The Gifts and Benefits of Doubt

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing with some people the benefits of doubt in the church. In that discussion I mentioned the "gifts of doubt" I'd outlined in a old post. From that post, here are some of the benefits and gifts of doubt for the church:

1. Epistemological Benefits
This isn't news, but truth claims are more difficult in post-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 hasn't been all bad. The stories of the weak and marginalized are being listened to in post-modernity.

Doubters tend to flourish in this context. The fractured epistemological situation of post-modernity 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. Rather than lamenting the post-modern situation, as the fundamentalists do ("No one believes in Truth anymore!"), the doubters will "get" the post-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 Benefits
As I've described in The Authenticity of Faith, building upon psychological research, dogmatism produces violence. 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.

3. Missional Benefits
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. If you ask a group of people at your church the question "How many of you, out of curiosity, have read the sacred writings of other world religions?" most of the doubters will answer in the affirmative. In this doubters represent a reservoir of human capital in the church, a literacy that the church can utilize and lean upon. Within the church doubters will be the most knowledgeable persons about other world religions (and atheists). Consequently, doubters are often the best front line emissaries to outsiders.

4. Biblical Benefits
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 the more difficult parts of the bible and they insist that the church, as hard as this might be, pay attention to these passages. Doubters insist that the whole bible be read. Warts and all.

5. Experiential Benefits
Doubters tend to be acutely aware 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. Doubters insist that we keep it real in the face of human experience.

6. Apologetical Benefits
Dogmatists insist that apologetics (the defense of the faith) should be conducted through argumentation. This is symptomatic of a hollowed out, hyper-rationalistic faith--belief as intellectual assent. In this view apologetics reduces to an intellectual debate. Not surprisingly, these efforts tend to flounder in post-modernity.

By contrast, doubters are themselves not wholly convinced by these intellectual proofs. Thus, doubters 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.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

24 thoughts on “The Gifts and Benefits of Doubt”

  1. Out of all the human capacities i.e., reason, imagination, or intuition and the like, faith is the least understood. First, it's not a synonym for the word religion; to say so would be equivalent to saying the word science is a synonym for thinking. Second, Christians mistake certainty for faith: if one is certain one is no longer believing. Let me explain.

    You will most likely hop in your car to drive somewhere and then return home. The question in this mundane situation is this: while you're standing there with keys in hand, will you return unharmed?

    If you were certain, you'd simply blow off the question and hop in your car and forgo the seat belt; after all you're certain. So why put up with the discomfort?

    If you were operating through faith, the dynamic would be totally different and also real: the truth is, you can't be certain until you've arrived home without harm. Before hand, the answer lies over an horizon that you can't see till you cross it. So- if you believe that you'll return safely- that is you trust your skills, the car, and other drivers and such, you'll get in the car--and wear your seat belt. Why? because faith fully acknowledges the horizon! Unique to human consciousness is that we live lives that constantly live toward horizons, which means that we can't know ahead of time-with certainty- what the other side of an horizon will entail. 

    So what if upon considering your trip to the store you didn't believe in your safe return? You wouldn't get in! For some reason(s) you would surmise that the idea of returning home safely wasn't a credible one. And until you solve those credibility issues you won't have the faith to get into your car!

    Finally, I would point out that the word faith is simply the noun form for the word believe which is the verb form: "I have faith" is equivalent to "I believe" (in the Greek pistis: faith/ pistuo: believe). The popular notion (typically used by secular people) that faith is "believing without evidence" misses altogether this uniquely human dynamic which arises from human consciousness and thus is effective in every human life- whether religious or not. 

    In other words, any one who gets in their car today is a believer whether Christian or not. And any Christian who adopts the mentality of certainty toward god, isn't a believer..... 

  2. Thanks for this Dr. Beck, I really like it.  Maybe there is one typo?  Under #6, the first sentence, seems from the context that it should read "Dogmatists insist that apologetics (the defense of the faith) SHOULDN'T be conducted through argumentation."  

  3. What I had in the post is what I wanted to say, that dogmatists are going to think that faith is produced via argument. And doubters not so much. Thoughts about that? Am I wrong?

  4. Oops!  You are completely correct.  I think because you were talking about Doubters non-stop in all the other sections when I came to section 6, and you switched to leading with "Dogmatists", I read it as "Doubters"!  Just goes to show you how the mind can be conditioned to see something that isn't there.  Ha!

