Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Doubt is Not Enough
In his widely reviewed and well received new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, poet Christian Wiman reflects on the character of doubt as it relates to faith in a way that challenges modern liberal Christians.
You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith?
It is my observation that in many of our pulpits and pews doubt produces very little disquiet. Rather, in the face of appalling fundamentalist orthodoxies and reactionary, anti-intellectual certitudes, doubt is worn as a badge of honor, a mark of maturity, a sign that we have become adults and put aside childish ways. In so doing we risk making doubt the object of our faith rather than God the object of our yearning. There’s a difference, and that difference may have much to do with the current malaise of liberal Christianity. The arrogance of doubt may be just as destructive as the arrogance of certainty.
Wiman contrasts this with what he calls “devotional doubt.” He says this doubt is marked by three qualities: “Humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward – or at least outward – even in the most painful moments.” This kind of doubt is the very opposite of a self-referential doubt that displays itself as intellectual snobbery and spiritual superiority, a doubt that is an end in itself rather than the doubt that makes faith a daring leap instead of a safe bet.
Historian Randi Walker, in a book on the United Church of Christ titled The Evolution of a UCC Style, traces the role of doubt in the development of modern liberal theology. Her chapter title – “The Entertainment of Doubt” – reminds us that doubt is always penultimate, an experience on the way rather than a destination, a critical tool rather than faith’s object. We welcome doubt into our lives aware that it can be a very uncomfortable guest who ought not become a permanent resident. But too many of our churches, I fear, have enshrined doubt, claiming it for an identity. Too many in our pews watch preachers displaying their doubts as a theological pedigree rather than wrestling with doubt in their own daring pilgrimage into the holy mysteries.
The spiritually audacious person settles neither for the comfort of fundamentalist piety nor the ease of self-satisfied doubt. She acknowledges the elusiveness of God who cannot be intellectually or morally contained. He accepts the reality of a God we need not construct and cannot create in our own image. She knows that faith requires both consent and questioning, both surrender and resistance. He knows that asking the questions is crucial, but that merely “living the questions” is probably not enough.
The renewal of liberal Christianity’s mainline church is not Christian Wiman’s project, though he certainly takes no delight in its struggles. And while many of us who bear institutional responsibility amid its apparent decline must attend to its rehabilitation, that may not be the most important project for us, either. But if the compelling credibility of the Gospel in the world is our real project, then getting it right about doubt certainly looms large. Honest belief may be impossible without the honest doubt Wiman describes. But unless we dare to believe, few people will care much at all about the elegance of our doubts.
John H. Thomas
June 6, 2013