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Making Space for Doubt

In Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night," the stars ask questions, even as the lights in the church are out. What do we do with doubt?

Just as hate is not the opposite of love, so too doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of both love and faith is indifference. For many the anguish of doubt is anything but indifference.

Is your church a safe place for doubt? How the church deals with doubt, and more specifically those who are doubting, is going to a significant factor in its ability to reach the coming generation. Millennials are looking for safe places for spiritual questioning. Rarely is it found in the church or the academy.

What the fundamentalist Christian and academic new atheist have in common is that neither are plagued by doubt. Sociologist Peter Berger warns, “Both positions are held by ‘true believers’ who find their certainties in religion, in science, or in postmodern relativity.” The “true believer” to quote Eric Hoffer are those persons who cultivate and are driven by fanaticism, hatred, and intolerance. It matters less what the doctrines or ideologies they preach or propose as the cast of their mind. In my book, The New Copernicans, I characterize true believers as “dwellers” or those with a closed posture toward truth. “A closed perspective,” I write, “is held by those who feel that they have a corner on the truth and hold to their convictions with absolute certainty.” Berger goes on to say that true believers share three main characteristics. “First they have great difficulty listening to opposing opinions and ideas. Second, they claim to possess an irrefutable truth (whether religious or secular). Third, they claim that their truth is the only truth, in other words, they declare a monopoly on truth.”

The “true believer” postulates a “God-like view of truth,” and the inevitable arrogance and judgment that comes with it only serves to prove the point. This is not to say that there is no such thing as truth or that all truth is relative only that all truth is contingent on human knowing.

An open perspective is willing to acknowledge that all knowing is human knowing and thus limited by the constraints of humanness. “An open perspective,” I write, “is held by those who hold their convictions with a provisional attitude, meaning that they are aware they have more to learn, that they could be wrong, and reality is more complex than I might be able to get my mind around.” It is to acknowledge humbly that reality is bigger than my mind or my limited perspective. I very well may need you to help me get at truth.

The difference can be seen in Reformation Geneva in the controversy between John Calvin and Michael Servetus. Servetus was eventually burned at the stake by Calvin for heresy.

Contrasted from these two men was Sabastian Castellio who began as a friend of Calvin but began to distanced himself from Calvin after Servetus’ death. He wrote a critique of theological fanaticism in a treatise on “The Art of Doubt, Faith, Ignorance and Knowledge” (1563). In this essay he reframed the debate by paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 3:2, “There is a time of doubt and there is a time of faith, there is a time of knowledge and there is a time of ignorance.”

What he shows is that the juxtaposition of ignorance and knowledge and doubt and faith are not opposites but intrinsic counterparts. He saw ignorance as an unavoidable preparation for knowledge, and doubt for faith. All are joined at the hip, a part of a larger whole of knowledge.

The habit of binary black and white thinking is a consequence of Enlightenment modernity. The ancients as well as many young people today much prefer both/and thinking to either/or thinking. Doubt and faith should be thought of as two intrinsic parts of all human knowing. Both need each other. Doubt opposes hasty judgment, prejudgment, and prejudice. Doubt keeps belief on its toes. Likewise, faith while not against evidence demands a commitment. If doubt defers, faith commits. Without faith doubt devolves into cynicism and paralysis. Human knowing demands that both be acknowledged, embraced, and kept in tension.

Sure this is messy and it means that not all of life can be wrapped up neatly in a bow of my own understanding. It means that life has to be lived with a reliance on others and mysteries that keeps me simultaneously humble and dependent. It means, in effect, that even on this I could be wrong and that I need to continue to listen and learn in my ongoing walk of doubt and faith.

In the evangelical church we don’t provide many places where ambiguity and confusion can find a safe place to embrace doubt. A leading Christian apologist was asked during a debate with an atheist whether or not he ever doubted. His answer is instructive. He said, “I have questions, but never doubt.” It is clear from his answer that knowing for him is always black and white. It is my contention that reality, life, and human knowing is messier than this, consisting of many shades of grey.

As such we need to make room in our worship for songs like Tori Kelly’s “Questions,” from her album Hiding Place. Here one finds an existential honesty that is too often missing from the buttoned-up smiley-faces we-have-it-all-figured-out evangelicalism so common in our churches. She asks, “What happens when the healing never comes?” What happens when the spiritual dark night of the soul is actually a mark of maturity? For it’s into the messiness and uncertainty of life that God comes. We are not God, but it is in the limits and brokenness of our humanness that he came and where we can find him again in a smelly barn on a bed of hay. The questions and doubt are a cure for indifference.

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