October 23, 2006

A Theology of Doubt

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:54 pm

Andrew Sullivan, in response to a review of Sullivan’s just-published book by David Brooks, describes his “conservatism of doubt.”

The entire mechanism of American government was designed to ensure that as little as possible is ever done by government, that doubt is welded into the core system, that certainty is always checked by other powers, and that the great Certainty of Divine Truth is always, always, always kept at bay.

It’s easy to see why a conservative like Sullivan and a progressive like me both agree on the gross incompetence of the Bush administration: a lack of doubt. The insecurity of doubt forces politicians (and us mere mortals) to constantly question whether we’re really on target, whether we’ve looked at all the angles, considered all the data, done everything we can to achieve the best outcome. It’s always seemed to me that the best leaders are driven to succeed by a few neurotic doubts rattling around in their souls.

The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It BackBut doubt is more than a beneficial leadership quality. Doubt is a vital and central aspect of Christianity. God, for reasons we can’t possibly understand, has built doubt into the very fabric of God’s relationship with humanity. Does this sound somehow heretical? But just think — without doubt, there is no room for faith. Faith is only possible in the face of doubt and uncertainty — remove the doubt, and faith becomes mere knowledge. I don’t need faith to believe the sun will rise again tomorrow, but I do need faith to believe that if I don’t live to see it rise, I will instead see God face-to-face. Faith is very important to God. “Oh ye of little faith.” “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” “Your faith has healed you.” Without doubt, there would be no faith. As Jesus said to Doubting Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

We can have two reactions to doubt — we can fear it, deny it, and try to erase it by claiming certainty where none exists. The Christianists (to use Sullivan’s term) certainly do this. The belief that the Bible is inerrant is a noble but doomed effort at banishing uncertainty. The desire for ideological (and political) purity among the SBC leadership seems to be an attempt to remove any source for nagging doubts to arise. The certainty of so many Christians that their understanding of God’s will is the correct one, and that any who hold different conceptions are substituting their own will for God’s, might erase doubt, but it also erases the need for faith.

So while Andrew Sullivan believes in a conservatism of doubt, perhaps I’d call my progressivism a progressivism of doubt. All the opinions I’ve expressed on this blog are provisional, ready to be changed in the face of further enlightenment. Even Martin Luther held out the possibility of changing his mind: “unless convinced by scripture and by reason that I am in error…here I stand.”

But I’d also call my Christianity a Christianity of doubt. Instead of fearing doubt and attempting to banish it, I embrace it. I take out my doubts, examine them, let them speak, run around a little bit. And when I do, I always end up coming back to faith, not by virtue of my own faithfulness, but by virtue of God’s grace.

Thanks be to God.


  1. Amen!

    One thing our doubts do for us is to keep our egos in check. We could spend our lives being sure of ourselves, never questioning what we believe, and only find out too late that we were wrong. Or, we can let our doubts shake up our self-assurance, sort the wheat from the chaff, and leave us with a stronger faith. Doubt is vital to a healthy faith.

    Of course, I suppose I could be wrong about this.

    Comment by BruceA — October 29, 2006 @ 12:34 am

  2. […] Now that the election is over, I can turn to more theological topics, like this article in Wired on The Crusade Against Religion on the part of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett among others. (Hat tip to Chris at Even the Devils Believe, with his own cogent comments on the article and several follow-up posts. I found this article both extremely interesting and extremely maddening. Dawkins’ and Harris’s statements have so much of the certainty I rebel against with the religious right. They leave no room for doubt, which as I’ve said, is a fundamental part of my intellectual and spiritual make-up. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » The New Atheism — November 15, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

  3. […] There it is: doubt. Doubt occupies an important place in my religious life, because embracing doubt is what leads to faith. Unlike the moral relativists, those of us inbetween the extremes understand that we must make moral judgments. Unlike the fundamentalists, we understand that many moral questions are not black and white, but fall in the ambiguous gray zone. This isn’t to say there are no absolutes – God’s will is certainly absolute – but our ability to perceive God’s will is anything but absolute. So we make our reverent best guess, while understanding we may get it wrong. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Living Inbetween Relativism and Fundamentalism — December 23, 2006 @ 9:37 am

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