Some Thoughts on Faith and Doubt

My faith
is pinned to the wall
and flutters in the window like a curtain.

There is no trickery
my devious heart
could not entertain as a certainty.

Whatever travels, ends.
It is my stillness,
reaching out to grab at light as it passes;
clutching the wind in its fingers
only to fold back and fall,
sliding through its own grasp in its grasping;
my stillness,
hooked immovably to my stale frame,
that is the keeper of my shallow heart,
that is keeping my reckless heart
doubtful.

 

 

When I was preparing the preceding poem “Curtains” to be posted, it got me to thinking about the relationship between faith and doubt. Sometimes in my experience the subconscious realizes connections that the conscious doesn’t. I don’t know why that should be true, but for me it does seem to be so. When I wrote “Curtains” I was barely able to stay awake and was just trying to get it all down before I fell asleep, knowing that if I did go to sleep by the next morning I would have little or no memory of what I was trying to write.

In reading it over the next day, I was expecting to find that it was nothing like what my sleepy memory imagined it, but to my surprise I liked it and kept it. Over the years it has become one of my poems that I am most pleased with. This time, in reading it over once more before posting it, the ideas behind it clicked into place and I felt that I could see consciously some of what I was writing about unconsciously fifteen years ago. This is my attempt to say coherently part of what I think I knew all along but didn’t realize that I knew.

Faith and doubt are the two sides of the same choice, or the same state of being. To have faith in someone or something means invariably and simultaneously that you doubt its opposite. This is, I suppose, a basic law of logic, the law of dichotomy, that if a proposition is true then the contradictory proposition must be false. Somehow I had never put this logical principle into the personal and spiritual sphere before, but it belongs there as much as anywhere.

Being a Christian, I am a person of faith. Faith is central, I suppose, to all religious impulses, but for Christians it plays an unusually central role. We are saved by faith, faith in Jesus. Sometimes faith is described by Christians as being primarily a mental thing, a belief in particular ideas or dogmas, but that is not the way I think of it. Despite the fact that I am an “intellectual” I do not think faith is fundamentally a matter of intellect. But before I go into what it is, let me clarify what I mean by being an “intellectual”. To me, a person is an intellectual if his over-riding personal desire is for understanding. There are a lot of other things I want, of course, and they are important to me, even indispensable. But when I look at the world and my life in it, when I ask myself, “What is my job here? What is my calling in this life?” then increasingly my answer is “To figure things out, to understand them.” This is who I am, and what I have to do for money to get permission to live is purely secondary. Some people are artists because they can see well, some people are musicians because they can hear well, I am an “intellectual” because I can think well. It is not a big deal, it is not better or more important; it is just what I was created to be and I can’t do otherwise.

So when I say faith is not a matter of intellect, what I mean is that it is not something peculiar to people like me. Faith, in fact, is part of what it means to be human. We are all of us creatures of faith, in much the same way we are creatures of atoms, or we are creatures of habit, or we are creatures who verbalize. We are no more able to escape the necessity of having faith than we can escape the necessity of using language.

I think it is most helpful to define faith as a synonym to trust. In Greek the two English words, faith and trust, are the same: πιστις for those of you who like Greeky things. Fundamentally, faith is a choice of who or what we trust. No one can choose to trust absolutely nothing and no one. At some point, each of us chooses to trust, if not a friend then an institution or a nation or an idea or God. Replacing the word “faith” with the word “trust”, it is much clearer why no one can be an agnostic, not really. We all trust something, even if it is only our own thoughts. We all are people of faith.

Trust is always a matter of risk. Whatever we choose to trust we will always feel that nervousness, that fear that the object of our trust might betray us. There are no guarantees with trust. Even trust in God, in which the element of risk is really zero, it is part of the trust itself that holds God to be perfectly trustworthy. Sometimes God does not seem to take much precaution in reassuring us that He is trustworthy. He seems to like us to take risks when we trust Him. But the risk of betrayal is greater in anything else. Who has not been betrayed by a best friend, a spouse, a hero? Who has not betrayed their own loved one, or even betrayed themselves, simply out of  human fallibility? There is no way to get out of the danger we are forced to live in by the necessity of trusting in something.

To choose to trust someone or something, is to choose to distrust the opposite. If we trust a person, then we will automatically distrust anyone who impugns the character or opposes the one we trust. There is a commitment that goes along with trust, a commitment that is a little like the commitment that goes along with love. When I trust someone, I distrust his enemies, his opponents, his accusers, anyone he distrusts. The same is true of things. If I trust in some idea, some principle, if I believe in it, then I distrust the opposite idea, the contradictory idea.

