In Defense of Doubt

In Defense of Doubt July 24, 2013
            What better way to start than with Woody Allen?  “I am plagued by doubts,” he said.  “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists?  In that case, I definitely overpaid for the carpet.  If only God would give me some clear sign; like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank”.
            Since you’ve been sitting in this audience, you have, no doubt, had a string of doubts – did I make the right choice giving up an evening for this; I’m not sure I turned off the oven; why does that woman think that shirt looks attractive on her?  Doubt is an integral part of who we are, yet the Christian tradition has, for centuries, treated doubt as the enemy.  In many places right now across the planet, people will be listening to Christian doctrines expounded and be secretly wondering how on earth they can make themselves believe them. I sayChristian because recently I stumbled on these words of an Eighteenth century Zen master that I wish I had encountered in my teenage years.  He said “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening.  Small doubt: small awakening. No doubt: no awakening.” 
            Seventeen years ago, I wrote a book called In Defence of Doubt: an Invitation to Adventure.  This book was written in ”white heat” the summer our family moved for a second time to the United States from Australia.  Such moves are dislocating because you leave behind old friends and familiar rituals, but they are also ” first day of the rest of your life” moments where you have a chance to examine your life and priorities before getting engrossed in a new routine.  Since I am new to most of you in this country, it might help to give a bit more of my background.  I grew up a God-intoxicated, evangelical Christian.  I could not sit beside someone in a bus without feeling I had to witness to them before they got off at their stop.  Yet all the while I doubted many of the Christian ”truths” from an infallible bible that simply had to be believed.  I blamed myself for both my weakness and also my arrogance in thinking I could question issues of such magnitude that had been discussed by so many wise theologians.  In my childhood tradition, doubt was frowned upon — the more you believed without question, the better a Christian you were.  Although the disciple Thomas asked a very sensible question about seeing evidence before he believed, he was demonized as ”doubting Thomas” because of the verse that followed — ”Blessed are those who believe without seeing the evidence”.
            I will be using the term GOD as a three letter symbol for that which describes peoples’ understanding of the sacred, but with no specific theological shape assumed.
            After degrees and careers in both science and the arts, I went back to university in mid-life to do religious studies, in order to find some answers to my doubts.  I had decided I could no longer live with the emotional torture they created and I was prepared to walk away from God and the church should this prove necessary.  ‘Why we’re we told?’ became my question the moment I entered my first course of New Testament studies, when I discovered that the doubts I was not allowed to express from the pew had been discussed by long lines of theologians before me.  Some of my classmates were ordinands training for ministry within my denomination and responsible for telling what they had learned once they graduated but, like many before them, they would not.  I was incensed that faithful lay people in the pews were giving sacrificially so that these students could have free theological education, yet the same laity were being kept in ignorance by these same people with respect to their doubts.  Once I finished my Ph.D. in theology, my mission was set – to ensure others do not go through the traumas over doubt that I did.
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