Certain Doubts

pewsIn the Fall of 1988, my friend Dave and I were sitting in a large conference hall listening to a man named Bill Gothard as he shared with us and a few thousand other “troubled teens” about how they can get their lives on the right path by following a series of principles that he carefully laid out for all of us.  Dave lived with his grandmother and she paid our way into the conference, believing that we needed the spiritual “redirect” that this was supposed to provide.  Dave was estranged from his parents, and I was from a broken home, so she figured that we were prime candidates for Gothard’s teachings.  Thankfully, Dave had his driver’s license, and we were allowed to attend unaccompanied by the watchful eye of his strict grandmother. We swore to her that we would go, and we did, for about one hour each day (at most).  Then we would look at each other, get up and mozy out the door for an afternoon of doing whatever we wanted to do (yes, I am sidestepping the ethical questions about lying to his grandmother).

Other than the fact that sitting through a multi-day, hours-long seminar wasn’t our idea of a good time, we were certainly not interested in hearing from someone who was of the opinion that all forms of rock-n-roll were evil.  We didn’t get much past that portion of his very rigid belief system (thankfully).

While I can say that I wasn’t raised on Bill Gothard, his approach to faith is one example of a “way” of believing that I was raised with… the idea that your beliefs were not to be questioned.

I can recall having a “defense guide,” just in case any of those pesky doubts came pouring in.  I’ll never forget the book: When Skeptics Ask, by Norman Geisler.  It was a guillotine for questions about Christianity.  The blade was sharp and at the ready for any question you might ask.  I don’t remember who turned me on to this book, but I’m guessing it was one youth minister in particular, who was of the mind that argumentation was the best presentation of his Christianity to those who didn’t share his faith.

In spite of that youth minister’s best efforts, doubt has been a part of my faith journey for a long time. I’ve read plenty of answer books from the best that Christian apologetics have to offer and those authors make a lot of sense for the most part.  But there are a few major problems with using apologetics as a way to resolve doubts:

  • They’ve never led me to trust God
  • They usually fuel an “us vs. them” approach to Christianity
  • They assume that having an answer to these questions will result in a satisfying faith experience
  • They don’t always fully satisfy the difficult questions of our faith

This criticism of apologetics isn’t new or unique, but I mention it because I think it is still common to hear “helpful counter arguments” as a response to those who express any doubts about their Christian beliefs.  While that may help someone think through faith issues on occasion, there is a tendency among Christians to use them to shut down the voice of doubt, instead of listening wisely.

I recently had a phone conversation with a friend who shared about how he has ended up at a place much like agnosticism.  He’s been a pastor and grew up in a strong, very conservative church in California.  Especially because of one very difficult experience, he is confused and angry about what he was taught about God in his formative years.  Without going into all the things that led up to this, I can tell you that one important part of his story is that the church hasn’t known how to respond to his struggle.

I had nothing in the way of answers to help him resolve the struggle.  My response wasn’t formulaic in any way and really not intentional, but it turned out something like this:

I listened,
I shared some of my story around the doubts I’ve struggled with,
I shared why I’m hanging on (sometimes barely),
I shared the ways it continues to be difficult,
and then I invited more conversation.

In no way was that meant to serve as the “answer” he may or may not be looking for.  In fact, the conversation may have benefitted me more than it did him.  And that’s the point.  The conversation was the benefit, not some ironclad argument that is meant to scare off doubts and questions.   What keeps the church from having these kinds of conversations without isolating or patronizing people?

Probably because certainty is more important to us than honesty about our beliefs.  Until that changes, we won’t be able to have the kinds of conversations that real doubts will always require.

For those of us who have a penchant for questioning just about everything, doubt will always come back to the door of our faith with a steady, unrelenting knock.  I’m making it a habit to answer the door and invite it in with the hopes that the conversation will lead to a more resilient faith.

5 thoughts on “Certain Doubts

  1. I remember, some years ago now, when you shared this quote with me on the HOTCW blog… “If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

    If this is true, then it instructs us that even our doubts should lead us somewhere (preferably away from mere doubting). When we’re drawn to Christ, we’re drawn more by certain questions than certain answers. It’s a ‘Come and See’ mentality, doubts and all (see that I exchanged warts for doubts there? would that we could do that in real life too!)

    I like how you said that certain answers (e.g. apologetics) never led you to God or at least to trust in Him, and I would agree. I do think, however, that certain claims (He is the Christ), mingled with our doubts (Could He be the One?), should lead us to investigate further (Come and See).

    Another of your quotes to me: “There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. ” ~ John Stuart Mill

    From one fellow pilgrim to another, I’m glad we have each other to lean on and share doubts, fears and trials with. Although, I hasten to say, I am even more enthusiastic about the fact that we share certain claims, longings and investigations together. These are definitely where I pull my energy from to continue to pursue, investigate and sojourn.

    • Ah, yes, those quotes… don’t forget this one: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” (Voltaire)

      Thanks for digging through this with such a thoughtful response. I vacillate between doubt and “sufficient assurance”, but I don’t go within 100 miles of what we call “certainty.” It’s not something I really intend to do. It’s DNA and brain mapping, I suppose.

      I’m not a huge fan of the Wittgenstein comment because I don’t really understand how doubt presupposes certainty in any case, so even though I posted the quote, I’d have to read more of what he means. (Thank you again, Wikipedia).

      I certainly agree with you that doubt should lead away from a state of “mere doubting”. That’s the idea. Somehow, doubt can inform our faith, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly how. I just know that suppressing them has only weakened my faith.

      And yes, thank you too. I have one more post on this stuff, and then I can move on. I doubt that it will be along the lines of things that keep you moving forward. It’s more of a stop and examine. So when you stop with me for a moment on these kinds of “slow-motion” topics, I do appreciate it (I know it’s a bit of a sacrifice).

  2. Had to put this Buechner post somewhere, and I figured the comments of this particular post was as good as any…

    If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.

    -Originally published in the novel “The Return of Ansel Gibbs”

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