Doubt and the Church

Small church culture in my experience doesn't tend to see the benefits of doubt. At least, in my experience the local church doesn't want much to talk about doubt unless it's to pray that the doubt would pass or to show you how unfounded your doubts are. I'm not sure why this is.

There are benefits to doubt, despite how painful it can be. If Martin Luther hadn't doubted the Roman Catholic church, there would have been no protestant reformation. If Menno Simons hadn't doubted some of the more violent doctrines of the reformers, we would not have Anabaptists. If Christians hadn't doubted the church's views on slavery, the slave trade might still be alive and well in the mainstream. One thing is common with all of these doubts: the doubt started because people began reading the Bible for themselves instead of simply allowing the paid professionals to dictate meaning. This kind of doubt is still alive, but has taken on new meaning as literacy rates in the west are close to 100% and people can make any meaning they want out of what they read. This extremely complicates matters.

One of my favourite authors, Tim Keller, did a Q and A with a journalist who asked Keller point blank if he was still a Christian if he doubted the resurrection.

This prompted Peter Enns to write a follow-up.

It's like watching two giants get into a boxing match. Neat.

I thought that Keller's answers were eloquent, but I agree with Enns that they ultimately felt more academic than pastoral. At one point though, Keller makes an important if not subdued clarification about the nature of doubt. He said "I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length." In context, Keller was talking about evidence for the central claims of Christianity and how to deal with doubting those things. The point, I think (and Keller brings it up) is that there is just enough evidence for the central claims of Christianity to leave room for doubt on either side. You can doubt the claims, but there's also just enough room to legitimately doubt your doubts about Christianity. The same can't be said for other world religions. In other words, the claims of Christianity aren't without evidence, but they aren't water tight either. So if a person is looking for water tight evidence for Christianity, there's a problem behind the problem because you would be looking for something that isn't there.

For me, when I realized this it was like a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders. I don't need to be 100% certain of the resurrection or the virgin birth etc. There is implicit room to doubt, but there's also enough evidence around to run that ramp of reason pretty thoroughly and take a leap of faith.

I've always found it interesting that Thomas, who seriously doubted Jesus' resurrection, was not shoved aside or made to be an outsider. Jesus takes special care to go to Thomas and address his doubts in the most concrete way possible (John 20:24-29). In doing this, I think Jesus does three things: He values thomas as a person, he validates Thomas' doubts as legitimate and he partners with Thomas with relational action rather than an apologetics speech. This led to the resolving of Thomas' doubts in a way that leaves him both empowered and humbled.

The thing about doubt is that if it's pushed down and ignored, it will just get bigger until you can't ignore it any more. But if it's brought out into the open, you can at least deal with it and come out the other side one way or another. One of the things that I love about Christianity is that for as much as the church can be allergic to doubt, Christianity is a wide enough stream that most doubts can be explored by reading any number of excellent Christian thinkers over the centuries who went public about their own doubts.

Here's a lit of 7 well known Christian thinkers who were/are also human beings with doubts about God.

Here's one I found really helpful when I was in the deepest depths of doubt. At one point, this was my ground floor.

As I wrap up I want to offer this. I think that at times housed inside legitimate doubts are legitimate longings. When I doubted whether God was real or cared, it wasn't as much intellectual as it was emotional. I longed to experience the reality of God's presence but wasn't, so I began doubting. Then I found a million real intellectual reasons to validate my doubts. I also longed for intellectual integrity, which ended up feeding my doubts for a while because the only reasonable discourse that didn't resort to circular reasoning I could find was on the side of the skeptics.

I couldn't accept the simplistic and often circular answers I was being given by the church about the world and about God, and I found it increasingly difficult to accept the over-simplified views of the Bible which seem to be prevalent in Evangelical Christianity. The more I studied and dug around, the more I came to see that a simple, straightforward understanding of faith and practise is only good on the other side of complexity. For that, only the wisdom afforded through time and experience can provide what we need. In that light, some of the overly simplified things I once rejected, I've come to un-reject after wading through the complex waters of doubt and pain processed in loving community - and maybe I'll talk about that more in future posts, because I'm starting to believe there's something to this.

Life is terribly complicated and nuanced, and we could absolutely use more simplicity. But we need to be able to process the complexity and nuances somehow, and find the simplicity on the other side. Then who knows, we just might come out the other side of doubt with a much deeper faith in Jesus than we had going in. I know I am.


Copyright © 2013 Think Theos