“The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” -Mark Twain
I think that may be a problem within Christianity. We’re afraid to doubt. We’re afraid that we might be wrong about something so important as Ultimate Reality, because there’s so much at stake if we’re wrong. We’ve been told that doubt is bad. The solution is to find theories and explanations to prop up what we already believe to be true. And trust me, I know from experience: you can find an explanation that sounds reasonable to you for just about anything.
The problem lies in the fact that we’re being dishonest. We’re making up theories to explain why we must already be right, instead of dealing honestly with the nagging suspicion that we might be wrong, with questioning what we know. With wrestling with God.
In every other discipline, doubt is important.
Doubting Mathematics: A Story
Imagine yourself in a mathematical community that believes that 2+2=5, and you surrounded yourself with others who believed 2+2=5. Imagine that everything hung on 2+2=5. It’s absurd, and it’s wrong. Now suppose that everyone gathered together and could prove that 2+2=5. Had conventions on why it was true. That wouldn’t make it any less false; it would just reinforce your beliefs in something that was false. No matter what explanations you invented, there would still be this nagging feeling in the back of your brain that 2+2 might not equal five.
And one day, you might meet someone who didn’t believe that 2+2=5. This person had arguments for it, and they rang true with your doubts. And your friends surrounded you and explained to you that “We know that 2+2=5. Doubting is bad. You shouldn’t doubt important things like that.” Eventually you start to feel crazy, but slowly you find yourself surrounded by others who think that 2+2≠5.
Now suppose that your new community thinks that 2+2=3, not 5. Should you go along with them? Or should you continue to doubt? Do you have the nagging feeling (doubt again) that they might be wrong about 2+2? Doubt pries you out from the second community as well.
Suppose you find a community who believes 2+2=4. Should you join them? Certainly! But you still have that feeling in the back of your mind: These people might also be wrong. You doubt the truth. You doubt it often. You ask questions. You perform experiments. You test it. Not because it’s not true, but because you’ve been fooled twice before. But for the most part, you live out of the notion that 2+2=4. And then this community tells you that 2+3=7. “We were right about 2+2,” they say. “You should trust us on this one.” But you’ve gotten wiser. You doubt what they have to say.
Let’s transfer that story. Suppose you believe that God wants you to sacrifice animals to him. Imagine that everyone around you believes this, and they all tell you, “Don’t doubt this.” You find other ideas. You move forward. You learn that God isn’t interested in that. You learn by doubting what you already know, and by holding it loosely.
And yet much time and effort in Christianity is dedicated to apologetics – proving that what we already “know” about God is right. Doubt is bad because it means that we’re not sure we’re right.
Let me say that again: Doubt is bad because it means that we’re not sure we’re right.
No matter how sure you are that you’re right, it doesn’t make you right. It just makes you sure.
So doubt God. By which I mean, doubt what you believe about God. Test everything. Hold fast to what is true. Don’t fear doubt.
And when you look up into the sky and wonder if God is there, remember that the question you’re really asking is “Is there a being in existence whose attributes are identical with the attributes that I ascribe to God?” The answer may very well be “No.”God may not be how you imagine God. God may not want the things that you believe God wants. So doubt.
“But we have the Bible! We know what God wants!” So did the slave-owners in the American South. They quoted from scripture to prove that what they already believed about God was right. Hitler had the Bible. He quoted the story about Jesus driving the “Jewish swine” from the temple, to justify his genocide. His soldiers wore Christians, wearing belt buckles with the phrase “God With Us” in German. The crusades were done in the name of God by people who believed in scripture. Segregation was practiced in the name of God.
I overstate my case: History is filled with people who had the Bible and believed firmly that (what we now recognize as) the evil they were doing was the right thing to do, was what scripture taught them to do.
“But their theology was wrong!” But they believed that it was right. So perhaps we might practice a bit more humility in the things we “know” about God, and give credence to our doubts. And put love for others above our assumptions about the things God wants. Because, to paraphrase Jesus, “Love is what God wants.”
Jesus said that the two great commands were to love God and love your neighbor. And James says you can’t say you love God while hating your brother. And if we think God wants us to hate somebody, even if we can justify it with scripture, we should remember well the legacy of those who came before us and did the same.
“You’re wrong. Being wrong is sexy. Try to be wrong more often.” -Jessica Cakuls
Speaking of which…
Disclaimer of likelihood that I’m wrong:
I’m confident that I’m wrong about much that I’ve written, but I’ve written it just the same, because it made sense when I wrote it. Maybe there’s something here that will resonate with you.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
5 thoughts on “Doubt”
I think this ties in quite closely with something I published at about the same time as this – http://recoveringagnostic.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/its-about-time-christians-stopped-playing-at-science/
As you say, the important thing is to be careful to allow ourselves to be wrong, and to use that information to correct things that we’ve got wrong. It might not be popular, but that’s the essence of the scientific method.
Interesting thoughts. I suppose the proposition should hold equally true across all knowledge traditions i.e. science, history, sociology, psychology, etc., as you are essentially just arguing the limits of human knowledge. No one has truth cornered in that sense.
I take it you’re Protestant?
More or less.
Sitting on the Bible alone, however someone defines that, has precisely this effect you describe: It reduces a religion of the living Incarnation to the same guru-mystic dynamic of every natural religion, where truth is not so much known as grasped at. There is no such thing as rational confidence, and doubt becomes a virtue. In a Protestant framework of defectible authority — or no authority at all besides the Bible, depending on how far someone is from the Reformers — the consistent man is going to end either in the basically unimpeachable observations you’ve made or in the parody of the Church that is modern, anti-intellectual fundamentalism.
Food for thought, then: Accepting that there are indefectible referees to settle disputes changes the dynamics here. Disputes should not be feared because they can be settled. Light can and ought be shed on doubt, and the mysteries of the faith can be meditated on in the same mix of casual confidence and “fear and trembling” all the saints had.
When Truth doesn’t leave the Church, then the business of knowing the truth becomes quotidian and the business of loving Truth Incarnate can become the focus.