Changing the word “trust” back to the word “faith”, if trust in someone means distrust in his opponents, faith in someone similarly means doubt toward his opponents. If trust in some insight means distrust in the insights that contradict it, then faith in a particular idea means doubt toward ideas that contradict it. Faith and doubt are thus inseparable; to be people of faith is simultaneously to be people of doubt.

Putting this in a Christian context then, a radical Christian context aims at having faith in Jesus and Jesus alone. Therefore, a Christian is one who doubts, to some extent, absolutely everything else. The focus of a Christian’s faith is very very narrow, and therefore the range of a Christian’s doubt is very very wide. The more we trust in Jesus and Jesus alone, the more we distrust everything else. The range of doubt is so immense and the focus of faith is so pointed that it might be more accurate to call Christians “the people of doubt”. Properly speaking, Christians are, or ought to be, the most doubting people in the world, because in all the universe we doubt everything and trust only in God, who is not even in the universe at all.

It follows that to grow stronger in faith is also to grow stronger in doubt. The greater our faith in Christ, the more emphatically we are skeptical of everything else. Similarly, when our faith weakens, it means that our doubt in some opposite idea is also weakening. If we lose our faith in one thing then we have come to faith in its opposite. I think it is important for us to realize this. We tend to think that faith only applies when we are speaking about Christ, but that if we are speaking about money or sex or power then faith is not the applicable word. We are accustomed to talking about a “crisis of faith” as only being about Christ, when in fact a crisis of faith is always a threesome. If we are being tempted to lose our faith in Christ, it means that we are being tempted to lose our doubt in something else. If we are being tempted to lose our faith in Christ, it means that we are being tempted to put our faith in something else. It is never simply about Christ; there is always an idol involved, there is always some competitor as the opposition. It is never simply about Christ; there is always “another woman” or “another man”.

I think we think about faith incorrectly because we try to make faith into a work, we try to make it into something we do for God, something we can take credit for, something that proves we are good guys and not bad guys. But faith is, for me, a default position; it is not something I choose because I am a spiritual person or a good person. Most of the time my faith is a matter of not having options. How can I lose my faith? There is no one and nothing else that speaks the words of life. How can I lose my faith? There is no good alternative. Sometimes it is the lack of reasonable alternatives that keeps me in the faith. It is not very virtuous of me; it does not make me look like a great spiritual hero, but it is the truth, and I think it is the truth for most Christians if we were willing to admit it.

The truth is that for most of us for most of the time, the reason that we are Christians is not that we have some great beatific vision of the beauty and goodness of God, but that we have only a dim glimpse of some vaguely flickering light and all around us is darkness and the howling of death. To paraphrase Peter, where else can we go to find anything even vaguely like the hope of eternal life even when the hope we have is pretty vague? Sometimes your hope may be hanging by a thread; but if all you have is a thread it is motivation to not let go. The alternative is hopelessness, nothing at all. If a thread is all that connects me to the Light then I am damn sure I won’t let go of that thread.

Sometimes I have faith in Christ because there is just nothing else worth having faith in. I have seen through all the things that the world can offer as a substitute and they are tawdry. My faith in Christ may be nothing to boast about, but the world is going to have to come up with something a lot better than it has if it wants to seriously tempt me to lose faith. There is no such thing as having faith in nothing. The choice here is literally between life and death, between a dim light and no light at all, between something and nothing.

But many people have told me that they are agnostics. It is not that they are lying; they are deluded. At some point in the west we changed the meaning of “faith” to be merely intellectual assent. This makes us think that we can live lives without having any faith one way or the other at least toward God. If faith is really an intellectual belief then we can simply choose not to believe anything. Agnosticism is a delusion on two levels.

First it is a delusion because of what I just argued above, that faith is a question of trust, not of belief. While it may be possible to believe or disbelieve or to suspend judgment, the same alternatives do not apply in questions of trust. We are not presented with the possibilities of trust or mistrust or neutrality. Our lives are in the position where we are forced to choose to trust something. Every choice that we make in life is based on choosing what voice to trust. Perhaps the voice is our own self-confidence, or perhaps it is the voice of the world, or perhaps it is the voice of the Spirit whom we may or may not know, but every choice we make is made in response to trusting some voice, some sign, some indication of some nature telling us what to do. And as soon as we choose to trust a voice other that Jesus’s voice, we have chosen to distrust His voice. In every choice an agnostic makes he or she is choosing to trust that Voice or not to trust it.

But agnosticism is a delusion on another level. Agnosticism is a delusion because it uses an incorrect definition of faith. Our culture has redefined faith as an intellectual choice, and when it did an odd thing happened. Intellectual choices were defined purely in terms of proof. The rational person, the mature person, would demand proof before believing in any assertion; faith was believing an assertion without proof. It was a short, easy step from faith as belief without proof to faith as belief in spite of proof to the contrary. Faith was removed from the entire domain of rationality and exiled to the land of the intellectually fringe.

