The Virtue of Doubt

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.

After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

“He Will Wipe Away Every Tear”

Zach’s reply to my post about Universal Salvation definitely hits home. Admittedly, I have no clue as to why God would allow the things He allows. I also find most, if not all, explanations inadequate. It isn’t that I find God’s reason to be inadequate; it’s that He hasn’t given us one. Some might get defensive about others not accepting their answers and often mutter something about having faith as a kind of final word. But the object of our faith isn’t other people’s opinions; it’s God.

Zach mentioned C.S. Lewis’s vision of heaven as a rebooted earth, which Zach compares to John the Revelator’s vision of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem is not what makes the connection between the Bible’s view of heaven and our own. Lewis gets his idea from Revelation 21.1–4 (just before the New Jerusalem description), which describes what heaven really is:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

The New Earth will contain New Jerusalem, but what we conceive of as “heaven” is not conceptually synonymous with the New Jerusalem—the latter is contained within the former.

The idea that (former) atheists would be disappointed is an odd anachronism. I can see the disappointment now about such a prospect; but if we are all transformed between here and there, which is a place without “mourning, or crying, or pain” then we would probably be right at home. Further, atheists aren’t the only ones with theological issues. The problem of evil stops me in my tracks. I have no response to it (except to share with Bart Ehrman/Ecclesiastes that there is no reason or answer for suffering.)

I will never discount, disregard, or attempt to make any amount of suffering seem less than what it is. Thus, when I try to make sense of the senseless, I strive to do justice to the sufferers in how I think the Bible says God will respond. It’s impossible to read through the Prophets and not see that God hates oppression. I like to think that however we are transformed will be necessarily connected to who we are and what we have experienced before the New Earth. That is, if the Beatitudes are any indicator, those who mourn will be comforted (Mt. 5.4). Or even here in the very passage under consideration, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Whether this includes an answer the text does not say. But it does say that the God of the universe will personally wipe away every tear. In other words, all is not lost. All will not have been for naught. Suffering will not have been meaningless, it will not have gotten the final say or the final upper hand. On the New Earth, the evil we have seen will not have won.

But why the delay? I ask this all the time. It shakes my faith to the core. I cannot read about the Holocaust without weeping and feeling anger toward God. I don’t have an answer, I don’t understand it, it does not make sense to me. But there are two things that I strongly believe that at least help me hope for something better: First, that God is love and that He hates oppression and evil. Second, that there will be a New Earth in which these evils are answered. If God is our Father, then the earthly analogue of letting our kids experience pain and suffering so that they grow just might mean something. I can’t stand to see my baby boy fall and hurt himself. But if the reality of his future as one who can walk in freedom is greater than the reality of that temporal pain then I’m willing to make the trade-off. He doesn’t understand now. He won’t understand when he realizes that I am willingly holding him down for painful flu shots. But some day he will. To help me get through these times, I think of the some day—a new(er) earth of sorts that has yet to be because it is future.

The reality of the delay does not, for me, negate the reality of the final answer, which will come from the gentle hand of God the Father wiping away His children’s tears. I remember being skeptical of my parents’ gentle embrace after learning a tough lesson; but I wanted nothing more than to receive their comfort, which silently answered my questions with a love greater than I was capable of understanding.