Doubt: RJS

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 “€œabnormal”€ 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 ‘€œSunday 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.

  • Kyle

    I really enjoyed this book awhile back because it helped me think clearly through a stage of doubt.
    I am a New Testament studies guy who had a radical change in direction in the midst of post-grad studies and decided to come along with wife and son to the mission field for a period a couple years back. I was unprepared for the challenges I would face, which were emotional and not merely intellectual. There were days whenever my doubt consumed my thoughts completely and I almost felt incapable of functioning properly. During this period of intense doubt, I dreamt through concepts, ideas and challenges and spent most of the day looking online for things to both support and challenge my doubts. I was intensely obsessed with both finding ways to either embrace my doubts or fighting against them. I let it consume me, and that was not a good thing personally or for my family and ministry. Here are just a few thoughts about what I did that helped and didn’t help in this period of doubt:
    1. Community is so very important. I was cut off from a community of faith that allowed me to share my doubts and struggles. This was due to my particularly situation of being in a place without this luxury. In my ignorance, I attempted to substitute online discussions for community and found the internet to be seriously deficient in this regard. We are created for relationship and need other people…not just their words typed online…but their voices, facial expressions and personal care.
    2. I waited and waited and waited to seek spiritual help. I talked about my struggles, which were obvious, to my wife but waited for a few months before contacting a counselor with our missions agency (despite her telling me that I should). Over Skype we were able to work through my issues over a significant amount of time (months) and find the emotional sources that were expressing themselves as intellectual doubt, fear and depression. I was also able to learn from someone who had experienced very intense dark nights of the soul before and was able to share the experience with me.
    3. I am someone who only read (and still for the most part only reads) commentaries, historical works, theologies, etc. and had not developed the spiritual disciplines mentioned above. In intense pursuit of “truth” through reading, I often neglected to seek God’s guidance and wisdom. My counselor suggested Dallas Willard and I downloaded the audiobook of the Divine Conspiracy on iTunes. Searching for answers, I applied Willard’s suggestions for spiritual discipline and it helped greatly. We are not alone, but part of a 2000 year journey where God has brought others down these same paths before…we are arrogant not to listen to them…and even more ignorant to ignore God’s help in the situation.
    4. I agree with McGrath that we must face our intellectual questions directly. We should not minimize them, but give them their due seeking answers from those who know them. It’s too often that we think our questions have never been asked before and ignorantly start associating ourselves with others who likewise ignorantly act like they are challenges that have never been faced…when we seek out answers we usually find that our questions are not new and have solid answers that have been refined over the history of the church.
    5. I don’t disagree with McGrath, but I personally struggle with fearing change. In my past I’ve fallen into extreme liberalism and extreme fundamentalism and know that when we are weak (ala deep in doubt) we are susceptible to both. We desire the certainty of fundamentalism or want to act like everything we ever believed in the past was a lie, jumping into liberalism. As such, we must stay open to change, but we must also consider the changes that we are opening up to. Are we being guided by the Holy Spirit into this change, or is it simply another reaction to our doubt?

  • RJS

    Great comment with lots of insight.
    You are so right about community. But… I don’t think that your lack of community was unique to your circumstance. It is hard for many of us to find a face to face community of faith that allows us to share our doubts and struggles. And the internet is a poor substitute. Even the forum on this blog, which is better than most, is seriously deficient in some respects. I like your comment We are created for relationship and need other people…not just their words typed online…but their voices, facial expressions and personal care. In fact I have something of a love/hate reaction to this blog at times because of the impersonal and fragmented interactions.
    And — I would venture to guess that for many there is not even useful spiritual direction available. This takes time and relationship. You mention months over skype – some are lucky to find anyone willing to talk for half an hour every other month. Of course we could “pay a professional” the all american solution to everything, but this is expensive and eliminates the all important relationship aspect.
    In part this is why I addressed my comments above primarily to church leaders – what can we do to provide community?

