Years ago I had the impression that doubt was mostly a thing for young adults. It was the sort of thing that hit you in your second year of university or in those early years working alongside people very different from yourself. Maybe it was spawned by encountering a thoroughgoing naturalistic worldview for the first time or maybe it was meeting someone of a different faith background who turned out not to be as questionable as you had grown up assuming.
I still think those experiences can lead to doubt about one’s faith, but now I realize more clearly that doubt isn’t just for young adults. In fact, the conversations I’ve been having about doubt these days are mostly with older adults. Sometimes it is spawned by people thinking about their own mortality. Sometimes it’s the thought that faith in God served an important psychological function earlier in life but is no longer needed. Sometimes it’s people reflecting on the fact that their adult children have nothing to do with the church (but are still pretty good people). Sometimes, more cynically, doubt is spawned by being so put off by the faith claims of the Trump troop that one begins to doubt whether faith claims are ever more than power grabs.
With this in mind, I want to share a few reflections on doubt, not because I think it’s my job to fix anyone’s faith, not because I think have some privileged view on the matter, and not because I think anyone’s individual response to doubt is necessarily problematic. I’m sharing these thoughts, organized as four short propositions, because there are a few things I find myself repeating. I’m pretty sure none of these ideas are original with me. Originality is over-valued these days. I’m curating and not creating. Also, in case the philosopher in you is waking up, yes, clearly what I’m writing is how I see things. There’s nothing universal here. Nothing that can be ‘proven’ beyond any doubt. Maybe proof is overvalued too, in some contexts at least. Try proving what is beautiful. Or try proving the reliability of math (without using math) or proving reason (without using reason) or proving the reliability of the scientific method . . . you get the picture.
My first proposition is this: Doubt about one’s faith can be an invitation to a deepened or renewed faith. Realizing that God is probably not an old white (bearded) man who lives in the clouds need not wreck our sense of faith. Rejecting that view of God is not the same thing as disowning our awareness of God. Similarly, becoming convinced that certain models of church too easily lead to abuse of power, need not be the same thing as rejecting the value of faith community outright. Or again, coming to the conclusion that our particular faith tradition does not have a monopoly on truth, does not have to lead to a full theological yard sale. Doubt is a valuable thing. We often need to be destabilized to grow. Questions about what is usually have to come before newly settled convictions.
This leads quite naturally to my second proposition: Doubt is not the opposite of faith. If doubt is simply the knowledge that we could be wrong or if doubt is realizing that some of our theological assumptions need adjustment, there’s nothing at all opposed to faith in that. In fact, sometimes what we think of as “faith” or “belief” has more to do with our need for psychological certainty than it has to do with the things we say we believe. Sometimes what we believe in is belief (because it makes the world seem more stable and less threatening). Faith, really, is not the absence of doubt. What’s more, faith isn’t just something we practice in matters of religion. Buying food whose ingredients we can’t readily identify requires faith. Driving with others on the road across bridges we did not built while listening to news we can’t verify—that all requires faith.
If those first two claims seem fairly clear once pointed out, this third one is a bit more complex. I’ll put it this way: We can’t escape the social formation of our (dis)beliefs about God, the meaning of life, and so on. To turn away from a faith tradition is not simply the process of having our unscientific or unproven ideas gradually cut away by ‘good’ thinking. Religious identity is on the wane in Canada. What’s on the rise is a vague mixture of spirituality and simple non-identification. Without being critical of either of these things, it is important for us to recognize that these are products of social dynamics as much as was any church age of the past. Very few of us are making heroic, free choices about our spirituality inside a social vacuum. We’re shaped by our late modern context in uncountable and imperceptible ways. For most of us, things do or do not make sense because of ‘sense-making’ tools we’ve been given. We choose our community and then our community helps us ‘make sense’ of the world. Yes, I do think there are times when doubt about a theological claim leads to no longer identifying with a community of faith. Mostly, though, I think it works the other way around.
My fourth and last proposition is this: The journey of faith, in a religious sense, is as much about the type of people we want to be as it is about ‘belief’. We might think of finding a way forward in the midst of doubt as looking for a path that runs between markers on two sides. The one side is marked by humility. It’s important to be aware of the fact that we could be wrong. Our beliefs could be wrong. This is true of a basic belief about God (for or against). It’s also true about the specifics of the way we understand the good life. The way forward is marked by humility or, we sometimes say, by an awareness of our fallibility. But if we only have that one set of markers we won’t necessarily move forward. In addition to humility, the way forward will also be marked by substantial convictions and life-giving practices. We do need to make choices about the communities we allow to shape us. We need to immerse ourselves in some historically-tested stream of wisdom. More simply, we need to put ourselves in situations where we can learn from others (be they dead or alive). Our lives require a shape and a sense of meaning. Having not lived a life before, we can’t invent this on our own. We look to the practices and virtues that have sustained others.