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Library Learnings: When in Doubt, Go to the Library


“…Those who would celebrate doubt, as what makes us religiously mature, or who imagine that faith and doubt actually go together…, well, they have it all wrong.” Ronald Marshall is preaching, and he’s awfully sure of himself: “…we are instead to trust, obey, and follow, not hesitate, look back, or doubt!”

When it surfaces, doubt often has been squelched within Christian Church circles. True, it isn’t here, but it certainly was in our almost-lifelong while within the Lutheran Church. Consider the Rev. Marshall’s take-no-prisoners 2008 sermon, “Don’t Doubt”—he’s pastor of Seattle’s First Lutheran Church, and has been since 1979:

“…Jesus said [in John 20:27], ‘Don’t doubt, but believe.’ …How much clearer could this be? …a life of doubt and hesitation would be a disaster for Christianity. …doubt cuts our legs out from under us, gleefully throwing our daily lives into question. …To allow doubt to spill over into our religious lives only destroys faith….”

As a clincher, he quoted from the works of Martin Luther [the critical complete edition, in German, consists of 121 volumes]: “…doubt is a ‘dangerous plague.’ ‘…[it] is by far the gravest of all the sins which condemn the world and unbelievers.’ So, the ‘effrontery to teach…that one should doubt’ is nothing more than the devil’s work. …we should instead ‘engage in a continual struggle against doubt.’ …Our goal should be to ’strive for certainty,’ and ‘believe with complete certainty.’”

A year and a bit ago, the progressivechristianity.org website came to doubt’s rescue: “Everyone has doubts. Everyone has questions. It used to be a sign of ‘faith’ to suppress one’s doubts and questions, but no more. There is enough unanswerable mystery in the universe without creating more by refusing the gift of rational thought.”

In an accompanying essay, United Congregational Church cleric Bil Aulenbach carried forward these notions: “My liberal arts education taught me to question everything, and I have spent my life doing just that…. For me, being a doubting Thomas is one of the foundation stones of my theology and faith. This is the only way I can continue to grow. I have to keep asking my questions.”

“Certainty is so often overrated,” Julia Baird concurs. “This is especially the case when it comes to faith, or other imponderables.” An author, journalist, and broadcaster in Sydney, Australia, she made her claim half-a-dozen years ago in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “Doubt as a Sign of Faith”. She mentions how “the explosion of questioning among Christian thinkers in the Victorian era transformed the idea of doubt from a sin or lapse to necessary exploration,” and argues, “Just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the presence of doubt. Faith becomes then a commitment, a practice, and a pact….”

Easier said than done? Baird mentions another writer, Flannery O’Connor, who lamented, there is “‘no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe.’” As for Baird, at least, such torments were “‘the process by which faith is deepened.’”

The author of The Faith to Doubt pictures those who question their beliefs as valorous: “…It marks his courage,” M. Holmes Hartshorne says of the doubter. As the Harry Emerson Fosdick professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University, where he taught for 30 years into the 1970s, he, in his 1963 book, held that “Many [Christians] have wondered anxiously whether their belief in God was perhaps only so much wishful thinking….

“…We doubt,” he continued, “in order that we may not be wrong. …if we are to discover whether something is true or right or good, we must question, probe, test, doubt….” So it was that he celebrated the person who “dares to stand against the claims that have convinced him absolutely, and given meaning to his life. Such courage entails an ultimate risk. The foundations of his life are challenged fatefully, and with his consent….”

Wrestling with misgivings became so much a part of blogger Jason Boyett, that he wrote a book about it a decade ago for Zondervan. It opens with this admission: “I am a Christian. I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times—a growing number of times, to be honest—when I’m not entirely sure I believe in God. There. I said it.”

In an interview with another Christian writer, the late Rachel Held Evans, he explained, “Doubt is one of those things we bottle up. When you do that for years and years, the pressure gets too intense.” To let it out, he wrote, O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling. “I don’t want to be a doubter,” he allowed in his talk with Evans, “but I am. …you can’t will yourself to believe something….”

What Boyett does believe, he told his interviewer, is that “doubt is a necessary part of faith. We tend to think that faith and doubt are opposites, but they’re not. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. If we are certain of something, we don’t need faith. Faith and doubt, then, exist side by side, and that plays itself out all over the Bible (‘Lord, I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief.’).”

(Others make this same point, including Catherine Keller, professor of theology at Drew University, who does it in just two sentences in her 2008 book, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process: “…Certainty renders faith redundant. …If we do not sometimes doubt, it is certainty we have—not faith….”)

And yet, Boyett admits, “doubt is about as taboo a subject as you can bring up in church.”

