The Gospel of Doubt

The Gospel of Doubt

There is an organized effort to get churches to embrace doubt. Why?

Transcript The Gospel of Doubt

Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig, this is kind of the hard work of the podcast. Sometimes you can get rather tiresome having to deal with so much misinformation and disinformation that it just seems to flood us from time to time. Are you energized by these things or do you feel sometimes like, “I can't take anymore?”

Dr. Craig: Some of the things, I must say, disgust me. They don't so much discourage me as they disgust me – like that person who decided to take a year off from his Christian faith and become an atheist for the year; to “try on” atheism. That sort of thing is ridiculous. And some of these other things, it is wearisome to have to deal with these caricatures of Christian faith in the popular media that just never seem to go away.

Kevin Harris: Some of our topics are a lot lighter you will find in the podcast. We have a lot of fun on these podcasts but sometimes we are really slapping our heads a lot. Again, what is frustrating here, Bill, I think you will agree, is a mangled view of faith which will poison everything else. But we've identified the foundation of something; if we can correct that perhaps some progress can be done. But when we are talking about Manual for Creating Atheists, it seems that many of our atheist friends are stepping up to the plate and want to be part of that. Here is a group called The Gospel of Doubt. They have a website, it looks like they have a curriculum, speakers. They want to speak to churches. They start out with this,

“When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful” (Matthew 28:17).

The Christian Church in America has a problem.

The Great Awakenings of American history are all but forgotten in the popular culture, and mainstream Christianity is now defined primarily by its failed political dalliances, its judgmental attitude toward sexual minorities, and the hypocrisy of its own leadership. The traditional Christian denominations are in a slow decline, while non-denominational megachurches coax their disaffected members away from established theology with praise music and stage lighting, charismatic speakers, and social media. While sociological surveys show that an increasing number of Americans claim no religious preference whatsoever, more than nine out of ten remaining Christians have an understanding of their religion that borders on the heretical.

Thus, it seems that the only thing that most Christians can truly be said to have faith in, is faith itself.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

OK, Bill?

Dr. Craig: I think that opening paragraph is helpful in seeing how we are perceived as Christians by the unbelievers in our culture. It is certainly not a pretty picture. I think what they fail to realize is that they are, in fact, the ones that represent the tiny minority and the vast majority of Americans would still see themselves as within this mainstream Christian culture. So this is the way the unbelieving minority sees the majority of Christian America today.

Kevin Harris: By the way, Hebrews 11:1 – I'm sure we've talked about that in past podcasts – what's a good handle on that?

Dr. Craig: It is talking about the promises of God and trusting in the promises of God even though they haven't been actualized yet. We, for example, have faith in God for the resurrection of the dead, for heaven, and eternal life. These are things that we hold to, trusting in God for these future promises. This is not an irrational faith; it is a faith which is rooted in good grounds and therefore is rational to trust in God for these things.

Kevin Harris: While we are there, can you comment on another Scripture that is often used? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[1] It is almost like Jesus is devaluing evidence.

Dr. Craig: Right, that is in the context of the resurrection appearance to Thomas where Thomas said, “I won't believe the testimony of the other disciples that he is risen from the dead. I want to see him myself and touch the wounds and feel the scar.”[2] I think what John is saying to the Christians of his day who were later than that time is that even though you do not see Christ yourselves (he has ascended into heaven) nevertheless you have the strong apostolic testimony on which to base your faith and confidence, and you can trust on that.[3] Don't be like Thomas who demanded to see a personal appearance of Jesus himself before he would believe. Thomas was being intransigent. He should have trusted in the apostolic testimony. I think John is saying to the church of his day that you are blessed when you believe on the basis of that testimony of those who were with Jesus, who saw him and heard him, even though he doesn't appear to you tonight in your bedroom, for example.

Kevin Harris: This webpage continues,

All throughout the Bible, the scriptures tell us time and again about the value of faith to the people of God. Christians are exhorted to be faithful, they are shown examples of the extreme faith of the Patriarchs, and they are assured of the faithfulness of God.

And yet what is faith?

Dr. Craig: And here's the key.

Kevin Harris: “It is belief without or even in contradiction to rational justification.”

Dr. Craig: Now, you see, that's their construal of faith. Is that the construal of faith of the biblical authors? When Christians are exhorted to be faithful, when God is said to be faithful, and so forth, is it talking about belief without or in contradiction to rational justification? No! It is not. So this is the imposition of this atheistic understanding of faith, and therefore criticizing what the Bible encourages us to do – namely, to have faith.

Kevin Harris: They go on with the definition:

It is the conflation of hope with knowledge. It is the substitution of the invisible and intangible for the here and now. It is, as Mark Twain put it, “believing what you know ain’t so.”

