Don’t they realise that we doubt?

Theology / Biblical Studies

It will come as little surprise that I think a lot of people who have strong opinions on religion, even those who write about religion and get paid for it (unlike some of us!) frequently know much less about it than would be desirable, given how much they say. And one of the things people don’t seem to realise is that doubt exists, even for people of strong faith.

Just yesterday I saw the provocative story title in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby questions the existence of God.”Now, I’m told he’s a bit more left-leaning than a lot of Christians, but I’m pretty sure The Archbishop of Canterbury believes in God. Why would you give a story a title like this? As I read on, it became clear what was happening, and my immediate (unintentional) association of the SMH (Sydney Morning Herald) with the popular internet acronym SMH (“shaking my head,” an expression of despair or disbelief) was legitimised. The phrase “questions the existence of God” is meant to mildly shock. “What?! An Archbishop is a borderline unbeliever?” The reality, however (as best I can tell, at least), is just that the writer was a foreigner to Christianity “from the inside,” and didn’t know what to do with this talk about doubt. Christians believe, don’t they? They don’t doubt. And if they have doubts, then maybe that means they’re on the road to unbelief. Or maybe they’re not really believers!

As it turns out, the story could have just as easily (although not as tantalisingly – or smoothly) been called “Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has some thoughts and feelings every now and then that most normal Christians have, nothing to see here.” But there is something to see here, and it’s this: Doubt is a normal part of a committed Christian faith. Not all the time, of course, but anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mature, thoughtful Christian or else they don’t want to admit it. That is often swept under the rug, resulting in a poorer understanding of the faith from inside and outside

Justin Welby’s comments were part of an interview given in front of a public audience. If you watch the whole interview (see below) you’ll see that it’s hardly a torrent of doubt. Welby is more than evidently a firm believer (I suspect it’s a prerequisite for being the Archbishop of Canterbury) and doubt certainly does not define his faith. He says during the interview that no matter what we go through, God is always there with us, no matter what, and that in our worst suffering, whatever the theoretical explanation is, it’s probably not the most helpful thing at the time and God comforts us throughout. At point 11:54 in the interview, he is asked, “do you ever doubt?” he answers in an expression that suggests the answer should be obvious: “Yes!” he adds rather quickly, “I mean there are moments, sure, where you think ‘is there a God?’, ‘Where is God?’” But he goes on to say that he loves the Psalms where doubt about God’s nearness is expressed openly. In his own prayers he expresses his frustration with God: “The other day I was praying over something as I was running and I ended up saying to God ‘Look this is all very well but isn’t it about time you did something – if you’re there’ – which is probably not what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

I find Psalms like those really encouraging, because they show us that even somebody like King David, called a King “after God’s heart,” could struggle with doubt and the feeling of distance from God.

The interviewer’s response indicated that she got the point: “But it’s quite reassuring to people who think to themselves, ‘I don’t feel a presence’ or ‘I certainly don’t feel a presence all the time.’” Bingo. That’s why Welby loves the Psalms, and as I’ve said before, I find Psalms like those really encouraging, because they show us that even somebody like King David, called a King “after God’s heart,” could struggle with doubt and the feeling of distance from God. As Welby chimed in, “And it’s not about feelings it’s about the fact – that God is faithful.” And he wasn’t quite as “we admit it!” in tone as the SMH reporter suggests, writing, “Asked how to persuade those who do not see religion as relevant in modern world, he admitted that Christians did not have the answers to common questions such as why a good God would permit suffering.” Well, yes, he mentioned it but not as a sort of, “look, we have something to admit” moment. Instead, Welby was talking about what we can have confidence in. While we may not be able to explain all the suffering going on in the world (there’s the “admission” in passing, if you can call it that), we can have confidence in what we know about Jesus, so that is what we should present to the world.

So yes, the doubt was spiced up a little in the write-up, but it was certainly acknowledged in the interview (as it should be), and I got the feeling that the reporter really did think that it was a bit of a concession, as though Christians might turn a bit red-faced if they could only hear this. The same thing happened when Mother Teresa’s diary was discovered to contain some much more vivid expressions of the distance she felt from God at times. It was as though the outside world (or at least some of it) pounced with gleeful cries of “ah HA! She knew it wasn’t true too!”