Strange, since “Spiritual doubt has been a reality of the Christian journey since the disciples; and today is no different,” Roxanne Stone acknowledged, two years ago, in a Barna research release, “Two-Thirds of Christians Face Doubt.” “Just like 1st-century Christians,” she reports, “their 21st-century counterparts question aspects of their theology, doubt the existence of God, and mourn his seeming absence during hard times.”

Barna’s findings come out of a survey, conducted online in June, 2017, with a nationally representative sample of 1,015 American adults. Now in its 35th year, the California-based Barna Group—for which Stone serves as editor-in-chief—is acknowledged as being a leading research organization that focuses on “the intersection of faith and culture.”

The findings are intriguing: “…questioning what you believe about religion or God is commonplace for most American adults who self-identify as Christian, or have in the past”—the actual figure is 65%. “Only about one-third claim to have never experienced it at all.” The report concludes, “At the end of the day, spiritual doubt can be a powerful and formative experience, strengthening and bolstering faith. For more than half of those who wrestled with doubt (53%), the time spent asking honest questions about what they believe about their religion or God made their faith stronger.” Mind you, this also is true: “…about one in eight lost their faith entirely.”

If, now, you’re left wondering, puzzling, questioning…if you’re having doubts about doubt…you might heed designer/illustrator/letterer Risa Rodil’s counsel, blazoned on one of the four perky posters that decorate the walls of the SSUC Library: “When in doubt, go to the library.” There, you’ll find a couple of books, each significant, but each very different from the other, in which doubt is regarded: Val Webb’s ardent In Defence of Doubt—An Invitation to Adventure, and Jennifer Michael Hecht’s no-stone-left-unturned Doubt—A History.  

A NP Journal review insists that Hecht, a poet, historian, and commentator, “has provided an intellectual feast,” and describes her book as “a tour de force of doubt’s history.” “The breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history,” Publishers Weekly warrants; it reveals “the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fuelling intellectual discovery.” And the Graceful Atheist mentions how the book “is dense with quotes from doubters, and moves at breakneck speed from 600 BCE to the turn of the millennium.”

Hecht’s 500-page text—this figure doesn’t include the 26 pages of notes, the 21-page index, or the 246-works bibliography—ends with this attestation: “…to be a doubter is a great old allegiance, deserving quiet respect and open pride.” And in the penultimate paragraph, she tells the reader, “…if you live long enough, you will likely find yourself believing something that you’d never believe today. Or disbelieving. In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt.”

In a now-decade-old interview on Krista Tippet’s long-running NPR show, “On Being,” Hecht remarked how Jesus’ “contribution to the story of doubt was huge…. You know, in two of the three Synoptic Gospels—the three we think of as the most historical—Jesus’ last words are, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’.” (Near the end of that interview, Tippet asks Hecht if she considers herself to be “a religious person.” “No,” comes the quick reply, “I consider myself to be a doubter.”)

On a speaking tour of Great Britain, In Defence of Doubt author, Australian Val Webb, introduced herself in these words: “I grew up a God-intoxicated evangelical Christian, but struggled all the while with doubts about many Christian ‘truths’ I had to believe. In my religious tradition, doubt was frowned upon. The more one could just believe without question, the better a Christian they were.”

But the author and academic, having earned a graduate degree in science and a Ph.D. in theology, changed her thinking, and went on to hold executive posts in the Uniting Church in Australia. As she told the Brits, she came to see that “doubts were not negatives, but positives [like] sand that irritates the oyster long enough to produce a beautiful pearl.”

In her book, Webb contends that, “Doubt becomes a moment of grace, an unpredictable and enlivening gift that assures us of the need to move. Doubt shows that work needs to be done on our life journey…. …I believe the solution to the struggle with doubt, beliefs, and faith, is to be on the journey…. There is never a moment when I will say I no longer doubt, because doubting brings new answers, which bring new richness of experience, and thus new questions—and so it goes on. To have no more doubts is to no longer be truly alive.”

Five years ago, progressivechristianity.org presented web-readers with a brief work by Tennessee poet Alice Smith, whose verse, it’s said, “draws the reader into examining life in a more attentive and appreciative way.” The poem is entitled, simply, “Doubt”: “Concrete certainty solidifies fluid possibility and stultifies natural evolution, diminishing the mystery and wonder of the Divine. Doubt creates the rising question that leavens the bread, the fruitful searching that ferments the wine, and the endless exploring that finds the unexpected spark of light in the darkened tomb.”

All such ruminations as have gone to make up this jotting might lead one to suppose radical theologian Peter Rollins didn’t get it wrong when he appended these seven words to the title of his 2011 book, Insurrection: “To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine.”

Ken Fredrick

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