Doubting Faith

[Editor’s note: this article launches Wondering Fair’s Open Mic category, in which guests can present views not necessarily our own, and with whom we want to graciously debate and interact.]

When it comes to matters of intellectual honesty it seems to be the general consensus that non-religious persons have a much easier time dealing with doubt and uncertainty than most believers. Believers are generally thought to believe anything and everything in the interest of faith, and are not very open to questioning their belief systems. Yet, even though believers are often accused of being dogmatic and prone to wish fulfillment, it seems that atheists can and do fall victim to just as much to wish fulfillment and close mindedness. It is true that many believers perceive any experience of doubt as a kind of infiltration of the Devil (a kind of spiritual cancer), but this could be equally said of many atheists. One senses a kind of desire or hope that God does not exist. There often seems to be a dominant tone of the atheist being completely convinced of him/herself. There is no leverage or room for doubt. God does not exist and that’s that.

On the other hand it seems that doubt is woven into the very fabric of Christianity, unique to any other worldview; namely that God Himself struggled (at least momentarily) with atheism. This is seen in particular on the cross with Jesus crying out, “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:

“It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but 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.”[1]

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (an atheist, by the way) 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.”[2]

As interesting as Zizek’s points may be, it seems that what to Zizek is the “ultimate sin” is in fact a normal process along the journey of faith. Time and time again in Scripture we hear the stories of those who struggled with doubt. Abraham for example, must have experienced INTENSE doubt when he believed that God was asking to sacrifice his only son Isaac. From Abraham to Job, right down to Jesus on the cross, true faith from time to time will wrestle with doubt.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145

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


3 responses to “Doubting Faith

  1. It seems to me that nowadays it is the “certain” who get the most press, not just among Christians and atheists, but in every sphere of human discourse. Critical thinking, contemplation, and analysis are felt to take too much time in our fast-paced world, and “education” is often reduced to a list of facts to be consumed and regurgitated.

    Also, what I think of as the “positivity gospel” is infecting the secular and church culture, so that the act of questioning itself is seen as the new “ultimate sin”: negativity. Intellectual integrity is not just on the back burner – it is frequently cast into the pits of hell as a vile, unholy thing.

    That said, although I agree that doubt is common to humanity, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go so far as to say that it is necessary for faith. Different Christians struggle with different problems. Furthermore, I find the proposition that Jesus doubted God on the cross unconvincing. He was quoting Psalm 22.

    I do believe that God gives grace to those who are willing to journey through doubt, and blesses them on the other side with a stronger, multi-dimensional faith. I think He uses such people to reach others He has created with a deep need for contemplation.

    • Hi Alistair,

      Apologies for not replying more promptly to your discussion about this out of my article, but I’ve been away on a holiday.

      I think you make some really thought-provoking points here. Exegetically, I think there is more going on than Jesus doubting when He says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – He’s actually probably quoting all of Psalm 22, and Luke has used a common abbreviation of his day, which is just quoting the first line of the Psalm. With all respect to both yourself and GK Chesterton (and I LOVE Chesterton!), I’d probably not feel comfortable with the idea of Jesus Himself doubting God. But really, I think that’s a technicality to what is really your main point – a very, very good point.

      I actually agree with you that Doubt is an important – potentially essential – aspect of faith. Faith, by its very nature, is all about trust, and trust is never certain. If it is, it’s not trust, it’s knowledge. The contemporary apologist, Lee Strobel, discusses this in his book “A Case for Faith”, with a helpful analogy. It goes kinda like this (I’m paraphrasing):

      Imagine I hold out my closed hand, as if I have something in it. First of all, I ask whether you believe that I have a 10c coin in my hand. If you say yes, that is blind faith, based on very limited information and conjecture. Many people think this is the nature of Christian faith.

      But then, what if I specifically tell you that I’ve got a 10c coin in that closed hand? If you believe me, that is now informed faith. It can be based on any number of things – how well you know me, etc – but it’s informed by some kind of evidence, however strong. Christian faith is usually more like that – it is informed by weighing up evidence. But inevitably, there is still doubt.

      The Strobel says, “Watch as I DESTROY your faith!”… which he does… by opening his hand to reveal… a 10c coin. We expect that the destruction of faith will come from there being no coin there, faith being disappointed. But actually, now, you no longer have FAITH that I have a 10c coin in my hand, or BELIEVE it. You KNOW it.

      What this means is that it is entirely consistent with Christianity for there to be unanswered questions, doubts, etc. In fact, that should be admitted by EVERY perspective or worldview, including atheism. None of us are CERTAIN, we are BELIEVING, based on the evidence we have gleaned.

