Friday, September 30, 2022

On doubt, and unbelief

Prompted by a number of different people I know wrestling with doubt in their Christian faith, I've been thinking a little bit about the role that doubt and uncertainty play in our understanding of faith today.  I have heard a lot of folk speaking very positively about uncertainty.  I have myself at points been tempted to think that doubt is the mark of a mature faith, a faith that doesn't shy away from the tough questions.  On reflection, though, I think that's just wrong.  In most cases, I've come to think, doubt is a bad thing; in many cases, uncertainty is actually the sin of unbelief.

There are at least two forces in our culture which predispose us to think positively about doubt.  One is the culture of suspicion.  There is a long philosophical backstory to this, but the result is that we have been taught to view authority as being usually a mask for some sort of power play.  Questioning everything therefore becomes a virtue.  To accept authority is to enter into ia kind of slavery, to give up the right and necessity of autonomous thought.  No authority can be immune from this, not even 'thus says the Lord'.  In such a culture, doubt and uncertainty naturally come to be seen as healthy and virtuous.

The other, related, force is the value of personal authenticity.  In our culture, your highest calling and your greatest responsibility is to be yourself, defined somewhat vaguely as the person you feel yourself to be.  Because we value authenticity so highly, we would much rather have someone who is wrong but true to their convictions than someone who does the right thing for bad reasons.  In a culture like that, a story of doubt and uncertainty just plays better.  It sounds genuine.  It is easy to assume that those who don't express doubts are just concealing them, being inauthentic.

These two forces are not wholly bad.  Often authority is a cover for a power play, and 'thus says the Lord' can be just a device for exercising control.  Sometimes those who seem most certain in their faith are indeed hypocrites, who teach others by their example to bottle up their questions.

But I can't help noticing how keen the New Testament authors seem to be that we have certainty about what we believe, that we be confident in the one we've trusted, that we have a clear and growing knowledge of the truth.  There is no praise for doubt and uncertainty in Scripture!

So here's what I think.  The reasons for doubt and uncertainty are broadly the same as the reasons for sin: weakness, negligence, our own deliberate fault.  Weakness because sometimes we cannot understand, or because we are carrying wounds from an authoritarian church background, or because we are caught in the storms of life and thrown off balance.  Negligence because sometimes we don't do the work, because the answers are there in Scripture but we don't seek them out, because the certainty is to be found in prayer but we don't pray.  Our own deliberate fault because sometimes we nurture doubt and uncertainty to avoid the implications for our lives of the truth, or because we like the sense of superiority our sophisticated doubts give us.

I also think a lot of the sting of doubt and uncertainty would be removed if the church took seriously it's calling to be merciful to those who doubt - if questions were met with sensitive efforts to understand the backdrop to the question and to apply the truth gently.  This requires a context in which it is okay to express doubts and questions - just as church should be a context in which it is okay to confess sins!  And that in turn requires a solid confidence that God's revelation is true and his gospel is good.


  1. Anonymous5:34 pm

    Or it just isn't true, and when seen with clear eyes, the Bible's a contradictory hodgepodge of apocalyptic prophecies that never were. Sadly, that is the conclusion I have come to. You can make it say what you want it to say, like any literary work - especially with deep-seated, childhood-reinforced confirmation biases. But that can't make it truth. After all, when have denominations ever really agreed on anything? When has the church not been mired in debate, ostracism and competing theologies? This world and humanity very much look like what one would expect if it had arisen through chaos & chemistry, and grown through evolution by natural selection. Just as many mysteries, but a different set of answers.

    1. Thanks for the comment. That could, of course, be the conclusion. I obviously don't think it's the best one! I don't agree that you can make any literary work say whatever you like - people are capable of communicating. I can't interpret your comment as an expression of confidence in the Bible, for example, because you've used words and arguments to convey the opposite. I do agree that the argument in the church is disheartening, but on the other hand I find it encouraging that churches do agree on the central message of the Bible - all Christians believe in the deity of Christ, his atoning death and resurrection, the Trinity, etc etc. Where there differences in matters of detail, I tend to think that doesn't necessarily count against the truth of the message, and even indicate the truth of it - made up creeds can easily be two dimensional and enforced.

      I vary from day to day on what the world and humanity 'look like' - but I think a broken and fallen creation might well fit.

      One question I would leave you with is whether you are sure you're seeing with clear eyes - because after all, it does seem from the rest of your comment like you think everybody is influenced in their perception by their desires, circumstances, etc...