“When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”
The Christian Church in America has a problem.
The Great Awakenings of American history are all but forgotten in the popular culture, and mainstream Christianity is now defined primarily by its failed political dalliances, its judgmental attitude toward sexual minorities, and the hypocrisy of its own leadership. The traditional Christian denominations are in a slow decline, while non-denominational megachurches coax their disaffected members away from established theology with praise music and stage lighting, charismatic speakers, and social media. While sociological surveys show that an increasing number of Americans claim no religious preference whatsoever, more than nine out of ten remaining Christians have an understanding of their religion that borders on the heretical.
Thus, it seems that the only thing that most Christians can truly be said to have faith in, is faith itself.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
All throughout the Bible, the scriptures tell us time and again about the value of faith to the people of God. Christians are exhorted to be faithful, they are shown examples of the extreme faith of the Patriarchs, and they are assured of the faithfulness of God.
And yet what is faith? It is belief without or even in contradiction to rational justification. It is the conflation of hope with knowledge. It is the substitution of the invisible and intangible for the here and now. It is, as Mark Twain put it, “believing what you know ain’t so.” And yet it can be an experience both comforting and terrifying, a mystery both obscure and profound.
However, underlying the faith of modern American Christianity is an indelible yet untapped current of doubt.
Doubt, Christians have been taught, is never a virtue. Doubt is the faith-killer. It is the inevitable intrusion of reality, it is the whispering voice of secular common sense that has no place within the sacred realm. This is the message that Christianity has taught for millennia, and it is the slogan both of modern Christian evangelicalism as well as mainstream Christian apologetics.
But Jesus, in his diatribe against the barren fig tree (in Matthew 21 as well as in Mark 11) tells us why eliminating doubt from the Christian experience is an impossibility:
Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.”
By establishing the complete elimination of doubt as the requirement to accomplish this impossible task, Jesus teaches that faith without doubt is itself impossible. No sane person would ever expect a Christian to actually manifest such a display of faithfulness, not even Christ Himself.
Doubt tells us that it is not possible to move mountains with a spoken command, doubt tells us that fig trees do not wither and die at the whims of hungry prophets, and doubt tells us that this verse must be interpreted to mean something other than what it plainly says in order to make any sense at all. But doubt has also led humanity to challenge the old beliefs that taught the forces of nature were manifestations of the gods and goddesses. Doubt has allowed us to discover that lightning is not a divine weapon, it is a natural force that can be harnessed to power the lifestyle that we now take for granted. Doubt has allowed us to discover that sickness and disease are not supernatural curses or demon possessions, they are natural phenomena that can be treated with medicine and therapy. Doubt has allowed us to peer beyond the clouds and find not Heaven, but an ever-expanding celestial frontier that beckons for exploration and expansion of the human experiment.
And thus doubt, despite all its negative connotations within modern Christianity, despite the threat it poses to fundamentalist interpretations, and despite the demands it places on us to discern truth for ourselves, is the most potent and positive force humankind has ever wielded. The suppression of doubt by the Church has given us a legacy of shallow faith, it has led to the marginalization of Christian culture, and it has given us an intellectually superficial body of Christ.
Within this project, we will advance the thesis that doubt is a virtue sorely needed by the modern Christian Church. If they are willing to honestly evaluate both their doubts and beliefs with equal rigor, Christians today will find themselves at a decision point. Should their doubts prove compelling, they will be obliged to reevaluate their worldview, potentially embracing new and liberal theologies; however, should their beliefs prove unassailable by doubt, they will embrace their Christian faith with even more confidence and intellectual grounding. In either case, the outcome will be a Christianity better informed, more unafraid, and with increased confidence.
The authors in this project speak from many different perspectives, but all have begun with a life of faith that has been tempered by serious engagement with doubt. Most of us now face Christianity as apostates, though our goal with this book is not to evangelize apostasy. We believe that our experiences have taught us that doubt, when honestly applied, is the most useful tool for anyone seeking to validate their religious beliefs. We believe that faith has no value without first passing the test of Thomas the apostle.
Ultimately, we believe that by engaging in good faith with their own doubts, Christians will become better Christians.
We believe in the Gospel of Doubt.