The Gifts of Doubt

In my final class on doubt at church I ended with a discussion about the benefits of doubt, the gift doubt can be to the church. Most of the time we think doubt is a problem, disease, or affliction. But doubt is also a gift that the church needs. Here was the list I shared:

1. Epistemological
This isn't news, but truth claims are more difficult in modernity. Particularly those outside of the range of science. Collectively, we've lost the meta-narrative (the big overarching story that shaped everyone's worldview) and have traded it in for more particular and local stories and perspectives. Big T Truth has been lost to little t truths. And this move isn't all bad. The stories of the weak and marginalized (their small t truths that were being written out of the history books by the Big T Truth of Empire) are slowly being recovered.

Doubters tend to flourish in the modern context. The fractured epistemological situation of modernity (often called "postmodernity") demands a degree of epistemic humility. Doubters are very comfortable with this. Doubters tend to shy away from shouting meta-narratives at people who don't believe in meta-narratives. That is, rather than lamenting the modern situation, as the fundamentalists do ("No one believes in Truth anymore!"), the doubters will "get" the modern person and, due to certain shared sympathies, be more likely to articulate the faith in a way that makes sense to outsiders. Doubters trade in paranoid shouting for intelligible conversation.

2. Moral
If statistics are to be believed, a great deal of the violence in the world is due to ideology. True believers are dangerous. Doubters, by contrast, tend to be pretty peaceable. Their self-suspicions tend to throw cold water on the violent impulses inherent in ideology and belief. Doubters will have softer more empathic hearts because the answers they seek are not yet within their possession. The answers are still "out there" to some extent. Thus, the doubter leans into the world with a hopeful expectation.

3. Missional
As a people sent into the world we are asked to receive the hospitality of others. To, in the words of Luke 10, "eat whatever is set before us." Doubters are very comfortable sitting at these tables because doubters have a natural curiosity about outsiders. For example, I asked my class full of doubters "How many of you, out of curiosity, have read the sacred writings of other world religions?" Almost all the hands went up. All those hands represent a great deal of human capital, a literacy that the church can utilize and lean upon. In short, within the church doubters tend to be the most knowledgeable persons about other world religions (or atheists). Consequently, doubters are often the best front line emissaries to outsiders.

4. Biblical
The assumption might be that doubters would make a church less biblical. However, in a certain key respect doubters often make the church more biblical. Many churches tend to be pretty selective in how they read the bible. These churches often "read around" the more difficult or embarrassing parts of the bible. You can see this vividly in the Lectionary itself. Doubters, by contrast, tend to be drawn to these parts of the bible and they insist that the church, as difficult as it might be, pay attention to these passages. Doubters insist that the whole bible be read. Warts and all.

5. Experiential
Doubters tend to be acutely aware of the fact that life is broken and disordered. Doubters struggle mightily with the problem of pain, evil and suffering. Thus, doubters resist the triumphalistic impulses within the church and insist that the church recognize that God is often absent and silent in the face of horrific suffering. Doubters insist that the witness of the church be an authentic and honest confrontation with the experience of the world. No praise without lament. Keep it real.

6. Apologetical
Fundamentalists continue to insist that apologetics (the defense of the faith) will be conducted through argumentation. This is symptomatic of a hollowed out, hyper-rationalistic faith, belief as intellectual assent. Thus, apologetics reduces to an intellectual debate. Not surprisingly, these efforts tend to flounder in modernity. By contrast, doubters, themselves not wholly convinced by the intellectual gambits of fundamentalists, will embody a "new apologetics." Doubters will insist on an apologetics based upon invitation and participation rather than argumentation. Faith, to make any sense at all, must be practiced first.

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5 thoughts on “The Gifts of Doubt”

  1. Magnificent, provocative, encouraging summary. Especially the part about "epistemic humility." Insofar as dialogue is concerned, certitude is an obnoxious turn-off (and anyone who claims otherwise is just being stubborn).


  2. those of us that know it all....really have a hard time with those of you that THINK you do.

    thanks richard
    rich constant

  3. This makes so much sense.

    One thought...where does proselytization fit in with doubters? Are they more or less to participate in active evangelism, or is it that they use different techniques? As a doubter myself, the whole "door-to-door" evangelistic efforts of my youth team experiences were so agonizingly uncomfortable that any in-you-face approaches threatened to send me into a panic attack. Is that just a psychological/personality thing in myself or is that a doubter thing?

    Very thought-provoking. Thanks!

  4. Describes me completely - "Doubters insist that the witness of the church be an authentic and honest confrontation with the experience of the world" ...That was the message of my last post on my blog.

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