Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Gift of Doubt

The conversation yesterday about theological dogma got me thinking again about this issue of certainty and doubt.

Throughout the centuries there, of course, has been a tremendous amount of intelligent writing by theologians and philosophers about this meticulous waltz between faith, reason, doubt and certainty.

I’ve said before that one of the key thoughts that I got out of Dave Tomlinson’s book, The Post Evangelical was his statement that the hallmark of the post evangelical is the loss of certainty in all things.

So all morning I’ve been thinking about the issue of doubt. As I press for complete honestly, living down near the first floor, I must admit that I’ve been a chronic doubter. I was one of the first agnostics in my Bible-belt high school. Then, after I became an evangelical, doubts continued haunting me. All my Christian peers could boast that they had 100% (or if they were ex-football players, they would say 110%) sure that not only God was there, not only that Christianity was true, but that their precise brand of theological dogma was true.

But, I now realize that it was not the doubts themselves which caused me so much grief. I mean, I did not lay awake in bed at night pondering the good chance that God did not exist. My doubts have always been minor. But it was the doubt-stigma that gave me grief.

I really think that doubts have gotten a raw deal. Doubt isn't the sign of lack of faith, or rebelling against God. Actually, those who say they never doubt should scare us.

Imagine that all doubts came from one little part of the brain. Say it was contained in a little scrotum-looking sack beneath the brain (okay, I know I'm describing the pituitary, but this is pretend). Now imagine that every Christian had this little doubt sack cut off. Never again would they doubt anything . . . but believe everything. This would be a complete disaster! If we think Christians are gullible now . . . can you imagine them without their doubt organ?

Doubt is a gift. We should doubt everything because we live in fallen world where real deceit thrives.

So when it comes to believing that God is there and that Christianity is true, I too believe that it is impossible for anyone to be 100% convinced. What happens is that they become more and more dishonest about their doubts.

If our reason is fallen it therefore (different than what Aristotle implied) can not arrive at total truth all the time. Secondly, our emotions are fallen and can not be trusted.

I work in neurology and almost 30% of our patients have psychogenic illnesses. These are not like real stomach ulcers caused by worry. These are totally fake diseases, like seizures, caused by the subconscious. The patient with fake seizures will fall on the floor, shake, scream grunt . . . but it is not real. Usually they are doing it to get the nurturing that they crave (and often did not get as small children).

So we can not trust our emotions. When we say that I know that God is there and I've never doubted Him for a second, then we are living closer to self-deceit. If God is there (and I believe that He is)then He is a God of truth. The closer we live to truth, the closer we live to God.

So, I believe that doubt is a gift. It is a gift that sadly has so much of a negative stigma attached, that most Christians are left to doubt in the secret places, in the dark corners of their minds.

I may add more . . . but again . . . maybe not.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me...several years ago, before settling on a local church in Boston, I had casually visited my housemate's Methodist church, and both of us were encouraged to participate in their "Alpha" course--I think they knew I was a believer--as I suspected many, if not most of the participants in the first session were as well. I attended a couple classes, and dropped out for some reason. Then a few years later, my pretty good, "thinking evangelical" adopted church here started an "Alpha" course of their own, billed in the bulletin as a place where "...doubts are welcome..." Knowing full well that Alpha was mainly an evangelistic tool to win new converts, I sent an email to the organizer, introducing myself as a Christian of several decades, but wishing to examine some nagging areas of doubt...asking whether I might be allowed to attend. No, I would not be allowed came the terse email response. "Alpha is for unbelievers." I've often wished there was a "Beta" class for believers...but that would be a hard one to sell, wouldn't it? One I'm sure many would wish they could attend, but wouldn't want anyone to know. Kind of like the "40-somethings" social group we tried to start, but couldn't get enough people to attend: one such female confided to me that she didn't want to show up and thereby publicly declare that she really was that old.

Scott in Boston

MJ said...

