Faith and Doubt


Kallistos Ware, in his primer on Eastern Orthodoxy — The Orthodox Way — begins his book talking about what he calls “a mystery”: God. God in his essence is ultimately a mystery to us. In all that he reveals of himself, he is still a great cause of wonder and awe. As much as we may be able to comprehend him, we are still infinitely far from comprehending him.

Because of this, the Orthodox have a way of “doing theology” called apophatism. “Apophatic” theology is essentially doing theology through negation. Or, put another way, the Orthodox stress that one safe way of “knowing” God is by knowing what he is not. God is not finite. God is not a man. God does not change, etc.

Now, why do theology in this manner? Ware explains:

Without this use of the way of negation…our talk of God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human standards. If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect”. Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendant God. (p 14)

God is then, ultimately, in his bare essence, a true mystery. In all that we affirm about God, we must also “go beyond”, explain what he is also not.

With that said, Ware then goes on to explain that because God is a mystery, knowledge of  God must be less of an affirmation of facts or truths about him, and more of a personal knowing of him. Theology, properly speaking, does not give us an air-tight knowledge about God; rather, it leads us into an ever-deepening friendship with him.

Ware explains by way of the Nicene Creed:

In the [Nicene] Creed we do not say, ” I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God”. Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief have no practical effect upon my life.

I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”. I am doing far more than expressing belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. (p 16)

It is not the task of Christianity provide easy answers to every questions, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery (p 14)

Going on from this, Ware addresses the question of doubt. Usually doubt is seen as something opposite to faith. They are seen as opposing forces, such that to struggle with doubt means to be weak in faith. But, having seen that theology is less about having complete knowledge about God, and more of an intimate friendship with him — entering ever-deeper into a mystery — doubt ceases to be an opposing force.

Ware explains:

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own cry, “Lord I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite — that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it…

The words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt”. As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace” (p 16)

5 thoughts on “Faith and Doubt

  1. [I apologize in advance for the length of this. Then again, if I were really sorry I wouldn’t post it, would I? : ) ]

    I think that in this disagreement about whether faith and doubt can coexist, people often use “doubt” in different senses.

    In one sense “doubt” can mean the temptation to disbelieve. I don’t deny that this can coexist with genuine faith, just as chastity can coexist with temptations to unchastity. Temptation is not a sin. The temptation to act against a virtue, does not negate that virtue.

    But “doubt” can also be understood as lack of faith. Jesus says over and over that you can accomplish this-or-that if you believe and do not doubt:

    “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done.” Mt. 21:21.

    When Peter was walking on the sea, he does fine as long as he has faith, but as soon as he begins to doubt he begins to sink: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?'” Mt. 14:31.

    According to Strong’s, one of the definitions of the Greek word translated “doubt” is “to be at variance with one’s self, hesitate, doubt”. If one who doubts is at variance with himself, that means that there are two (or more) things within him that are in conflict. What are those two things? Clearly, they are faith and doubt. When Jesus admonishes Peter for his doubt, he is saying, “Why did you not place wholehearted faith in me?” Thus, the kind of faith that lets you walk on water is wholehearted. The moment the least doubt enters in, you sink. Similarly, the kind of faith that lets you move a mountain must be faith that is “never doubting”.

    Jesus’ clear teaching, then, is that faith and doubt are in conflict with one another. They don’t peacefully coexist, rather they interfere with one another. Doubt is a hindrance to faith. Perfect faith doesn’t leave room for doubt, but casts it out completely. The more doubt is present, the more you are hindered from overcoming obstacles to doing God’s will. Saying that faith requires doubt, or peacefully coexists with doubt, is like saying that charity requires hatred.

    When the boy’s father in Mk. 9:24 cries out, “I believe, help thou my unbelief!”, he is saying basically, “I believe, though I confess that my belief is hindered by doubt”. I don’t believe for a minute that this gentleman is intended as a model for us. Certainly, when we do doubt, we should cry out “Help my unbelief!”, but this is because unbelief is uneqivocally a bad thing.

