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The Role of Doubt in the Life of the Soul
Doubt is not the enemy of faith, blind fanaticism is.

Religious leaders such as myself spend most of their waking days promoting faith. We may be wrong in overlooking the advantages of doubt. Let's think for a minute about the role of doubt in the life of the soul.

We all have moments, hours, whole days, even years when we seem to be overcome by the absence of God.

For example, did you ever suffer a serious illness and pray that God would help you, only to feel that God was not helping at all? Did you feel that the symptoms of the illness and the physical pain were becoming stronger and stronger and have no feeling whatever of the healing power of God?

Or did you ever find yourself captured by loneliness, longing to be with a particular person, hungering for friendship or simple contact with other people. Did you feel cut off from your friends and relatives, separated by miles, or by misunderstanding and find that the whole idea of a loving God seemed completely irrelevant or unreal?

Did you ever find yourself in the middle of a worship service and realize that the minister, or the hymnbook, or the Scriptures were saying something that you just couldn't believe?

When you think about it, there are moments when all of us must be counted among the unbelievers. And how does the church most often respond to our occasional lack of faith? Our nagging doubt? Well, unfortunately, the church has a way of making us feel guilty that we have these honest doubts.

Religious leaders have 1000 different ways of making people feel bad about their unbelief. We often seem to be condemning the unbeliever; we imply that there must be something wrong with your intellect, or your character, or your lifestyle if you cannot accept the teachings of the church unreservedly.

This is unfortunate. For when you think about it, a healthy sense of skepticism is something to be thankful for.

In the first place I must say from personal experience that unbelievers often exhibit qualities of honesty, courage and integrity which many believers lack. Often the honest agnostic can make you think harder and search deeper than you would otherwise have done.

The presence of a sincere skeptic can make a conversation about God all the more challenging and enticing. But more important than the fact that I enjoy engaging in conversations with those who are honest enough to share their doubt, there is strong biblical evidence to suggest that God appreciates a degree of skepticism in each of us.

We usually think of Jesus as a paragon of faith, but just consider how well acquainted Jesus was with doubt. 

From the beginning to the end, Jesus understood the dimensions of doubt. Not a day had passed following his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry before he wandered off into the desert to wrestle with the temptations of the devil. We underestimate the significance of this story if we think that Jesus easily or casually overcame temptation. The battle with Satan was actually a battle with the demonic forces of his own personality.

And when he had finished struggling with his own temptation, Jesus immediately returned to his native land to challenge the highest religious authorities of his time. Though we see him in hindsight as a man of faith, those who were responsible for keeping the faith in those days saw Jesus as a rebellious upstart who would replace their cherished traditions with his own radical ideas. In their eyes Jesus was the world's most dangerous heretic; for he dared to doubt their particular version of the faith. And that is why his disciples were often accused of being atheists; they dared to challenge many a faith of that day.

And then at the end of his life, as he made his sacrifice upon the cross, Jesus himself was swept up in his own sense of God's absence. Faced by his own suffering and pain, he cried out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

There is no more moving moment in the Bible that this, when the very Son of God is caught up in the deep darkness of doubt. And notice whom Jesus said were the most blessed of God's creatures. Rather than taking the side of those who are unquestioning in their faith, Jesus said: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."

Jesus did not identify with the smug representatives of a later day moral majority, but was more often found with those on the margins of faith.

I'm not saying that we should all become self-proclaimed atheists, but it is crucial that we see doubt is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is mindless fanaticism. A mindless, uncritical acceptance of religious authority is the real enemy of faith. 

Today it is clear our way of life is threatened not by the skeptics but by the true believers who insist that they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And woe to anyone who chooses a different path. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is faith's constant friend and helper.

In the first place the unbelievers among us help by keeping our faith honest. Those who are aware of God's absence keep us from making too many easy promises and help us avoid pious platitudes. Every religious community needs an honest skeptic or two. Otherwise its members may fall victim of smug self-righteousness or pie in the sky idealism.

The church needs the unbeliever to keep it honest.

And we all need the unbeliever within ourselves. It is our skepticism that keeps us growing and learning, reaching beyond our present horizons. Just as scientists can never be content with knowledge inherited from a previous age, neither can the true pilgrims of the spirit rest easy with tradition. We've got to test every tradition and measure every belief against the hard evidence of our experience here today.

If I were an insurance salesman promising to sell you a policy that would cost you less, pay out more, and at the same time increase the value of your investment more rapidly than the stock market, you'd have every right to doubt my word. If I were a used car salesman offering you a real cream puff with low mileage at a price far below it's blue book value, you'd have a duty and a responsibility to check out my representations. Why is it then, when we come to church, we often leave on the shelf at home those same qualities of skepticism and native intelligence that serve us so well in every other realm of our lives?

I believe that God would rather have us wrestle with our doubts and face our fears directly rather than say the Apostles Creed by rote 100 times every day. God would rather have us follow Jesus into the wilderness of the real world than stay within the sanctuary of an established faith.

Therefore do not let your doubt hide under a bushel, rather let it shine. Let your lack of faith come forward so that you, and others, can grapple with it, learn from it, and by God's grace, let it lead towards faith which is deeper, richer and stronger than before. 

You are invited to discuss this article here.

 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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