Dr. Craig: Yeah, “you know it's not true but believe it anyway.” Now, do they really pretend that that is a biblical definition of faith? That's obviously incorrect. So they can attack this caricature of faith all they want and it will have no relevance to the biblical concept of faith.

Kevin Harris: They continue, “However, underlying the faith of modern American Christianity is an indelible yet untapped current of doubt.” I'd like to know how they know that. What is this undercurrent of doubt? Is this something that just has started? Anyway, they continue,

Doubt, Christians have been taught, is never a virtue. Doubt is the faith-killer. It is the inevitable intrusion of reality, it is the whispering voice of secular common sense that has no place within the sacred realm. This is the message that Christianity has taught for millennia, and it is the slogan both of modern Christian evangelicalism as well as mainstream Christian apologetics.

But Jesus, in his diatribe against the barren fig tree (in Matthew 21 as well as in Mark 11) tells us why eliminating doubt from the Christian experience is an impossibility:

Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matthew 21:21).

By establishing the complete elimination of doubt as the requirement to accomplish this impossible task, Jesus teaches that faith without doubt is itself impossible. No sane person would ever expect a Christian to actually manifest such a display of faithfulness, not even Christ Himself.

Dr. Craig: That is a really interesting interpretation of that story. I've never heard anyone interpret the story in that way. I take it that Jesus is using hyperbole there to teach a lesson about faith. If you have faith, you can accomplish great things, and he uses hyperbole to illustrate it. But their interpretation of the passage is that Christ is saying no one can really have this much faith and that there is always doubt within faith. If they are right about that then I guess I'd say what's the problem? If Jesus himself taught that our faith is always mixed with an element of doubt then what's the problem that Christians should have this – what did they say? - undercurrent of doubt. If that is correct, they are doing exactly what Jesus taught. So what's the problem?[4]

Kevin Harris: They continue,

Doubt tells us that it is not possible to move mountains with a spoken command, doubt tells us that fig trees do not wither and die at the whims of hungry prophets, and doubt tells us that this verse must be interpreted to mean something other than what it plainly says in order to make any sense at all. But doubt has also led humanity to challenge the old beliefs that taught the forces of nature were manifestations of the gods and goddesses. Doubt has allowed us to discover that lightning is not a divine weapon, it is a natural force that can be harnessed to power the lifestyle that we now take for granted. Doubt has allowed us to discover that sickness and disease are not supernatural curses or demon possessions, they are natural phenomena that can be treated with medicine and therapy. Doubt has allowed us to peer beyond the clouds and find not Heaven, but an ever-expanding celestial frontier that beckons for exploration and expansion of the human experiment.

Dr. Craig: Doubt has done all of these wonderful things and yet, you know, I notice that doubt is never defined here in this blog. What do they mean by doubt? It is not simply the failure to believe something that leads to these positive results. If, by doubt, you mean something like skepticism, that doesn't produce any sort of positive beliefs. It is not at all clear what they mean here when they extol the virtues of doubt. I would wonder, too, Kevin, if they apply this to their own belief system. Do they apply the virtue of doubt to atheism? Or to their denial of God's existence? It is very easy to say that other people should doubt their worldviews while leaving your own view immune to self-examination and criticism. I've noticed this with people in the free thought community. They have a sort of skeptical dial that they can ratchet way up when it comes to Christian beliefs so that almost nothing could provide sufficient evidence for these, but when it comes to their own worldview and commitments they dial it way down so that they don't need to provide virtually any justification for their own beliefs in order for these to be rational. That, of course, is just hypocrisy. That is self-serving. If they are going to extol the virtues of doubt with respect to religious beliefs, they need to also extol those same virtues with regard to their own atheistic beliefs.

Kevin Harris: I get the impression that doubt is such a virtue that I ought to doubt everything that they've written here so I can just [crumples paper] ...

Dr. Craig: [laughter] Right. Really, honestly.

Kevin Harris: Why don't I doubt all this?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, why not doubt all this?

Kevin Harris: OK. Oh, this also gets into this alleged war between religion and science.

Dr. Craig: See, that is what I suspect, Kevin – that the word “doubt” here is really being used as a metaphor or synonym for something like “modern science.” That is what has revealed to us the celestial heavens, and sickness and diseases, or natural phenomenon. Those aren't discovered through doubt, which is just the absence of belief. I think that they are surreptitiously using the word “doubt” to stand in for “modern science.” So what you have here is the same old science and religion warfare going on, but now masquerading under the guise of doubt, which is never applied to their own beliefs.

Kevin Harris: They continue,

And thus doubt, despite all its negative connotations within modern Christianity, despite the threat it poses to fundamentalist interpretations, and despite the demands it places on us to discern truth for ourselves, is the most potent and positive force humankind has ever wielded. The suppression of doubt by the Church has given us a legacy of shallow faith, it has led to the marginalization of Christian culture, and it has given us an intellectually superficial body of Christ.

