“Doubt is the vestibule of wisdom which all must pass before they can enter the temple of wisdom.”
– Charles Caleb Cotton
“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.” – Wilson Milner
“Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise.” – William Shakespeare
“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Last time we mentioned the very short list of life’s certainties – birth, change, and death. But I think we can legitimately add a fourth item to our list. It is certain that we will believe something and, on the flip-side, come to doubt what we believe.
Even people deprived of some of the most basic functions of the body and mind arrive at belief, or “faith”. Even those who cannot vocalize their faith and belief still have it. For example, I have a beautiful grandson with severe cerebral palsy, but he knows and believes he is loved and cherished by his family. He knows by experience, by relationship, and has arrived at trust that it is so. Although he cannot speak, he shows by his responses that he really knows and trusts that he is safe and loved.
It is helpful to use another word than “faith” with all its modern aerie connotations stemming from existentialist angst and post-modern sceptical deconstructionism. A more specific, positive, and helpful word is “trust”. In Hebrew the same word is used to say both, and ancient Greek does the same thing.
In other words, these two ancient foundational cultures whose genius gave birth to so much in the West, along with the later Roman and Germanic streams, saw clearly that faith is not a blind leap in the dark without good reasons to go that way. Our super-sophisticated Western sceptics (although they have nothing on the ancient Roman cynics!) have so often and unhelpfully characterized “religious people” as merely weak-minded and credulous. In truth faith is almost always a deliberate decision based on evidence and experience. That’s what it is for my disabled grandson. That’s what it is for any little child. That’s what it is for almost all Theists and Atheists.
It’s always good to re-examine the evidence which has led us to “trust-faith”, but it has never been the “blind leap off the cliff” straw-man so much mocked by the likes of Richard Dawkins. Perhaps some religious people have arrived at a real faith by such a route, but only after discovering that, after all, there really is someone to have faith in and be in relationship with.
The “jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-for-the-best” route so often attributed to Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (often called the father of existentialism) is actually a caricature of what Kierkegaard was saying about belief in God. His point was that faith is a choice that must be made on the best evidence available. Ultimately, it is a choice to trust that “still, small (quiet) interior voice” telling them they will be “caught” by strong arms when they “take the plunge”. The New Testament defines faith, or “trusting”, as “being confident of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see”, or, as another translation has it, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. (Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, Verse 1.
Atheists and sceptics love to pillory theists, and particularly Christian theists, as gullible and naive because they put their trust in a personal Deity whose existence can never be proven. “Proven” is a narrowly circumscribed term as they use it. What they mean is “scientific” or perhaps philosophical, and therefore “irrefutable”, proof.
By their own criterion, neither is there ultimately any “proof” for even the most sacrosanct “truths” of science. Science’s trust-faith is entirely founded on the long-term reliability of human reason and the scientific method to conclusively demonstrate the nature of reality. This is dogma, not science, for there are as many formerly scientific “truths” and “facts” which have been debunked as there are apparently now disproven religious dogmas in the trash-heap of history. Theologians also rely on reason and logic. Like any tool, these can be used for many purposes.
The long-standing “war between science and religion” is not the real point of our reflection in this post. The real point is that we humans cannot live without “faith”, without trust, at least not for long. We are inevitably going to believe, to choose something to trust as the foundation on which we take a position from which we will “do life”. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’re gonna serve somebody.”
Much stems from what we experience and what we are shown by example and instruction in our early years. “Nature or nurture?” is the old debate. The answer is “both”, nuanced by the discoveries of later experience in relationship to the immensity of Cosmos, our world, and our fellow humans. Somewhere in all of that arises the growing “substance” and “evidence” that we are not in fact alone, that behind and within and through it all there are huge questions all pointing at the same answer.
Those very basic questions come out something like (with many variations possible), “Who am I? What is all this? How did I/it get here? What does it mean? Why do things die? Why is life so wonderful and painful all at the same time? Is there anything after death?” etc, etc.
Ultra scepticism (systematic doubt) takes two forms. The first is the post-modern type that denies we can ever be certain of anything and so have to question everything all the time. (As mentioned above, this “post-modern” practice is really a reprise of the Greco-Roman cynics.)
