Monday, June 8, 2009

Floundering on the Firm Foundation: Exploring the Relations of Faith, Certainty, and Doubt

On the radio the other day, I heard a commercial for a church. It was talking about bringing Christianity into the 21st century. It asked the listener to take a "leap of doubt" and come to their church, a church that prizes questions over answers.

In church the other day, someone said something to the following effect: "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith, certainty is." I don't remember them saying it, but a friend did and he asked me what I thought about it. I told him I couldn't agree right away, but neither I could disagree immediately. I told him a few of us should all write about the idea, since it is intriguing enough. Here are my thoughts on that writing prompt.


I think neither certainty nor doubt are the opposite of faith, but still recognize the faith/certainty and faith/doubt binaries. Binaries do not mean opposite, but rather difference and privilege.

Faith, certainty, and doubt are all similar, otherwise the binary would be foolish, along the lines of faith/cat. And as I often maintain, most binaries deconstruct. As of now, I believe deconstruction says the members of a binary have hazy distinctions at best. To better explain this relationship, think of the mountains, the foothills, and a flatland (I'm borrowing this example from someone else). Where do the mountains end and the piedmont begin? Mountainous areas are different than the piedmont, and the flat areas, but you can't draw a boundary because the distinctions are amorphous and overlapping. There are areas that could be the mountains and/or the piedmont, the piedmont and/or the flatlands.

The same occurs with faith/certainty and faith/doubt. Faith is not certainty and not doubt, most of the time. Sometimes the boundaries are amorphous and overlapping. Consider the biblical texts.

Peter walked on water, but "when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and beg[an] to sink" (Matt. 14:30). After Jesus saves him from sinking, he asks Peter: "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Matt. 14:31). In this instance we can see some nuance between faith and doubt in regards to confidence, certainty, and belief. Peter lacked certainty concerning his ability to walk on the water or God's ability to keep him on the water. Or, perhaps he was more confident in the power of the wind than the power of his faith or the faith of Jesus. He doubted. Peter did not lack faith, though. I think it takes a large amount of faith and certainty to try to walk on water, let alone during a wind storm on the Sea of Galilee. Amidst his faith and certainty, a sinking doubt existed.

Another time Jesus scoffs at a man in Mark who asked Jesus to do something if he was able to. "If you are able?" responded Jesus, "All things can be done for the one who believes" (Mk. 9:22-23). The man, "immediately ... called out, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mk. 9:24). This passage is probably the poster child for doubt as a virtue. However, Jesus leaves the man's statement without judgment. We might assume Jesus approved, since he completed the requested exorcism. But how do we know the belief or unbelief of that man had anything to do with the exorcism? Was Jesus talking about his belief or the belief of the man? Sometimes Jesus' miracles seemed to be based on the faith of the receiver, whereas other times it was solely Jesus' faith. The end of this story helps little. The disciples wonder why they couldn't exorcise the demon and Jesus tells them some can only come out by prayer, which we didn't see Jesus do for the exorcism. Jesus starts out preferring the certainty side of faith, but in the end, this story again speaks to faith as different from certainty and doubt.

A number of stories in the gospels speak of faith without doubt, a faith that can wither a fig tree or move a mountain. These verses--not to mention the infamous opening lines of James--seem to evoke an affinity between faith and certainty as much as they explicitly condemn doubt and the doubter, "who is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind" (Jas. 1:6). But why should we assume faith should always be without doubt? Many traditions have latched onto these passages as the dominant understanding of faith, painting pictures of faith as certainty, or, at least, nothing like doubt, which misses the beauty of the nuances between these ideas.

Then why did Jesus struggle in prayer in the garden? Why did Jesus ask for the cup to pass? It certainly seems like Jesus had a great faith that his death and resurrection were God's plan before he prayed in the garden. If faith is certainty, then Jesus was foolish to pray the prayers of Matthew 26:39 and 42. If Jesus had a faith of certainty that the best thing was crucifixion, then his prayer was not heartfelt or meaningful, and "words without thoughts, never to heaven go" (Hamlet). Perhaps in his humanity Jesus doubted his understanding of the divine plan, but I doubt you can separate Jesus' humanity and divinity in such a way. Did Jesus doubt God had planned on the best possible situation? Our text does not say, "Jesus' doubted," but it reflects the doubt of our savior.

Outside of Jesus, Abraham is the quintessential knight of faith. If you're going to bind your son and sacrifice him on an altar, you better be certain. Yet like Jesus, Abraham had some doubts about some of God's plan. "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked" asked Abraham, "suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you indeeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked ... far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:23-25). Here, Abraham either doubted God or Abraham's understanding of God. Both kinds of doubts are the ones we think of in regards to the faith/doubt binary, either we doubt something about God or we doubt a personal revelation from God. We doubt whether we can discern it right. We doubt if it was really what God said. Like Abraham. Like Moses.

The other day in class, one of my colleagues expressed his fear of being one of the goats of Matthew 25. Dr. Berry started to talk about the anxiety of this sort of doubt and he said, "I'd rather be nervous than have no nerves at all." The reality of sin in our lives should always conjure up a healthy dose of doubt in our faith. As long as I am a saint that sins--as long as "I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate" (Rom. 7:15)--then I will realize I am flawed and leave room for doubting my ability to interpret the Spirit's influence in my life.

Faith is neither certainty, nor doubt. Rather, it is better characterized as sometimes having the likeness of either certainty or doubt, as well as assurance, hope, and conviction. ["Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1).]

I'm not about to tell people to take a leap of doubt. Doubt is no more a virtue than certainty. Some situations call for a faith including more certainty and others for a faith sort of resembles doubt. A faith-like-certainty can be hard to acquire, whereas a faith-like-doubt is hard to be comfortable with.

A trouble lies in getting the right faith in the right spot. There are areas of my life where I want to be more certain than I am. Some of these areas should have more certainty, while some of them need the doubt that makes many of us--including me--uncomfortable. Lately, I've focused on the doubting side of faith, the faith that feels like floundering. It is never fun to feel like a fish out of water. I want confirmation of the things I do in faith, but I need to let faith be its own assurance, especially since circumstances do not determine the will of God. I'm not certain and perhaps a lot of my faith should look a lot more like certainty, but it doesn't change the fact that I am a man of faith. And of that, I am certain.

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