This caricature of Christian faith as a non-stop, rock-solid, nigh-on polemical ride of warrior-like confidence without a shade of doubt or frustration is a problem for a couple of reasons. It’s a problem because outsiders sometimes think of the faith that way and then misinterpret the facts when they find out it’s not true, and some Christians think that’s the way it should be (or act as though that’s how things are), which is bad for both outsiders and insiders alike. Here’s how I think those things happen.

The writer of this story in the SMH, just like a number of commenters on Mother Theresa’s thoughts, seemed to express surprise. They did not, I think, conceive of Christian faith as something that allowed for even a shadow of doubt or wavering, so when they saw it in somebody’s faith, they interpreted it as a faith that wasn’t real, a faith that really admitted that the elephant in the room is real: Their beliefs were untrue, and deep down perhaps they knew it. They were misreading the existence of doubt because they didn’t expect to see it.

As for the Christians who do not admit the reality of doubt, obviously this feeds the misperception that some non-believers may have. But it’s also toxic for those Christians. If you’ve been through the apologetics boot camp style of Christianity where you’ve got to be totally equipped to answer every imaginable question, absolutely certain that since there’s a knock-down answer for everything within arm’s reach you’ll never really doubt the truth of what you believe, as soon as your rose-coloured view of things collides with reality and you realise, perhaps very quickly and under dire circumstances, that you can’t answer every question and what’s more, your psychological makeup is perfectly capable of succumbing to the emotional pressure to doubt, you may be in for a shock. You won’t know what to do with it. What is this intruder? Maybe I’m wrong after all!

A faith that has never been exposed to real doubt at all must surely be weaker (or I insist, at very least much less mature) than a faith that has come out the other side of episodes long, dark doubt that relentlessly occupies the whole mind.

Doubt can exist for a variety of reasons (usually more emotional than strictly rational), and the denial of doubt is foolishness. A faith that has never been exposed to real doubt at all must surely be weaker (or I insist, at very least much less mature) than a faith that has come out the other side of episodes of long, dark doubt that relentlessly occupies the whole mind. I have no authority over the church, but if I did I would insist that a person is only considered eligible for ministry if they have experienced that sort of doubt. You’ll need that experience when a member of your church approaches you and tells you they’re having doubts and you don’t want to respond like the idiot who says “come now, where is your faith?” How will you know how to answer the question of how to come back from soul-crushing doubt and set your eyes on what you know to be true if you’ve never had to do it? Of course it would be a mistake to automatically respond to doubt as though it were a rationally compelling factor in itself, and so to give up belief, taking the path (at that moment) of least emotional resistance. But depicting the faith as a place where serious doubt simply doesn’t happen is madness.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Luke September 22, 2014, 10:46 am

    Hey Glenn,

    A good while back you asked for podcast topic suggestions (or perhaps I just went ahead and offered one :P) and mine was dealing with doubt in the sceptical community. I’ve spoken with some atheists and the idea of doubting their worldview (be it naturalism or whatever) was a utterly foreign concept. There was no room for doubt because it seemed just so damn obvious to them that atheism was true.

    To some extent we as Christians have to take a little responsibility for any shock or confusion caused when a Justin Welby or Mother Teresa confesses doubt. Often I think that doubts are amongst the last things that Christians will discuss amongst themselves. However, we do have a tradition of addressing doubt that begins most memorably, at least to my mind, with the Psalms. Rather then languishing in doubt or burring it behind strained smiles and talk of “how close I feel to Jesus right now” we can take comfort that Christianity is at it’s finest when, amongst other things, it acknowledges the struggle that all believers have.

    OK, so mini sermon over. Perhaps you could do a podcast on doubt within Christianity and within sceptical circles?

  • James September 22, 2014, 7:40 pm

    I have had some periods of severe doubt when I was younger and it was a great comfort that my rector told me this was ok.

  • Mike September 23, 2014, 4:14 am

    I was raised Catholic and never thought about it very much until I went through a year or two period of extreme doubt. I “decided” to become an atheist and start with a clean slate in order to figure out exactly what I believed. I read, and continue to read, everything I could get my hands on from both sides of the argument. I came out the other side a Christian with a deep level of understanding of doctrines, defenses of the faith, and what Jesus’ crucifixion actually meant. Basically, my doubt lead to my faith being solidified in ways that I could not imagine. Don’t get me wrong, it sucked for a while but in the end it made me a stronger, more knowledgeable Christian.