  5. Hi, Richard. Thanks for laying these points out so clearly. Of course, once they are laid out clearly, one can begin to question and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each purported benefit. . . . 

    The paradoxes get pretty strange here. Because I'm a doubter (and, to boot, a pain in the a*#$&*, but that's another issue) ever since I heard my professors denigrating "true believers" and extolling doubt--I immediately started doubting the benefits of being a doubter.Put differently, I would rather be in a place of looking up to, and faintly envying, the people who are more sure than I am. (I guess that includes looking up to, and faintly envying, you--because you are more sure than I am that doubting is beneficial??)

  6. I am just such a doubter. And I find this to be incredibly insightful. In the interest of full disclosure, I do have to say that although most everything you have stated is true of me, I do find that my doubt tends to be crippling. In other words, I can get so caught up in navel gazing and confusion that I tend to get stuck inside my own head. This, unfortunately, means that rather then being energized to actively help combat the horrific suffering in the world I tend to be crippled by it.

  7. Richard,

    Have you read or heard of William Eggington's In Defense of Religious Moderation? I think you would like it. It is similar to The Authenticity of Faith in certain respects.

  8. Yes, I appreciate this post very much Dr. Beck.  I am also wondering if there is a way to understand faith and doubt without posing them as binaries? (which is often still a function of meta-narrative discourse).  Also, I’v witnessed the experience of godforsakenness often mistaken for doubt.  Perhaps a life intentionally lived in God’s presence will have (should have?) seasons of doubt and despair, joy and certainty, fear, anger or even hatred of God (wouldn’t even hating God require a measure of faith? and would God prefer that to cock-sure arrogance, vis a vis Job’s friends?).  I’m not sure about much when it comes to God, and I think your “gifts of doubt” is a very helpful trope; it’s said that ‘true believers will battle over the slightest shade of doctrine, but the doubter battles only with himself.‘  I have often found that when a doubter loses that battle, they mostly hurt themselves, but there seems no limit to the amount of suffering ‘true believers’ will visit upon those that threaten their faith.  obliged.  

  9. Richard, doubters are value to the community of doubt :)  But I take exception to the idea that "God is often absent in the face of horrific tragedy."  What does that mean?  He is not there at all?  Hell is the only place God is truly absent.  Yes, that is a statement of faith.  Faith without doubt may be phony.  But doubt without faith is despair and hopelessness.  

  10.  Sometimes, even if God is there, it sure doesn't feel like He is.  And that feeling that all is going wrong in your world is a terrible one, made worse by statements like "God is here with you, if only you had faith to see" because, in fact, if feels as though God has fled to the other side of the universe.  If feels like a betrayal of the worst kind - to have faith that God is there and to feel, to hear, to see nothing in return for that faith.  In that moment, during that time, whether true or not, the gut feeling is "there is no god here".  While I have felt "the peace that passes understanding" in my darkest moments, I have also felt  "God's absence in the face of tragedy".  If I didn't believe in God, if I didn't know Him and His presences, I would not have missed Him so much in that moment.

  11. I feel the same way Dan. I'm not sure if my doubt has benefits or not
    because I am in such a dark place since reading Dr. Beck's series on
    free will (as part of his
    universalism series, I would very much like universalism to be true).
    I'm not sure if I could see the benefits of my doubt if they were there (
    I can see them but only in theory if that makes sense). Since reading
    Dr. Beck's series about free will and basically buying into what he was
    saying, I have been very depressed. I cannot see how free will is
    anything but an illusion and if there was such a thing, how I would even
    describe it (as Dr. Beck stated). I understand that lack of feeling
    control over one's circumstance is a leading cause of depression.
    However, I don't know how to undo what I've read and believed. 'Weak volition' doesn't lead me towards universalism as it does for him but instead
    leads me toward determinism, possibly atheism, and nihilism.

    guess main problem I have with going that way is C.S. Lewis' 'cardinal
    difficulty of naturalism' the 3rd chapter in 'Miracles'. If we
    determined that all our actions are
    determined, that can only be because we are 'determined' to do so. If
    we determine that everything is not determined (and 'determinism is
    actually true) we also only concluded this because we were determined to
    do so. There is only cause and effect under this framework and no
    ground and consequent type reasoning. All reasoning is an illusion b/c
    there is only cause and effect. The problem is that we used reasoning to
    come to the conclusion that determinism is true. But we couldn't have
    done so under a deterministic framework. Thus, 'The Cardinal Difficulty
    of Naturalism'.

