t “see” them using science.

 My own understanding of faith is that there will always be questions and doubts. And the arguments for faith will never be fully satisfactory – at least taken individually. However, cumulatively I find the arguments more persuasive than the alternative. For example, while I cannot prove the existence of God, I think it’s even more difficult to account for the existence of the world without the idea of God. (Of course, “proving God” doesn’t mean proving the Christian God – another question.)

 I caution some doubters to be aware of their motives. Doubt can be a smokescreen to hide selfish desire. Belief means acknowledging that faith should change our lives. It most likely means that we can no longer do whatever we want, at least without our consciences kicking into high gear. A friend once told me: “I can’t believe in Jesus. It’d screw up my life.” Some “doubters” need to be honest enough to admit that they are using doubt to put off belief; that to believe would mean messing up their weekend plans.

 Faith is not rolling dice but also not absolute certainty. Which brings us back to my friend’s insight; the notion that action precedes faith. Blaise Pascal one suggested exactly this. What if, he said, rather than trying to prove it faith, we decided first to obey. That might be the way many of us discover God.

 A couple of other thoughts. First, while “true believers” often control the narrative in the church, there is an equally unhealthy counter narrative; those who celebrate, even reveal in their doubts. Just because it’s human to doubt doesn’t mean we need to delight in it. Instead it may be something to endure. In my job, this requires great sensitivity to those who doubt. But it also requires that I be willing to call the question.

 Secondly, many today object to “dogma.” And yet they are dogmatic in their antidogmatism. How so? By failing to examine their own presuppositions. They object to the Christian creed, but forget they have their own creed; one they assume but have not fully examined. That’s why we sometimes need to “doubt our doubts.” A true well-intentioned seeker will be willing to examine their doubts with the same skepticism they use in approaching Christian dogma. But if they refuse it reveals that the true nature of their doubt is either indifference, unbelief or a desire to have control over their weekend plans.

 As a pastor, I try to walk a line between the willingness to encourage and support those who doubt, while also trying helping them see why, unanswered questions notwithstanding, I still have great confidence in what I believe. I don’t have answers to all the niggly little questions that come my way, but I do have confidence about the broad Christian narrative. I believe the Bible is trustworthy. And I believe that Jesus lived, died and rose again. And that alone, for me anyway, is enough.

 Do I have certainty about my faith? No. I think absolute certainty is a myth. But I do have confidence. In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape writes his young protégé Wormwood with this warning about tempting a doubting Christian: “Do not be deceived… Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” I’ve used this quote ever year or two in a sermon. And I use it more frequently in private conversations. And I reread these words in my own times of doubt.

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