    I mentioned two senses of the word “doubt”. The other way that doubt is used, is to refer to a state of indecision. For example, you may have doubt as to the statement “there is life on other planets”. You have no certainty one way or the other, but only opinions or likelihoods. You’re suspending judgment.

    Whereas when you assert something with certainty, you have no doubt on the point. You have this kind of certainty when making the statement that “the world is spherical” or “adding two apples to two apples gives you four apples”.

    Now, can you do both at the same time? Can you assert something with certainty, while at the same time questioning it, holding that it is only an opinion or a likelihood? Certainly you might change from one level of assent to another, at different points in time. At one age or level of education, you may be too ignorant to say something with certainty; later on, you may acquire knowledge which makes you certain; and later still, you may acquire more knowledge that again calls it into doubt. But at any one time, you’re in a state of certainty or you’re not. You’re questioning whether it’s true, or you know it’s true.

    It seems to me that someone who says that doubt must always accompany us in our Christian walk, is really saying that we can never have a state of certainty when it comes to our faith; that faith is by nature uncertain; that it can only be a matter of opinion or likelihood.

    This may be true in a sense: That is, we can never know the truths of the faith in the same way we know that the earth is round. This is because many truths of the faith are not perceivable to the senses, or measurable, or subject to experimentation. In other words, the truths of the faith are not things that we know through our natural faculties alone. So, if someone believes that certainty can only come through seeing, or measuring, or experimenting, then they’re right: The truths of the faith can never be known with certainty.

    But St. Thomas Aquinas denies this. He makes bold to say that the truths of the faith are every bit as certain as the truths ascertainable by our natural faculties (indeed, more); the only difference between them being, that the truths ascertainable naturally are of things that are seen, and the truths of faith are of things that are unseen (which is what makes it faith (Heb. 11:1)).

    To put it another way, “faith” doesn’t mean “uncertain”, it means “certainty of the unseen”.

    Now granted, faith is an act of the will, and human will is notoriously fickle. I may waver between faith and doubt because of the wavering of my will. But again, you can’t will two conflicting things simultaneously: You can’t will to believe and will not to believe, as to the same thing at the same time. Granted that you can waver between faith and lack-of-faith, but this is wavering between a state of certainty and a state of uncertainty — thus, Peter walking on the water and then sinking; he didn’t walk and sink at the same time. You can’t do both at once. When you’re certain you’re not uncertain, and when you’re uncertain you’re not certain.

    It may be true that periods of uncertainty can’t be avoided. But the point is, one should never consider uncertainty as a state to be welcomed in a Christian. Still more absurd is the notion that uncertainty makes one’s certainty stronger!

    Finally, consider that faith has traditionally been known as one of the three theological virtues, along with hope and charity. But who would ever say that uncharity is a necessary compliment to charity? Or that Christians can never have hope without despair? Yet people seem blind to the absurdity of saying that doubt must accompany faith.

    • I get what you’re saying man, but it’s been my experience that doubt “along the way” of the life in Christ leads to bursts of growth. You doubt some tenant of the faith, and are forced to think, wrestle, reconsider, adapt.

      Take for instance the creeds: these came from the church during times of great turmoil. They were forced to consider, wrestle, etc.

      Perhaps Ware could have parsed what he meant by doubt. In any case, when you speak of the disciples not having faith, this was the wrestling to consider Christ and who he was. Peter, for instance, had many stumbles, but perhaps these were stumbles upward (don’t take that too far, I know).

      But I know even you, when you converted, dealt with much turmoil, as you know I have as well. Those times of turmoil and doubt are formative. I believe this is what Ware is trying to get at.

  2. Wow, you’re fast! : )

    You write, ‘it’s been my experience that doubt “along the way” of the life in Christ leads to bursts of growth. You doubt some tenant of the faith, and are forced to think, wrestle, reconsider, adapt.’

    That may be true for some, but once I became Catholic, I never doubted any tenet of the faith. I simply stopped thinking of the truth or falsehood of individual doctrines and swallowed the faith whole.

    You write, ‘Peter, for instance, had many stumbles, but perhaps these were stumbles upward (don’t take that too far, I know).’

