I thought we’d long moved past the doubt=bad equation in Christianity. The Desert Fathers wrote about doubt approvingly for God’s sake. At least since Tillich doubt as an essential element of faith, not an enemy of faith, has been a mainstay of any theology worth reading. But apparently doubt is still the enemy in some Christian circles.
Yesterday over at Patheos Derek Rishmawy wrote an article about an exchange he had with Timothy Keller at the Gospel Coalition’s 2013 National Conference. He describes an illustration Keller used where college students having taken a science or philosophy course begin having doubts and difficulties, asking questions about evolution or some such issue and he traces that doubt to what he judges to be immoral sexual behavior. Derek has since tried to nuance this point a bit, which is good because suggesting a causal relationship between sexual behavior and questions about evolution is ludicrous. Rachel Held Evans dealt with that subject very well over here.
What I want to talk about is how everyone in this conversation uses the word doubt so loosely that it is counterproductive. About all you can absorb from Keller and Rishmawy’s remarks is that doubt is scary bad – but what is it exactly? Is asking questions about evolution really doubt?
I would like to propose some clarification about what doubt is and is not. First what doubt is not:
Doubt is not asking questions, that is curiosity. It is good to be curious about things, to want to know the truth and to reject simple answers and even time-honored answers until you’ve investigated it yourself.
Doubt is not rejecting beliefs you have found to be untrue, that is disagreement. I do not “doubt” young-earth creationism I have found there to be no evidence that it is true and found abundant evidence that the Earth is billions of years old and that life on this planet evolved over time.
Doubt is not uncertainty or unknowing, that is agnosticism. There are a lot of things that it is perfectly appropriate to be agnostic about – like the existence of God. Gnostic forms of both theism and atheism can be pretty obnoxious actually.
Doubt is not experiencing a change in your beliefs, that is conversion. Whether it is a good or bad (or mixed) conversion you may not know until much later in life, but being open to having your beliefs changed is a decidedly noble thing.
In sum, doubt has nothing to do with knowledge. It has to do with trust. Doubt is not intellectual it is existential. If you are chronically late and you promise to pick me up at a certain time, I might doubt you will fulfill your promise, because I don’t trust you in this respect.
This explains why doubt is still thought of as a negative by Keller & friends. Intellectual disagreement is perceived as a lack of trust in their teaching. I taught you xyz doctrine – don’t you trust me? Or put to its usual use: the Bible says xyz don’t you trust it? Don’t you trust God?
The hard thing to hear and accept is that they’re right: a college student learning that they were taught falsehoods as a child when they are persuaded by evidence that the universe isn’t a couple thousand years-old, non-christians aren’t evil, sex isn’t dirty, the Torah wasn’t written by Moses etc… does lose some of their trust in their former teachers. They do doubt their preachers and families and their church. Of course they do – those people and institutions have been proven untrustworthy.
This isn’t bad news, though. I can doubt you will pick me up on time and still love you and be your friend. I can doubt your credibility as a science teacher and still admire your compassion and generosity. Kids can learn their parents were wrong about a lot of stuff and still love their parents, and we’d have to be incredibly prideful to think that we’re never wrong, always trustworthy.
In fact, I doubt whether anyone can get through this life without experiencing doubt. That sounds incredibly naive to me. Doubt is core to Christian life. Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He isn’t doubting the existence of God, (because doubt isn’t intellectual), he is experiencing the absence of God, doubting God’s love, doubting God’s will to save. It is Jesus’ trust in God that is wounded on the cross.
So it is okay not to trust your parents on everything. It’s okay, advisable even, not to trust your preacher on everything. It’s okay not to trust the Bible on everything. It’s okay not to trust God every minute of the day. There are a lot of crosses in this world, a lot of places where we see no evidence of God’s faithfulness. It would take a great fool not to doubt from time to time.