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Is Doubt a Virtue? — Pt. 2

While the emerging church continues morphing, some things appear unchanging. One is the tendency among post-evangelical, postmodern Christians to embrace, if not esteem, doubt. I have to tell you, I am growing extremely suspicious of this movement.

Anyway, I follow several emerging / postmodern authors’ blogs — not to cause problems, but to watch the scene evolve. Rarely do I comment at the sites. But this week I couldn’t help myself.

The author, in a post about — what else? — the place of doubt in the Christian life, noted the proliferation of books on the subject. O Me of Little Faith (due out in May),  Know Doubt (a Zondervan re-release), The Myth of Certainty, and Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters. They also mentioned an online piece entitled Doubters Arise!. Why, oh why are the New Christians so infatuated with doubt? I left this comment:

It’s one thing to be honest about our doubts. It’s completely another to believe religious certainty is NOT possible. Frankly, postmodern christians balk at believing we can be certain of anything, especially as it relates to God. Why? This trend toward doubt seems to have two sources: (1) It is part of a rejection of evangelicalism (an oft-stated motivation for pomo’s), and (2) It is the natural outworking of relativism (which is intrinsic to postmodern thought). If we CAN be certain of anything then there ARE Absolutes. Which is why rejecting Absolutes is so central to relativism. The fact that postmodern christians tinker in these ideas should be a cause for alarm.

The problem with all this, at least for those claiming to be Christians, is that the Bible traffics in Absolutes. Not only does it state that God is one thing and not the other, it tells us we can KNOW these things with a degree of confidence. Which creates problems for proponents of this New Honesty. Can we really be certain about ANYTHING… that is, anything other than our doubts?

The blog author, while commenting throughout the thread, ignored my query. I’m heartbroken, but not surprised.  However, another commenter did rise to the challenge. Here is her rebuttal — which I think reveals a lot about the emergent “apologetic” — followed by my response:

kristen: i think that knowing something with a degree of confidences (or even confidently believing something) is different than believing that we can fully know an absolute truth.

an important distinction is that many doubting christians are not actually questioning the existence of absolute truth. rather, they question our ability to fully understand it. that may seem like semantics, but it isn’t. if one believes absolute truths are out there, but questions things that humans claim as absolutes, then one can still seek truth and Christ.

Mike: kristen, for the most part, I agree with your distinction between a belief in “the existence of absolute truth” and “our ability to fully understand” it. But being pretty familiar with evangelical culture myself, I know very few evangelicals who adamantly claim we can “fully know” anything, especially God. So I tend to see this distinction as a red herring. Asserting that a person can know God – a claim that both Scripture and evangelicals make – is not necessarily a claim to omniscience. Christ doesn’t demand we know everything about Him, only know enough to be confident. But isn’t this “confidence” exactly what postmoderns are skeptical of?

There was no follow-up to my question. But you can get a feel for the angle these folks are taking. ‘Doubting Christians are not actually questioning the existence of absolute truth,’ they say. ‘Rather, they are questioning our ability to fully understand it’. This is typical postmodern apologetic — boil everything down to one’s subjective, limited, culturally-conditioned, experientially-skewed, perspective.

It’s really a self-defeating position because believing that you can’t be certain about anything requires a degree of certainty. I mean, can you be sure that you can’t be sure? If so, then we CAN be sure of something…

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Jay February 1, 2010, 1:43 AM

    Epistemology is of great interest to me…and this subject kind of touches upon it.

    It might help to read Alvin Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief". He wrote that belief in God CAN qualify as a type of knowledge. Most everything can be doubted (like, I can doubt, though very weakly, that I'm typing on a computer right now), but we kind of spackle over that crack with a dab of probability.

    How much of our faith/knowledge of God is so much spackle? That emergent Christians find a weird kind of comfort in doubting might be an indication of the strength of their faith, and I mean that epistemically – not as a spiritual judgment. Some emergents may simply not hold strongly to Christian doctrine for one reason or another, so the uncertainty of belief becomes doctrine in itself.

    • Mike Duran February 1, 2010, 8:53 PM

      Indeed, epistemology is at issue here, although I'm not familiar with many post-evangelicals who treat the subject rigorously. From what I gather, emergents have a love/hate relationship with doctrine, see many of them as having been tainted by institutionalism and hubris, and because of this tend to identify more with the early creeds. Yet, even here, absolutes are invoked. So, as a whole, it's problematic for them. And your observation about uncertainty becoming a sort of doctrine for postmoderns is interesting. Thanks for the comments, Jay!

  • Nicole February 1, 2010, 3:42 PM

    Everyone must choose their "certainties". The certainty that there is no certainty as you pointed out, Mike, demonstrates this very fact. God decides what's certain for Him, and that's "without faith it is impossible to please God". Period. Small faith, big faith, it's all about real faith which involves "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Heb. 11:1 NIV)
    Emergent thinking is just thinking. Human thinking. Unreliable thinking when it avoids the certainties provided by God.

