When Faith Needs Doubt

When Faith Needs Doubt by Chase Tibbs

Chase Tibbs

Contributor at Christianity Now
Chase is currently a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pursuing an MDiv and MTS, his interests lie in reimagining faith for persons of faith in postmodern contexts. He is influenced by the Holiness movement, process philosophy, existentialism, liberation theology, and postcolonialism.

The interview process could not have gone better. Renee’s potential employer, Lynn, and she had both agreed this seemed to be an unbelievable fit. They had been in conversation for over a month when Renee received an email requesting one final meeting before the position would be made official. Confidently, she walked in the morning of, excited about the potential this ministry opportunity offered.

Although Renee was aware that Lynn’s ideas regarding faith and theology differed from her own, she was under the assumption there was a mutual agreement as to what this position was essentially about. However, she should not have been so confident. As Lynn slid the sheet of paper across the table toward her end, Renee, though a Christian herself, understood what was expected of her, so she slid the paper back.

I believe Lynn―and most fundamentalist Christians― when seeking doctrinal uniformity, genuinely mean the best. This popular understanding of Christian belief requires an intellectual submission to a certain list of propositional statements about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the origin of the universe, among other things. Signing the bottom of the page and declaring these doctrinal beliefs to be “true” would demonstrate to Lynn that Renee has faith.

The problem is, I struggle to comprehend how signing a belief statement would significantly reveal much about Renee’s faith, or anyone’s faith for that matter. To Lynn, not subscribing to the particular propositional statements about God meant that Renee has what is commonly referred to as “little faith” or, just as bad, doubt.

Is this the only way for Christians to consider the meaning of faith and doubt? Are Christian communities condemned to marginalizing and alienating those who do not subscribe to a particular theology? If so, how do we know which are the correct Christian beliefs and which are mistaken?

Though faith is often equated with cognitive certainty―manifesting itself as perpetual anxiety of being “wrong,” alongside a fundamental rejection of doubt―there are other ways of thinking about faith that may prove more helpful.

No Doubt!

For many religious communities, questions and doubts are considered to be stumbling blocks to the person of faith. While kneeling at an altar, maybe you, at one time or another, have whispered the words “Help my unbelief,” hoping to gain a greater capacity to trust in particular doctrinal beliefs.

Whether it has been your belief that a difficult situation was going to turn out alright; your belief that God is in complete control, despite your experience of chaos and destruction; or your belief that God has allowed immense suffering and loss due to reasons you cannot know; in all these cases, your faith is dependent upon your ability to believe something to be true, despite any experiences that may lead you to believe otherwise.

According to this line of thinking, your faith is equivalent to your belief system. “No doubt!” the believer says, “I believe A, B, and C about Jesus. No doubt! I trust that God is in control. No doubt! The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Faith, in this context, is primarily concerned with subscribing to objective, propositional truths about God.

The central question for this understanding of faith is “What do you believe?”

Faith understood as intellectual assent to doctrinal belief seems to reduce it to the human intellect and, consequently, idolizes one’s mental faculties. In this implicit assertion that God has revealed information and facts to the mind, the central aim for communities of faith becomes cognitive submission and propositional certitude―do we have the right beliefs?

Doubt, then, as the opposite of the certainty one seeks, becomes detrimental, if not dangerous, to faith. Threatening faith’s very existence, it is seen as the antithesis of faith and must be rejected at all costs. “Help my unbelief!” the struggling believer cries, because true faith is certain, meaning that when moments of doubt occur, the resulting fear and anxiety of having “little faith” is existentially crushing, shaking the believer to the core of their being.

Yet there are other ways to consider the nature of faith and the function of doubt.

Necessary Doubt

Theologian Paul Tillich understood faith to mean ultimate concern. Another way of saying this is that your faith is continually demonstrated, is actualized, through your living and relating―regardless of whether you have intellectually worked out your faith in a coherent, logical system.

Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Heschel understood a community’s faith to be its life pattern; faith is always being lived, in contrast to being thought. What ultimately concerns one is not beliefs they merely think, but that which is embodied through their actions. Theologian Catherine Keller, too, suggests that “Faith is not settled belief but living process.”

Here, the question of faith shifts from “What do you believe?” to “What/Who do you live faithfully to?” Is it wealth? power? preservation of privilege? certainty? ego?

Is your primary concern the wellbeing of all? bringing justice to that which is unjust? loving your neighbor as yourself? Instead of prioritizing one’s beliefs about God or Jesus, faith becomes a way of life, a dynamic pursuit of a way of being in the world.

It is important to note that for Tillich, Rabbi Heschel, and Keller theology remains an essential aspect for the religious community, for faith requires the whole self, including the human imagination. However, cognitive belief is only one aspect of faith and should not be regarded as its primary expression, for conscious level belief cannot wholly ground one’s way of being.

Contrary to perceiving doubt as an obstruction for faith, doubt can now be seen as intrinsic and necessary. Persons of faith should depend upon doubt because it enables one to speak and live truthfully without claiming ultimacy or supremacy. Without doubt, our faithfulness becomes idolatrous and destructive. Doubt, instead, allows us to name truth while humbly acknowledging our finite capacity for understanding. We subsequently become open toward dialogue and difference, rather than closed off from relationship.

If the aim of a Christian faith community is the wholeness and wellbeing of all creation, not just human beings who identify as Christian, then the prideful fantasy of absolute rightness ought to be displaced.

Faith that values doubt claims our embodiment of truth to always be a work in progress, which has led me to notice that persons and communities who affirm doubt as a necessity for faith often speak of faith as a lifelong journey.

It is through the faith journey, our faith in process, that doubt can inspire our authentically human sense of curiosity. Admitting that we do not have all the answers creates the possibility for wonder, novelty, and transformation. When was the last time you walked into a church and were inspired to be curious? encouraged to question? empowered to passionately wonder about God and the grandeur of existence?

Unfortunately, much of Christianity has created more fear of curiosity than love for it. Who would have known that claiming God is beyond our ability to fully comprehend would be so alarming?

A Divine Curiosity

What if people of faith came to see doubt as a spiritual practice―a humble confession of our interdependence and finitude? I wonder if doubt could actually enable Christians to journey deeper into meaningful relationship with all of humanity and the entirety of creation.

Doubt implies a sense of lack, an embodying and knowing less than we potentially could. Friend and colleague Ben Whitehead suggests, “There is no subjectivity without lack.” Essentially, it is because of “our primordial lacking, that we might stumble upon love,” meaning that wisdom, beauty, and meaningful relationship may arise from our openness to doubt.

What could happen if people of faith were to embrace the possibility of knowing less than ultimate truth? Imagine the love and the passion and the wonder that could come from our divine capacity for curiosity.

Perhaps what we ought to be praying at the altar is: “Help my certain belief.”