part one and two are diagnostic; part three is constructive. read in the order you see fit.)
Part One: Intro to Problem
“No one doubts anymore because faith has been banished! A life of faith has vanished, and with it the ability to doubt.”
My primary concern is with discipleship and spiritual formation within the Church, but this reflection could be easily extended beyond ecclesial walls (see a gauche’s “In Defense of These Deflated Meta-Narratives“). My premise is that we no long know how to truly doubt because we no long believe.
But let me begin again…What doubt am I talking about? Let’s make a distinction: there is philosophical doubt and existential doubt; or there is methodological doubt and personal doubt (from hear on out I’ll refer to “philosophical” and “personal” doubt because my homiletics professor would like the alliteration…).
Concerning the first, philosophic, the history is well known. Amid the religious wars which had engulfed Europe after the Reformation/Renaissance Rene Descartes began his quest for a universal foundation of human reason on from which he could evaluate conflicting epistemological claims. In other words, he was trying to find that one place from which everyone could agree. Methodologically this led him to doubt everything until he found that something of which it is impossible to doubt. From this process came is famous dictum, “I think therefore I am.” And from this radical doubt springs the Enlightenment, the search for pure reason through the doubting of everything received whether it be tradition, religion, family, or even perception.
However, there is one catch. This radical “life of doubt,” or philosophical doubt, was pursued for the explicit purpose of banishing all personal doubts. It was the Descartes, awash in epistemological chaos, full of personal doubts and anxieties that entered into philosophical doubt. Philosophical doubt was a retreat from and panacea for personal doubts, and the Enlightenment took up this quest diligently. Therefore, once the philosophical process is over, there is no longer any need to doubt, because now we have a certain answer for every personal doubt.
Part Two: Consequences
While those better informed might tease out the consequences of this “life of doubt” in our contemporary life, I will focus on the Church. The “life of doubt” has affected both the mainline/liberal as well as the conservative/evangelical church.
For the mainliners, the use of modern epistemological tools coupled with radical cynicism resulted in the deletion of much of orthodoxy replaced by culturally sensitive theological ambiguities which portioned off Christian identity. It left them with a radical critique of the faith such that the form barely consisted without content.
But the conservatives did not fair much better. In fact they might be worse off for their appropriation of Enlightenment doubt. Using the same epistemological tools, yet for a different use, conservatives began a militant defense of the faith, but not grounded in faith, resulting in a semblance of orthodoxy. They defended faith through doubt, thereby denying the faith of Paul/Abraham which moves from “faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17).
The relation of doubt and faith have been all screwed up, where now in much of the Church, real personal doubt is not allowed to be spoken. We are left with either radical doubt or militant faith, both of which kill true doubt and true faith. We aren’t allowed to question, we can’t voice our concerns, we can’t speak our doubts, because this would be a betrayal of modern faith, which demands certainty.
Part Three: The Doubtful Address of Faith
So this is the difference between the “life of doubt” and the “life of faith.” The “life of doubt” (“I doubt therefore I am”) can truly only give answers. The “life of faith” can truly ask questions. In this “life of doubt” I must fill the in abyss with answer after answer, frantically dousing the fires of ambiguity with coolly reasoned answers b/c I can’t persist in perpetual doubt. But the life of faith (“I belief therefore I am”) floats above the abyss, suspended by the address to and from anOther, able to fully enter the questions and ambiguities of life precisely because doubt is not our horizon, nor the constitution of our being, but the voice of faith amid the complexity of existence.
This brings us back to the practices of discipleship and spiritual formation. The “life of doubt” can’t bring to speech actual doubt. But the “life of faith” can bring actual doubts to speech. True faith, even during the dark night of the soul, even in the winter of disorientation, true faith can bring its doubts to God. It still addresses God and vocalizes doubts. This is seen continually in the Psalms. The Psalms are nothing but a persistent addressing to God the concerns of our lives. No matter the situation, the Psalmists are still talking with God. Can we cultivate in our Churches this doubtful address of faith, or are we too quick to answer the personal doubts of others?
Illustration of Job: Think through the life of Job, his suffering, his calling out to God, his receiving answers from his friends (orthodox explanations of what is happening and who is at fault). His wife advises him to curse God and die. But Job questions God and lives. His three friends come around and give him answer after answer, but he is never satisfied. So Job questions God, and demands an answer from God himself, not anyone else. But when God arrives, God doesn’t even offer the correct answer to Job’s question, there is no explanation. Only more questions. One questioner to another questioner. There are no answers, only questions. For Job, and for us, questions are the answer. Questions addressed to God, spoken to God, directed toward God, not the void or nothingness, and not silence and mute depression. Job in the midst of doubt and suffering still addresses God because there is still a relationship. And God, even though he questions Job, affirms the relationship through his questions.
So how can we affirm/encourage the doubtful questioning of faith? Or will we continue to replace true faith with the answers of doubt?
In the life of doubt, both doubt and faith are ultimately to be feared b/c they both close the space of the subject.
In the life of faith, both doubt and faith are embraced b/c they keep open the space for the subject to participate in/with Another.
Doubt ruptures relationships, but Faith forges them.
these thoughts brought to you by walter bruggemann’s spirituality of the psalms and robert pfaller’s Negation and its Reliabilities:
An Empty Subject for Ideology?.