    I have much difficulty either way I go. A world in which a thing is
    not caused by a prior thing (a libertarian decision) seems like a
    logical impossibility, yet I have to dismiss my own reason going the
    other way. Yet here I am ( I think so at least, maybe I'm in the Matrix
    :-)  )

    A lot of 'existential angst' I guess. I want very badly to believe
    in God but I am lost. I've been a Christian my whole life and will
    continue down that path as a matter of practicality but I question many
    times how long I can keep that up. I don't see how we can go on literally not knowing what to believe.

  12. Dr. Beck really should respond to your questions about free will etc..  And I probably don’t have anything to add that will make you feel any better but since you say that we (If I'm the Dan you mean) “feel the same way” let me ask you a couple of questions.  I don’t see how following God as “ a matter of practicality” makes much sense, can you explain that more?  And what do you think will happen if you “give up?”  What will that look like in your life?  If you don’t know what you believe, do you know what you dis-believe?  Tell me this, what would you *like* to believe?  As for how long you can go on like this?  As long as you possibly can then go do something else. I’ll be honest, the minute something better comes along I’ll chuck this whole Christian business in the dustbin.  Trying to make sense of God often leads to either despair or delusion (unless one is a professional theologian with health insurance benefits).  I’m Roman Catholic so mostly I just go through the motions regardless of how I feel.  I say the rosary, and read from prayer books, sometimes I think I even feel that God is near by, listening, and I find a small measure of joy, but that’s rare.  It’s a hard road brother.  Let me just add part of a song from one of my favorite songwriters, Townes Van Zandt and his song “Hi, Low and Inbetween”:

    Heaven’s where you find it
    And you can’t
    Take too much with you...

    All things in our life
    Are brothers in the soil
    And in the sky
    And I believe it
    With my blood
    If not my eyes
    I don’t know why we can’t
    Be brothers here
    I know we should be
    And the answers don’t seem easy
    And I’m wonderin’
    if they could be.

    Yeah, I too wish the answers were easier, or that we could grow beyond them, but the “in between” is sometimes the hardest.  I’m praying that someone else on this blog has some better news for you/us brother.  Obliged.   

  13. I love this Richard, you have articulated something I've been unable to.

    In view of this I'd like to request permission to cross-post on echurch with link and acknowledgements  however, no worries if you'd rather not, I'll link or quote or something, in any case.

  14. Hi Mark,
    So sad to hear you are still struggling. We chatted a while back about this and I gave you the best ideas and answers I have on the subject. But I understand if you find those responses wanting.

  15. 'Weak volition' doesn't lead me towards universalism as it does for him but instead leads me toward determinism, possibly atheism, and nihilism.

    Speaking from experience, determinism and atheism is not at all a bad place to be, and nihilism is in no way a necessary corollary to those positions.  The thing about the illusion of free will is that it persists even after you know it's an illusion, because we're incapable of perceiving most of the complex network of causes whose effects we perceive as our own and others' "choices" -- the mind's eye cannot see itself.  I think that C. S. Lewis failed to comprehend the complexity and inaccessibility of those causes, leading him to draw a false distinction between "ground and consequent type reasoning" and cause-and-effect.  That's not really his fault -- he simply lived and wrote before the development of computers and information theory showed us how phenomena that we *know* to be material and deterministic, because we designed them that way, can create the illusion of reasoning.

    As you appear to be distressed by your philosophical dilemma, you might find it valuable to read some of the Sequences at Eliezer Yudkowsky's blog Less Wrong.  In particular, the "Reductionism" sequence may help you resolve the apparent paradox of Lewis's "Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism."

