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.
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?
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
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.
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
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.
usually think of Jesus as a paragon of faith, but just consider how well acquainted
Jesus was with doubt.
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.
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
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
Jesus did not identify with the smug representatives
of a later day moral majority, but was more often found with those on the margins
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
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,
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.