Faith and Doubt: some further reflections

As one of those who encouraged Fr. Steve to post his sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, I suppose it behooves me to follow up somewhat with some of the thoughts that led me to nudge him in that direction.

I’ve wound up preaching on two previous Low Sundays myself (2007 and 2008), and the more I come back to the story of St. Thomas, the less certain I become. What seemed clearly hortatory to me when I was a child now seems one of the great mysteries. I’m certainly no longer ready to condemn St. Thomas for his doubt. Maybe that’s how I’m supposed to take it, but I don’t: I know that doubt is there — it’s part of my own view of the world as a Christian, and if I were to shut the door on that entirely, I’m not sure I’d like where I’d find myself. More to the point, however, I don’t think my faith would be the stronger for it.

Fr. Steve’s distinction of “in-doubts” and “out-doubts” is, I’m convinced, a useful way of grouping the experiences. But it’s primarily a way of clustering them before and after you’ve made a certain commitment. What continues to elude me is the essential what-it-is of faith and doubt, and how they are related to one another. I’m putting these thoughts out here in hopes that someone will rise to the occasion and enlighten me, or that (at least) we might have an interesting discussion on the subject.

As a teacher, one of the things I am perennially telling my students is that they need to define their terms. That’s part of the need here, I think. For all that we hear “have faith” as an exhortation, few who use it seem to be very clear on what faith really is, or what having faith looks like.

Catholics talk about acceding to the magisterium of the Church. That makes a certain amount of sense to me. The Catholic hierarchy claims to be invested with authority from Christ himself through the Petrine succession, and that hierarchy carries forth the teaching authority into the world in each succeeding age. I’m not a Catholic, but this piece of Catholic dogma seems entirely consistent with the rest of it, and if I were a Catholic, I’d have no trouble accepting it.

Fundamentalists talk about having faith in the Bible. That makes a bit less sense to me — which is not to say that I’m writing off scripture, but merely that as the term emerges and is used in scripture, having faith is almost always couched in terms of having faith in someone. But we can return to this later.

What both of these positions seem to mean is that I should maintain a certain inner attitude or state of mind, which we call belief (as if we knew what that word meant), regarding some set of propositions, be they the words of the Bible (and nothing else), or the collective teaching authority of sacred tradition (which includes, but is not limited to the Bible), or the three-way distribution of authority posited in Anglican thought. Believing that they are all true statements is good; not believing that they are true is bad. Doubt is a kind of not believing, and hence that’s bad too, while believing without questioning is apparently the best state to be in. Once you allow a foot in the door for any kind of questioning the whole thing falls apart. Only for me it’s an unattainable state, and I’m no longer sure that the doubt-free existence is one that I even aspire to attain.

To some extent, I get it. Faith is a linch-pin of our relationship to God. We should have faith. Abraham had faith, we are told, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That is, it was effectively filling in for a righteousness that he didn’t, in propria persona, have. Whatever it is, then, it must be pretty profound and powerful stuff. I confess that I find that extremely resonant. It’s not merely that it seems satisfying to me, but it seems consistent with the long course of God’s actions throughout history. God loved Abraham and David and the other leading patriarchs not because of their good behavior — but most often in spite of it. Paul and the author of Hebrews hold forth eloquently on how faith bridges for us a gap that we could not otherwise cross. I get all that. I even believe it.

Whence, therefore, comes the exhortation, “Believe! Have faith!” I get that too. But when I start to look at the problem, I wonder what it is really asking of me. If it’s merely a matter of resigning myself to an absolute credulity , then two things happen. On my view, neither of them is much good.

First of all, I’m not really eliminating my doubts; I’m merely sitting on them, hiding them, and pretending that they don’t exist. If I base my service of the Lord on a lie, how far can that get? The father of the demoniac boy cries to the Lord, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). He is not concealing his doubt, but opening it to the light of day.

Second of all, if this is something I can be enjoined to do (as apparently it is), then it implicitly is advice I can take. That is, I can choose to do it or not. If it’s something I can accomplish on my own, though, how is this not a species of salvation by my own works — a work of self-persuasion (if not self-delusion)? If it’s not something I can accomplish, why should anyone enjoin me to do so? Can it possibly be that justification by faith (in which I really do believe) just boils down to a special case of justification by my own works? I don’t like it. Paul has persuaded me well enough that nothing I can do can make me deserving of salvation. I’m quite convinced that he’s right.