This position instantly disproves itself by refusing to be skeptical of skepticism. The second type of ultra-skepticism is of the mystical variety that says “all that is here is maya” (illusion, not really here at all). This denies even that the individual doing the questioning is really here, for there is no such thing as an “I” with an identity.
In our “veriest bowels”, as Shakespeare puts it, we all know, or can and should know, as Descartes famously said, that “Je pense, alors je suis! (I think, therefore I am!)” The cynical response is to say, “The thinker thinking they exist because they know they are thinking may only be a deception of some greater being forming a thought that thinks of itself as an individual able to think.” This is patently absurd, but we will not here take the rabbit-trail that reveals its complete absurdity except to say it is totally self-contradictory.
Such intellectual gaming is really a ploy to avoid Descartes’ and Kierkegaard’s very (to them) unacceptable ultimately identical conclusion that, “God is real.” Both great thinkers also conclude that God is a personal Being who gives us our being and our ability to conceive Him in thought and discover Him by experience in and through His creation. Therefore, with open eyes and clear minds, they (and we) take the plunge in trust-faith based on the substance and evidence we can now see and experience all around us. We find it even within our own hearts and souls.
We all long for certainty. We all naturally experience doubt. Doubt is the questioning of what we have taken as true up to the time we begin to seriously question that “truth”. If we are to be honest, we must not run from our doubts, but face them. We must allow our questions to come into the light.
Most simply, faith is trust, but not blind trust. It is evidence-based trust. It is knowledge-based trust. It is relationship-based trust. Is has “substance” based in reality, not mere imagination and wishful thinking. For example, I know I can completely trust my spouse after almost five decades of doing life together.
The scientist trusts, has faith in, science and reason because of the repeated evidence that it works. By it we discover how things work. We know how its methodology can help us solve problems, give answers in practical ways to real critical issues. We know it can show us how to protect people from deadly infections like COVID-19, how to create usable energy by controlling the forces and elements of nature, etc.
The “War” between science and religion is a misconception. Theists and atheists both believe we can discover much about reality by the scientific method. Both believe that our innate creativity and remarkable intellect can use the creation to bring into being things that would not exist without human invention.
A theist easily explains why that is possible: the Creator made it in such a way that we can use the abilities of reason and faith to discover how the creation was made to function and how we can direct it to produce previously non-existent things. In the best scenario, we can learn to protect it and care for the creation the Creator has placed us in.
The atheist believes it just somehow happens to work that way as an inexplicable result of blind “evolutionary processes” that defy all the “laws” of probability. Beneath it all, there is no real, compelling reason for it to be that way. Nor is there any ultimate purpose in what is. We are just here, and while we are here the best we can do is to try to make our existence as pleasant as possible for both ourselves and our fellow humans. Or perhaps we only need to concern ourselves with our own comfort.
Let us conclude this reflection with this thought and a couple short open letters:
Thought: “Let the believer not be afraid to doubt; to question opens the path to greater wisdom.”
Doubt is not the enemy of trust-faith, but the way to new trust and stronger evidence for your relationship with the One you have discovered is really there and has been all along, even when His voice was silent (or, rather, when your eyes and ears were blocked).
Dare to doubt your total faith in reason and science as the sole path to truth and wisdom. Dare to consider some great thinkers and scientists who moved beyond dogmatic skepticism. Finding a Creator did not suddenly make them scientific and intellectual weaklings. Newton was no weakling. Descartes was no weakling. Pascal was no weakling. Bacon was no weakling. Einstein was no weakling. Francis Collins is no weakling. Hawking notwithstanding, we do “have need of that [the God] hypothesis”, now more than ever.
Pax tibi, amice! (Peace be with, my friend!)
2 thoughts on “Certainty, Doubt, and Faith”
This is a well articulated, balanced apologetic! Christian contemplatives show us that doubt leads to a deeper more God reliant faith. Maybe doubt functions like a healthy dose of skepticism for the scientist. Skepticism helps the scientist formulate discoveries that have greater rigor and certainty. I would hope that churches give more space for doubt so faith can grow and not feign certainty without going through the process of doubt in faith formation. Also if the church had a clearer recognition of the role of doubt in faith formation it would enhance a greater sense of humility which would enhance dialogue with atheists and people of other faiths.
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