  • Rachel H. Evans February 1, 2010, 8:42 PM

    Hey, Mike! Thanks for reading the blog so faithfully. I really appreciate it.

    I didn't respond to your comment after the post because someone else already had. But the fact that you've written about (and linked to) the post certainly warrants a response! 🙂

    I think that those of us who grew up in a really conservative evangelical environment never really learned to doubt well. What I mean is that we were taught that ALL of our beliefs are absolutely essential to our faith, and that good Christians hold those beliefs with absolute certainty.

    For example, growing up, I was taught that a person cannot be a Christian and also believe in evolution. I was taught that the earth is 6,000 years old. God created it six literal days. End of story.

    Now, as I bumped into some of the science that supports evolutionary theory, I had what you might call a faith crisis. I began to DOUBT what I had been taught – about the Bible, about science, even about God. Because I had been told that young earth creationism was a fundamental element to my Christian faith, I feared I might lose my faith if evolution turned out to be true.

    It was a rough few years, but eventually I came to make a distinction between doubting YE creationism and doubting God himself. Eventually I came to believe that faith and science need not be in conflict with one another and that one can be a Christian and also believe that Darwin was on to something.

    There are still a lot of Christians around here who have condemned me for this.

    My point is that, a lot of young evangelicals are beginning to learn for the first time that there is a difference between doubting God and doubting one's beliefs about God. While the first can be harmful to faith, the second can challenge and enrich it….sometimes even save it!

    In other words, we are learning to make a distinction between God Himself and our beliefs about God. Our beliefs are not the moon, but rather the finger pointing at the moon.

    Regarding certainty:

    Certainty is a feeling, not a fact. I can be absolutely certain that Lady Gaga is our president, and still be wrong. My opinion doesn't become any more true based on my certainty of it.

    Also, I'm not sure that following Jesus requires 100 percent certainty. Seems to me that it requires just enough faith to obey.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for the dialog.

    • Mike Duran February 1, 2010, 10:09 PM

      Hi Rachel! I really appreciate your spirit and purposely did not link to your blog (at least, I thought I didn't!), or reference you or your site, because I didn't want to start something stupid. But as I said here and in my comments there, I am really troubled by some of these trends.

      Like you, I have shifted from a belief in a literal six-day creation event to a theistic evolution model. And having pastored for 11 years, I concede that far too many Christians are happy being told what to believe, rather than asking hard questions. So I applaud post-evangelicals in that regard. There's just a lot more going on among postmodern christians than a generational shift.

      As I said in my comments to kristen, my objections to this New Honesty (i.e., UN-certainty) is its roots in relativism (anti-absolutism). So for postmoderns, it's not just about affirming individuals as they struggle towards God, it's about redefining the search. Which is why emergents tend to be far more socially / theologically liberal, often denying hell, implying universalism, affirming homosexuality, and generally hedging against Absolutes. They are being true to their philosophical roots. In this way, faith is much less tethered to actual facts (specifically biblical ones) or doctrines; it is "actualized."

      The big problem is that, not only is the biblical narrative rooted in a series of facts (historical events, people, locations, etc.), it compels a degree of concession, it makes intellectual, spiritual demands of us. Jesus came and did things so that we could believe! So while "certainty is a feeling, not a fact," there are facts (like the Resurrection of Christ) that should produce a degree of certainty.

      Of course there's a "difference between doubting God and doubting one's beliefs about God." But how can one determine the validity of their beliefs about God without some type of objective, factual criteria? While following Jesus may not require "100 percent certainty," too many autopsies will inevitably bleed someone's faith to death.

      Rachel, thanks so much for your comments! And congrats again on your upcoming book.

    • bondChristian February 1, 2010, 9:04 PM

      Yes, I followed the conversation over to this blog. Rachel, thanks for pointing us here.

      One sentence from your comment stood out in particular:

      "I think that those of us who grew up in a really conservative evangelical environment never really learned to doubt well."

      This really gets to the heart of the issue. Are we supposed to learn how to doubt? I mean, I often feel like I need to learn that, but does the Bible teach that?

      The Bible says to test all things… but immediately afterward it says to hold fast what is good.

      It seems to me that the Bible teaches a whole lot more about learning to not doubt than doubt. That's where the whole issue gets slippery for me.

      I'm looking forward to reading what Mike has to say about this.

      -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • John Green February 1, 2010, 8:48 PM

    Very interesting observations Mike. You've brought to light a subtext which has bothered me about the emerging church mindset – the glorification of doubt. In the kingdom of relativism, certainty is a mortal sin, and perpetual doubt is the new cool.

