Proper Doubt

Proper Doubt July 5, 2013

This is the first of two excerpts from a book that I happily endorsed: Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God by Kyle Roberts. Kyle is a professor at Bethel Seminary and a fellow Patheos blogger.

Doubt is the other side of faith…This ethos may be one of the defining features of emergent Christianity—the willingness to countenance doubt. These doubts can arise from questioning the sincerity of religious faith (i.e. Freud’s “great apologetic challenge” to Christianity), the truthfulness of the Bible, the exclusivity of Christianity, or engaging in philosophical challenges to core Christian doctrines (such as those posed by the “problem of evil and suffering”). The acceptance of a positive role for doubt in the Christian life is consistent with the emergent ethos.

Because emergent Christianity is not terribly anxious about epistemological certainty, such questions are encouraged—or at the very least accepted and engaged. Furthermore, there is no rush to answer the questions in a final, authoritarian way. This openness to the reality of doubt in the Christian journey need not imply a glorification of doubt nor a complete disregard for objectivity (properly placed) in Christian theology…

An epistemologically humble approach to theology and faith allows for deeper authenticity and for the deconstruction of the idols of certainty, dogmatism and closure. Experimental psychologist, Richard Beck, asks, “What would religious faith look like, experientially and theologically, if it were not engaged in existential repression or consolation?” Presumably, that kind of faith might be open about the reality of doubt and would courageously struggle with existential questions regarding the attainment of “truth.”

That kind of faith would not try to rely on or use religion instrumentally to assuage existential anxiety, but would attempt to be existentially authentic in the face of the lack of epistemological “objective” certainty; it would be open and honest about the pain and distress involved in the human experience and would not try to suppress the anxieties that arise from the fragmentation, brokenness, and brevity of human life.

Collectively, in terms of the experience of Christian community, it might have the character and courage to deal with pain, sorrow, and longing head-on, even in (or especially in) the context of church liturgy. It would engage the Bible with seriousness and honesty; neither avoiding its prophetic strangeness nor minimizing its difficulties, from the perspective of the modern world. It would utilize both celebration and lament as representations of the full nature of the human experience. Ultimately, it would find both discomfort and solace in the central figure of Christian faith: the paradoxical God-man, who makes comfortable faith impossible but who alone can make authentic faith possible.

Whaddya think: Does Kyle get the emergent church right?

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  • Phule77

    Technically, shouldn’t that just be “church”? Foundationalism in the face of an infinite God seems like a lost cause in any case.

    • Kyle Roberts

      If you are referring to Tony’s question, I agree that it “should” just be “church.” However, as I argue in the book, it seems that much of the institutional church (certainly in the evangelical forms that I know best) still seems bogged down by foundationalism, even if its at an implicit or subconscious level for many people. So, I’m suggesting here that a distinctive feature of EC is its explicit willingness or desire to move “beyond foundationalism” (ala Grenz/Franke). That has opened up a lot of potential within EC for theological and liturgical exploration.

      • Phule77

        The argument for a long time has been that the EC isn’t it’s own separate thing, but rather a perspective within the existing church. Are we now arguing that the EC is it’s own denomination? Just asking for clarification.

        • Kyle Roberts

          No, I’m not saying that EC is its own denom. I agree that it is something like a religious ethos. However, there are “congregations” or local collectives that self-identify as emergent, or congregations that explicitly make room for postmodern faith. So that was the distinction I was drawing in response to your question. Not every “church” of course accepts, embraces, or even countenances this ethos. Does that help?

  • Phule77

    Kyle, how do you find this line of thought working for or against Peter Rollins thoughts about church in his book “insurrection”, whereby church should not be the place we go to to shield ourselves from who we truly are and what truly is?

    • Kyle Roberts

      I think that’s an important insight and I don’t think my point works against it. Too often church life functions as “existential defensive” religion (Beck). So insofar as church is used as an instrument for repression–smothering our existential angst (or to “shield ourselves from who we truly are and what truly is”), then deconstruction is needed. So faith development theory works itself in here (can churches–local communiities of faith–help people move beyond stage four, or disjunctive faith?). I think that’s the real promise of the emerging ethos–and I read that as what Rollins is after with the inclusion of doubt into liturgy and spiritual formation. That said, there is a healthy way in which Christianity, faith and church life can help us face into our repression. The hope of bodily resurrection in the Christ-event is a powerful antidote to our universally human death anxiety, for example. So, I’m not denigrating church life–just after a more existentially authentic form of it (as is Rollins and other emergents, in my reading)

      • Kyle Roberts

        that said, I don’t want to foreclose discussion here, so is there something I’m missing?

  • NateW

    I think he’s on the right track for sure.

    I am deeply indebted to Peter Rollins work as well as various interactions with existential philosophy and would be interested to read this book.

    Sometimes I wonder though if “doubt” is really the right word to use here though. Isn’t what we’re talking about something more like epistemic humility? (Granted, that does need to be deintellectualized). I have never been so sure in my faith as I have been since I really came to understand that my standing before God does not have to do with whether what I know about Him is “correct” or not. I can now see both sides of the issues, am much more open to using very different language to talk about God, and tend to be much more humble about making truth claims—but this isn’t because I have doubts about what is True, its because I know that God alone is true, that He is infinite and spiritual while my cognitive mind can only hold grasp what is finite and physical. I see Truth everywhere, where before I only saw it when “God” or “Jesus” was explicitly named. I understand what is True better than I ever have before, but I find myself proportionately LESS able to put that knowledge to words. I don’t doubt, but I can be at peace with knowing that I don’t know, because I have faith that I am known.

