Eccentric Christianity: Part 5, Doubt, Gratitude and an Eccentric Faith

Up to this point in the series we've been using the metaphor of eccentricity to describe our experience of God--Father (transcendence), Son (God in the Stranger) and the Holy Spirit (enchantment).

In this post I want to shift gears and talk about doubt and the eccentric experience of faith.

For years I've written about doubt on this blog. As I've noted many times, borrowing from the work of Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt, doubt is a chronic condition in modernity.

The reason for this is how modernity has affected the psychological experience of faith, where faith is located in the mind. In a pluralistic and hyper-connected world religious belief is no longer a cultural given, something in the back of our minds, something taken-for-granted, an inherited legacy from past generations. Rather, in modernity faith is at the front of our minds experienced as a choice among a suite of competing options. This can be a choice between the denominations within Christianity. Between the world religions. Between faith and the varieties of unfaith (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism). And this is a choice--simply because it is a choice--that has to be routinely revisited. This makes faith feel fragile, tentative and provisional.

Consequently, doubt is a consistent aspect of our religious experience. We doubt because we chose faith and because we chose faith we'll never escape doubt.

And yet, many of us don't cope with this situation very well. Doubt is associated with anxiety at the deepest levels. Doubt makes us question the foundational aspects of our lives, the deep structures that make life coherent and meaningful.

And a couple of different things can happen at this point.

First, the doubt might lead to violence. As I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, surveying the work of Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory, in the face of existential anxiety we can engage in worldview defense. We replace the doubt with dogmatism which makes us hostile toward out-group members. And yet, this show of conviction is actually being motivated by a deep-seated fear. Rather than dealing with the existential anxiety we externalize the fear by angrily lashing out at those who we perceive to be a threat to our values, culture, beliefs, worldview and way of life. You see this fear-driven dogmatism and attacking behavior all over the place in Christianity--online, in our churches, in our political discourse.

Consequently, as I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, a person might want to not repress their doubt to paper over their doubt with a fear-based show of conviction. Doubt, as I argue it in the The Authenticity of Faith, becomes the psychological price one is willing to pay to be welcoming, curious and open toward out-group members.

And yet, many people struggle in trying to carry this burden. They have opened their minds to others but the associated doubts--the question marks they have placed behind everything--create existential crises and panics that can lead to cognitive rumination, depression or other psychological problems. And if not these psychological problems the doubt produces a host of spiritual problems--cynicism, listlessness and spiritual dryness.

So this is a difficult business. It seems like living with doubt makes you walk this tightrope between dogmatism or depression.

Consequently, I've struggled to find a better way through this thicket. How do you, psychologically speaking, keep from slipping into dogmatism while avoiding the existential funks? 

In The Slavery of Death, though a book not directly about doubt, I think one answer can be found. Specifically, I think doubt can be replaced with an eccentric experience of faith which I believe to be rooted in the experience of gratitude and gift.

Gratitude and gift are eccentric experiences. Something is "given" to us. Consequently, our sense of ownership, territoriality and proprietorship is attenuated. Our posture toward life becomes open-handed and receptive rather than tight-fisted and possessive. This allows us to face the uncertainties and fortunes of life with an experience of gratitude rather than anxiety. Gratitude is a balm for existential anxiety and it softens the heart toward out-group members. If life is a gift there is nothing to protect or defend. All is grace.

In sum, what I'd like to suggest is that while doubt has some advantages in how it lowers your hostility toward others, it is difficult to build a spiritual life around the experience of doubt. A better route, in my estimation, is to use religious belief and practice to cultivate an eccentric experience of faith, where the provisionality of doubt is retained in the experience of gift but where existential anxiety is replaced with gratitude and joy.

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7 thoughts on “Eccentric Christianity: Part 5, Doubt, Gratitude and an Eccentric Faith ”

  1. Great series, Richard - a preview of your next book, perhaps...? I remain deeply grateful to you and to my fellow contributors for this space.

  2. Richard, in my own experience of doubt through the years, and in my conversation with others, I have found that much of the anxiety stems from trying to find the right words to express my faith to those of my past who now think, simply because I no longer hold to old beliefs, that I have no faith. In anticipating their questions and needing to have the perfect answer, the anxiety would set in.

    However, I keep coming back to the words of Jesus to his disciples, "Do not worry before hand how to answer". Not as a "supernatural" remedy Per Se, but, and this is why I so appreciate you post today, through the experience of faith; for me, the faith of God being the "All in All", empowering each experience.

    Has this particular admonition of Jesus ever come into play in your thoughts regarding doubt and faith?

  3. Is it possible that doubt itself can be a gift? It is, after all, what some of us are best at. I should add that when I say "doubt" I'm referring to an ongoing process of questioning and seeking: doubt as an activity, not a passive state of mind. If doubt in that sense is a gift, then it doesn't need to be "replaced" but rather augmented by gratitude, thereby reducing (if not eliminating) our existential anxiety; it is the anxiety, after all, that afflicts us, rather than the doubt itself. Can we come to see doubt not as a personal failure, a lack of faith, but as a gift given to us?

  4. With apologies to regular readers for the repetition, I have shared before that doubt can be thought as a necessary precondition of faith, as also disenchantment of enchantment etc. Thus, we can stop beating ourselves over the head and self-compassionately savour a life of doubtful faith, of enchanted disenchantment. Our aspiration then becomes to adjust ourselves to dilemmatic living rather than to attain a higher degree of a given quality such as 'faith'.

  5. Thank you. I shall now return to my dilemmatic living and stop beating myself up about it...

  6. I'm starting to appreciate the wide applicability of this concept of eccentricity, Richard. For example, I woke up this morning thinking about how God comes to us from outside our previous experience of him - our traditions and expectations. 'Why are you looking for the living among the dead?' Perhaps I just need to get out more...

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