Doubting Doubt: An Interview with Timothy Larsen (by David Moore)

Doubting Doubt

David Moore conducted the following interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Doubt is a common struggle.  I know firsthand its debilitating effects which is why I am glad for Timothy Larsen’s wonderful book, The Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England.  Larsen is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.

I have interviewed many people on radio, TV, and via text.  This interview was very meaningful to me because of my own struggles with doubt.   I believe you will find it helpful either for yourself or perhaps a friend who may be entangled in doubt about the Christian faith.

Moore: Provide us with a thumbnail sketch of your book.

Larsen: Scholarship on the Victorian age has been obsessed with the loss of faith and with unbelievers – atheists, agnostics, and secularists.  Numerous books have been written which tell such life stories as if they are the story of what it means to be a thinking person in the modern world.  I found in my research, however, that there was a major trend of atheist leaders coming to faith.  Far, far more of the top leaders of the secularist movement became Christians than Christian leaders lost their faith.  Yet no scholars had ever carried about this huge phenomenon!  My book tells their stories and analyzes this historical pattern.  Most of the chapters are details sketches which tell a life from beginning to end, including how they became a leading voice for unbelief, how famous they were in the freethinking movement, how they came to faith in Christ, and how they answered the skeptical arguments that they once found so compelling.

Moore: It struck me in reading your book that those who suffer with doubts about the Christian faith do so for a variety of reasons.  Granting that there are a number of reasons which spawn doubt, were there any commonalities for doubt among the people you highlight in your book?

Larsen: Yes, definitely.  First, I would like to say that doubt is essential to faith – to doubt a claim is to take it seriously, it is to think about it, to wrestle with it.  No one can really believe something who does not know what it would mean to not believe it.  The pattern was that when people had these natural times of reflection, of examination, of skepticism, it was often not handled well – either by the spiritual leaders in their life or by themselves and often both.  Spiritual leaders too often reacted with alarm and recrimination rather than accompanying someone on their spiritual and intellectual journey, even when it involved a stay at Doubting Castle.  The doubters themselves often found their egos stroked by being able to see intellectual flaws in what their betters believe and therefore their skepticism became fueled by self-importance and disdain.  The actual intellectual trigger varied, but popular ones in the nineteenth century included biblical criticism, Darwinism, and the problem of evil.  Many leading intellectuals, however, were able to engage those topics from a robustly Christian perspective, so it is not the content of these topics that is the trigger per se – it is just that they serve as a prompt that leads people on different life trajectories – whether into a deepening faith, a loss of faith or, as in my book, a period of resolute skepticism followed by a return to faith.

Moore: It is interesting to see you mention the popular book, God’s Funeral by A.N. Wilson.  Wilson, as you well know, has himself come back to the Christian faith.  It was fascinating that Wilson cited beautiful music, and the way Christians die as two compelling reasons for embracing the Christian faith once again.  Was either of these two reasons influential with the Victorians you studied?

Larsen: Yes, the leading British novelist, biographer, and man of letters, A. N. Wilson was a leading critic of faith.  He once wrote a book bluntly entitled, Against Religion, which began: “It is said in the Bible that the love of money is the root of all evil.  It might be truer to say that the love of God is the root of all evil.” I made Wilson the foil of my book because I thought he was deeply unfair to the leading Victorian intellectuals who were Christians, arguing essentially that they were just cowards who could not face the truth that faith had been discredited.  Then, after my book came out, Wilson himself came to faith.  His own life thus conformed perfectly to the very pattern I was presenting in Crisis of Doubt!  I wrote an article about this for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Look Who’s A Believer Now” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124355313058264477).  I can’t think of a direct Victorian evocation of the music argument, but the deathbed argument was very widespread.  Unbelief was often a way to strike a swaggering pose before the world, but a deathbed is a time to be in earnest.

Moore: Wesley, as you mention, set the bar very high for true, Christian faith?  Did this result in the unintended consequence of causing doubt for sensitive souls who were struggling with various issues about the Christian faith?

Larsen: I’m glad you picked up on this as I think it is a really important point, although I only made it in passing in the book.  Evangelicalism taught that formal conformity was not enough, what matters is whether one truly believed in one’s heart.  This often made people who had the natural times of doubt that all human beings have about everything (whether a person that is close to them really loves them, for example) start to imagine that they were a hypocrite and that the honest thing to do would be to just renounce religion altogether.  Ironically, this often meant that they actually had more faith than they knew how to admit.

Moore: In your chapter on Thomas Cooper, I was saddened to read about the anti-intellectualism of the Christians around him.  How did this affect him?

