Against universalizing doubt

"Everyone doubts." "The question isn't whether you doubt, but when." "Faith without doubt is blind." "Doubt is universal."

Such phrases have become commonplaces in Christian discourse today. The context is usually pastoral, personal, or theological: responding to those grappling with doubt, sharing one's own experience with doubt, or reflecting on the nature and significance of doubt within and for Christian faith.

The object of doubt is not always specified, but in general it seems to be the existence of God, or some particular feature of faith's claims (about miracles, say, or the resurrection of Jesus, or an event in salvation history), or simply the whole ensemble of the spiritual world: reality beyond the empirical, life after death, angels and demons and heaven and hell.

The reason for doubt is often, though not always, the perceived difficulty of believing in God in light of some other thing understood to be in tension with faith, whether that be modern science, religious pluralism, historical criticism, ecclesial disunity, human suffering, or some otherwise specified personal experience.

The social background to doubt is often—more or less always?—the felt sense, usually informed by the family or church setting in which one was raised, that Christians as a whole look down on doubt, indeed, positively repudiate doubt as inimical to true faith; that this view is theologically misguided and psychologically repressive; and therefore that Christians who doubt should both "out" themselves as doubting believers and encourage fellow doubters in the integrity of their experience.

So far as I can tell, this last diagnosis of the atmosphere in many church communities is accurate (though I should say that it does not describe my own experience). To the extent that those who write about doubt in the Christian life succeed in (a) softening those subcultures of ecclesial self-deception and overwrought assurance or (b) creating spaces in which those who experience doubt can verbalize their thoughts and questions without fear of punishment or excommunication—keep up the good work, and may their tribe increase. Like many good things, however, talk about doubt, in pushing against one extreme, has ended up affirming another. My modest suggestion is that, by moving to the middle and accepting a more moderate position on doubt and faith, those who write and think about the topic have everything to gain and nothing to lose, whereas their current approach, so exclusive and totalizing, threatens to undermine their goals and alienate potential allies.

Because the simple truth is that not everyone doubts. More to the point, not every Christian doubts. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Christians who have ever lived have not experienced what people today call "doubt." The same goes for the majority of contemporary Christians around the globe.

This is difficult for many to get their minds around, but the apparent questionability or ambiguity of the reality of the supernatural (or spiritual, or divine, or whatever) was not a given social fact for people who lived before a couple centuries ago, nor is it a fact for most people living outside the industrialized West today. "Does God exist?" was not an existentially paralyzing question for the average Italian Catholic peasant in the year 950. Nor does it dominate the daily lives of the inhabitants of present-day sub-Saharan Africa. And this is not merely the absence of education, as if knowing more about the world (its cosmic history, its molecular makeup, its vast teeming diversity, or what have you) leads logically to questioning God's existence. A certain kind of education under certain material, social, and societal conditions does indeed have the likelihood of increasing theological doubt. But there is no good reason to generalize from one particular kind of education to all education as such.

And that raises the larger point, beyond the inarguable fact that the great majority of human beings, past and present, have not doubted and do not doubt the existence of God (the supernatural, the spiritual, the non-empirical, etc.). That point is this: People who doubt and who write about doubt feel the need to universalize their experience of doubt, and so inadvertently mirror the position they seek to oppose. Instead of disallowing doubt, they disallow lack of doubt. Instead of repressing lack of certainty, they repress lack of uncertainty. Instead of requiring assurance in all things, they require assurance in nothing.

But there is no warrant for universalizing doubt. Though well meant, it is little more than projection of one's own experience onto the canvas of humanity, the generalization of the parochial. But doubt need not be common to all to be legitimate for some. Nor does doubt confer some kind of moral or spiritual superiority on those who experience it versus those who do not. The one who believes without doubt is not ipso facto less sophisticated, less thoughtful, less theologically adept, less sensitive to the ambiguities and shortcomings and evils of fallen human life than the who believes in the midst of or in spite of doubt. Doubt is not the mark of maturity. It is not the mark of anything except itself.

Too often the underlying dynamic at work is that of the ex-fundamentalist. Once a fundie, always a fundie: so that, if I once was taught and myself believed that absolute certainty is required of any and every Christian to be a true Christian, then it follows that, once I am liberated from that sentiment and the community that engendered it in me, absolute uncertainty is required of any and every Christian to be a true Christian. But it doesn't follow. Abuse does not invalidate good use. The lack of doubt can be and is a good and salutary thing in many believers' lives. The presence of doubt is a reality in other believers' lives, one that sometimes proves to be a painful struggle and sometimes proved to be a boon to deeper, richer, more authentically personal faith. There is nothing mutually exclusive about these two statements.

My sense is that many who doubt find it psychologically or intellectually implausible that there are those (at least in the modern West) who sincerely and honestly do not have doubts. But this is small-minded, vain, and ungenerous. Without question there are some believers who deceive others or themselves about their doubts, and there are still other believers who repress questions that might challenge their insecure certainties. But not everyone is a Socrates. Not everyone is an academic. Not everyone labors, beleaguered, under the naturalistic nihilism of scientistic modernity. God is "just there" for many people, present in grace and power, available in prayer, a source of judgment and consolation alike, an unavoidable but unintrusive goad to the quotidian tasks of daily life.

