Monday, February 9, 2009


A letter to a friend who's teaching a course on doubt.


I've given a lot of thought to doubt - or whatever it is ... and there have been times in my life when "belief" in any conventional sense seemed impossible.

For my doctoral work, I wrote a chapter about the role of doubt in the believer's life - focusing on St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul" - that doubt is always a segue to another chapter - doubt signals the close of one chapter, a chapter that worked well for a period of time, but since time never stands still, neither does faith. But we cling to "our faith" because it feels secure, but faith clung too, when it's no longer apropos become dysfunctional, if not destructive, which, I think, is the problem with fundamentalism (an issue Rob Bell is trying to address). Fundamentalism/various forms of evangelicalism have a harshness to them because they're angry about a faith no longer working, so they shout ever-louder, denounce all the more, and pump one another up in endless self-congratulating worship services and hyped up high-school-like pep rallies.

St. John of the Cross (late 1500s) suggested that God's best work was being done in our lives when we had no idea what God was doing. God conceals God's work from us, lest we rush in and muck it all up with our suggestions. It feels as if God is absent, but God is only moving ahead of us, and when the time is right, will reveal to us a further work.

John Calvin, too, works with doubt from a slightly different angle - that we needn't fear doubt, because faith is God's gift, and what God gives, God preserves. Our faith, at best, mostly limps along, but it never dies, because God sustains it.

For me, there's no sense fighting it or faking it - it is what it is ... and biblically, we are very much the one who says, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."

Perhaps most important, Paul Tillich - his book, "The Dynamics of Faith" - he says that all faith, if it's a living faith, has the possibility of doubt, even radical doubt, and sometimes the possibility becomes reality.

A faith that cannot doubt is no faith at all. It has ceased to live.

It's not that doubt is always there ... sometimes in a moment, it's gone, and we believe with a rare purity ... even for months at a time, but then, doubt comes along.

Doubt is friend that keeps faith on its toes, so speak, or on its knees. Doubt is faith's best friend, keeping it honest and humble (another issue for fundamentalists/evangelicals - not the Rob Bell kind) who have to have all the answers all the time.

When it comes to dealing with doubt, it’s sort of like dealing with a cold – we let it run its course, and in the case of doubt, do its work.

But at the same time, we take Aspirin and get some rest … when doubt comes our way (and it’s really always there, sort of like a neighbor whom we only see from time-to-time), we can call upon some resources.

In yesterday’s message, I wrote:

And God sees to it that we have help along the way:
We have the Bible …
We have Moses and the Prophets …
We have the Apostolic witness of the early church …
We have the Holy Spirit …
We have great women and men to inspire us …
We have prayer and fellowship …
We have the gathered wisdom of the ages …
We have one another …
And we have Jesus!

I have never seen doubt as the opposite of faith; rather, doubt, is a traveling companion, if not beside us, at least only a few rows removed from us.

The opposite of doubt, if we can even speak of such things, might well be hyper-faith – faith that fearfully refuses to think, fearfully refuses to be honest about itself and what others might be thinking and feeling, too.

I don’t think God has a problem with someone who says, “I don’t believe” – sometimes they can’t, because they’ve only seen bad examples of faith … or sometimes, because they’re too proud to believe, and pride is only the flip side of fear and self-doubt – but whatever, this isn’t an issue for God.

The central issue in the Bible are people who “believe too much” but without mind and heart in the right place – they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk) – the people of ancient Israel who spoke of the LORD Almighty in traditional terms, and then went off after the baals! They were hyper-religious – that’s an issue for God. When they “take the name of God in vain” – talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

I think God might well say to the fundamentalists/evangelicals – relax! Learn to appreciate the doubt within your hearts and minds, and be kind to those who express such thoughts and feelings to you.

Hell is not made for those who doubt – we’d all be there, but hell is an experience right now of those who have neither the grace nor the courage to admit it.

When someone enters a period of doubt, we journey with them, because it’s our journey, too.

We’re all in this one together.

And then trust God … in some sort of basic way … the sun sets and the sun comes up again.

Things are born, and then born again …