In my second class on doubt at church I focused on what I called "cold" or "intellectual" doubt. This doubt is less about lament and the absence of God than it is about intellectual skepticism, having difficulty believing, epistemologically speaking, in the existence of God.
I began with the observation that intellectual doubt has become particularly acute for many Christians due to the fact that there has been a hollowing out of faith in many sectors of Christianity. More specifically, for many Christians faith simply means "belief." Further, "belief" is taken to mean "I think proposition x is true." Thus, having faith means something like "I believe God exists." While atheists are defined as those who say "I don't believe that God exists." Faith becomes reduced to asserting (or denying) propositions.
Needless to say, this is a thin and hollowed out notion of faith. Faith becomes an abstract, intellectual, cognitive, and rationalistic process. And the implication is that if you can't get your intellect in line then you don't have faith.
This formulation has many problems. First, it suggests, by definition, that doubt is a lack of faith. If faith means confidently asserting propositions doubt is found to be incompatible with faith. Unshakable intellectual confidence becomes the mark of faith. No doubt can be admitted into the faith experience. Such a situation is worrisome on many levels. First, in the bible faith is never understood to be unshakable intellectual confidence. In the bible faith is more similar to perseverance, obedience, covenant faithfulness or worship. Additionally, if faith is "unshakable intellectual confidence" religion becomes inflexible, intolerant and dangerous.
A second problem with a rationalistic notion of faith is that the believer has nowhere to go when doubt emerges. If doubt is the opposite of faith then when intellectual questions emerge the believer has to conclude that she has "lost faith" in God. But, as we all know, intellectual questions come and go. Our ability to assert anything about God waxes and wanes, often for years or decades. So we need understandings of faith that allow us to engage with those questions without the whole house of cards being thrown up into the air. Faith needs a stable foundation that can support intellectual exploration, questioning and doubt.
So how did we get into this situation? How did faith get hollowed out?
In my class I told the story of what I called "the cognitive turn" in Christianity. Specifically, I walked through church history noting how faith became reduced to a banal intellectual assent, the rationalistic model of faith many Christians work with. According to my story there were two moments in church history that pushed faith into this intellectual mold.
The first stage of the cognitive turn occurred with the establishment of the Christian creeds during the reign of Constantine. With the establishment of the creeds being a "Christian" became a matter of assenting to the propositions listed in the creeds. This was a hollowing out of faith. Faith was no longer participation in the life of the counter-cultural Christian sect declaring that Jesus was Lord in the face of the Roman Empire. For these early Christians "faith" was more akin to allegiance, rebellion and revolution, a declaration that you were not a citizen of this world. That Caesar was not, in point of fact, your king.
But in the wake of the creeds all this was lost. "Faith" became the public endorsement of a list of religious propositions. Being a "Christian" became equated with orthodoxy (asserting the correct propositions) rather than political allegiance.
The second stage of the cognitive turn occurred during the Protestant Reformation and the notion that salvation was secured sola fide, by "faith alone." The doctrine of sola fide had two negative consequences. First, it doubled down on what the creeds started. Salvation was secured by intellectually "believing in" Jesus. Second, sola fide marginalized texts like the gospel of James where blunt statements like "even the demons believe" and "faith without works is dead" are found. Sola fide completed the cognitive turn. Faith became radically dislocated from anything political or behavioral. Faith was reduced to a mental exercise.
The cognitive turn has left us in quite a predicament here in modernity. After the cognitive turn faith was hollowed out. Faith has become confident intellectual assent. But this kind of faith is very fragile in modernity where the intellectual pressures upon faith have grown extraordinarily acute. Modernity makes faith intellectually more difficult. And if faith is 100% intellect then no wonder people feel that they can't "believe" in God. The cognitive turn made faith hollow and fragile, an egg sitting on a wall. And modernity came along and pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall.
Given this situation I suggested to my class that we recover a richer, fuller, more biblical notion of faith. Faith as bouncy ball rather than egg. This biblical notion of faith helps overcome the weaknesses of the intellectual Humpty Dumpty view of faith. First, a richer and fuller view of faith allows room for doubt. Since faith isn't dependent upon intellect alone the Christian can still "have faith" even when intellectual doubts are at their most extreme. This goes a fair way in reducing the emotional distress associated with doubt, in both the doubter and the loved ones of the doubter who are looking on. Doubt should and can have a jolly facet to it. The whole world shouldn't be at stake. Second, a more biblical view of faith allows us to be more open to outsiders. Eschewing unshakable intellectual confidence as the mark of faith we are in a much better position to listen to people who disagree with us. Maximally, this means that we are protected from the violent excesses of "faith." Minimally, it helps us not be assholes. (Sorry for the language, but that really is the best word for it.)
So what is this richer, fuller view of faith? That would take a much longer post, but I pointed the class in two directions. In contrast to a purely intellectual faith I suggested two other kinds of faith:
A faith with and through the body. This is the faith of the book of James, the faith of obedience. It's the faith of discipleship, moving one's body through life the way Jesus moved his body through life. It is the faith of orthopraxy ("right practice"). The first Christians were called followers of "The Way." This is the faith of the path, what Eastern religions call the dharma.
The faith of worship and allegiance. The early Christians confessed that Jesus was Lord, a radical political claim That is, regardless as to whether you believe in the Incarnation or the Resurrection, a Christian confesses that Jesus is Lord, the telos of her ethical and political existence. Doxological faith is the claim that, at the end of the day, the teachings of Jesus are the authority in my life, what monastics call the "rule." Everyone has to make choices in life, big choices and small choices, and we make those choice in light of some conception of what is "good" or "best." Doxological faith makes Jesus that criterion.