Let us first of all distinguish between two kinds of doubt that are part of everyone’s experience. The first of these has to do simply with our response to opinions or points of view: “I doubt that he will win the election.” This kind of doubt is relatively easy to handle: we can wait and see, we can examine evidence on the matter dispassionately, and we can put the matter out of mind for long periods of time without any discernible loss of sleep.
The second kind of doubt, however, involves much more deep-seated apprehension and concern: “I doubt that we are going to be rescued from this life raft since we have already been adrift 39 days.” or “Because we all die, I doubt that God loves us.” It is this second kind of doubt that that goes much deeper than hesitation or indecision or mere lack of information, and is much more readily described by such words as apprehension or even fear. What things, then, cause us to doubt? Why do we so frequently find our faith assailed? Why can we not remain secure in the faith we have won at great cost and sacrifice? Let us explore three types of response to this series of questions.
We Doubt Because We Are Willing to Grow
Frequently we doubt because we want to get at the truth of something and realize that there is more to know than we presently have at our disposal. Doubt, in this view, is an inevitable byproduct of growth. Unless we are content to be intellectually and spiritually static, we must move in new directions, open up new avenues of exploration, remain discontent with what we presently know or are. We doubt because we care.
This kind of doubt is beneficent. It is the price of new insights, expanding horizons, and deeper commitments, and it is a price we pay with a high degree of willingness. This kind of doubt is a quality of the human spirit that leads to new advances and breakthroughs. Columbus doubted that the earth was flat. Beethoven doubted that the keyboard instruments of his day had reached mechanical perfection and wrote piano music that could only be played properly on instruments not yet built. Every scientific advance depends upon a scientist doubting that the conclusions of his predecessors are final, and acting on the basis of that doubt. The doubt can be costly, but most would agree that the cost is worth the pain.
We Doubt Because We Fear that Our Faith Is False
Not all doubt is beneficent. Most of it is threatening and grows out of a variety of fears. One of these is fear that our faith will turn out to be false. There is always the possibility of arriving at that fatal moment when we survey where we have been and are forced to the reluctant and devastating conclusion, “I’ve been had.” Everyone seeks happiness. Doubt sometimes makes us miss that.
The fundamental problem, therefore, is still deeper, and has to do with the internal challenges raised about the very truth claims of the faith in question. Is it anything more than wish fulfillment to affirm the forgiveness of sins? Is there any convincing reason to believe that Jesus ever existed as a historic person? If the event of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the chapel door at Wittenberg is simply the embroidery of pious minds, have we not been deceived by manipulative people manipulating materials in order to manipulate us? If there never was a crossing of the Red Sea, what sense does it make to celebrate a non-event liturgically as though it had really happened? The questions are particularly poignant to those who stress the creative appropriation of an open past.
There are clearly no quick and easy answers to such questions, all of which need book-length discussions even to be adequately understood. Faith claims are not exempt from historical and scientific scrutiny, and it would be folly to try to keep our faith hermetically sealed against rigorous examination by contemporary scholarship. If truth is truly one, then the more knowledge we have, the closer we will be to the truth — even if some of our most cherished presuppositions are challenged. Today, science and faith are said to be contradictory; their meeting is a process still.
The “truth” about an event or a claim is found not only in what it is by itself, but in what subsequent use has been made of it. Many Christians, for example, claim to have been “saved” by Christ’s death up on the cross. To the outsider, this sounds like a strange if not bizarre claim, something that surely has nothing to do with our own understanding of a historical event that occurred 2,000 years ago. Even, many Christians today such a claim is difficult if not impossible to appropriate.
There is no “evidence” so coercive that it will force us either to believe or to disbelieve. Discovering whether or not we have been “had” is not something that just a little more evidence, or an ongoing open mind, will finally determine for us, though hardheadedness and a certain healthy skepticism are essential ingredients in the life of faith. What will finally count decisively is the degree to which we feel that a faith claim is important enough to entail risk on our part, so that the faith claim leads to a faith stance.
We Doubt Because We Fear that Our Faith Is True
We doubt not only because we are afraid that our faith might be false; sometimes we doubt because we are afraid that it might be true. In this case, the threatening thing is not that we have hold of a faith that might slip from our grasp, but just the opposite: that our faith has hold of us in such a way that is will not let us slip from its grasp.
It is a widely noted psychological fact that the strongest resistances to conversion come just before capitulation. The most compelling arguments for nonbelief are always launched at such a time. The reason is not hard to find: to accept the new faith would entail a break with the past, perhaps an abrupt break, conversion, i.e., “turning about” in the most radical sense. Often the candidate for conversion is successful in mounting doubts of sufficient intensity to make possible a refusal of the new faith. So stated, this reason for doubt might seem to be no more than timidity or even cowardice. But it can also be the product of rugged honesty.
FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., a member of the Society of the Divine Word, writes for the mission house Sarva Vikas Deep in Maharashtra, India.