Faith, Doubt, and Uncertainty

Faith, Doubt, and Uncertainty August 8, 2018
A colleague shared a piece by Owen Strachan on another Patheos blog, one that argues against the positive view of doubt that is articulated by progressive Christians. I commented on Facebook and shared a few thoughts about it, and think that perhaps it is worth saying the same things and slightly more here on the blog. Here are my main points in response to the piece:
1) For a piece that is supposedly defending the “biblical view” of faith, the entire piece is noticeably sparse on biblical quotations;
2) Where they are present, they are not done justice to:
– in one case Strachan has rewritten the text to say what he thinks it should have said (“Every Christian must pray, “Help my unbelief, Lord, and forgive me for it!” (see Mark 9:14-29)”);
– but he also calls Jesus inviting Thomas to confirm the resurrection a “rebuke” which is certainly not something the text says explicitly, if it even implies it (in a ridiculous caricature of anything that might be said about this story in the Gospel of John from a progressive Christian perspective, Strachan writes, “If Jesus wanted to make room for doubt–for disbelief–in the confession of the Christian, he would have said the opposite of this–“Do not believe only, but also disbelieve, for that is authentically human.” But Jesus nowhere says that, and nowhere comes close to saying that.”);
– and he fails to do justice to the fact that the faith referred to in the James passage is confidence in God, and the context is precisely a recognition that human beings lack wisdom!
3) The Biblical teaching about the shortcomings of human knowledge and human wisdom is likewise neglected, for instance 1 Corinthians 8:2 “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know”; or Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law”; not to mention more obvious ones such as “now we know in part” and “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
And so I find the treatment of doubt – and of faith – to be seriously inadequate and highly disappointing.
For what I consider a more helpful and honest treatment of doubt, faith, and church attendance, see Emma Higgs’ post about staying in church after a “faith deconstruction” experience. See too Zack Hoag’s post about the need for doubt, as well as doubting of our doubts, and also confidence. One can overemphasize doubt, but without any willingness to allow it to sift out those things that do not deserve our confidence, we are left with a blind faith that is essentially worthless, because blind faith can be placed in anything
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  • John MacDonald

    Even Jesus doubted that perhaps he didn’t need to suffer for God’s plan to be realized:

    35 He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. 36 And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”(The Prayer in Gethsemane, Mark 14:32-42)

  • I’ve always liked the way Paul Tillich talks about faith and doubt: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Doubt is not the enemy and not something that needs to be fought. It needs to be understood, expressed, and used. Even Jesus seemed comfortable with the doubts of his disciples, Thomas, as you pointed out.

    For me doubt has played a large role in my faith journey. It hasn’t made it easy, but it’s made it rich. If you want you can read about it here:

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    It’s more of the typical evangelical carelessness with Scripture. It’s weird to see a group profess such a high, reverential view of Scripture and then go on to treat it like a sack of fortune cookies.

    Also in the article, I found some equivocation/ambiguity on the word “doubt.” There seems to be some confusion between “doubting God’s veracity” and “doubting what we think we know.”

    • Ivan T. Errible

      Church is pointless. Stop wasting your life with fairy tales.

      • Someone could simply call atheism a fairy tale if they were so inclined, providing no more evidence than you have. Surely you can do better than this?

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Ivan is a troll. He shows up at Christian blogs and randomly sprinkles the same 3 comments throughout their Disqus.

          • His Disqus comments look like a mixture of substantive and one-line troll comments. I’m going to point out one more time that the latter have no place on this blog, but give another chance since he is clearly willing and able to comment in a more serious way when he wants to!

        • Ivan T. Errible

          My “fairy tale” doesn’t cost tax payers millions in dollars lost to subsidies.

          • Ah well, I gave you the benefit of the doubt for as long as it made sense to do so…If you decide that drive-by one liners that don’t stay focused or treat topics under discussion seriously are something you can leave behind, let me know and I will happily welcome you back. But for now, let’s take a break…

      • What’s wrong with fairy tales?

      • The Mouse Avenger

        (imitates Bugs Bunny, for Dr. McGrath has already come up with a brilliant response to that pile of horse hockey)
        Ehhhhh, shaddup!

        • Ivan T. Errible

          He can prescribe medicine? He got through years of medical school and residency?