      Of course, that doesn’t negate critical realism; the idea that, based on the evidence, we can be more confident of some things more than others. Based on the evidence that I have gleaned, I’m pretty sure that Christianity is a fair bet, and specifically that Jesus’ resurrection is very, very likely to have occurred.

      The point is – and this relates again to what I wrote – the recognition that we don’t have all the answers SHOULD be an impetus for discovery and discussion. When it becomes an excuse for apathy, ignorance, and banal uninformed critique, then that’s just sad. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, they are well aware of how much they don’t know everything about God – but they NEVER use that to descend into a lazy relativism. They instead use it to propel them onto learning to love God more. To quote from one of the best of those Eastern Orthodox guys, Gregory of Nazianzus, on this very idea:

      “The Divine Nature cannot be fully comprehended by human reason, and we cannot even represent to ourselves all its greatness… perhaps one reason for this is to prevent us from too readily throwing away the possession because it was so easily come by. For people cling tightly to that which they acquire with labour; but that which they acquire easily they quickly throw away, because it can be easily recovered. And so this is turned into a blessing, at least to all men who are sensible, because this blessing is not too easy to receive… Nonetheless, let those discuss it who take interest; and let them ascend as far as possible in their searching.” (Gregory of Naziansus, Theological Orations)

      Hence, I come back to the invitation I had at the beginning – let’s discuss in order to discover. That excites me no end. I’m really appreciative of your steps in this direction, Alistair – thanks alot. I think it gives a great example of how such discovery through discussion can take place here.

  2. Verity3,

    “That said, although I agree that doubt is common to humanity, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go so far as to say that it is necessary for faith. Different Christians struggle with different problems.”

    Thanks for your comments. Let me say that I do think one has to be careful with doubt and that within the life of faith there can be a dangerous emphasis on doubt. Certainly we live in a very cynical and doubt ridden kind of world. The beauty of the Christian message is that the focus is not on doubt but rather on the hope that we have found through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It would be a poor and pathetic kind of faith if one were to always dwell in the shadow of doubt.

    Even in the realm of philosophy Soren Kierkegaard (I think the greatest of all Protestant Philosophers and someone who thought a great deal in regards to faith and doubt) cautions against doubt. He says:

    “It is a positive starting point for philosophy when Aristotle says that philosophy begins with wonder, not as in our day with doubt.”

    This brings us to an important question of how percieve the world around us. Do we approach it with a sense of wonder or with a sense of doubt. Particularily from the Enlightentment up to the present day there has been emphasis to look at the world in a way that has destroyed that sense of wonder and mystery that so defines what it means to be fully human.

    To go back to Chesterton, one of his most enduring themes throughout his thought is wonder. He often points out how adults have lost that sense of wonder that was so alive and vivid as children (see especially his work entitled “Heretics”). For Chesterton the power of the Christian faith is in recapturing that wonder that has been lost. The cross does not end in doubt and death but in new life, wonder, and hope.

    The point I think Chesterton is trying to make is that when it comes to taking itself seriously Christianity does not gloss over doubt as so many other world views do (especially fundamental atheism). It is acknowledged as a very real part of our experience as being human and is willing to grapple with it. Our faith does not start or end with doubt but certainly does acknowledge it’s reality. Chesterton points out the inconsitency within materialistic and athiest thought. They often promote themselves to be the champions of doubt, liberating humanity from the chains of dogmatism and religious thought, whereas in reality they are often more dogmatic and stay safely away from the problem of real doubt.

    In one sense as Kierkegaard points out, the world is wired to doubt and be cynical, in the other sense which Chesterton and Zizek are talking about much of the world is content to live apathetically and not question or grapple at all with doubt.



    I appreciate your comments and agree especially theologically there is alot more going on with Jesus’ cry from the cross. Like David in Psalm 22 Jesus is surrounded by enemies. David cries out to God in his suffering, despair and anguish but also trusts in the love and goodness of God. For a moment there may have been the anguish of forsakeness but we oberserve the victory of David’s faith in God when he resolves to trust that God will deliver him and holds on to the truth that the Lord is near him (Psalm 22:11). Likewise with Jesus on the cross there is a moment of deep anguish and despair but we see His trust in the Father triumph in his final prayer “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

    Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo in his novel “Silence” also writes of the intense despair and anguish connected with the apparent silence of God in the face of the persecution, torture, and execution that tens of thousands of Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries faced during the Tokugawa ban on Christian practice in Japan in the 1600’s. I’d recommend this book to anyone who would be interested in delving more into these questions of faith.

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