    Does that make sense? I suppose that from the perspective of a kid who had grown up with a foundational Christian perspective freedom to question the finality of certain doctrines would seem like doubt, but I just wonder if there isn’t a better way to talk about this that might help enlighten Christians to the fact that faith in the eternal word of Christ is not ultimately the same thing as being sure that you know the right doctrines.

    Maybe talking about the freedom to ask the tough questions without fear of being rejected by Christ? Talking about how salvation is not dependent on what we know nor on belief in the historicity of certain events, but on the moment by moment choice to believe that I am known by God, that I matter to Him, and that He experiences every ounce of my suffering with me and has freed me from the shame that demands I escape from it?

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks, Nate. That’s really how I’m using the term “doubt” here–as a synonym of sorts with “epistemic humility”–a phrase I also use elsewhere in that chapter (and probably more often than doubt). One can have theological and religions convictions that are deeply passionate but that also make room for “doubt” (or humility, or a “parenthesis” in which one admits that absolute certainty is not possible). That said, “doubt” is still a useful word because that’s how many Christians express their uncertainties about this or that element of Christian doctrine or whatever…they might have “doubts,” and it’s important that we acknowledge that doubt(s) are natural for finite human beings and can even be understood as an important element of mature, honest faith.

      • NateW

        Great stuff Kyle. Thanks so much for your book and for interacting here!

        I agree that doubt can be a helpful word, but I also think it can sometimes be a bit TOO provocative, especially since most translations use the word “doubt” in a negative light in the book of James. Perhaps we just need to emphasize that it is possible to have faith even in the midst of doubt because at its root, faith is demonstrated by action in accordance with Christ, not as certainty regarding facts about Him.

        I think that as we, by sacrificial love in the name of Christ, manifest what it is to be loved by God, His grace will be what frees people to ask questions and admit to doubts without fear. Grace allows them to pursue answers for the right reasons, an eagerness to know God better, rather than destructive ones (a quest for security through certainty).

        Thanks again, I’ll be checking out your book!

  • Craig

    So, Tony, and Kyle (if you also identity with the emergent church): are you uncertain whether Jesus is Lord? Are you uncertain that God raised Jesus form the dead?

    If you can answer “yes” to these questions, I think it would helpfully candid if you did so (I suspect many Christians would feel the need to resist so answering). I also think it would be admirably brave for you to so answer. If, on the other hand, answering “yes” also seems problematic to you, I would wonder why. Are there limits to what the emergent Christian can seriously doubt; are there still some tenets of Christianity about which you, out of loyalty to the faith, resist harboring doubts?

    • Kyle Roberts

      Craig, thanks for your question. “Jesus is Lord” and “God raised Jesus from the dead” are both statements that I gladly and passionately affirm. I believe Jesus is Lord and I believe God raised Jesus from the dead. But you see, these are faith claims. They are statements of belief–of conviction, of testimony, of witness, and so on. As such, they relate to sphere of subjectivity. So, as I explain in the book, I can have certainty about these beliefs, if by certainty one means subjective, existential, religious belief. Personally, I don’t “waver” in my belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. However, that’s different from claiming to possess objective certainty about these faith claims (for which no real objectivity certainty is possible–and in fact, may not even be helpful even if it were possible). In other words, subjective certainty (or my preferred word–confidence or conviction) is preferable to objective certainty when it comes to claims like these.

      • Craig

        Kyle, thank you for the response. I’d like to attempt to re-describe your position in terms that make sense to me. Maybe you can then tell me whether or not I am tracking.

        In saying that you have “subjective certainty” about the given faith claims, you are saying that, as you go about your life, your habit is to act and think and deliberate as if such claims were true. Perhaps this is a conscious and deliberate choice on your part (as when someone might choose to believe in the faithfulness of one’s spouse), or perhaps it just comes overwhelmingly natural to you (as when Hume finds that his ordinary beliefs about causation invariably return whenever he stops analyzing the matter philosophically).

        On the other hand, in conceding that you simultaneously lack “objective certainty” about these same faith claims, I take it that you are saying that the truth of such claims is in fact uncertain, or that it is at least less certain than the truth of many other claims, such as the claim that 3 plus 5 is 8, or that atmospheric carbon traps heat, or that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. In the concession that you lack objective certainty about the given faith claims, you concede that, despite your habit/choice to confidently assume the contrary, it is entirely possibly that God did not raise Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus is not Lord.

        Are these fair re-descriptions? Do they miss anything?

        • Kyle Roberts

          Craig, that’s a fair re-description. To claim we do not have “objective certainty” about faith/belief matters like the resurrection, the existence of God, creation ex nihilo, etc., is simply to say that these matters cannot be “proven,” with the tools of modernism: i.e. rationalism or empiricism (the flip-side, though, is that they can’t be disproven either). The inability to prove, or to justify these beliefs foundationally, is precisely what makes faith faith–and I would argue (with Kierkegaard) that’s what actually holds Christianity together.

          That said, I don’t wander the streets of Minneapolis muttering about whether the resurrection really happened or whether Jesus is really God. These beliefs have been “settled” for me existentiallly and personally long ago (yes, there is a W. James-ean pragmatist element here). Moreover, I believe these things strongly enough to want to share the hope I have in the Christ-event with others. But the lack of objective certainty also keeps me epistemologically humble in so doing and, for me, suggests the most effective means of witnessing to that truth will not be through “objective” forms of argumentation. Thus, for Kierkegaard, the “how” is the “what.”

          Kierkegaard carefully distinguishes between “objective” and “subjective” sorts of truth claims, locating scientific and historical claims on the objective side and faith claims on the subjective. We now know, 150 or so years later, that even that distinction does not firmly hold, since it has been increasingly recognized that science itself is shot through with subjectivity (Polanyi, Kuhn, etc.). I develop these distinctions in my book, so I encourage you to check it out and would welcome your feedback.