Faith, Doubt and Commitment

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:

continuum from doubt to 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.

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3 thoughts on “Faith, Doubt and Commitment

  1. Jacques says:

    Your “note to the skeptic” is a little glib, I’m afraid. First, the Descartes example is misplaced – he only got to that certainty by taking as axiomatic that there was a god, and that god would not deceive him so fundamentally. The cogito is a lovely little slogan, but it doesn’t summarise the Meditations at all well.

    But more importantly, you say “The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it assumes that there is such as thing as certain knowledge”. It doesn’t, at all. In fact, your spectrum of possibility graph is something I (an atheist) often use in lectures, because I also reject certain knowledge. Well, it’s slightly more tricky than that – I don’t reject the possibility of certain knowledge, but I reject the possibility of knowing that we know something for certain. So, it could be the case that 2 of my 10 beliefs (for example) are certainly true, but I can’t know which two they are.

    Anyway: what this means is that our best strategy for getting as close as we can to certainty is paying attention to the evidence and the balance of probabilities. Of course this can sometimes lead us to error, as in Matrix-type examples. But in general, it doesn’t. More importantly, it’s exactly the model that you, and all other believers, follow in every aspect of your lives *except* the metaphysically-laden ones.

    When you think about which car to buy, what to eat, who to trust, etc., you appeal to evidence, not faith. If people do appeal to faith (cf. your last paragraph), they’re exposing themselves to just as much risk of error as believers are with religious propositions – and rationalists like me would be as dismissive of the grounding for those beliefs, despite those beliefs not being metaphysical.

    Your argument (still last paragraph) therefore sounds like: “people believe things for bad reasons all the time, so why can’t I have faith in god for bad reasons, also?”. I don’t think you need me to spell out why that’s bad thinking.

    So, what you’ve written above doesn’t clarify why a different set of rules should apply in this one particular area (faith in god) to our other beliefs, where they are justified to the extent of available evidence – even if that sometimes leads us to error.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Jacques.

      Sorry about any glibness. I haven’t read Descartes’ Meditations for myself, although I am aware that he brought God’s existence in as the reason why our senses can be trusted (God wouldn’t equip us with deceitful tools, etc.). Still, it’s true that he didn’t find too much to be certain about, isn’t it?

      Either way, I’m especially glad you raised the rest of that. What I’m trying to combat in this post is the idea that non-religious people live their lives based on certainties, whereas ‘believers’ alone are prone to life lived with ‘faith’. As we seem to agree, everything is more mixed than that.

      Having agreed on that, I’m actually in some agreement with you also that belief should be undertaken with good reasons. I’ve always argued that blind faith has more to do with blindness than faith, and that the Christian faith does provide some significant reasons to commend it. Obviously, much of it falls into the historical / witness / relational categories, which fall further and further down that certainty scale, but nevertheless, belief is not just a matter of wishing something to be true.

      My point is largely that those who are cynical about faith also need to be aware that one’s life can be based on things that are more certain or less, but not completely certain, or completely free of something like faith.

  2. Mary says:

    Hmmm… I was interested to read this article because I frequently get into discussions on this topic with atheist friends. Firstly, I’d like to say that your explanation of Paul’s statements about seeing through a glass darkly is good. It’s important that we are honest about having incomplete knowledge. That said, I was also a little unsatisfied with your explanation to the sceptic. I think a big part of the problem in the area of discussions on “faith” is that there are many related definitions of the word. Often it is used to mean believing in something with little or no evidence simply because we want to. This is the sort of faith atheists think Christians have. To be fair, many Christians DO have this sort of faith, so it’s understandable for the atheists to think as they do. However, the sort of faith a Christian ought to have is different. We should believe the Gospel to be true based on the balance of the probabilities being strongly in favour of the Gospel being true. This should be based on evidence: historical, scientific, logical. So our faith is instead in God’s promises, in His continued goodness to us. We rely on God. Christian faith should take the reasonable argument to Christianity being true and then make a life decision on it to accept God’s gift of salvation and let Him be Lord of our lives. As Ravi Zacharias says, faith is perfectly reasonable, but it takes more than reason. What it takes is that personal decision that takes cognitive understanding and translates it into a way of being and living with Jesus as King. That life decision is faith. Our faith is not in it being true. Demons believe it’s true. But they do not place their trust in God’s promises. They do not rely on Him.

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