Again, some of this you can't really disagree with, but we are back to the definition of doubt.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly, Kevin. I think that here they are confusing doubt with asking critical questions. I think certainly, as Christians, we encourage hard thinking about God, morality, the universe, life – all of these grand questions. In fact, Kevin, I would say Christians are genuinely deeper, more thoughtful people than unbelievers are because Christians do wrestle with and think about these very profound, ultimate questions.[5] St. Anselm said, “Ours is a faith that seeks understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). So we do encourage hard thinking and self-reflection. I think that is one of the reasons for the renaissance of Christian philosophy in our own day. But that is very different from doubt which is unbelief about, in this case, the truth of, say, theism or Christianity. In order to have critical thinking and hard questions you don't have to have doubt in the sense of unbelief.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, Bill. A person, even an ancient Christian, wouldn't necessarily need doubt that would cause him to get a good systematic theology of God's causation and perhaps secondary causation – that lightning is not because of the attributes of God, this direct divine intervention. But it could be part of secondary causation of God's world that he set up. You get a bigger picture of God. That comes from reflecting on God – his attributes and character. A good philosophical and conceptual reflection can lead to kicking Thor out of a job.

Dr. Craig: That is very true, Kevin. There can be a sound critique of, for example, polytheism and these finite humanoid deities. But moreover, as I say, unbelief never discovered anything positive. The failure to believe something doesn't accomplish anything of a positive nature. It would only rid you of certain beliefs. So I think, as I say, they are using doubt really as a sort of metaphor for secular science or something of that sort which they want to extol.

Kevin Harris: They continue,

Within this project, we will advance the thesis that doubt is a virtue sorely needed by the modern Christian Church. If they are willing to honestly evaluate both their doubts and beliefs with equal rigor, Christians today will find themselves at a decision point.

Dr. Craig: Now I wonder if atheists would be willing to honestly evaluate both their doubts and beliefs with equal rigor so that atheists will also find themselves at a decision point. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This needs to be applied to both sides.

Kevin Harris: The sword cuts both ways.

Should their doubts prove compelling, they will be obliged to reevaluate their worldview, potentially embracing new and liberal theologies; however, should their beliefs prove unassailable by doubt, they will embrace their Christian faith with even more confidence and intellectual grounding.

I think the authors are betting that it's not going to happen.

Dr. Craig: Right. Of course, of course.

Kevin Harris: “In either case, the outcome will be a Christianity better informed, more unafraid, and with increased confidence.”

Dr. Craig: What we want to say is that we, as Christians, do encourage critical thinking and exploration of these issues, but that that is not synonymous with unbelief. That is the equation that these folks seem to have made that just doesn't add up.

Kevin Harris: Here is the final paragraph,

The authors in this project speak from many different perspectives, but all have begun with a life of faith that has been tempered by serious engagement with doubt. Most of us now face Christianity as apostates, though our goal with this book is not to evangelize apostasy. We believe that our experiences have taught us that doubt, when honestly applied, is the most useful tool for anyone seeking to validate their religious beliefs. We believe that faith has no value without first passing the test of Thomas the apostle.

Ultimately, we believe that by engaging in good faith with their own doubts, Christians will become better Christians.

We believe in the Gospel of Doubt.

Dr. Craig: Now, I liked the second to the last sentence. “We believe that by engaging in good faith with their own doubts, Christians will become better Christians.” I certainly think that that's true. Therefore, if we have doubts about our Christian faith we need to engage with them in good faith and explore them, talk to others who know more about it than we do, and begin to study. I think that what will emerge is a more mature and more profound faith. We can certainly agree with that, but that isn't to say that therefore doubt is virtuous and that it is a virtue to be unbelieving.[6]

Kevin Harris: Bill, wrapping up today. You've spoken about doubt in some of our podcasts and in some of your interviews that are on YouTube so you have spelled out some of your views in navigating sometimes the unsettling waters of doubt.

Dr. Craig: Yes. I think that doubt needs to be distinguished from critical thinking. We are encouraged to think critically about our faith, to explore its ramifications and assumptions and grounds. But that isn't the same thing as unbelief, which I would take doubt to be. I find, Kevin, that unbelief is usually not a product of intellectual thinking. It is usually a product of emotional factors. That is why, for example, one's doubts are usually worse at night when one is tired or depressed. Doubt is usually an emotional struggle, rather than an intellectual one. So we certainly, I think, want to encourage people to wrestle intellectually with their worldview and what they belief, but that is not therefore to encourage people to have unbelief, which I don't think is at all virtuous.[7]

[1] cf. John 20:29

[2] cf. John 20:25

[3] 5:20

[4] 9:56

[5] 15:01

[6] 20:01

[7] Total Running Time: 21:31 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)