Nearly all of my academic colleagues would accept this description of the meaning of faith without question. It would do me little good to protest; the mindset is truly a mindset, like concrete. And it is entirely founded on a delusion, the delusion that one is capable of believing only what has been proven. It all came about during the enlightenment, during the initial spectacular successes achieved by modern physics and modern mathematics. The successes were so astonishing and the benefits were so tangible that it is no wonder it went to our heads. There was a giddiness to it that was akin to a kind of cultural drunkenness. We were drunk on our powers of deduction, and leaped to the false inductive conclusion that nothing was beyond the reach of those powers. We no longer needed a God or a revelation; we could be our own.

I do not mean to be taken as despising either science or mathematics. As an amateur in both fields, I am sometimes nearly blinded by their glory. Yet, despite the claims of scientists or mathematicians, the intellectual assent to either science or math is faith, faith in the sense of belief without proof. And commitment to science or math is faith in the old sense, a choice to trust in something.

First belief in science or mathematics is faith in the modern intellectual sense of belief without scientific proof, which is experimental verification. The fact is that all of science results from certain presuppositions, ideas or beliefs that all scientists must assume to be true in order to do science but which cannot be experimentally verified. For example, science must assume the uniformity of natural causes in time and in space. These presuppositions are not absurd, they are perfectly reasonable, they seem to be necessary if one is to do science, but they are matters of faith and there is no getting out of it. Similarly, the fact is that all of mathematics results from certain axioms, propositions which must be assumed without proof. The axioms on which mathematics is founded are more controversial than the presuppositions on which science is founded and so it is all the more an act of faith to accept them.

Secondly, belief in science and in mathematics is faith in the old sense of trust. In mathematics and in science there is an additional dimension to faith that is seldom spoken of. No scientist ever himself directly verifies through experiment all the results of the science he believes. What he does is he chooses to trust his colleagues. Ideally he would check all their experiments for himself, but practically he can’t. The scientist then ends up being a man of faith on two levels: he has faith (belief without experimental verification) in the scientific ideal, and he has faith (trust) in the scientific enterprise. Similarly, no mathematician ever himself directly proves every theorem he accepts. What he does is he chooses to trust his colleagues. Ideally he would check all the proofs of all the theorems but practically he can’t. The mathematician then ends up being a man of faith on two levels: he has faith (belief without proof) in the mathematical axioms that are foundational to his work, and he has faith (trust) in the mathematical enterprise embodied in the work of fellow mathematicians.

People who are sincere about being agnostics are usually respectable people. There are a very few agnostics I have met who are agnostic out of intellectual laziness; some are agnostic out of self-interest, because admitting the existence of God would open up possibilities that they would find personally repulsive or morally inconvenient. But most agnostics seem very sincere in adopting what I have just called a delusion. I do hope these thoughts can persuade some of these honest agnostics to reconsider their commitment to agnosticism and perhaps open a worthwhile conversation.

People who identify themselves as skeptics are also sometimes captive to the delusion I have tried to describe above. In general skepticism is the appropriate attitude to take and ought to characterize Christians as well as cautious non-Christians. I consider myself a skeptic, and I hope my preceding comments show what I mean by that. For those of you who also consider yourself skeptics, the important thing I would try to leave with you is that it is impossible to be skeptical of everything. At some point your skepticism will lapse and you will believe and that is where you must most take care, that is where you are most vulnerable. Take care that when your skepticism fails, as eventually it must, that it fails in a good place.

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3 Comments on “Some Thoughts on Faith and Doubt”

  1. Vivian Says:

    Your arguments are well thought out. I need to mull over them for a while, but right now I don’t see any holes.

    • godanalytics Says:

      “Most of the time my faith is a matter of not having options.” Wow. This is so true for me. Thanks for putting this into words. As my faith in other people and things gets weaker my faith in God gets stronger. I see this so clearly about myself and wish that my allegiance was not dependent upon how “needy” I am at any given moment.

      “I [think we think] about faith incorrectly because we try to make faith into a work, we try to make it into something we do for God, something we can take credit for, something that proves we are good guys and not bad guys.” <—This is the focus of my [thoughts] lately.

      It's really great that you can clearly classify yourself as an intellectual….I identify with you on how the "need to understand" outweighs all other ambition. I guess it is a blessing and a curse. And it can be quite depressing to rarely come to any clear point of understanding, or at least clear enough so that it can be articulated for others to understand as well.

      Reading this post has really lifted my spirit today. So many great points.


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