Moreover, is it a problem that such people lack doubt? Are their lives diminished without our politely informing them that, as a matter of fact, everyone doubts (didn't you know?), and until they admit that they do too, they're merely infants in the faith? Or is it a matter of false consciousness—such people's "God" is too anthropomorphic or literalistic or unsubtle? I am a theologian; naturally I think teaching and learning is crucial to the life and growth of faith. But it is narcissistic in the extreme to suggest that everyone must come to the very same conclusions that I have, in the very same ways that I have, or else their belief is somehow lesser than mine, impure or syncretistic in a way that mine is not, having passed through the crucible of doubt.

The impression I get when I read the more intellectual versions of universalizing doubt—for example, Christian Wiman or Peter Enns—is that, at bottom, they think God is the sort of thing that must necessarily be believed in only provisionally, and further, that not to do so is a kind of moral failure, inasmuch as it is a category error of sorts. "Religion" does not admit of certainties, and therefore anyone who trades in religious certainties is theologically unserious and morally dangerous: such a person wants to use God for some other, very likely bad, end.

Such a worry is warranted, but, once again, in universalizing a specific concern and thereby requiring it of all rational, respectable people, it undercuts its own force. All good things can be made a means to evil ends. God (or "religion") is no different. But implicit in the assumption that God is not the sort of thing one believes in without doubt is a whole theological epistemology that gives priority to other ways of knowing over against faith. But rarely is the position argued on those terms—and for good reason, because there is no epistemic position not subject to the very same debilitating challenges addressed to faith. The lesson of modernity, in other words, is not that faith in God is subject to doubt, but that everything is subject to doubt. You don't have to play that game, but if you do, you don't get to pick and choose which sort of knowledge is sturdy and which is shaky. The problems go all the way to the foundations.

But that is a secondary matter. Here is the primary issue: If what the gospel says about God is true, it is not the sort of thing best assented to halfheartedly. We don't talk about other important issues this way, as if the commitment to one's marital vows or the belief in the equal and intrinsic worth of all human beings or the unwillingness to harm children were a provisional matter improved by qualifications of doubt. Such things are improved by unwavering allegiance.

So with God: If faith produces good fruit, then we should not want less of it as a matter of principle. Ambivalence in faith does not issue in martyrs and saints. One does not suffer torture and death or give away all of one's possessions to the poor for the sake of a vague notion half-believed in. (Not to say a certain kind of doubt is absent in the saints: Mother Teresa, for example.) True, the church should neither condemn nor exclude those whose faith is held feebly, or those who by temperament or conviction cannot or will not claim the high confidence of their sisters and brothers. But the church should nonetheless encourage and bolster faith that walks unbowed into the Colosseum, the faith of Ignatius and Polycarp and Perpetua, faith that is wholehearted, unqualified, and inextinguishable.

For the great challenge is not faith. It is faithfulness. Doubt is often over-intellectualized: "How, in 2017, can anyone believe such-and-such?" (Not for nothing are doubt's champions mostly, or formerly, Protestant.) But Christianity does not consist in believing 20 absurd things before breakfast. Kierkegaard was right: your faith would not be greater if you had seen Jesus in the flesh. The disciples were living exercises in missing the point, and the greatest of them denied him in his hour of need. The risen Jesus appeared to the disciples on the mountain—"but some doubted." What did they doubt? Not whether or not there is that than which nothing greater can be thought. They doubted Jesus. Faith in Jesus is the Shema applied to a human being: Love God, that is, this scorned and tortured Rabbi, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Trust him with every atom of your being, give to him every ounce of trust you've got, cast your burdens onto his black-bruised shoulders: and he will lift you up.

Christian faith is hard, and necessarily so, but not because God is a metaphysical conundrum, or because demon possession is anachronistic, or because the Bible isn't inerrant. It is hard, for any and every Christian, because following Jesus is hard. The obedience of faith is taxing, exacting, ruthless, unyielding. The flesh is weak, and doubts creep in. For some, those doubts will be theological in character: Is this whole God thing plausible? For most, though, those doubts will be more like the voice of the serpent in Genesis 3: Did God really say such-and-such? Can I really be expected to live this way? Can I really trust God at his word?

The struggle is universal, but the nature of the struggle is not. Insofar as doubt's sympathizers bear up under it as part of faith's larger struggle, helping themselves and others to stand, waver though they may—blessings upon them. An overweening emphasis on the supposed necessity and universality of doubt, however, will inevitably result in unintended consequences: riding roughshod over the actual experience of fellow believers; denigrating the simple surety of faith native to so many; and distracting from the real struggle, namely, a whole lifetime of uncompromising discipleship to the crucified Christ, a calling from which no one is excluded.


  1. Thanks, Brad. This is illuminating and helpful. Exvangelicals so often seem to lock themselves into dialectical opposition to the less reflective elements of their past. If a person can, it seems intellectually and psychologically healthier to take a constructive posture toward one's faith heritage - building on its strengths rather than proclaiming oneself an eternal critic of its weaknesses - as you have done here.


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