Larsen: I found Cooper endlessly endearing.  I actually went on a quest to find his gravestone at one point, more as a personal act of affection than of research.  He just had a naturally brilliant mind—well above his “station” in life as the Victorians would say.  He was the son of a poor single mother and expected to become a shoemaker, yet he is reading all the greatest works of philosophy and literature and thinking great thoughts with the greats.  Unfortunately, the Christian ministers he interacted with were not as bright, nor as talented, nor as well read as him, and they reacted with defensiveness.  They saw him as a threat—not to the faith but to their mediocrity and position—and they wanted to force him out to make themselves feel more comfortable.  Alas, they got what they wanted—at least in the short term.  One effect on him initially was a period of bitterness at the injustice of it all.

Moore: Will Willimon has famously said that the Christian life presents a “thicker, richer, fuller, view of reality.”  Willimon came to mind while reading your book as there seem to be a reoccurring theme that doubters started to question the “thinner” and thus less satisfying claims of materialism.

Larsen: This is very well said.  (And I like Willimon too!)  For years, they thought they were smarter than everyone else because they could critique every argument – I can show you why the Bible is wrong, why Christian morality is wrong, why miracles could not have happened, and so on.  They slowly began to realize, however, that it is easier to tear down than to build up.  What was their own view of the meaning of life?  What was their own basis for morality?  And so on.  They then realized that any position is assailable.  It was not that Christianity was particularly untenable, it was just that Christians were willing to stand for something.  Once they got that far, they started to compare views and came to see Christianity as the least assailable account of the human condition, the meaning of life, and the proper way to live, of all the alternatives.

Moore: About a year ago I went to the graduation of several folks from a drug rehab program.  Afterwards, the founder told me they start these men slowly reading through the gospels.  He then told me that these men get to a point where they find Jesus as a person utterly compelling.  You speak about reconverts being “haunted by Jesus.”  How did the unique person of Jesus cause Victorian skeptics to look afresh at Christianity?

Larsen: In moments of skepticism, people think that can reject belief in Jesus because of various critical objections such as discrepancies in the Gospel accounts.  This turns out to be a superficial view of the matter however, and the Jesus of Gospels cannot be so easily dismissed.  The most profound people, even many who are not Christians, have often found the portrait of Christ in the Gospels to be endlessly profound.  (One thinks of Gandhi, Rousseau, Chagall, and so on.)  You think you have killed him off with biblical criticism, but three days later you find he is alive again and more glorious than ever.

Moore: We are integrated beings so it is impossible to say what percentage of doubt is caused by so-called intellectual reasons (e.g. higher criticism) versus so-called practical reasons (e.g. not finding many Christians acting like Christians).  Given that challenge, what were the dominant reasons for Victorian skepticism?

Larsen: Yes, all the factors swirl together.  There clearly were intellectual ones, and I think biblical criticism was actually the biggest one of these.  Perhaps you could include it in a bigger, more general category: the suspicion that Christianity was somehow being overturned by the advance of knowledge, whether in biblical studies, or philosophy, or the natural sciences, and so on.  This turned out to be wrong, of course.  In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a huge trend once again for leading intellectuals to come to faith (T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden, Siegfried Saasoon, Malcolm Muggeridge and so on), but the rumor spooked a lot of people.  A hidden factor I also explore in the book was that the Victorian age was the first time it became possible to be a public unbeliever and still have a triumphant professional career.  Until then, one had to keep ones doubts to one’s self and pretend to be a Christian to be a professor or a politician or much else besides.  In other words, part of what changed was simply that people were now more frank and vocal about their skepticism because the personal costs of doing so had gone down dramatically.  (And, incidentally, it was because evangelical Christians believed in sincerity from one’s heart that they campaigned to remove the hitherto required Christian oaths from the universities, from Parliament, and elsewhere.)

Moore: At the end of your book, you provide several shorter profiles of reconversion.  Henry Townley’s comment that he had not really read the Bible thoroughly enough to reject it was amazing to see.  Were there others who were that candid?

Larsen: I was struck by the earnest honesty of these people.  They were also quite willing to acknowledge how their past actions had hurt other people.  (Joseph Barker, for example, half destroyed his Methodist denomination on the way out.)  The greatest bravery of all was to admit that you were completely, utterly wrong to all the people who had been following you into atheism.  You had taught these very people to laugh at Christians as idiots and now you put a sign on your back that more-or-less said, “I’m now one of those so-called idiots.”  The triumph of these lives is that their mature confession of Christ was hard won.

 

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