“Sometimes certainty conquers doubt, but it cannot eliminate doubt. The conquered of today may become the conqueror of tomorrow. Sometimes doubt conquers faith, but it still contains faith. Otherwise it would be indifference.”
—Paul Tillich, The Life of Faith (1958)
Doubt has a bad reputation in faith circles. To be sure, the Biblical record comes down pretty hard on doubt and its practitioners. “He who doubts,” writes James, “is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” And poor Thomas, not quite as quick to adopt the company line, is condescendingly (and in hindsight) dubbed “doubting Thomas” by us smugly confident disciples. In a faith community doubt is no virtue, and those who experience doubt are to be pitied. As Jude writes, “Be merciful to those who doubt.” For most believers, doubt is the antithesis of faith, an insidious enemy subverting essential belief, numbing truth, crushing hope, and destroying both joy and meaning.
Yet, though it may not ultimately demolish our faith, doubt is often persistent, if only as a chronic vague irresolution. Sometimes spiritual doubt is not so easily articulated. It might not be attached to questions about specific doctrines or the soul’s well-being. Many times doubt is merely unease, an uncertainty about what we actually know about the whole spiritual enterprise. This kind of doubt recognizes that there is much we simply do not—and maybe cannot—understand about God, ourselves, and the relationship between. This kind of doubt seems a form of genuine humility, prodded by the very things we do believe about a transcendent God and the limitations of a created humanity.
Doubt is not necessarily unbelief in God or His Word. Sometimes it is a lack of confidence in our own assumptions about that word or uncertainty about the reliability of our perceptions. What God says and what I think he’s saying may be two different things. The Holy Spirit’s interpretive powers, history, and experience point to a signature predilection for misinterpretation. Sincerity is no safeguard against error. A generous allowance for our own ignorance may be the best way to approach divine realities. As Isaiah writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. Human limitations are not a matter of degree but of category.
But doubt need not be fatalistic. Good doubt recognizes not only that there are things unknown, but more importantly, that there are things yet to be known. Healthy skepticism about the adequacy of current understanding can motivate us to a pursuit of a greater one. Doubt can propel us to reach for what we do not yet have. For the Christian, spiritual doubt may nurture dissatisfaction with religious cliché and lead to a search for the substantive. More than that, doubt may open us to different ways spiritual knowledge can be experienced and even to altogether different kinds of spiritual knowledge. I’m not implying a New Age inclusiveness, but rather an anticipatory awareness that the God of the Bible is He who will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. Doubt is born of both poverty and promise.
The phrase “Know thyself” was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has been the mantra of the Western mind ever since. For the Greeks, the gods were terminally inscrutable, and knowledge of them was contingent and, ultimately, futile. So they turned the search for truth toward themselves. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” Indeed, there is much to know about ourselves. We are astonishingly complex beings whose intricate dynamic systems defy reductionism. We are plumbless mysteries to ourselves.
By contrast, the Hebrews contended that true knowledge was found, not in knowing ourselves, but in knowing God. Yet this very God is Himself a fathomless, inexhaustible mystery. King David exulted in this mystery: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. A thousand years later the Apostle Paul asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” For me this same glorious ignorance is captured in the simple phrase, “I don’t get it.”
I used to flee from doubt. Now I realize that my doubt consists not of unbelief (at least as far as I can tell) but of honest questions, questions often prompted by the claims of Scripture as well as the often troubling discrepancies between the apparent normative Christian experience as recorded there and my own decidedly dimmer ones. Perhaps I should have entitled this article “The Persistence of Belief,” for it is my determination to learn the dance of faith that makes my missteps so apparent. Perhaps, as the theologian Paul Tillich suggests, faith and doubt are partners in the dance. Sometimes faith leads to questions, sometimes questions lead, if not exactly to answers, then to a richer, more delightful faith, a faith robust enough to entertain the next inevitable inquiry.
Fred Allen heads up Burning Bush Ministries, teaches literature, draws cartoons, and writes a lot. He is the author of Our Daily Fred, an alternative online devotional, found at http://ourdailyfred.wordpress.com. He and his family live in Salem, Ore.