  • John Green February 1, 2010, 8:49 PM

    I subscribe to The OOZEletter to observe emergent thinking as it morphs. They recently had an article on Avatar as a model for emergent evangelism:
    http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=23

    In the article, I was treated to such 'insights' as:
    "For a long, long time Christians have made evangelism a one way street. They have projected themselves to be God’s brokers to the world. Their role was to bring God to places where there is no God. This approach has put Christians in a posture of superiority."

    "Evangelism should really be a two way street… We don’t bring God to the other, but find God in the other… We get to know them so as to see what God has been doing before we got there and learn alongside. Evangelism is a take and give, give and take love relationship. We initiate the relationship because we believe there is a treasure in the other we can’t miss. We evangelize “to be evangelized.”

  • John Green February 1, 2010, 8:50 PM

    The sad thing is, emerging church folks think they're really onto something new, but it is merely a recycling of liberal theology from the late 1800s. Just like bell bottom jeans, everything comes back around sooner or later.

    Pick up a copy of J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923, and you will be surprised at how liberal theology's thought patterns resemble today's postmodern / emerging mindset.

  • Rachel H. Evans February 1, 2010, 9:04 PM

    P.S. My husband likes to put it this way: "I'm absolutely sure, but I could be wrong." 🙂

  • stephanie February 2, 2010, 11:02 PM

    Hi Mike–I followed you here from Rachel's blog, although I've stopped by here before, thanks to Novel Journey, and been really intrigued by what you wrote (on propaganda in Christian writing. Very cool stuff). Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that while I respect your position here and even agree with it to some extent, I bristle a little at your pigeonholing this doubt discussion into a "postmodern/emerging" thing. I self-identify as a pretty orthodox evangelical, but not until recently did I realize that all my secret inner wrestling, which much of my upbringing had identified as weak faith, was not something I alone struggled with, and that I was allowed to talk about it instead of pretending it wasn't there. I don't think doubt is a virtue, but I think for some of us–(you connect this with postmodern philosophy, but I have read convincing evidence that it is also tied into hard-wired psychology)–doubt will be an endless struggle.

    Here's the thing. I think when you say that "facts produce a degree of certainty," you're totally right. You said it yourself: a degree. Certainty often comes on something of a scale, a spectrum, and sometimes I have more of it than other times. Those "other times" are my doubting times, and learning to work through them has produced some of the most growth I've seen in my walk with Jesus, personally. And I've learned to treasure them as the thorns in my flesh that they are.

    So maybe as a follow-up to this post, you could say something about meaningful, healthy ways to engage doubt? Hopefully something more complex than what I grew up with, which was "stuff it down and ignore it or out yourself as a bad Christian." [And I obviously have complete faith that you wouldn't say that, because I've been here before and was so impressed with your thoughtfulness that I passed on the post to some friends. : ) ]

    • Mike Duran February 3, 2010, 3:46 AM

      Thanks for the kind words, and for visiting, stephanie! I sure don't mean to imply that doubt and scrutiny of our beliefs is wrong. The person who sincerely wrestles with their faith is probably better off than someone who is smugly confident of their beliefs. Better a humble doubter than an arrogant believer. Besides, Jesus did not turn away the man who said, "Help my unbelief!"(Mk. 9:24).

      Ultimately, it is those who seek, that find. So can we "find" (arrive at a settled place of confidence)? The Bible seems to say so. But we must "seek" to find, and seeking can be a long, messy process. All that to say — I applaud post-evangelicals for embracing the "seeking" part. My question: Why don't they equally emphasize the "finding"?

      stephanie, thanks so much for your comments and for following the blog. Grace to you!

  • Rebecca LuElla February 2, 2010, 11:59 PM

    Interesting, Mike. You've given me some ideas about what to say in one of the threads on my blog.

    Also, back in October, after listening to an R. C. Sproul lecture, I wrote a blog post entitled Transcendence vs. Mystery exploring this new Gnosticism.

    I'm actually wondering if the assertion that we cannot know isn't a rejection of God in the sense that it elevates Man. Here's the way this thinking might be going: There are things about God that I can't understand; I'm not stupid, so I should understand; since I don't understand, I conclude there must be no way to understand.

    This line of reasoning shuts the door on the idea that God is the one who opens the eyes or our hearts, who causes blind eyes to see, and stopped ears to hear.

    Anyway, the more I converse with the commenters on my site, the more I see a man-centric view of the world as opposed to a God-centric one. That covers the whole language thing, the relativism, even the emphasis on peace and unity, the abhorrence of a God of judgment … so much.

    Becky

  • ChristFocus BookClub February 8, 2010, 6:58 PM

    While I haven't read the books you mentioned, I've reviewed a number of new releases on other topics that do express doubt that anyone can or should say anything certain about God.

