Saturday, April 04, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: On Doubt

If only to try to provide grist for this blog, I've decided on this cheesily titled series 'Takeaways from the getaway' (cue groans), where some of my reflections et al. on the recent student getaway I was on will be used as jumping off points for some of my posts.

When in doubt, tell the truth
– Mark Twain
I’ve gotten to know someone who is doing postdoctoral work here in biochemistry a little. He is not a believer, although he occasionally comes to church, and we tend to have a chat after the evening service when I see him. Often, he asks me what I’ve been up to during the week gone by. And to my shame, sometimes my stomach tightens up and goes all squishy at the same time. I mumble something about some of the practical work I get up to, maybe mention the Bible study prep that took up Monday night. And I become intensely aware that I’ve received the unwanted blessing of X-ray vision and see his internal eyebrow rising a little too high.

And I imagine him being similarly endowed with supernatural vision and catching a glimpse of several moments in my week. He might scratch his head as he watches me and a few others with our eyes closed and talking to the ceiling. He might scrunch up his face as he sees me cutting some pictures and gluing together lolly sticks for toddlers. He might wonder why on earth I’m at my table looking intently at a paragraph in an ancient book for an hour. And he might concur with noted atheist writer Sam Harris. While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs are. And from time to time, that makes me pause. The weeds of doubt begin to sprout. I have a BA from an educational institution of some standing, an MA with first-class honours (that should be proof enough there is a merciful God!), and this is what I do? Is it worth it? Is it even sane?

I doubt(!), though, I struggle with doubt as others have. Or maybe that’s because I haven’t come to terms with my particular doubts yet. For most of the time, I have strong confidence in the existence of God. To be honest, I don’t think I could ever be an atheist. To me, it seems too clear that its end point is despair. Does that make me someone who leans on faith as a psychological crutch, then, rather than someone prepared to go where the evidence leads? I don’t think so. I have prior faith commitments, to be sure, but when I consider the best arguments for theism, I find them compelling.

But when I reflect upon it, my doubts are of a different nature. I can easily believe that God exists. Indeed, even that God is in control. But when it comes to the business of life, that’s when I see where my struggle lies. I don’t necessarily ask it, but it’s there in the back of my mind. Is God good? Does he actually care for me? The struggle, for me, lies not between theism and atheism, but theism and deism. That is, God is out there, sure, but is God near? Is he for me?

And when those doubts gain the upper hand, it doesn’t necessarily lead to me renouncing my Christian faith. Instead, I beat a hasty retreat to living in the here and now with perfunctory references to God. That’s easy. Or easier. Easier than grappling with the prospect of hope. Opening myself to the possibility that I might discover more of a God who loves me more than I could imagine, who wants to make me more in line with what he’s created me to be, that’s mind-blowing. But I can’t cope with the prospect of disappointment either, that God simply doesn’t show up. Or worse, won’t show up. That’s where doubt focuses you and me. Vaughan Roberts describes it well: doubt is an attention-seeking child.

We all doubt, to varying degrees – the Catholic writer Michael Novak calls doubt a razor’s edge that runs through every soul. The messiness of life virtually ensures its existence. And if all the culture-watchers are right and we live in post-modern times, characterised by incredulity towards metanarratives, then the conditions are even more ripe for doubt.

Assurance was the theme of our recent student getaway, with talks from 1 John. And students did show up with questions. There were intellectual kinds of doubts. Doubts that crop up because we’re talking about things that need work to get our heads round. Predestination. And Scripture. Big questions. The latter, especially, seems to me to be the urgent question of our times, and yet one which I believe we can develop robust answers to. And doubts that weren’t strictly due to the lack of evidence, but due to us deeming it insufficient. I wonder if there’s something to the criticism of conservatives/Reformed types that we sometimes foster a culture which demands that we have everything neatly tied up, although I think in my context, this is more due to university rather than church culture.

There were other kinds of doubts. Friends who we thought were going strong as Christians, but have dropped out. That can shake you – will it happen to me too? Especially when I know I’m a pretty rubbish Christian? I’m not where I ought to be.

The answer, as it always is, is Jesus. Not in a superficial way. Not that, as my student pastor says, we bury our doubts. We name them, and we examine them. But we also consider Jesus. Jesus, who really did become human. Jesus, who really can and does sympathise with us. Jesus who is good and trustworthy, and who gave up his life for us on the cross. The cross tells us of the seriousness of our sin, and the certainty of forgiveness and restoration. And as we struggle to follow him, in spite of our doubts, we know that we follow him – that’s a big theme in 1 John.

Doubt calls attention to the dissonance we feel in our lives, the disordered hearts that we have. Doubt reminds us of our finitude as human beings. But God can use doubt too, to point us back to faith. Faith that rests on historical evidence, and faith that acknowledges God has broken into our world. God has shown up!

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
- 1 John 1:1-3



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