    I will also say this. I don’t actively feel God’s presence like some claim to. I struggle with this but it is what it is. There is only one time in my life that I felt the presence of God and it certainly wasn’t sunshine and rainbows. I felt like a piece of dirt and an overwhelming sense of shame. Whenever I looked back at this experience, it started to make sense. If I stood directly in the presence of God, I would be forced to realize how much I have failed to live up to his standard and how much I did not deserve his love.

  • Frank September 24, 2014, 2:35 am

    It seems pretty widespread that Christians want things to be cleaner, simpler than they really are. Seven steps to such-and-such. Nice little categories and boxes for things to fit into. Simple cause-and-effect theologies that produce prosperity gospel, and name-it-and-claim-it type movements. We got the right formula; we’ve removed all doubt. We sometimes go a little too far and claim to understand more than we really do.

    I agree that admitting room for doubt or having a degree of agnosticism where appropriate is a sign of maturity. Job admitted his ignorance, shut his mouth, and was the wiser for it.

    Daniel Amos recently put out an album that reflected the struggles the band leader went through over the last couple years (health issues and losing his home due to medical bills), and some of the lyrics are fitting here:

    I found your handprints on the pages of history
    I said your ways are past finding out
    ‘Cause you’re much too small if you’re not a Mystery
    So don’t send me rain if I bloom in drought
    No don’t send me certainty
    If somehow it’s best for me to doubt

    In the days of the nail and nights of the lash
    In the season of the quake and the lightning flash
    You become a slight impression on a threadbare shroud
    While you hide yourself away somewhere behind a thundercloud
    And I won’t pray for certainty or faith that’s always free from doubt

    ‘Cause I’m inclined to thrive in misery
    When I’m kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane
    Yes I’m inclined to thrive in misery
    When I’m kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane
    Crying Oh, Oh, Oh My God, my God, have you forsaken me
    Or is this grace disguised as adversity?

  • Glenn September 24, 2014, 6:10 pm

    I agree Frank – I would only add that there is a tendency for people to want things to be cleaner, simpler than they really are. The “New atheists” and those who admire them are much worse at this sort of thing than even very conservative Christians, for example.

  • Matthew Flannagan September 25, 2014, 1:58 pm

    An interesting question is wether non believers ever doubt. If someone who is a commited atheist told me sincerely that they never doubted that God did not exist and was certain he did not that would tell me they were intellectually arrogant and cocksure.

    There is an odd cognitive dissonance when you have buses stating God almost certainly does not exist at the same time as you get books by Graham Oppy who after examining all the most recent arguments in the philosophical literature concludes that while its reasonable for many people to be theists, the arguments dont provide reasons for all reasonable people to change there mind and so dont show that reasonable people have to be theists.

  • Frank September 26, 2014, 3:24 am

    Glenn, I agree that atheists are typically the worst offenders as you said. Come to think of it, in conversations I’ve had with professing atheists they’ve often tried to have it both ways by initially protesting that we Christians claim the existence of God is obvious and indubitable when it’s not, and then they’ll go on to argue that our view is far too convoluted to be believed whereas their view is much simpler.

    Perhaps atheists tend to be more needful of grounding their views in some perceptible absolute such as scientific evidence, and so they consider it a weakness to admit room for doubt in any degree, and are likewise surprised to find that doubt is admitted by a convinced Christian. Perhaps they’re simply confusing doubt with unbelief.

  • Michael December 10, 2014, 8:36 am

    All I can say is that I have never heard Justin welby mention God, Jesus or the bible on any of his TV interviews. But as Jesus himself said at Luke 6:45 “out of the hearts abundance the mouth speaks.”So its not a subject that’s close to his heart. And when it comes to been indecisive James says at James 1:6-8 that someone who claims to believe in god but then expresses doubts cannot expect to receive any of gods blessings because he is an indecisive man,unsteady in all his ways. If this is who the Church of England have as their leader it is no wonder that it is becoming more and more irrelevant in todays society.

  • Glenn Peoples December 10, 2014, 5:19 pm

    Michael, I’m guessing you haven’t heard much that he has said then. Here’s some material that will correct that misconception (there’s plenty more):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSfRWeTqUn0

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqaY-w5_R_M

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2QB4AmcqEg

    Michael, setting aside your view of Justin Welby, do you have anything to share in answer to the question here?

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