Doubting 101

This week Fred Sanders posted a link to a meditation on Barth and the experience of doubt in the life of a Christian, and especially of a theologian. The article deals with two forms of Christian doubt, one innocuous, one dangerous, but both negative. While this post rightly identifies two ways doubt can go wrong, any student of Pascal will argue that there’s also a way that doubt can go right, acting as a corrective for presumption and pride in the life of a believer.

Barth divides the experience of doubt into two types, which I’ll call intellectual and existential doubt. In the first case, a theologian, because he’s doing analytical (pick apart-y) work on Christian doctrines, reaches a moment where he’s pulled his theology to pieces and isn’t sure how the pieces go back together again. This kind of doubt, Barth says, isn’t something to worry about. It’s a natural consequence of analytical work, and provided we don’t “slack” and fail to put the pieces back together again, we’ll be fine.

When I hear this description, it reminds me of Descartes’ Meditations. Descartes decided that in order to do find out which things he knew for sure, he would take the machete of doubt to all his beliefs, and see which ones were so solid that no amount of doubt could hack them away. In short, Descartes and Barth believed that doubt is a part of analyzing well.

A person who never entertains doubts, even about her most closely held beliefs, cannot really be said to be believing them well. This is why whenever I teach Hume’s Enquiry to my students, I try to make them worried about even the simplest relationships of cause and effect. One of my jobs as a teacher is to move beliefs from the “unreflectively accepted” category to the “thoughtfully concluded” category, as Dewey would have it. A student can only properly believe that there are laws of cause and effect once he has seriously wondered for a moment why he thinks the pen will fall the next time I let go of it.

Barth’s second, existential, doubt occurs when the theologian starts to wonder whether theology is worth doing at all, a doubt that seems more akin to despair than uncertainty. This despair might occur as he becomes overwhelmed with the problems of the world or the brokenness of the church on earth. It also might occur because the theologian is experiencing a disconnect in his personal life, either performing a faith he doesn’t believe, or devoting himself to theology to the point that he is no longer living in the world.

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