Gracious Doubt

I'm a believer who struggles with doubts and, thus, am someone who is very sympathetic to those struggling with doubts. And yet, there is something that I've detected among doubting Christians.


I've detected this because it's a sin I've succumbed to. You look at people who don't struggle with doubts--don't struggle with the reality of horrific suffering or problems with the biblical text--and wonder if there isn't something wrong with them. Maybe they are just too fearful. Maybe they just aren't smart enough. 

And me? I'm both intelligent and courageous. And so I doubt.

I'm tempted here to go off into another riff about how we tend to build our self-esteem over against others. In this case, religious doubt is used to pat ourselves on the back, to enhance our self-concept, a means to engage in self-flattery in relation to the mindless crowds going to church on Sunday. 

Our doubts, rooted as they are in our fearless questioning, set us apart from the blinkered, believing masses in the pews.

I'm stating all this way too strongly of course, but the dynamic is real and widespread. 

And I tire of it, in myself and others.

And so what I wish for, for myself and for all doubting Christians, is that we might come to practice a gracious doubt. A doubt that is generous to others, no matter how they read the bible, or pray, or worship, or seek divine intervention, or handle the problem of pain. 

There is nothing in your doubt or lack of doubt, your questioning or your certainty, that has anything to do with me. We are all, to use a biblical phrase, working out our own salvation with great fear and trembling. So let us be generous and welcoming of each other. Let us make room for each other. Especially in our hearts.

And when we doubt, let us practice a gracious doubt.

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19 thoughts on “Gracious Doubt”

  1. I like this, Richard. We have a 'body' image disorder as the corporate body of Christ. No matter who we are, or what position we're in, we have this nasty need to make ourselves feel 'better than' in some way. Even if we imagine ourselves to be 'the worst' at or about something, we grasp at being the best at that 'worseness'.

    Jesus just wants us to love each other and get closer to each other, defining ourselves not in the things we can abuse with our pride, but in the common bond of being His beloved.

  2. I came to really appreciate the non-doubters when working through theodicy. Yes, you can explain my faith in God's goodness as a function of my white middle class privilege, never having had to really face the sorts of senseless suffering that "prove" God can't be good. But I hung around with enough old black women who suffered far more than I did--but also far more than did the doubters whom I knew. The ones I hung out with were simply and vociferously affirming that God was good.

    If we are moved to respect Job when he rails against God in the crucible of his own sufferings, I think we should also respect Job when he sits in the crucible of his own sufferings and says, "Blessed be the name of the Lord."

  3. Yes yes yes. Thanks Richard. I "get" all the talk about doubt. I'm on board, so to speak, as someone who has had my faith rejuvenated by being given permission to ask tough questions. I wonder though, if there comes a point where "doubt" ceases to be a good word to describe what is going on and am curious about your thoughts.

    It seems to me that talking about the positive aspects of doubt assumes an intellectual/cognitive/factual belief orientation to faith. Of course this is the modus operati of the age, but I couldn't it be said that welcoming what we would call "doubt" is really the first step to discovering what "faith" really is? It seems to be that promoting "doubt" as a virtue makes sense only for so long my present "faith" is in the correctness of my own understanding, my own words and ideas.

    For me there came a point when it just clicked, when I understood at a heart level that my security isn't in knowing God or knowing what he wants me to do, but ONLY in being known by Him and yet also loved wholly. This is a fact that doesn't change with the amount of faith or the amount of doubt that I have. It doesn't change with my obedience or disobedience. It just eternally is, whether I believe it in the present moment or not. In every moment that I have faith that this fact is actually true, that I actads if I believe it, I experience life, connectedness with the center of my being, with other people, with the world,with God, and in every moment that I don't have faith that this is true, that I existentially "doubt", I experience disconnectedness and isolation and despair.

    There are times when I don't feel like this is true, when it just doesn't seem like there is anyone out there loving me, when I feel all alone, so, in a sense I am doubting in those moments, but at the same time this is something that I expect to happen, something that happened even to Christ, and I endeavor to act in faith even when I feel doubtful just ads Christ did. In his forsakeness on the cross Jesus doubted God's nearness, but in doing so perfectly manifested the purest form of faith.

    Essentially, what I'm trying to say is that the virtue of what we call "doubt" is, in truth, the ability to act in love in the midst of non-knowing or non-experiencing God. To "doubt" graciously then is to exist, moment by moment, by a faith that is deeper than cognitive belief and more rooted than emotions. To "doubt" is nothing short of having a resolute faith that I am securely held, fully known, heart mind and soul, and unconditionally loved that allows me to stand face to face with the fact that I don't know with certainty, that I don't think I'm good enough, that I feel entirely alone in the world, and yet choose to love my brother/neighbor/enemy anyway.

  4. Peter Rollins quoted a joke by the philosopher Derrida the other day speaking of a Rabbi walking into a synagogue and publically saying, “I am dust, I am nothing.” Then a priest came in and did the same. Followed by an Imam. Finally the caretaker of the building entered and also said, “I am dust, I am nothing.” On hearing this the three religious leaders turn to each other and whisper, “who does he think he is, saying that he’s nothing?”

  5. p.s. My compulsive side wants to apologies for all the typos above. Commenting via Discus on iOS devices is beyond frustrating. Very difficult if not impossible to go back and edit after posting. .

