Doubt walks a fine line between en vogue provocation, and faith-undermining parasite. Requiring little to no accountability, doubt darts in and out of the margins of belief, highlighting opinions from those we trust to turn precious beliefs into yesterday’s mental blunder. Doubt creeps in, or acts as a battering ram. It shakes the firmest of foundations, and paves over freshly broken ground to build the intellectual structures of each tomorrow.
Doubt smothers the winds of hope, leaving one in the cold, still air of crisis. It beads away the quenching waters of faith, keeping alive the glowing ember of torment and anxiety to press on the heart and sear the conscience. A branding to associate one with the cornered flock that huddles away from certainty and comfort.
For many Christians, doubt comes as an enemy to tear down our faith and push us into skepticism. We fear doubt because it threatens to rob us of that precious connection between ourselves and the God of the universe. The bulwarks of faith give greater comfort when mortared with certitude. Apologetics gives the young intellectual Christian a feeling of validity, an empowerment to not only feel that she is certain, but to engage others in debate to prove that her certainty is warranted.
Doubt is both poison and medicine. Unchecked, it wreaks havoc on systems and can spiral into incredulity toward any statement aimed at controlling the boundaries of inquiry. Checked, it can bear the sweetest intellectual fruit. Doubt should not cause fear; it should effect action. Its medicine is a powerful antidote against simple answers—the answers that shut down further development of inquiry and stem the tide of mature thought.
In order for doubt to become a virtue for the Christian, she must recognize the moments when doubt swells. She must prod it for confession: why is it here? What does it want? The Christian must keep reason firmly in her grasp, asking whether the doubt has a purpose—and if not, she must give it one. Why do I doubt this or that aspect of my faith? Did this doubt arise from informed critique of the positions I hold? Am I fighting doubt because I fear losing my faith, or because I cannot imagine my faith without this doctrine? If I remove this doctrine, will the entirety of my faith shatter, or will I move into the ever-scary “liberal” camp?
What does it matter?
The move from one set of beliefs to another does not, in fact, change who God is. When I became a Calvinist, it did not change how God actually operates in the world. When I became an Annihilationist, it did not affect what will happen at Judgement Day. We do not fear change because it changes God; we fear change because it changes us. More importantly, we fear change because it changes how others see us. For many of us, vocational ministry precludes disinterested scholarship. We have a doctrinal statement to uphold, a church declaration of faith on which to sign our names. Jobs are at stake. Reputations fall prey to the intellectually honest Christian’s desire to really “just read the Bible.” The situation becomes much worse once the intellectually honest Christian enters seminary, and learns not simply what to think, but how to think. My most sweeping theological changes came first, after completing a degree in Philosophy, then again after I completed six years of New Testament Greek training and seminary. The standard, apologetical answers did not suffice any more.
This does not mean, of course, that all who hold theological or pastoral vocations do not read honestly, or somehow delude themselves into their beliefs. On the contrary: many, if not most, took these positions because they became convinced of the beliefs they hold, and are compelled to shepherd others along this same path.
We have been narrowing down the candidates for whom doubt can truly install itself as a virtue: Those at whom doubt gnaws. Those for whom no theology is safe from the onslaught of inquiry. Those who collapse from the pain and overwhelming exhaustion of feeling their faith torn away. Those for whom indwelling sin raises the question: why would God allow me to continue in this, to be tempted beyond what I can bear? Why does God not step in and help those who are weak, abused, powerless, hungry? Many have fallen by these arrows, learning how to creatively re-engineer their faith to support what they find within the context of theology; but not knowing how to hold onto their faith when the doubt overwhelms. I cannot help but find in many stories of de-conversion a lack of creativity. By “creativity” I do not refer to a willingness to gerrymander the texts, engaging in theological-exegetical-hermeneutical gymnastics for the sake of apologetical gamesmanship. I mean a courage, a bravery, to see beyond the simple answers that either side offers.
For some, when their faith no longer makes sense they manipulate their thought, stuffing down doubt and plodding ahead out of fear. Others possess that enviable faith that presses ahead, never doubts, never fears, and moves them into action. I truly envy those people. For others, when their faith no longer makes sense they punt, giving way to the opinions of those who shame them for bowing to authority. In an ironic turn of events, the shamers succeed in producing sheep of a different sort, only they are satisfied with these sheep precisely because they can brand them and pen them in their own fields.
The virtue-making of doubt requires the exhausting practice of dwelling deeply in tension. Resolving to never stop demanding of doubt what business it has in the believer’s mind; not to shut it down or silence it, but to press it for answers. To doubt one’s faith is not simply—and irresponsibly—to doubt one set of beliefs within our occidental prejudices; but to doubt the entirety of the western mindset we are all subject to. To tear down a structure in this way is to build a support around it, removing what needs to go, keeping what needs to stay. And in the case of the undecided element, to let it alone, unmolested, until its time comes.
Let the atheist speak loudly in your mind. Ponder Nietzsche’s words. Even give Dawkins and Hitchens a few minutes. They do not speak from cold, purely logical minds (which is obvious to anyone who has read them). They speak from pain, from living, from existing alongside us. Do not fight the skeptic’s questioning. Embrace it. Do not fear the loss of faith at difficult questions. Steady it. Your faith is not singular; it is a compilation, an assortment, a tapestry, a stained-glass window. Let your doubt settle in, making good use of it as a friend come to move you into Christian maturity; not so you can pride yourself on having defeated it and finally removed it from your life so your faith is certain. But, so you can continue moving forward, re-working and breathing in the truth that God is there.
Live in faith—yes. But if you are one of the “lucky” ones for whom doubt has made a space in the spare bedroom, make your mind its home. Do not let it trouble your sleep; let it help your faith breathe so you sleep more soundly. Doubt put to service will reward you for the rest of your life.