I was recently asked to share some brief thoughts about blind faith, which got me thinking about some of the better questions on the subject that my atheist friends raised with me when I was still working up on campus.
Firstly, I was asked whether I ever doubt things concerning my faith (a question that included a pointed implication that Christians ought to doubt, but don’t because they refuse to think). Secondly, I was asked how it is that God could possibly expect us to wager our whole lives on something that is so uncertain. If believing in God changes everything and if it is the difference between an eternal heaven or hell, then God really should do a bit better than the ifs and maybes that attend that decision.
Should Christians Doubt?
1Corinthians 13:12 is a key passage for me when it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith, knowledge and doubt:
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
The eyes of faith, says Paul, do not see a perfectly clear picture, but perceive things in a shadowy way. We know in part, which means conversely that we don’t know in part too. Faith therefore stops short of being as certain as ‘face-to-face’ knowledge, and incorporates an element that is provisional and unknown. This means that doubt (of a certain kind at least) or the capacity for doubt is the other side of faith’s coin.
As much as we might experience our faith with the deepest conviction possible, there seems to me to be little point in insisting to unbelievers that this is the same as knowledge.
Perhaps we avoid admitting that we doubt because of the book of James, in which he is deeply scathing of doubt. For example:
But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (1:6-8)
The difference between James 1 and 1Corinthians 13 lies in the kind of doubt that they have in view. We should be clear of the difference, because if in hoping to avoid James’ criticism we also deny what Paul affirmed, then we will a) be wrong, and b) annoy any unbelievers who are trying to have a reasonable conversation with us about faith.
Paul is talking about faith as partial knowledge, which leaves us legitimately unsure about those things that have been kept shrouded. James is talking about the διψυχος (dipsuchos), which literally means ‘double-souled’ or ‘double-lifed’, but usually is rendered ‘double-minded’. I find the latter less helpful, because locating James’ kind of doubt in the mind causes one to imagine that it has to do with knowledge. To call someone ‘double-souled’, however, aims much more clearly at a lack of conviction that pervades one’s whole life. It is failure to decide who one really follows, or to whom one’s soul really belongs. James’ point seems to me not to be that our prayers have to be asked as though we just know that our wishes will come true. Rather, he is saying that you need to be a genuine follower of Christ if you want the privilege of being able to pray. If you’re flip-flopping between lords like a beached fish, you do not get a hearing.
So we are free to ‘doubt’ those things that are doubtful (i.e. that we do not yet possess as knowledge), but we need to be single-minded about who we trust and follow.
A Note to the Sceptic About Knowledge
Behind the sceptic’s question about whether or not Christians ever doubt is often an accusation. The suggestion is that we should doubt (because our beliefs are so unbelievable to them), and we should rather structure our lives upon those things that are known.
The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it assumes that there is such as thing as certain knowledge (and at least enough upon which to fashion a credible existence). We do not in fact know this for sure. There is little or nothing that is so certain that it can claim to be free of doubt. Descartes famously tried to begin his philosophical system with whatever could not be doubted, and he concluded that he could not doubt that he was a thinking being (‘I think, therefore I am’). Yet other philosophers have found reason to doubt even that dictum. Everything belongs somewhere on a line between doubt and certainty:
We might insist that there is insufficient evidence for God, or that believing in Jesus on account of some ancient Middle Eastern scribblings is way too doubtful. We might insist that we require some kind of first-hand evidence of these things before we’ll believe. But all this continues to assume that we haven’t already constructed our way of seeing the world on the basis of ‘mere’ testimony (for example, adopting our parents’ belief or scepticism, or perhaps that of an admired teacher), and it continues to assume that our individual experience of the world is the most reliable conduit of certainty.
We might propose any number of examples in which believing is seeing, rather than the other way around. The film The Matrix is a good enough study of this kind of thinking: the world that we experience through our senses is not the world as it truly is. The humans in the story might think they’re living full lives, but they are in truth plugged into a vast computer that feeds them with artificial sensory experiences. Once the brain has been tricked, what is left to tell the truth?
In short, it’s easy to be cynical about ‘believers’ who base much of their lives upon things that are taken on trust, not on exact science, but it’s easy also to be unaware of the degree to which one is always a ‘believer’. You could never get anywhere without believing what you’re told by others that you trust, and even if you refuse to stand on the shoulders of giants, you remain a believer in your own reasoning and senses (which, if they caused you to reject everything you heard from others, clearly are faulty).
I still intend to mention why it is that it’s a good idea to wager your whole life on beliefs that are so uncertain, but I saw you yawn just there — don’t try to deny it — so I’ll leave it for next time.