We have been having an ongoing, sporadic conversation on the issues of conversion, apostasy, and doubt on this blog over the last several years. A recent book simply entitled Doubting by Alister McGrath deals with this issue in a useful and pastoral way. This book, published in 2006, is a reworked update of his book entitled Doubt published in 1990. The first nine chapters of the book present a rather conversational and light discussion of doubt and doubting as a normal part of the Christian experience. His arguments are sketchy, and in the absence of a discussion partner easily dismissed or countered. Ok — this is an opinion and others may have distinctly different opinions and find the first nine chapters of the book useful and enlightening. But…
But then we hit chapters ten and eleven. Chapter 10 — DOUBT how to handle it, and Chapter 11 — DOUBT putting it in perspective. These chapters are worth the price of the book and should be required reading for every pastor or other Christian leader whose work includes ministering to those who experience doubt and conflict in our educated secular environment, especially those ministering to undergraduate and graduate students. McGrath’s advice in Chapter 10 is right on target -- he gets it.
First the common situation, especially for students and scholars in the academy and those now out of school in educated professions or environments:
It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their faith marks them out as “abnormal” in the eyes of their colleagues. It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God. Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of every area of modern Western culture. Many Christians find the new aggressiveness of secular culture deeply disturbing. It seems to call their faith into question. At best the world seems indifferent to their faith; at worst, it treats it as absurd. p. 118
In this environment doubt grows, flourishes and brings down.
This leads to a question for Christians and churches today – How can we cope, grow, and witness in such current reality? What can the church do to help? What does your church do to help? I will be brutally honest — I have generally found the church to be inadequate to the task. Think about it as you read on and let’s start a conversation.
McGrath has several powerful suggestions for Christians – especially, but not only, students. These are culled from various places in the book, with a little of editorializing thrown in for good measure.
(1) Know your faith: Most of the people who ridicule the faith know little or nothing about it. Unfortunately, neither do most Christians. Many Christians have a superficial faith in the gospel; shallow roots, with external rather than internal strength. To one with an unsophisticated faith the ridicule of the world appears reasonable and deadly. The most powerful defense then is education. Read the scripture daily; read solid scholarly Christian literature (this blog is a good source of suggestions); read books that stimulate you to think about the content of the faith. A more reasoned faith with deep roots can be defended and shared. A ‘Sunday School’ sophistication is not enough–neither is a catechistic memorized list of propositions and answers. Do not simply affirm belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus - discover what these doctrines mean, how they developed, and why they are affirmed.
(2) Keep it in perspective: Nothing in the Christian story suggests that the Christian life is easy. There is no guarantee of health, respect, and prosperity. The early church was persecuted; the church around the world is persecuted today; the God who raised Jesus was on the side of the early church and is on our side today. We move forward in this power and hope. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow.
(3) Appreciate the importance of support: in isolation we waver and fall all too often. Go to church, worship and study in community. Search out community and be persistent. It is not always easy to find in our evangelical church, especially beyond the undergraduate years. Be a church that makes support a priority.
(4) Develop spiritual discipline and make it a priority. Read books that stimulate thought about prayer, worship, devotion (Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, …). Pray and worship without fail, from the head and the heart — and from the head even when it is hard to make it from the heart.
(5) Face questions and concerns head on, with study and, if possible, in the support of community. Oh yeah, I’m repeating myself - but so does McGrath throughout the book.
(6) Don’t be afraid of change — your faith should change and grow as it matures in understanding and depth in the great traditions of orthodox Christianity.
Doubt is not a sin, shameful and disloyal — to be beaten down with a stick or a whip — but a sign of a faith that needs to grow.