Doubts about Doubting

A scene in Terry Gilliam’s 2005 film, The Brothers Grimm, depicts a general in Napoleon’s armies who gets his battalion to surround a “supposedly” enchanted forest and begin to burn it, while the local German populace looks on, horrified. Everything about this scene is carefully set out to make a statement – you can’t find a more pointed representation of Enlightenment modernist philosophy than the French Revolutionary Army. When they see the local peasants terrified, they laugh at their superstitious naivety. Gilliam’s point here is that it is not the peasants that are naïve – it’s the modernists. The peasants know – and so do we, the audience – that the forest really is enchanted. By the end of the film, so do the French army.

This scene gives shape and colour to an idea strangely attractive to the modern mind: the assumption that to believe in something is somehow inherently naïve, but to be sceptical is somehow inherently intelligent. I’m not the only one who gets frustrated by this – philosopher Dallas Willard wrote:

We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character… Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

The irony is that automatic scepticism is a perversion of the noble empiricism that has been such a useful contribution from the Enlightenment: namely, that it’s usually a good idea to withhold acceptance of something until you have reasonable evidence for it – thanks John Locke, great point. The problem is that there are several reasons why we might not have reasonable evidence for something – and only one of those reasons is that the object of investigation is not real. It could also be because we haven’t found the evidence, even though it exists – “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. And we might not have the evidence because we’re unlucky, we’re poorly equipped, we’re not smart enough to find it, or because we simply don’t want to. Often the reason we aren’t sure of something isn’t about its reality, it’s about our will to accept its reality. But if we throw a wry smile when we deny it, it’s amazing how smart we can seem.

Of course, post-modernity (or hyper-modernity) has turned scepticism into an art form. But it’s an ugly art. The frustrating thing about this is that it actually squashes the Enlightenment’s main intention – discovery. Empiricism was designed to bring the reality “to light”: John Locke said, “I attribute the little I know to my not having been ashamed to ask for information, and to my rule of conversing with all descriptions of men on those topics that form their own peculiar professions and pursuits.” But the contemporary scepticism often discourages the discovery the reality, by suggesting that apathetic ignorance is actually intelligence. When we don’t bother to do the research to find a reality that does exist, it’s not the believers that are naïve, it’s us.

Locke’s quote also points to the other contribution this scepticism stifles – discussion. That’s actually what Christians and empiricists – true empiricists – both want. I for one invite all of us to discussion with the purpose of discovery – we might not find an enchanted forest, but we might find something truer and greater.

Matthew Gray

Dallas Willard, Hearing God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 218.

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2 responses to “Doubts about Doubting

  1. Yours is such a great point, Matt. The motivations at play when we pursue something are actually more decisive than our methods. More often than not we find only what we were already opened to.

  2. When it comes to doubt, you have with Christianity, something unique to any other worldview or system of thought…that is the idea that God Himself became an atheist, or at least flirted (for an instant) with atheism. We see this on the cross with Jesus crying out to God the Father, “Why have you forsaken me!!” For a moment in time God questioned his very existence. This is something that G.K. Chesterton points out in his book “Orthodoxy”. Chesterton writes:

    “It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist.”

    ~Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145

    Solvenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (a self avoved atheist) also picks up on Chesterton when he writes:

    “Chesterton is fully aware that we are approaching ‘a matter more dark and awful that it is easy to discuss … a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific rule of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but also through doubt.’ In the standard form of atheism, God dies for men who stop believing in Him; in Christianity, God dies for Himself. In his “Father, why hast thou forsaken me,” Christ himself commits what is, for a Christian, the ultimate sin: he wavers in his Faith.”

    ~Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf; the Perverse Core of Christianity, p. 15

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