  • Rick

    Great post. I appreciate the emphasis on undergrad and grad students. We (the church) have left a vacuum there.
    In regards to point #1, that lack of depth is the motivating factor for many ministries, including C Michael Patton’s Theology Program. He mentions that burden on his heart in this post (he even quotes Scot McKnight and a recent, familiar Jesus Creed series):
    In regards to point #3, the importance of community cannot be understated. People (especially students in university environments) need to be connected to healthy Christian communities (on campus and/or near campus).
    Finally, for point 5, McGrath is right on. We need not fear truth.
    A great ministry encouraging this on university campuses is Veritas,
    Some may know Veritas through the book, Finding God Beyond Harvard. Great book, and a great ministry that presents forums on various college campuses, and has included speakers such as Francis Collins, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard. They discuss science, culture, the arts, and so on. It looks like forums will be taking place at Yale, Columbia, Tennessee, Arizona State, Columbia, and U Mass this fall. They also have a regular ministry presence at numerous colleges and universities around the US, Canada, and Europe.

  • Anonymous

    Jesus Creed » Doubt: RJS « On Living

    […] Tagged Alistair McGrath, books, Doubt, faith Scott McKnight talks about doubt and faith by reviewing Alistair McGraths book Doubting. How do we deal with is and avoid it? Scotts main points are: (1) Know your faith: … 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… […]

  • Anonymous

    Doubting and Faith « On Living

    […] Tagged Alistair McGrath, books, Doubt, faith Scott McKnight talks about doubt and faith by reviewing Alistair McGraths book Doubting. How do we deal with it when it comes and how might we avoid it? Scotts main points are: (1) Know your faith: … 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… […]

  • Bob Brague

    RJS, you or McGrath said, “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.”
    I would add, since you or McGrath emphasized the years beyond undergraduate, “and from the heart even when it is hard to make it from the head.”
    In the vocabulary of my youth, “heart knowledge” was more to be desired than “head knowledge.” Of course, the heart is also deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it? A guy named Jeremiah said that.
    A very good post and thread. I look forward to it with great interest.

  • RJS

    The Veritas Forum lectures, available as mp3 and even video for some, are great. There are many other great internet resources as well. Michael Patton’s program, especially the converse with scholars program is also valuable. I have downloaded and listened to many of these “conversations”. But… – but… these are not enough. Even the Q&A is staged – limited to clarification and such, conversation is prohibitive and prohibited in both Converse with Scholars and Veritas.
    What is the real lack …? In my opinion it is conversation in relationship. This gets to a core problem and relates back to Scot’s series Good Teachers 1-9. We are caught in an expert download mode of teaching – we don’t think, we don’t talk, we don’t wrestle. Pastors, IVCF staff, Christian speakers, … all operate in the download mode. They are supposed to be the experts, spiritually and intellectually. (Great cartoonon outofur between the two “Emerging” posts.)
    Kyle got personal, let me get personal for a moment, I have wrestled with doubts on occasion for years, or decades more accurately. In attempts to start conversational relationships and to look for outlets to work through some of these issues I have been met with almost universal failure. I have been told I am in a demographic so small as to be not worth the effort, I have been steered toward shallow books to simply absorb the wisdom (no time for discussion), I have even had my suitability to help in children’s ministry questioned, I have been simply avoided…
    We don’t need expert download, we need community to walk along with and to work through ideas. There is no community… it is a disaster.
    And then we add the male/female morass of the evangelical church and the disaster becomes larger.

  • Scott W

    I notice that there is so much anxiety and spilt ink when to questions of doubt vis-a-vis contemporary forms of aggressive secular culture. And the response has always been to attack it in like manner.
    Personally,I think much of this approach is wrong headed.True knowledge of YHWH at root is not intellectual, in the post-enlightenment sense of the word.It is the result of an existential and ontological transformation which begins with conversion/baptism and must be nurtured through spiritual exercises,etc.The intellectual component must be seen for what it is,a sacramental means to this end. But without the ongoing purification of the “heart” these superficial intellectual attempts to deal with the form of doubt having to do with these environmental forces will never be sufficient. We have to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit to heal us in our inner beings. Part of this has to do with a death that has to occur to the absolute subjectivity we ascribe to the intellective function in defining our personhood.Real faith is a lived reality,an radical openness to YHWH in Christ in the stuff of life. YHWH feeds us through human means such as bread and wine,water and oil,human love and touch and yes,ear and voice.

