A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Liberal Skepticism vs. Orthodox Doubt?

What do you think?

There are certain streams of "emerging" Christianity which seem to think that doubt is some revolutionary new stance that has finally had permission to emerge now that we are "new kinds of Christians." Formerly oppressed by fundamentalisms that quashed any hint of uncertainty, such Christians are at pains to point out that we can never be certain. But having still accepted the modern equation of knowledge with certainty, they also end up professing that we can't know. So what we're left with is not doubt, but skepticism.

It seems that those who think permission to doubt is some radically new possibility for Christians are the same people who think that a concern for justice is some "secret message" of Jesus heretofore hidden from Christianity--when, in fact, it just means that it was hidden from them in the pietistic enclaves of their early formation. In a similar way, doubt is as old as faith. As Kierkegaard suggested in one of his journals, "doubt comes into the world through faith." As I've suggested elsewhere, some of our greatest saints have been our greatest doubters, too. Some of our exemplary believers have also been masters of suspicion. The new kind of doubters have nothing on the likes of Graham Greene or Mother Teresa or Bernanos' country priest or Endo's Jesuit missionaries.

But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can't believe it, it can't be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let's come up with a rendition we can believe in.

But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts--but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with. It's not a matter of coming up with a Gospel I can live with; it's a matter of learning to live with all of the scandal of the Gospel--and that can take a lifetime. Graham Greene's "whiskey priest" doesn't for a moment think that the church should revise its doctrine and standards in order to make him feel comfortable about his fornication--even if he might lament what seems to be a denial of some feature of his humannness. All of his doubts and suspicion and resistance are not skeptical gambits that set him off in search of a liberal Christianity he can live with; they are, instead, features of a life of sanctification, or lack thereof. And no one is surprised by that. The prayer of the doubter is not, "Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief," but rather: "Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief."

For just this reason orthodox, catholic faith has always been able to absorb doubt as a feature of discipleship: indeed, the church is full of doubters. It is the grace of our scandalous God that welcomes them.


John Meunier said...

Quite helpful. I think sorting out the distinctions between "doubt" and "skepticism" is helpful as the word "doubt" gets thrown about quite a bit.

Jim Jensen said...

Somehow, I thought that as my knowledge of Scripture and theology grew and my faith matured, than my doubts and confusion would lessen. Hah! I wonder about so many things. And I know the "correct Christian" answers to most of my doubts--but pat answers just don't cut it any more! But you're right, Allan: my doubts don't diminish God or His Word at all. Maybe that's part of the frustration. I WANT to be able to cut God down to a size where He fits within my beliefs. But then, if God could be completely understood and explained by the human mind, would He really be the God we need?

Jim Jensen

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Interesting post; i should ponder it more. My first thought was that it seems I've been around some Christian gatherings (especially geared toward young/ubran/post-modern/progressive types) in which doubt (or even skepticism?), rather than faith is the new badge of membership, and questions are valued, even celebrated, more for opening uncertainty than for focusing our vision on the truth.
"our group welcome skeptics, spiritual seekers, those who don't know the answers" - which is as it should be, but what happens when someone who knows the Lord and his word deeply (and who believes some questions actually do have right and knowable answers) shows up saying "Thus saith the Lord..." Is that person welcome?
If not, it is a supreme irony since Christianity holds that faith (not doubt) is the foundation for receiving God's saving grace, and that Jesus is the Truth.

Allan R. Bevere said...

But then, if God could be completely understood and explained by the human mind, would He really be the God we need?

Good point, Jim.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I think the distinction that Smith draws between doubt and skepticism addresses your concern. Doubt is legitimate and skepticism should not be confused with it. As the old adage goes, "Faith is fashioned in the workshop of doubt."

Gary Lyn said...

Well, I appreciate the distinction between doubt and skepticism, but I think the distinction could have been made without reference to "certain streams of emerging Christianity. This seems to be a subtle criticism of what has come to be called the emergent movement within the church. I have to say I don't experience people who are participating in that movement acting like doubt is some revolutionary stance. I think that most are experiencing an honest struggle between their experience of God in their honest searching and the beliefs about God they have known. It's not new; it's just new to them. And for the most part, that's all I hear people from that perspective saying.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Good point, and I think Smith would agree with you; it is new to them, but it should not be concluded, therefore, it is new to the church universal, which is why Smith's point needs to be heard. I have heard some emergent types I hang around with speak as if the church in general has a problem with doubt and I do think they interpret doubt more as skepticism. Of course, it would be wrong to caricature the entire movement, so your words to us are an important reminder.