  6. When we define ourselves over and against the Sunday morning church-going masses, we give them power over us. It's the same dynamic as your typical playground bully, where he thinks he's exercising control over his victim, but in fact, by conceiving of himself as "the enemy of the victim", he has developed a reflected sense of self (Bowen Theory). He needs his victim. In the same way, judgmental doubt NEEDS the church-going masses. Gracious doubt just needs the Spirit of God.

  7. Sometimes the worst judgment we have is reserved for ourselves. We need not only practice this grace toward others but toward ourselves. When I doubt, I tend to hold myself in contempt. It's ugly and I do not like me very much and shame myself for feeling such doubt-filled thoughts.

  8. Thanks Richard. Good reminder...especially when "judgmental certainty" in others, for some of us, plays a role in our own doubt.

  9. I assume you are aware of the research (searches don't turn anything up) of Stewart Guthrie, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Paul Bloom, Justin Barrett, Jesse Bering, T.M. Luhrman, Joe Henrich, Ara Naranzayan and others on how all religion is based on perception of agency and purpose in the world.

    Some people have such strong perceptions of the spiritual agency in the world, that they simply cannot doubt the reality of a spiritual world. God (or the gods) are simply there. This is the norm in premodern societies, and that perspective is reflected in the Biblical text, which simply presumes the existence God, and goes on from there.

    Modernity tends to damp down on our spiritual perceptions. (It tends to change our perceptions period.) Modern Westerners are WEIRD: they are highly individualistic, are focussed on individual bits of information instead of the relationships between them and have attenuated spiritual perceptions. It becomes harder to be a believer, unless you are fortunate enough to have strong innate tendencies to percieve of the spiritual world.

    A popular exposition of Henrich and Naranzayan's work on how modernity changes our perceptions is here. The original paper is here. Paul Bloom has a nice exposition of the new science of religion here. All of the authors I have mentioned above (except, ironically, Henrich) have essential books on this topic out.

  10. Of course, this brings up different kinds of doubt. Premodern societies are full of disputes about the nature of the spiritual world. One can doubt the power of Zeus or the goodness of God the Father, but the existence of a thick spiritual cosmos is not really in question. Modern doubt, on the other hand, often doubts the very existence of anything except the material world.

  11. Rollins tends to promote the myth that certainty of belief is somehow necessarily comforting, and that therefore people who are certain have simply convinced themselves of the existence of God because it makes them feel better. Unfortunately, people who actually study religion find this wish fulfillment theory to be absolute nonsense. On the contrary God (or the gods) are often a completely terrifying reality to those who believe in them.

  12. But wouldn't someone who is terrified of God be even MORE concerned with being certain that their thoughts about God are correct?

    If I'm terrified that my father will beat me if I fail my science test I'm going to make damn well sure that I get all the answers right.

    I think that this very terror, this background belief that god hands out grades based on having the right answers to the non-negotiable questions, is the very thing that makes us naturally desire to be certain that our beliefs are correct.

  13. I've been pondering how my attitude towards doubt, whether judgmental or gracious, doesn't only apply to how I approach other Christians, but how I approach God.

    It reminds me of a haunting story in the Orthodox Heretic, and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, where on the day of judgment mankind rises from the sea and shouts to God "we were hungry and you didn't feed us, we were naked and you didn't clothe us, we were in prison and you didn't visit us", and all of creation trembles waiting for the response.

    I have been judgmental towards God in my doubt, especially in matters of theodicy. In some ways it has been helpful, since in taking these hard questions to God I genuinely feel like He has led me away from many notions that I grew up with (like penal substitution or eternal conscious torment) and towards different ways of thinking. But eventually judgmental doubt is toxic.

    I'm going to think long and hard about extending gracious doubt to God.

  14. But wouldn't someone who is terrified of God be even MORE concerned with
    being certain that their thoughts about God are correct?

    Not necessarily. I was terrified of God for the first 32 years of my life, and also temperamentally wired toward being the devil's advocate and asking hard questions. I have a visceral distrust of all authority. I've learned to channel it better than I used to, but my basic orientation toward the world and pretty much every institution is still based on the idea that the people running it do not necessarily have my best interests at heart. This is an orientation that does not lend itself to taking anyone else's word for anything.

    While I do think the basis for a lot of fundamentalism is fear, there are a whole lot of people like me who wholeheartedly and absolutely believe in a wrathful God who hates them and simultaneously find dogmatic certainty unappealing or impossible. I was never concerned that God might judge my theology - God was the capricious angry father who would beat me if I failed the science test for not trying hard enough and who would beat me if I passed for arrogance. I was, however, entirely convinced that he would judge ME, and find me fundamentally and irrevocably defective. I've heard other people talking about their certainty that God is good or feeling loved by God, so obviously some people have that subjective experience, but I never did. But I never doubted the existence of that God - ever. He was completely psychologically real to me.

  15. This is a good reminder. It's similar to your sermon with Jonathan, where you beg for a truce within the sexes. Our ability to provide grace to others for their own journey, shows our maturity in our faith and doubt, don't you think? It doesn't, necessarily, answer any questions for own personal journey, but it does help us live with each other more harmoniously...

  16. I might try building my self esteem comparing my self to Jesus. I understand now why St Francis called himself a worm. Humility and spiritual poverty were his trade marks. My only saving grace is that I am loved by God.

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