Find some doubt, it can be humbling

There’s a story in the New Testament where Jesus happens upon a man whose son is afflicted with terrifying convulsions. Jesus, enigmatic as ever, tells him that his son will be healed if he has faith. The man in response, cries out “I have belief! Help my unbelief!”

I love the man’s response, because I think it captures an essential quality of the life of faith: that it is mingled with doubt. This might not be obvious, given the way people talk about faith these days.

On one hand, there’s a host of New Atheist types who misinterpret faith as something blind – they are untroubled by countervailing evidence and free of those doubting dark nights of the soul.

On the other hand, I often run into Christians who are excessively rationalistic, relying on empirical or positivistic foundations for their belief. Of course, faith and reason are, in many respects, good friends; in fact, they depend on each other.

Yet it seems there is a certain segment of the faithful who are looking to remove doubt and equivocation by positing overly-rational justification for belief.

I don’t think that I’m any less committed than they are to the great claims of Christianity, but I can’t declare that there’s empirical proof for them.

In fact, I would do my faith a disservice by trying to do so. To argue that my beliefs are at core empirically demonstrable also makes them vulnerable to empirical critique.

I do, however, think I understand the impulse to want to have rational or empirical “proof” for faith. Doubt can be a brutal adversary, a faith-killer, the very thing that keeps you sleepless during those dark nights of the soul.

Maybe the potential exists for doubt to be put to good use, to actually have some sort of positive effect in a life of faith. I’m coming to terms with the idea that I need to make doubt my friend, because as far as I can tell it’s always going to be with me, so we might as well get along.

 I’ve heard that Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed his faith was “formed in a great furnace of doubt.”

I’ve always liked that claim both for its eloquence and for the comfort I get from knowing that one of the most luminously intelligent Christians wrestled with doubt.

It makes me feel better about my own seasons where I’m unable to shake off the scepticism. I’ve always taken Dostoevsky’s “furnace” metaphor as a description of the pain of doubt – how it can burn intensely and unrelieved – and I imagine that’s the way he meant for it to be understood.

But perhaps there’s another way to look at it. Maybe the fire that forged Dostoevsky’s hosannas was not just the agony of doubt, but the refiner of faith. Perhaps the flames of doubt fuelled the questions that pared down the nonessentials of his faith, and all the idols, the superstitions, the insipid metaphysical excess was melted away.

Perhaps it was in that furnace of doubt that his faith was refined to something much more pure – a new, genuine faith rising from the ashes of the old one.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with where this line of thought takes me, because doubt often leads to a complete loss of faith.

Then again, there are many kinds of faith, Christian or otherwise, that ought to be lost. There are many instances where unbelief may be preferable, because at least unbelief – when it is not dogmatic or fundamentalist as some forms of belief – leaves room for the possibility that something may grow in the absence.

And, in the midst of doubt, I hold fast to the faith that something good can grow there.

I’m sure many of you experience your time at university to be one where your intellectual horizons are greatly expanded. This is wonderful for so many reasons, but there’s definitely the danger that it can lead to a scorching case of know-it-all-ism.

So whether you’re a New Atheist, an overly-rationalistic believer or just confident that you’ve got it all figured out, may your certainty be shaken by tremors of doubt.

I’d say that a little doubt is exactly what a bunch of know-it-alls need.