  • ron

    Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one. — Voltaire
    The mind of the ideologue is locked tight, guarding the truth from creeping doubt, from being assailed by any alternatives that would call even part of it into question … — James Sire

  • Bob Smallman

    For what it’s worth (and McGrath may have talked about this — I haven’t read his book), the gospel accounts of the resurrection are filled with mentions of doubt on the part of the disciples. I have used those examples in talking with friends who struggle with doubt and have found comfort in them for my own doubts.
    I love Scott’s closing comment above that “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.” If we honestly listen to our doubts rather than deny and resist them, they become for us doors of learning and growth.

  • Rebeccat

    Like so many others, it seems I have really struggled to find a faith community which would be willing to walk through doubt and into deep places with me or others on similar quests. Anyone who can find a community where this can happen should thank God everyday.
    But God provides even when people do not. A couple of years ago, something in Hebrews struck me. Hebrews 12:2 refers to Jesus as “author and perfecter of our faith”. It occurred to me that if Jesus is indeed the author of our faith, then our faith – whether it seems strong or weak – is just as it ought to be. It comes not from our own efforts, understanding or mind games, but is written on our hearts by the most perfect author.
    I found this to be particularly helpful a couple of months ago when I seemed to be mired in a particularly strong round of doubts. Rather than panic at my faltering faith, I decided that I could trust that Jesus had his reasons for allowing my faith to feel weak for a time and just go with it. Not sure if that all makes sense to anyone else, but it was helpful to me.
    I also find it helpful to hear that others who I admire struggle as well. A while back I read something by John Eldredge where he said that he has a sign he can see when he wakes up in the morning which says “God is real”. It’s a reminder for him because he says he seems to forget during the night. I remember that sign frequently during times of doubt. We forget and if we don’t remind ourselves frequently we are more vulnerable to assaults on our faith.
    Just my $.02.
    BTW, thank you for sharing, Kyle. Really good stuff.

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    Doubt only admits that our reason is limited and isn’t the end all of “Truth”.
    Social structures are needful in development, but surely there should come a time where there is not a dependence on the social structure. That is if one is healthy and the social structure is healthy as well.. Unhealthy social structures are abusive of the individual’s difference and personal convictions. Unhealthy social structures demand, instead of conjole. They inhibit, prohibit, instead of dialogue and engage. They are anti-thetical to reason, instead of developing reason. These unhealthy social structure can be in the form of nuclear family, church or nations…the laws that protect the social structure must be pliable enough for difference in growth, gifting, and personal conviction….
    Psychologists recognize unhealthy social structures as co-dependent. Co-dependence is authriatarian, instead of mutual. Co-dependence views from only one side, whereas, interdependenc recognizes the limitation of the individual perspective. All of us are in need of others, but not at the expense of ourselves!

  • Peggy

    I join you (especially as a former “Community Life” pastor in charge of assimilation and small group ministry!) is the no-man’s-land of isolation. And echo your frustration with the inability of this blog, or other “virtual” connection to fill that void.
    I did, however, have a fairly significant experience at Alan Hirsch’s blog, The Forgotten Ways, that I chronicled in my chapter in the Wikiklesia Volume One: Voices of the Virtual World. My chapter was titled “Virtual Mentoring at The Abbey” and shared my frustrations about not seeming to be able to find encouragement and counsel and accountability as I attempted to respond to the call of God in my life.
    The Abbey is the name I gave to the virtual “monastery” that grew up around four of us commenters at TFW’s blog…three of us have blogs and the other is deep in missional pastoral ministry. The four of us felt compelled to connect with each other “off blog” and it has been quite dynamic. Two of us are in the US, two in Australia…none of us very near to each other, but those in the same country have had opportunities to meet IRL and talk over the phone.
    It can happen…but it isn’t easy. It is, however, one of the most important things to ever happen to me…and has kept me moving forward and embracing change when my circumstances were not supportive of either!

