Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
Have you ever dealt with doubt, real doubt? I have and occasionally I still do; occasionally there are nights where I look up at the ceiling and question “is what I say even true, is God really there, does he actually love me?” and I can only despair and pray Mark 9.24 over and over again. I think that Christianity as a whole in this past century has had a very troubling time with doubt. Orthodox Protestants have trampled doubt under layers and layers of doctrine as they try and fight against what they perceive to be a subversion of the gospel. More liberal protestants have taken an open approach, embracing doubt, but often with disastrous consequences for a commitment to a historical Christianity (for example, congregations that view themselves as post-theistic in the United Church of Canada). But there must be a middle way; there must be a way that at once captures the fullness of the history that we have inherited as Christians, maintaining the integrity of the gospel, but yet still also allows believers to openly express and explore their own doubts in a struggle with faith. The church must recognize that there are indeed doubters, and it must engage those doubts, knowing that by wrestling with what we know to be true we may be more fully convicted of the realty and truth of the gospel.
I do not think that doubt can not exist. That is because we found Christianity on faith, on the premise that we put our firm trust in something that we might not be able to immediately prove with our own hands or eyes. As a person of science, this confounds me. “How can I believe in a God that cannot be tested?” or even “If everything else is true, how can I be saved if I have so little to show for it.” And because of questions like these, my sense of faith is firmly rooted in an interplay with doubt, with struggling against the objections of my mind and with obtaining piece by piece a conviction on what I hold on to as true. Yet, as a Christian that believes in orthodox christian beliefs, I find so often that doubt is a taboo subject, not often broached in friendships and treated as a lack of faith in those that express it. It seems (and this is purely anecdotal with no statistical evidence) to be an admission of shame in an inability to trust in a preached message or in the Bible or in the gospel itself; doubt has become an admission of weakness. And it is, I won’t say that it isn’t because it is, what is wrong though is the response. Rather than shame, we should recognize that this strikes at the very core of the gospel, at the very core of what it means to be human. As we are human, we are weak and to say otherwise is to ignore the vast work that Christ has done on the cross. Christianity is not a religion for the weak, it is the resuscitation of the dead. And if the recently revived find themselves with a broken leg, why is it that the remaining of the living seek to add injury upon injury but adding communal shame to the doubt of an individual? Doubt exists, it must, and the church must seek to engage it, treating it with the truth of the gospel so that the whole Church might be made better.
The church has full means to engage doubts. Why do I say this with confidence? I say this because Christianity has lasted through 2000 years of questioning. Indeed, some of the greatest people in Christianity are those that have faced doubt and used that doubt to shape themselves and those around them. Anslem’s motto was “fides quaerens intellectum” or faith seeking understanding. I think this is an apt description of theology because in theology we have our faith, a faith riddled with holes and doubts, and it seeks to understand what it knows deeply to be true and right. And so theology becomes the very tool by which we build faith and answer doubt. It gives us a framework by which we can know God in light of scripture and it allows us to ask questions and wrestle with answers. The gospel is simple, yes, but it is deep enough to be probed for our entire lives, for the entire lives of the countless of theologians who have already wrestled with it. The Church then should strive to engage doubt in three ways, (1) encourage a consistent life of scripture reading and prayer, (2) provide access and direction to those who have come before us, and (3) provide an environment where friendships aren’t contingent on having the same beliefs, but rather on a view of a person’s humanity and inherent worth and also a mutual desire for truth over all things. This three pronged approach roots our answers to doubts first in the revelation of God to humanity, second in how the church has historically answered questions (ranging from “why does God exist” to “what does it mean to be human and what does this mean for sexual ethics”), and third in community because as Christians we are called to build and exhort each other in the race of faith. Without this three pronged approach, doubts can become insurmountable obstacles and the end of the faith of a Christian.
We wrestle with truth, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. I said before that the hardest part about doubt is that we might know what is true and right, and even agree with it, but not believe in what we know to be true. The most important part about doubt then, is the building of faith. It is one thing to be able do rattle off and describe what the purpose of salvation is, how we are saved, and what the nature of God is, but it is another thing entirely to know in one’s heart and fully believe in these things. The difference between someone who is conceited by knowledge and someone who lives out what they know to be true is prayer. It is recognizing in humility that God builds faith by the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. It is a humility characterized by is the prayer that I started out this post with, “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” Faith is a gift, and if we as a church are not rooted in prayer while striving after truth, we have lost a grasp of the simplicity of the gospel. Let us, as a community, be committed to relationships, not based in a single dogmatic truth, but in the striving after a lived out truth that we ask God daily to show us through his word. Let us not shun each other for being different, but sharpen each other for the furthering of the Kingdom of God. And in striving to conquer doubt let us remember Anselm’s words, “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand” and remember that theology is a faith that seeks understanding from him who is the source of all knowledge and wisdom.
Help me, and let me help you and together, in Christ let us work towards the coming Kingdom of God.
Note: This is in part an extension of a previous post: “To an Honest Treatment of Reality“