Is Doubt a Sign of Spiritual Weakness or What? (Two New Books about the Role of Doubt in Christian Living)
When I was a kid growing up in church (how’s that for a stereotypical opening of a paragraph?) a favorite saying of pastors and evangelists was “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs!” As if doubt (and here “doubt” will always be about God and the truth of revelation) is something you overcome by sheer will power. And as if doubt is necessarily something negative to be shunned rather than embraced or at least lived with.
In that form of Christian life that encouraged a kind of super-spirituality (I found Francis Schaeffer’s little book on that subject liberating as an early twenty-something Christian in that spiritual environment) “doubt” was an enemy and having doubts meant a lack of faith which meant sin in life. So the solution to doubt was twofold: will power to overcome sin and waiting on the Holy Spirit for a new “infilling.” So, indirectly, at least, shame was heaped on anyone who struggled with doubt.
One of the reasons I couldn’t remain in that form of Christian life was that I couldn’t help having doubts; there was simply no “cure” for doubt—at least not that I could find. And I felt that doubt, not chronic, disabling doubt but simple human lack of absolute certainty, was not necessarily a sign of spiritual weakness but a normal part of being finite rather than infinite (or deified).
Now let me be clear, for those who easily misunderstand, that by doubt here I do not mean chronic skepticism let alone cynicism about the truth of revelation and about God. I mean simply that lack of absolute certainty, that awareness that one could be wrong, that nagging little feeling that what you believe falls short of absolute certainty and therefore could, at least theoretically, be false.
Because of the way I was raised, with even the slightest hint of doubt being interpreted as a sign of spiritual weakness if not at attack of Satan (!), I was afraid to admit it to any of my spiritual mentors or peers. I covered it up, hid it and pretended that I had absolute certainty about everything I was supposed to believe.
Eventually I was delivered from that bondage partly through a book by a wise colleague named Daniel Taylor. The book is entitled The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment. I found it liberating, not because it made me comfortable with doubt but because it gave me permission to be human and put the emphasis where it belongs—not on arrival at absolute certainty but on commitment in spite of doubts. (Taylor relied heavily on Kierkegaard.)
Around the same time I discovered an older book by British Methodist pastor Leslie Weatherhead—a prolific Christian writer of the mid-20th century. It is entitled The Christian Agnostic. But, again, the theme is not chronic skepticism but learning to live with fallibility and therefore with doubt.
Around the same time (my mid-twenties) I read Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. There Tillich describes doubt as a necessary element of faith. In other words, the two are not in tension but depend on each other. Without doubt, Tillich argues, faith would not be faith but sight.
All of these authors taught me that absolute certainty is eschatological. They taught me to be real about life here and now, “between the times”—not to embrace doubt as something to be proud of but to live with it as a real sign of finitude and even as something that, if accepted in the right way, can help faith, as commitment, become stronger.
I have to admit, however, that all of this remained somewhat abstract and intellectual. I read more books that bolstered this different view of faith and doubt. Books by Fredrick Buechner (“Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it moving”) and Lesslie Newbigin (Proper Confidence). I settled into it somewhat uncomfortably with the nagging feeling that, even though I felt it to be true intellectually, I still might be unspiritual for accepting doubt as normal and not striving harder to overcome it once and for all. I still worried that my spiritual mentors, the people who “brought me up in the faith,” would shame me for having doubts and learning to live with them.
Part of that uneasiness came from attending a church that reminded me of my superspiritual childhood and youth. It was a Baptist church, but the pastor’s sermons and Bible studies and much of the ethos of the church communicated to me (maybe not to others) that true faith, once really acquired, banishes all doubt. There, as in my later adolescent years, I suffered the cognitive dissonance of two conflicting feelings. On the one hand, Sunday after Sunday I was being told, indirectly if not directly, that faith overcomes doubt, so anyone who struggles with doubt must not yet have acquired true faith—which in that church was a matter of sheer will power. On the other hand, I sensed that many of the people of the church were pretending, living lives of unreality, putting on a mask when they came to church. It did not feel like a safe place to admit doubts and spiritual struggles.
Eventually we left that church and prayed that God would lead us to one where we could be real people. Where we would not have to put on masks and pretend to “have it all together” without flaws. That’s exactly what happened. The very first church we visited, after leaving the one we had been attending for eight years (and that I had been wanting to leave for four of those years!), was what we were looking for. That very first Sunday the pastor preached on doubt and gave the congregation permission to be human, including admitting that their Christian lives were not and never would be free of risk and commitment in spite of very real doubts. I believe finding that church at that time, so easily and quickly, was a “God thing.”
Also around that time I began watching and listening to gospel music videos (now DVDs) produced by Bill Gaither. (No, this is not an advertisement!) I will never forget the impact one of them made in me. It brought into my “inner man” (to borrow a concept from Pietist founder Philipp Jakob Spener) what I had appropriated from books and sermons into my theology. I don’t remember the title of the video, but it was filmed with a group of “old time gospel singers”—most of them not great musicians professionally but sincere and singing the music of my childhood—uplifting and inspiring music of my generation. Right in the middle of that session several of them began to share “testimonies” of their struggles with doubt—not before they became Christians or before they “received the Holy Spirit”—but recently, then and there, as “mature Christian believers” and “full time gospel evangelists.” It was shocking to me to hear their stories—not because they dismayed me but because they spoke powerfully into my life about what I had learned intellectually from books.
Then Gaither, who many consider a giant of Christian faith (author of numerous Christian songs sung in churches and recorded by Christian recording artists) sat at the piano and, unrehearsed, and in a very unpolished way, sang a song he wrote that never “caught on,” so to speak. “I believe; help Thou my unbelief. I take the finite risk of trusting like a child. I believe; help Thou my unbelief. I walk into the unknown trusting like a child.” (Google it for all the lyrics. The specific performance that so touched me inwardly isn’t on youtube so far as I can find, but later performances of the song by Gaither and his “Vocal Band” are.)
It’s strange how something you’ve learned from books and accepted intellectually can still need to penetrate into your heart. That is what my new church and that song, sung in that particular way at that time, did for me. (Yes, I’m an unapologetic pietist! Partly, at least, because of experiences such as these.)
Recently two friends have published books about doubt and Christian faith and I recommend both highly. Both are filled with personal stories of life experiences by these Christian leaders, men looked up to by thousands because of their teaching and writing. These are not your typical conservative Christian “testimony books” like so many that crowd the shelves of Christian “bookstores.” (I put that in scare quotes because most of them sell very few books and the ones they do sell tend to be fluff.)
If you are someone who struggles with struggling with doubt I recommend these two wonderful new books and that you find a home church where you can be real and not a Sunday “mask wearer”—someone who has to pretend to have no spiritual struggles or doubts.
The books are: Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker, 2013) and Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist (Bog Walk Press, 2013). Neither one encourages skepticism or wallowing in doubt that avoids risk and commitment; both reveal how the authors and others came to real faith in spite of and perhaps even partly through uncertainty.
Unfortunately, so much American Christianity, perhaps especially conservative evangelical Christianity, is mired in inauthenticity. Authenticity is what Boyd and Taylor are talking about. Being authentic means being real; embracing the real and not pretending to be something we’re not and aren’t meant to be. Absolute certainty that banishes all doubt is unreal, inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. And yet so much conservative Christianity not only promotes it but expects it and shames people who dare to admit they haven’t arrived at that time and place when we will see face to face and know as we are known. There remains, for now, only faith, hope and love and these are enough.