“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 studies of young Christians show that they are critical of the Church’s failed political dalliances, its judgmental attitude toward sexual minorities, and the hypocrisy of its own leadership.(1)Barna Group, “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity” (September 24, 2007) Globally, Christianity is faced with many challenges, including the prospect of tens of millions of current believers leaving the faith over the next four decades.(2)Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050” (March 26, 2015) In America, the traditional Christian denominations are in a slow decline, while non-denominational megachurches coax their disaffected members away from traditional 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, less than one out of ten remaining Christians have a worldview that can be considered Biblical.(3)Pew Research Center, “‘Nones’ on the Rise” (October 9, 2012)(4)Barna Group, “Barna Survey Examines Changes in Worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years” (March 6, 2009)
Perhaps, then, 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? To some, it is belief without rational justification; the conflation of hope with knowledge. To others, it is a belief made without first demanding evidence; a kind of provisional yet justified trust. To Mark Twain, it was “believing what you know ain’t so.” To the Apostle Paul, it was one of the three greatest characteristics of humanity, a “mystery to be held in clear conscience.”
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. Though the Old Testament seemed to leave room for doubt—Job is vindicated where his defensive friends are criticized—many in the Church today find doubt anathema. Questions may be asked, of course, but they must always be met with the firm answer of orthodoxy; the perennial remedy for the doubter is to simply, “take it on faith.” 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.
In the story about Jesus rebuking the barren fig tree (told in Matthew 21 as well as in Mark 11), there is an insight about the interconnection of faith and doubt in the Christian experience:
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.”
Traditionally, of course, this verse is used to encourage Christians to lean on their faith to see them through periods of doubt; Jesus here becomes a kind of ultimate life coach, assuring his followers that anything can be accomplished if they merely overcome all doubt. But consider, perhaps, a less orthodox interpretation. By establishing the complete elimination of doubt as the requirement to accomplish this impossible task, Jesus may actually be teaching instead that faith without doubt is itself impossible. No sane person would ever expect a Christian to actually manifest through faithfulness the translocation of a mountain, and perhaps the point is that Christ never meant them to try.
Doubt is the question, ever-present: “Are you sure?” It is skepticism, even of skepticism itself. Doubt suggests that it is not possible to move mountains with a spoken command, doubt suggests that fig trees do not wither and die at the whims of hungry prophets, and doubt suggests 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 overthrow the old assumptions that people could be property, to reject the notion that any person is superior based on their ethnic or sexual identity. And 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. Doubt breeds critical thinkers, but also deep thinkers, the kind needed by the Church in our modern times. 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 relevant, and with increased confidence.
The authors in this project speak from many different perspectives, but all have tempered the assumptions of faith 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.
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