Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Can Faith and Doubt Coexist?

At the bottom of my email messages, just below my contact information, I have this quote from Thomas Merton, "A person is known better by his questions than his answers." I have it there because these words sum up my understanding of religious faith. Faith is not about answers. Faith is about questions.

This way of thinking, for some odd reason, comes natural to me. In fact, those who know me very well, know that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am not satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it, for the questions are too numerous and too serious. And, let’s be honest, the Bible could be wrong.

That’s why I like Thomas, Jesus’ disciple we call “Doubting Thomas”. When I read the story of Thomas from John 20, I resonate with this figure who, unfortunately, has become the straw-man for those who need proof of Jesus’ resurrection. His nickname has become synonymous with all those who cannot believe without proof. But was Thomas such a bad guy? Were his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection an expression of his lack of faith? And, was Jesus condemning Thomas for his doubts? I am inclined to say no to all three of these questions.

But I think the most refreshing thing for me about Thomas is that he expresses what it means to be human. We are prone to doubts and confusion simply because we are finite human beings. We are inclined not to believe certain things simply because our minds are so grounded in our experience as a way to gain certain knowledge. And so, it is only natural for us to be skeptical about certain things, especially those things that seem to be far fetched ideas. And religious ideas can be very far fetched.

I’ll be completely honest, but I hope you will excuse my honesty at this point. When I compare the various religious traditions and what they say about God, a serious look at Christianity suggests that our closely held beliefs are about as crazy as you can get.

Seriously. Think about it. Is it entirely reasonable to believe in a God who had a son, who this God had killed so that the sins of humanity, committed against that God, could be forgiven? If you don’t think those are far fetched ideas, then you should speak to a Jew or a Muslim, who look with great confusion at Christianity.

But we could push this even further by talking about the existence of God in the first place. For centuries philosophers have argued for the existence of God from a rational position. Their classical arguments are well structured and nuanced.

But even though these philosophical arguments are very sophisticated, they cannot prove that God does indeed exist. In fact, although it is easy for our culture to despise atheists and agnostics for their lack of belief in God, the reality is that the arguments against the existence of God that atheists propose are perhaps more convincing than those that argue for God’s existence.

The point I am trying to make is that faith is often a tough thing; at least it is for me. I wish I could stop the questions and simply just say I believe. But, unlike many folks I know, I cannot. I have actually heard people say that it is not a matter of not being able to believe, it is a matter of not wanting to believe. But this is false. Many people want to believe, including me, but sometimes those beliefs are not possible.

I cannot force myself to believe everything just because the Bible says it or because Christian tradition teaches it. I can certainly accept many things from the Bible and from the traditional teachings of the church, but I also have my doubts, and often these doubts are numerous and quite intense. Indeed, there are days that I doubt that God really does exist, or that prayer does work, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, and even if rising from the dead means a physical resurrection.

But, I came to a place in my life many years ago when I decided to be honest with myself. I decided that I would not just keep saying I believed in God or Jesus or certain things about either God or Jesus. For me, faith is not an absolute belief or knowledge that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that everything happens for a reason. And, I am particularly doubt stricken when I see the suffering in our world.

Perhaps what really does it for me is the way that we think of God in very personal and individualistic terms. I am not saying that God is not personal, or that God cannot be described in personal terms. What I am saying is that there are views of God that, in my mind, actually fly in the face of believing in the God many Christians claim exists.

For example, I have heard people say they prayed about things such as getting a certain job and they got it, and then they attribute this to God, when at the same time thousands, even tens of thousands are killed by a tsunami. I have a huge problem with this. Why would I want to believe in a God who is concerned that my happiness is achieved, but who seems to be unconcerned with the deaths of thousands?

But that is just one of those quirky questions that is always at the forefront of my mind. That is why Merton’s quote is at the bottom of my email. I prefer to live with the questions rather than the answers. For me, this is the life of faith.


Lindsay said...

As usual, I don't always agree with your posts though I do find them refreshing. I really enjoyed being in your SS class for a season. So much of the time was dealing with questions you posed and it would put us out of our comfort zones. Funny thing is that we step outside our self imposed limits, God more than meets us there. I, too, like the example of Thomas is that it encourages rather than discourages going public with our doubts.

Malcolm said...

I've long felt that Faith & Doubt are inseparable companions so was somewhat surprised to find it posed as a question! I share so many of the doubts and difficulties that you have expressed here - thanks for sharing.

Chris Harbin said...

I like your openness to entertain doubts and questions.

Faith is not the antithesis of doubt, but a relationship of dependence. It is trust. In the Greek NT it was more often a verb than the noun as we use it. As a noun, it was more about trust than static belief.

I wonder, though, why you seem to equate Christianity with one theory of atonement, when there are at least 9 definitions regarding the necessity of Jesus' death. Substitutionary atonement is just one of many theories of atonement set forth within the bounds of Christianity. (Gerhard Barth, Der Tod Jesu Christi im Verständnis des NT)

C. Drew Smith, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Chris. I was not necessarily equating Christianity with one particular atonement theory, I was simply drawing an example. No room to discuss them all!! By the way, I knew a Chris Harbin when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh. You would not be that same Chris Harbin, would you?