I know Scott. Too bad that there aren't classes for old Christian farts where "Doubts are welcome."

Our church in MN did allow me to teach a SS class (for adults) on Doubt. I used a tape series from LAbri's Dick Keyes (whom you've met). I noticed that many adults felt ashamed to attend. About 5-6 did.

I like Dick Keyes and his lectures on Doubt . . . but now I don't think he goes far enough. His points are that doubts are common and have many causes, but I don't remember him going as far as saying that doubting has a healthy purpose within the Church.

Budster said...

A month or so ago our pastor gave a sermon on Thomas, and suggested that "Doubting Thomas" had been given a bad rap. He suggested "Honest Thomas" was more fair. I liked that a lot. I always liked Thomas but could never get that song out of my head..."Don't be a Doubting Thomas, rest fully on his promise..." Here's to Honest Thomas, a good skeptic! MJ, I think you'd fit in well in a liberal Mennonite church. Got any of those nearby?

MJ said...

Budster . . . I really like it, Honest Thomas!

Tom S. said...

Being a Thomas myself, I really like the "Honest Thomas" moniker! It seems that "liberal" churches have a certain appeal to those who are of a post-evangelical mindset because they have far less certitude on especially non-essential matters of faith than their evangelical counterparts. I've been encouraged by the evangelical-oriented pastors that I've met in such liberal denominations, but am troubled by the theological wars that are taking place in many such churches.

Anonymous said...

I like "Honest Thomas" too...but it kind of makes me think of a used car don't by any chance sell cars, do you, Tom?

I just remembered that during our last missions conference, we had many guest, a black South African evangelist, whose mother abandoned him when he was very young (and his father much earlier). He grew up on the streets, was in jail as a very young teenager, had killed several people (that's when my ears really perked up--why's this guy out of prison?), etc., etc., a very dynamic testimony. I was trying hard to keep straight in my mind some of the timeline to his story...they events, times, and places didn't seem to add up. After the service, I went over to the book table, found his "Autobiography" and started flipping through the pages...unfortunately, the order & details of events did not exactly mesh with what I heard in his sermon...things like the age at which his mother abandoned him...something like 5 in his sermon, but 10 in his book! This kind of thing is really irritating...then his whole message was totally lost on me. I didn't want to get into it with the missions director (I would've had to get the audio of the sermon, and read the book, and document all the discrepancies eventually). This guy came with great recommendations from some of our missionaries in the field, and other Christian leaders. I can't say that he's an out and out fraud, and maybe the ghost writer got the facts wrong, or used creative license, but I'm afraid there are an awful lot of "Spiritual Bernie Madoffs" hoodwinking lots of naive or just lazy (like me) congregations. That it could happen in this particular church, where the average intellect is quite high, and the Ph.D. quotient is sometimes joked about, really annoyed me. Compare with Cornerstone Mag's unmasking of Mike Warnke. These are the cases where healthy doubt is essential.

--Scott in Boston

MJ said...

I agree Scott, that's were the gift of doubt comes in.

I think it is a good appreciation of the Fall that we love each other and trust each other . . . to a point.

Jaimie said...

It's interesting that many people condemn Honest/Doubting Thomas when Jesus did not. Jesus didn't avoid him and let him believe by faith or not believe at all. Jesus came to him and showed him the proof.

Quickly becoming one of my favorite Bible stories.

Anna A said...

Don't forget that it was Thomas that said, "Let us also go to die with him" (John 13:16, NJB)

I happen to like Thomas myself, he seems like a decent man, especially when you consider that he had gone independent after the crucifixion.

Tom S. said...

"I like 'Honest Thomas' too...but it kind of makes me think of a used car don't by any chance sell cars, do you, Tom?"

We're making deals, we're selling cars! No, I'm actually not a car salesman, used or otherwise. I'm actually a pastor whose currently not pastoring full time - working on finishing a doctorate, and serving on the pastoral care team at my church in a lay capacity.