  16.  What I mean by following God as a matter of practicality is that I guess
    my experiences with church have shaped me in very different ways than
    yours (Dan?) seem to have. The times I have followed Jesus most closely (as
    best I understand what that means) has brought me life, fullness,
    meaning, purpose, wholeness, love, and a whole host of other things. As I
    stand on the precipice of atheism, naturalism, etc. I just see
    emptiness, death, meaninglessness, lack of choice, love as only a
    construct, etc. Practically speaking for me, I'm going with the first
    option as much as I can. I have no desire to throw Christianity in the dust bin. On the other hand, I have extreme, crippling
    doubt that anything does have meaning, that we are anything more than a
    group of contingent particles, that I can really choose, that I really am not a
    completely contingent being.

    Obviously, our 'volition' is weak, but I guess at the end of the day, I
    have to believe that I do have some sort of will that really is free
    in the libertarian sense (not contingent on anything other than an actual choice) even though I
    can't fully describe what that is. Otherwise I have to say that my own
    reason is not valid at all in which case, the conclusion of
    atheism/naturalism can't be valid either.

    Dr. Beck, thank you for your
    concern and your time in responding. I actually feel pretty good today:) I really do appreciate what
    you do here and have learned a lot from your writing. I've almost finished 'Unclean'. Would you say that this is the
    approach you take with regard to practicality and with regard to the
    existential free will question? Is C.S. Lewis/ Plantinga, others, etc.
    right on this line of reasoning in your opinion?

  17. "By contrast, doubters are themselves not wholly convinced by these intellectual proofs."

    This is an interesting thought; I'm not sure that I personally agree. I'm a doubter, or a skeptic or what-have-you, but I identify that way because I require a rationally-argued proof before I'm going to believe something. And, for me, to 'believe' is simply to 'intellectually assent'. I believe that my walls are blue. Why? Because the light from it strikes my eyes and is interpreted by my brain as the color we refer to as 'blue', and because I've yet to hear a coherent counter-argument that says otherwise. To me, the "hollowed-out" faith is the one without reason to back it up, not the one that seeks to support itself with coherent logic. (Or maybe I've misunderstood your point?)

  18. I think there is a misunderstanding there, though I feel much the same way. To defend the faith requires practicing what one preaches, lest one alienate the audience and/or disprove oneself. Plus, as far as evangelism goes, one who can clinically argue theology with me is really cool, but it takes a relationship with me to reach a cool discussion, rather than an echo chamber or a shouting stranger. No one has yet converted me to anything, but I'm very sure that the most airtight argument for the earthly provable factors of any faith doesn't make me feel any belief for the faith itself. I don't have to believe the wall is blue; we can prove that it is. God itself cannot be proven. While someone's emotional appeal isn't going to work on me specifically either, seeing their conviction and them living their life to those standards, that has a lot more impact than knowing those are based on solid theology.

  19. I fully understand that I may end up bring pointed at here as the fundamentalist, but please allow this simple question... Why would it be so bad, in the face of doubt, to rely more on the things the Bible says and trusting the holy spirit to reveal himself in his timing? A few scriptures that come to mind are "lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your path straight.", also in James 1:6-8, doubting is very clearly shown to be something we should do our best to avoid. Does it happen? Yes, but we should cling to God more in those spots and not try to rationalize or justify that doubt to make it "ok." In hard times when God feels far away or absent, those are times our faith is tested, James 1 again. He absolutely is NOT absent in the life of a follower of Christ, even if it feels so. Paul,i believe, warns against being led by the sensual. In essence, this is faith, stepping forward even when it "feels" hopeless. I lost my daughter a year ago. She was diagnosed half way through the pregnancy with a condition that was basically without hope, trisomy 18. But my wife and i, had faith that either God would heal her, or not. We prayed for healing, knowing he could heal her, but more than that, we prayed for his will. I guess where i am going with this is that, at times, especially when she died in my arms after multiple attempts to resuscitate her, the doubt that is being spoken about here could have taken over. But i believe doubt is a choice. It is easier to overcome the more we choose to overcome it, and it is more difficult to overcome the more we give in to it. We had peace and joy from God through that while ordeal, only because we trusted him. We didn't doubt. I'm sorry that this got so long. I really do say all this in love and encouragement to seek God first. God gave us all our intellect to be able to reason through things, yes, but not to justify or rationalize away a choice that inherently weakens our faith. Love you guys. Think about it.

  20. I feel that I can relate to being a doubter. One disadvantage for me is being especially susceptible to the fear of death.

  21.  I should clarify - susceptible to the fear of death because there is very little evidence to convince a doubter that there is life after death.

Leave a Reply