So the story of St. Thomas, it seems to me, puts one of the sharpest possible points on this problem. Consider the following three facts:

  1. Jesus won’t provide the faithless people with signs, and claims to be unable to produce signs for certain people because of their lack of faith.
  2. Jesus here tells Thomas to have faith, and not be faithless. Presumably this is because Thomas in some dimension is deficient in faith.
  3. Jesus does actually offer the sign Thomas has asked for.

What all that says to me is that faith is not a simple term that we can take simply. Nor is it just a matter of credulity or of keeping one’s doubts in check. Faith is not something you can really accomplish or achieve on your own, in any case. Just slamming the door on your doubts won’t help you in the long run. It’s a good recipe for a spiritual ulcer.

It seems clear to me, though, that looking through the Greek New Testament at all the various uses of the verb that’s used here for “believe” — namely πιστεύω (pisteuo) — there’s something more going on than merely granting intellectual assent to something. That verb is really rather seldom used to mean merely “to be persuaded of the truth of a proposition”. It’s almost always used in a personal sense. This is the part of the puzzle that seems critical to me. The faith I have in my wife, my children, and my friends is not really about accepting their existence as propositions. It’s not really about any other set of facts about them; it’s not even about believing that they will never deceive me. It’s personal faith — at a completely different level.

That’s why I cannot “believe in” the Bible the way some fundamentalists want me to. It’s less a matter of whether it’s right or wrong, and more a matter of what kind of thing it is in the first place. We can believe a report, an equation, a chemical formula, or the scriptures. We can only believe in someone. Ultimately, the only valid object of that kind of belief is God; through God we can extend something similar to other people.

Theology is a wonderful study, but it will always fall short of the glory of its object. It will probably even fall short of what stirs inside us. I’m a scholar by training. I’m a big fan of intellectual precision and integrity, and in my accounts, intellectual assent is a good thing; our doubts — whether of the “in” or “out” variety — may be a good thing too. They are not the negation of faith, however, I would say, but a means or process of its validation. We are not saved by the Bible, I would argue, or by the magisterium of the Church. We are not saved, in fact, by our theology at all, but by the ever-present love and grace of the living Lord. And that’s where our faith lives.

If this all seems rather inconclusive, I guess I must allow that it is. I’m hoping someone else will come along and have something interesting or illuminating to say about what things make faith and doubt what they are. I’d like to understand them better. But I can offer as a stopgap a quotation that I’ve come back to about faith over the years — one I can understand, at least. It’s from a work of fiction, and a children’s book at that. In The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis, an improbable and highly pessimistic character named Puddleglum is being held captive in a cave by an enchantress who argues that that’s all there is. He is confronted with an apparently incontrovertible argument that Aslan and the rest of the world above is all a figment of his imagination. He responds with what is, to my way of thinking, one of the great confessions of faith. It’s interesting that it does not ultimately depend on a proposition at all:

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Since I first read that, it has been increasingly important to me. Don’t get me wrong: I do factually believe that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that he is the very foundation of all being; I do believe that his son Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried. I believe that He rose again in accordance with the scriptures. But those are facts that someone might doubt. There’s something else — quite different — in the structure of my faith that’s rooted in the sense that Jesus is my friend. It’s not made up of some list of facts about Jesus; it’s about who He is and who I am. He’s my friend because He first called me to be His. Whatever doubts encroach on my faith from day to day, that’s the center from which I define myself.

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Josh Hosler - April 20, 2010

Bruce, thank you so much for this, and thank you, Fr. Steve, for reposting it on Facebook.

I think the only thing I might add is the word “trust.” For me, faith means trusting that the divine force that created the universe actually has a personal interest in me and what happens in my life.

When I get all wrapped up in what I am or am not capable of doing in any given moment, it sure helps to dip into that well of trusting faith that Julian of Norwich expressed so well: “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

If I’m in deep water and don’t know how to swim, it behooves me to trust the arms that are holding me up!

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