    How can a backward stumble help one upwards? I think he continued his ascent (by God’s grace) despite his stumbles, not because of them.

    You write, ‘I know even you, when you converted, dealt with much turmoil, as you know I have as well.’

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. I don’t recall experiencing turmoil after my conversion. Of course I really had two “conversions”, one to belief in God, and one to belief in the Catholic faith. After the conversion to belief in God, I never experienced turmoil in the sense of not believing in God; not that I recall anyway. And similarly, once I converted to Catholicism I never experienced turmoil in the sense of doubting the Catholic faith, as far as I recall. It’s possible that I had a moment of doubt here and there, but if so I don’t recall it specifically; it was not significant or long-lasting enough to have remained in my memory.

    You may be thinking of my long journey to Catholicism by way of Mormonism and Protestantism (as recounted on my blog). But I don’t consider that a time of doubt, it was rather a time of discerning. I had a firm belief in God, and was trying to figure out where he wanted me to be. Once I had the answer to that question, the discerning process came to an end.

    You write, ‘Those times of turmoil and doubt are formative. I believe this is what Ware is trying to get at.’

    Would you also say that violations of the law of chastity help one to be chaste and are therefore good for us?

    Obviously we may learn from the times when we cave in to temptation, that is, learn how to avoid doing so in the future. But it’s absurd (IMHO) to think that going through the process of falling into sin, and learning from that experience, is better than not having fallen in the first place. Learning from the experience of sin, is a good thing which God can bring out of evil, but it would be far better never to have committed the sin at all. And I think the same applies to doubt.

    Your strongest point, in my opinion, is what you said about the early Church considering and wrestling with this or that definition of doctrine. But one thing to keep in mind is that during those times, such doctrines had not yet been settled by the Church. Therefore, they were open to discussion. People were allowed to speculate, for example, on whether or not baptism should be re-administered after someone apostatized, or on some specific point concerning Christ’s nature. Doing so was not a sign of doubt. But once the issue was decided by the Church definitively, there was no longer room for doubt or discussion, and those who had genuine faith in the Church would submit accordingly. It was only those who didn’t believe the Church had divine authority to define doctrine, who would continue experiencing doubt.

    All that being said, maybe the process is different for a Protestant. Since there is not one, authoritatively defined set of doctrines among Protestants, I can see why a Protestant might need to go through a continual process of assessing, assenting, doubting, re-assessing, re-assenting, etc., with regard to individual doctrines, possibly for his entire life. But I don’t think this is how God intended Christian faith to be. (Not meaning to be contentious here, I just think this may have something to do with the reason we see this issue differently.)

    • I was sitting at my computer when you had first commented.

      I think that last paragraph is quite fascinating. For the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants both there are the ecumenical creeds as broad boundaries. For Protestants there are confessions, but these are not dogmatic boundaries. From my understanding of Orthodox, there is a wide breadth of theological themes to swim in, and certainly for Protestantism. For Catholicism, there is more defined dogmas. So you may have something there!!

      Anyways, I wouldnt call doubt sin in every case, and I think that needs to be considered.

  3. Of course, not all Catholic doctrines are dogmas. They are open to discussion in varying degrees. But the default attitude of a Catholic should be to assent to all formal teachings of the Church, whether strictly dogmatic or not, as a matter of placing one’s trust in a wise and loving Mother. After all, what harm can it do? But again, I think this attitude is rather foreign to a Protestant.

    I would say that doubt is a sin insofar as it’s a conscious decision to withdraw one’s assent from the faith. For instance if I were to suddenly decide to keep an open mind about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and delve into the evidence for and against it, with the possibility of changing my mind to the Calvinist view or what have you. That would be a sin for a Catholic.

    The Church does believe in a thing called invincible ignorance, wherein through no fault of their own, people fail to give full assent to the Church’s teachings. The thing is, faith being not merely an act of the intellect, but primarily an act of the will, we do have some culpability for failing to believe the Gospel or any part thereof (as I assume you agree). But as with any sin or fault, only God can judge to the extent to which one’s ignorance or doubt is culpable. That’s why I don’t condemn you for failing to become Catholic. : )

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