  • RJS

    Bob (#6)
    You are right – it should be:
    Pray and worship without fail, from the head and the heart — from the head even when it is hard to make it from the heart, and from the heart even when it is hard to make it from the head.
    This is a combination of McGrath’s advice and my experience.
    Pray and worship in community even when it is emotionally difficult (dry), even when doubts beset. We simply need to meet God through prayer and worship in our confusion. The idea of certainty and conviction leading to prayer and worship in community gets it backwards. I am still rambling, but perhaps you get my drift.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post and wonderful comments — thanks especially Kyle for your openness.
    This past year was a terrible one for me in struggling with doubt and fear. Many things were helpful. McGrath’s book was very helpful to me in that he disinguishes faith, doubt and certainty. Somewhere along the way I’d come to believe that a lack of “absolute certainty” is wrong. McGrath was very helpful in saying clearly that faith does not equal absolute certainty. (Also very helpful: John Stackhouse, “Humble Apologetics”; Os Guiness, “God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt”).
    In addition to these resources that helped me redefine “doubt,” I made at least one good friend who likes to question, read and think, and I was part of a men’s small group Bible study with some good personal relationships, and I reached out to numbers of theologians and Bible scholars who helped me think through some things. And I got involved in a high-level Bible study group that hits the hard stuff head-on:
    At my home church, I’ve started a group called The Well that’s designed for thinkers, doubters, and others: I hope it provides the kind of space and relationships that such people (I) need. Anyone in the northern NJ area is invited, BTW.

  • Lori

    “Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.” -Mark 9:24
    I have always been grateful for the inclusion of these heartfelt words from a desperate father in the gospel of Mark. These words have become my own prayer on many occasions. Doubt and faith… not nearly so incompatible as we would like to think.

  • RJS

    Too far away from NJ or NY I’m afraid. Your groups look great. I have worked on trying to start a discussion group – which was successful when we focused on Francis Collins’ book, but dwindled after. There has to be something of a critical mass, and I’ve found that hard to come by in my location.
    You know the biggest single factor that helped me (and I may be weird in this regard) was reading NT Wright (not the little stuff, the three big books straight through) and Scot’s Jesus and his Death and later Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ. I could argue with standard apologetics books – standard lay Christian material and win hands down (and don’t even get me started on the science stuff out there). Much of evangelical scholarship was not much better. But these books showed me that it is possible to think seriously about Christianity and remain Christian. Wow – what a revolutionary concept.
    Since I’ve also read Enns and Sparks – which are good. But they didn’t have the same impact, because I’d already started coming to peace.
    I wish the people resources you’ve found were more readily available. (Pastors out there listening?)

  • Georges Boujakly

    Thanks for the suggestions of what has helped overcome doubting.
    Been there. The sense of lostness was at times overwhelming. Mercy and grace, community and acceptance pulled me through.
    I have found that my doubting is too heavy a burden for most lay and professionals in ministry (all tribes included). I am fortunate that I had a spiritual director that was able to help me think through doubts.
    I believe that many have hidden and latent fears that certain elements of their faith would not stand up to scrutiny and choose simply to ignore them (not become fully aware of them and thus to avoid dealing with them).
    Losing a “borrowed faith” to gain personal experience of truth is freeing indeed. In a sense this was Nicodemus’ issue and solution.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, community seems present only in some ways, but we just don’t live lives that make room for community, and our church gatherings and commitments do not much, either, though we’re part of a church that is much better than average that way.
    I really like your post, RJS (all your posts are good) and the thoughts that follow. I think part of the issue is that to have the kind of community that is able to help people so engaged as you describe here, is to have one that is open as in transparent. Most people don’t seem to grapple much with intellectual doubt. So that’s probably part of the problem. So to share one’s intellectual struggles with most means to be simply written off with either an easy answer, or just written off, period.
    I’m reminded in this post of C.S. Lewis and his Inkling friends who regularly met. Without that group, we may not have the C.S. Lewis we know now.

  • Peggy

    Ted…and we wouldn’t have had the JRR Tolkien, either!

  • Ted M. Gossard

    That would have been a great shame, too, Peggy!