Monday, January 03, 2005

The wonder of doubt

Doubt, I think, is the sign of a healthy mind. See, I’m not even sure. But that is exactly why it is healthy, because if I doubt my own ideas it at least means I’m not so foolish to think my own ideas are always right, and at most it most encourage me to find the right idea.

So, it’s a pity doubt is so frowned upon – particularly in Christian circles, where I think a good bit of doubt could do some serious good. Doubt is the soil out of which knowledge grows, and if you take away the opportunity to doubt, lo and behold you are brainwashed.

I doubt everything. I doubt myself. I doubt whether I am good, and I seek to find reasons why I am not, and reasons why I am. It lets me see myself in perspective. I doubt others. I doubt whether anything they say is true; and I seek reasons why what they say is false, and why is it not.

In the end, I find what they say is true about as much as what I say is true – and that we are both entirely prone to error… errors of logic, errors of discernment, errors of character… so many errors. Which is why I doubt myself so much, because if other people are often mistaken – what makes me think I would be any different?

We have limited knowledge and so should have an appropriate caution about what we do with that knowledge. At most, we are only doing what we think is best given what we know. Even the worst criminals and most rebellious teenagers are doing what they consider best given what they think. What they think is based on their experiences. The problem is that their thoughts are often unhelpful to themselves or to others.

And that’s where a good measure of doubt would be useful, because doubt encourages us to seek out more information on which we can base our ideas – and that makes us wiser. As an example, Jesus didn’t criticise Thomas for doubting, He simply filled in the gaps of his doubt by showing him his hands and feet. Thomas was being careful about what he believed, and that, I think, is a good lesson.

So, needless to say, I think little of the idea that doubt somehow has no place in Christianity. I have heard of “blind faith”, and people quoting “we walk by faith, and not by sight”. They conclude we must not doubt anything about God or Scripture, for real faith does not doubt – and I can well understand why they’d think that. Most Bibles use ‘doubt’ for a Greek word which means “to waver”, with reference to the word for ‘faith’.

As discussed previously on this blog and on Andrew’s, this word for ‘faith’ means not belief, but carries ideas of devotion and faithfulness. So, really, being unwavering in devotion is really quite different to having doubts. In fact, true devotion is being committed in spite of doubts. It does not mean we as Christians should not have doubts, but that we should remain committed in our devotion to God.

I question whether God even exists, although such doubt is vastly outweighed by the reasons I have to believe He does. So, I decide, based on my limited knowledge, to believe He exists. Thus, I choose to devote my life to Him, who is my rightful King. But that doesn’t mean I have no doubts – it simply means I am devoted in spite of them.

In the same way, perhaps the landlord of my flat does not actually own the property, and so does not actually deserve my rent. Yet, I believe he does, and so I faithfully pay. Perhaps the account number I was given to pay the rent was incorrect, yet I believe it was correct and so I pay it.

I suppose the conclusion is this: that what we believe is never certain, but that we must believe something whether we want to or not if we are to do something about it. If something is true and right, it should withstand as much doubt and sensible questioning as we can throw at it, while if it is not it will be revealed as such. And so, I am comfortable to question everything, including myself, because I know it will shed light on what is real and dispel the shadows of what is not. And, as what I see is of a God who deserves my devotion, I will be devoted to Him, even though I still have unanswered questions and things I do not know for sure. As I grow up I am more and more convinced about a loving God, and so I am confident questioning things will reveal Him more.



Katherine said...

Interesting indeed. You have once again beaten me to it in discussing this topic, which has been foremost in my mind for the last few months. So hopefully you won't object to my discussing some of my discoveries on the subject of doubt.

"I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child's faith and all right for childre, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do." -Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of BeingFor my part, I finally, after a deal of struggle and anguish of mind, reached the same conclusion you have, a couple of months ago, and felt inexpressible relief in it. Hurrah. I'm allowed to doubt. It's even good for me (eventually, if I follow it through with enormous care). And I know that, despite the pain it has caused me in its time, I would never go back even if I could. The gold amongst my faith is definitely emerging the brighter for being put through the fire.

Just last night, for example, I found myself doing something I'd never allowed myself or in fact been tempted to do before: I really considered the possibility that maybe we're even wrong about God's goodness. That was a horribly bleak place to be, which I couldn't stand for long, but the relief I felt in restating my belief in His goodness, having once actually held it up for examination and chosen to hold onto it, was overwhelming. It's been the same with every facet of belief that I have decided to take hold of from amongst the broken pieces of my old faith - they are so much dearer to me now. And the concept of trust takes on a whole new meaning with every new step. Heh, not that I've managed to bring many of my doubts to closure in a single evening, apart from last night.

Kelly James Clark (a philosophy professor :)) gives a good treatment of this whole topic in chapter 6 of his book 'When Faith is Not Enough', which I am currently reading. He distinguishes between 'the doubt that comes from belief' and 'the doubt of unbelief', and quotes Tennyson: 'There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.' And he also prescribes that 'Christians beset with debilitating doubt should act on what they do believe.' These thoughts have helped me. Though I might observe that it is not a book for the faint-hearted, as it also probes lots of issues to do with suffering and, you know, death and despair and the whole works - rather dangerous for moody people like me. I'm hoping it'll end on a somewhat happier note. Also I don't agree with everything he says. But that is all by the bye. Another one that's been helpful is Philip Yancey's 'Reaching For the Invisible God', which is also necessarily melancholic but ultimately uplifting.

Another thing I've observed, however, that's not so good, is that I feel somewhat isolated from the rest of the church, let alone the rest of the population, now that I've begun down this path. Perhaps I will find that this is something I can remedy myself in time. But for the time being it feels very much as though there is only a very small group of people, such as yourself, who can identify with this stuff, and whom I could ever discuss it with. It's like I've crossed a line that effectively separates me, at a very deep level, from many of my closest friends, and my family, as I've mentioned before.

Hm, well that's enough for starters. I could of course go on and on, but shan't, since it's your post after all :) Have a pleasant day.

Fraser Dron said...

We could always start a new denomination... :P