Book Club Discussion: Doubt as a Necessary Element of Faith

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Voltaire once said that “doubt is uncomfortable, certainty ridiculous.” 

As we continue our discussion of Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, I’d like to explore the role that doubt plays in the faith experience. Having struggled with doubt throughout much of my adulthood, I think it’s important to honestly examine both its positive and negative effects, and to suggest that while doubt can be uncomfortable, it is no more dangerous than absolute certainty.

Central to Rollins’ approach to theology is maintaining a balance between “believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God.” (26)

Rollins writes that “this unknowing is to be utterly distinguished from an intellectually lazy ignorance, for it is a type of unknowing which arises not from imprecision but rather from deep reflection and sustained meditation…It is a recognition that negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation. It is an acknowledgement that a desert of ignorance exists in the midst of every oasis of understanding…This (approach) is not then some temporary place of uncertainty on the way to spiritual maturity, but rather is something that operates within faith as a type of heat-inducing friction that prevents our liquid images of the divine from cooling and solidifying into idolatrous form.” (26-27) Don't you love that image? 

With this in mind, Rollins concludes that “in contrast to the modern view that religious doubt is something to reject, fear or merely tolerate, doubt not only can be seen as an inevitable aspect of our humanity but also can be celebrated as a vital part of faith.” (33) 

It seems to me that, when used properly, doubt helps prevent the believer from making God into an intellectual idol. Case in point: the Pharisees rejected Jesus primarily because they had already made up their minds about what the Messiah ought to look like, and Jesus didn’t fit the bill. They were studied in Scripture and in Jewish law and tradition, but because they were so convinced they were right, so unwilling to hold their beliefs about God with an open hand, they missed Him in his “distressing disguise.” They missed Him when He was right there in their midst, leading Jesus to proclaim, “I praise You, Father Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way is well-pleasing in your sight.” 

Sometimes when people refer to having a “child-like faith,” they refer to an unquestioning commitment to one’s religious tradition. And yet, when I think of children, I think of their sometimes annoying tendency to ask a bunch of questions. (“Why is the sky blue? Why do people live in houses? Why do I have to go to bed at 9:00? Where do babies come from? Why do I have to ask my parents that last question?” etc.) Perhaps God desires a childlike faith in Him, complete with all the annoying questions, for questions reveal trust and humility. 

I think it’s important to distinguish between doubting God and doubting what one believes about God. While the former can be spiritually destructive (I know, because I’ve been there), the latter enables the believer to encounter God in new and unexpected ways (I’ve been there too.) 

The problem with absolute certainty is that it closes one off to the possibility of new revelation. In fact, it negates the need for faith altogether. Rollins writes, “A faith that only exist in the light of victory and certainty is one which really affirms the self while pretending to affirm Christ…Only a genuine faith can embrace doubt, for such a faith does not act because of a self-interested reason (such as fear of hell or desire for heaven) but acts simply because it must.” (34) 

With this in mind, I think it’s possible to reconcile the necessity doubting one’s theology with James’ warning that “the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.”

In this passage, James is talking about doubt in the context of praying for wisdom, in the context of action. He says that “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting.”

So James is urging his readers to ask God to give them wisdom for enduring the trials in their lives, with the expectation that God will in fact do so. He is asking them to take a step of faith, to make a commitment to prayer without proof or an absolute guarantee that things will work out. He is asking that they show faith through their actions. 

In the end, I would conclude that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Disobedience is the opposite of faith. Furthemore, certainty is not a sign of faith, but a sign of idolatry because certainty requires no faith. What do you think?

One of my favorite poems of all time is Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” Written over a 17-year period, the lengthy piece describes Tennyson’s struggle with doubt, brought on by the death of a close friend as well as discoveries concerning evolution and science. (I love how the poem addresses doubt from both emotional and intellectual angles.) One of the most quoted lines of the poem is, “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in all the creeds.” 

However, my favorite lines, the ones that to me best describe the painful experience of doubt (both doubting theology and doubting God Himself), come at the end of the poem. I like that for Tennyson, resolution comes, not from reason or proof or certainty, but from faith. 

    That which we dare invoke to bless,
    Our dearest faith, our ghastliest doubt; 
    He, They, One, All, within, without, 
    The power in darkness whom we guess-

    I found Him not in world or sun
    Or eagle's wing, or insect  eye 
    Nor through the questions men may try
    The petty cobwebs we have spun.

    If e’eer when faith had fallen asleep 
    I heard a voice ‘believe no more,’ 
    And heard an ever-breaking shore 
    That tumble din the godless deep, 

    A warmth within the breast would melt 
    The freezing reason’s colder part, 
    And like a man in wrath the heart 
    Stood up and answers, ‘ I have felt.’ 

    No, like a child in doubt and fear:
    But that blind clamor made me wise;
    Then was I as a child that cries,
    But crying knows his father near; 

    And what I am beheld again
    What is, and no man understands;
    And out of darkness came the hands
    That reach through nature, molding men.

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