Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Live with Doubt

I was scanning the shelves in the philosophy section and came upon a little book on dealing with doubt. The book is How to Live with Doubt by Richard Wolff. The book is only 68 pages. The book did not contain any information about the author which saddens me. It would be interesting to know the author's background and why he wrote this book. The book is published by Key Press. I am not familiar with this publisher either.

I have been interested in the problem of doubt for a long time. I became a Christian when I was eighteen and later struggled with doubt as a new Christian at the University. Even though all my education was at secular, public universities, I really did not experience any professors who tried to destroy my faith as depicted in the movie, God is not Dead.

I have been a Christian for over thirty years and I have learned to deal with my doubts. It is not something I think about all the time. It does pop up from time to time. So I was interested in this little book and wondered what Wolff had to say.

The book is one long chapter, so it is more like a long essay. He covers many aspects of doubt in this book. He first defines it: "As commonly used, the word doubt means to be of two minds, i.e., to waver, to hesitate, to remain suspended between two alternatives" (9). Some of the questions Wolff seeks to answer in this book are "What is doubt? What is the difference between doubt and unbelief, or doubt and skepticism? Is doubt evil? Can it be constructive? Should it be eliminated? Could it be a method to ascertain truth? Is doubt intellectual or emotional, a sociological phenomenon or a psychological problem? Is it related to human imperfection or finitude and therefore unavoidable? Does faith always contain an element of doubt? Is certainty possible or must we learn to live with doubt?" (9). Different answers have been given to these questions based upon the person's point of view.

The author states that there are many different causes of doubts. "It can be viewed as part of the normal thought process, a natural condition of the mind, an essential part of growth. Doubt can also be traced to human instability, to the seeming contradiction which is in things, coupled with the fact that our knowledge is fragmentary. Doubt can be caused by disappointment or be rooted in a moral problem" (20). Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Many of these reasons can be seen in the book of Job. What Job saw and believed did not make sense. His friends said the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper, but that is not what Job saw. Do the wicked prosper in our day? I think we have to say yes. Do the righteous suffer. We will have to answer again. Does this make sense. No, it does not. One question I have is why do some when faced with evil continue to believe, while other turn away?

The author quotes from Tennyson on honest doubt: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than half the creeds" (37). One thinks of the man in the Gospels responding to Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief." Wolff thinks "an element of faith is embedded in honest doubt" (37). He believes that unbelief is the problem of the unbeliever, but doubt is the problem of the believer. However, I think that doubt can be the problem of the unbeliever too. What if I am wrong? One could even say that truth is "presupposed in his very doubt." He is not indifferent to the truth. He wants to know the truth.

The author asks the following questions: "Should faith exclude doubt? Is the strong Christian a person in whom all doubt is removed?" (46). A. H. Strong stated that "true faith is possible without assurance of salvation" (46). In other words, just because we doubt does not mean we do not have true faith. "What saves us is faith in Christ, not faith in our faith, or faith in the faith" (46). Our salvation is not based on our feelings. Thomas Watson, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and John Calvin all states "this infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker of it" (48). I assume it is possible that he might never partake of it in this life or only for brief periods. Calvin thought that "faith is subject to various doubts so that the minds of believers are seldom at rest, or at least are not always tranquil" (48). Doubt just shows that we are human, finite beings.

What about certainty. Should we aim for certainty in our faith or absolute perfection. The author thinks "the search for absolute certainty leads to frustration. There is always room for doubt--or so it seems" (49). I think one of the reasons for my struggle with doubt is my search for absolute certainty. I want to me certain with my reason this is true. Faith and reason are both true. There are some things we can know by reason and other things by faith. The author notes, "the desire to prove things beyond the shadow of a doubt is another form of perfectionism and therefore doomed to frustration. If this attitude were adopted consistently it would lead to complete skepticism" (50). I think Wolff is right. I have found a sense of peace in not trying to achieve certainty. It is living by faith. It is accepting that I am not God, but a finite human being.

The author gives a warning to believers: "It is unfortunate that the expression of doubt in the Church is muffled through fear of ostracism. Such an attitude is not constructive and produces bitterness. How strange to be inquisitive in all areas of human endeavor, except in religion. Is not practical denial more serious than intellectual doubt?" (63). I think it is. It does no good to deny our doubts. It can be our friend as well as our enemy. Flannery O' Connor said "What kept her a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read."

An important question is how doubt relates to commitment. Doubt could paralyze action. What do we do when we cannot choose between two choices? What if the evidence is strong for both sides? We must make a choice. Faith presumes we have "considered the alternative." The author notes, "true, basic decisions can be made once for all, but they must be reaffirmed through daily choice. The radical decision to trust God demands renewed contact with God, and this dynamic relationship overcomes doubt" (64). Jesus says in the gospels, he who wants to do God's will must will to do his will. It is in living out the Christian faith that we receive daily confirmation that God is real.

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