          • What is this comment about and to whom is it addressed? I don’t see anyone who used “Doctor” spelled out in this comment thread in a manner that could confuse the title used for anyone who has earned a doctoral degree in their field with the use of the term to denote those in the medical profession. Are you just seeking to demonstrate that you are indeed trolling, or is this in fact relevant to something else that was written here?

    • Matthew

      I´ve been searching for some time now, but I haven´t found a non proof text explanation of James 1:6 which seems to state that doubt is a bad thing.


      • Sure.

        So, James is writing to a congregation undergoing various trials. Assuming they’re in Jerusalem, this may be the product of being an early group of Jesus followers in the midst of the same corrupt structures that killed him. James tells the congregation that this process will ultimately transform them into the kind of people they need to be, again, probably taking his cue from Jesus’ own path.

        If this isn’t happening – if people aren’t developing the traits that persecution is supposed to produce – they should ask God for this to happen, trusting that God will give them what they need. It’s in this context of trusting God (i.e. asking in faith) that James says not to doubt. James isn’t talking about doubt in general, but particularly about doubting God’s capacity or desire to produce the intended good from the trials.

        It’s because of this that James can segue into a group he will refer to several times in his letter, the “double-minded” who are, apparently, people who are part of the church who, in all other respects, have assimilated into society in such a way as to avoid the persecutions.

        So, you can see the contrast, here. On the one hand, you’ve got faithful congregation members who trust that God will bring about good ends for all of them through being faithful in persecution. On the other hand, you’ve got people who doubt that God will do this and, as a result, do everything they can to fit in so that they avoid persecution.

        It’s that latter group that James cautions should not expect to receive anything from God.

        So, yes, if James 1:6 were just a textual fragment we discovered, it might be plausible to read it as a blanket condemnation of all kinds of doubts in all kinds of contexts, but we have the whole letter and have to understand his comment as part of the flow of a larger thesis.

        • Matthew

          Context is so important, Phil. Thanks as always.

          • I would also add that the biblical literature in general tends to condemn doubt in the sense of not trusting God, but does not view doubt in the sense of challenging theological axioms in the same way.

          • Matthew

            Great point. Thanks so much.

  • TinnyWhistler

    That article you linked is probably the best way to drive seekers from the church.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      What makes you say that? :-/

      • TinnyWhistler

        It feels like a sort of anti-Pascal’s wager: of course you’ll have occasional doubts but your normal state of being is supposed to be belief so if you’re unsure what that means what’s the point?

        It’s much easier for seekers to go look at another religion or lack thereof than deal with that.

        Of course, I might be oversensitive to this, having grown up in a “God makes people with the ability to believe or not. If you’re made with the ability to believe it’s impossible for you to not believe because it’s your nature. Backsliding and doubt are signs that someone was never one of the Elect in the first place”-style Reformed church.

  • AHH

    There are several books out there that I think are very helpful for those of us who are wired to be more reflective and to see shades of gray — for whom black-and-white certainty is often unattainable and who find our faith crumbling if we chase after the idol of certainty that some of the Evangelical church worships:
    The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor [It would be an exaggeration to say “This book saved my faith”, but it helped a lot when I read it in my early 30s.]
    Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigen
    The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns

  • Neil Brown

    If find three different greek words that are translated as “doubt”.
    When Peter is called to walk on water but is distracted by the waves he is rebuked for “doubting”. He thoughts were divided between two priorities – personal safety and obedience. Much later Paul would challenge his readers to keep their eyes firmly on the goal, but at this early time, Peter was no able to do that – he doubted. This is not a doubt to be encouraged.
    When Thomas didn’t doubted that the risen Christ was genuine, he more properly had unbelief – the negative of belief. This is the only rational response to a lack of evidence. When presented with evidence the unbelief became belief. We call this “learning” and generally encourage it. This sort of “doubt” is only a problem if we hold so tight as to resist evidence.
    And then there is James – the doubt he talked about was a double-minded-ness, though different from the divided focus of Peter. It is to make a judgement before seeing the evidence – to be prejudiced. When Peter reported on his trip to see Cornelious, he said that he didn’t make distinction (or that the spirit didn’t) just because they were gentiles. James uses the same word – when you ask God something, don’t judge that he cannot do it before you even give him a chance – wait for evidence and then make an assessment.
    Some doubt is good, some doubt isn’t – when our one word has such a broad meaning it is unreasonable to say that “doubt” is either good or bad – it depends.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      That’s a very well-put assessment! 😀