    I credited this idea to people being told that the Bible was written by man and is inaccurate, so can't be trusted, and their apparent acceptance of this without further research into this claim by reading opposing views. And if the Bible is untrustworthy, then you can't know anything about God for certain. But I agree relativism has an influence in this, too.

  • Amanda Held Opelt February 10, 2010, 5:20 AM

    I tend to think we are dealing with two kinds of "doubters." One is the doubter whose fuel is an allegiance (albeit a subconscious one) to relativism. This allegiance can sometimes be born out of a selfish desire to mold God into our own image, or soften the edge of truth- make the difficult or uncomfortable statements Christ made more digestible.
    The other type of doubter is the one whose queries stem from the attempt to discern which elements of our faith we are to be certain of. Writers like Rachel, I think, are doubting their faith as it's been presented to them as an entire package. They might ask themselves, or doubt whether or not they can believe in God without believing in YE creationism. Or literal hell. Or election. Folks like this believe that it is possible to throw out the bath water WITHOUT throwing out the baby. Certainly, unless you are a phenomenologist, there are things Jesus DID say and do, or DID NOT say or do. I think this category of "doubters" would whole-heartedly affirm this. But they might not whole-heartedly affirm all that they've been traditionally taught to affirm.
    The biggest difference between the two, as I see it is that one is an attempt elevate man as the truth decider (or avoider) in order to be more culturally/politically/religiously friendly (and maybe deep down, I'm trying to ideologically justify just doing what I want to do), while the other is an attempt to weed out what could potentially man-made theological constructs- this in attempt to get to the God we are called to have a certain faith in.
    i know it sounds cheesy, but I do think it comes down to a heart issue, as do most elements of our faith walk. Again, cheesy, but God knows why and what you are doubting, and if it is a pure heart seeking truth or a selfish heart seeking it's own comfort.
    Also, my dad always taught me that faith is more about doing than thinking. He said, "You might doubt the plane's engine, and you might be fearful of crashing, but did you step on the plane? Did you trust it enough to sit down and buckle up?"

    • Mike Duran February 10, 2010, 2:39 PM

      Hi Amanda! Yes, the distinction between doubt as an extension of cynicism and doubt as a vehicle to discern truth is important. I don't question that many post-evangelicals are genuinely seeking truth. The big point, however, is: How does one arrive at the Truth? If it simply, as you state, "comes down to a heart issue," then Postmodern Christians are in a precarious spot. Why? Several reasons:

      (1) The Bible presupposes Absolutes: some things are True and some are False. (2) The Christian faith is rooted in knowing — whether through self or Divine revelation, whether in part or in full — these Truths. (3) If Truth is simply a heart issue, then nothing is False. As long as one believes it with all their heart, there is no way to disprove something. It is true because I believe it — end of argument.

      The Christian faith did not survive centuries of persecution, censure, and opposition, and become one of the great world religions, simply because it is rooted in… feelings. Christianity rests on more than just what my heart says.

      Thanks for your comments, Amanda!

      • Amanda Held Opelt February 11, 2010, 3:51 AM

        My apologies for not clarifying what I mean by "a heart issue"." It's a term we throw around a lot in our church to allude to issues pertaining to motives , as in Psalm 51:17 "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart." Certainly if our faith was rooted in our feelings, we would be sunk, and much deceived. As Jeremiah puts it, the heart is deceitful and beyond cure.

        i am speaking more to the question "Is doubt a virtue." And I would say in some cases "Absolutely!" and in others "Absolutely not!" But that depends on your heart motive, which only God can discern. And while I do believe it is important to dialogue on these things, to presume that a person who doubts isn't trusting, isn't steadfast, or obstinately refuses to accept truths he finds hard to swallow……..this can be a bit presumptuous.

  • Mike February 10, 2010, 3:47 AM

    I think there is a trend towards some Christians glorifying doubt. A few months ago, Ms. Evans gave an interview of Jason Boyett. She asked, "If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?" He answered, "I think it's wonderful, first of all, that you start the question "If heaven exists," because lots of people will think you can hardly be a Christian at all just for including that clause. I love it."

    http://rachelheldevans.com/jason-boyett

    If it weren't for his response, I would have dismissed it as a joke. Anyhow, the exchange reminded me of two schoolkids giggling over a curse word.

    "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." Romans 14:1. I wonder if the doubters can forego passing judgment on those who faith is strong?

    Her latest post on 8 Feb 2010 was a thoughtful and welcome treatment on the subject of doubt.

    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog

    • Mike Duran February 10, 2010, 2:04 PM

      Wow, that IS a pretty bizarre exchange between Rachele and Jason. Thanks for pointing it out, Mike. I have no problem with people questioning Scripture and/or Church dogma. But on what grounds can someone call themselves a Christian and still question fundamental biblical doctrines? No, I'm not suggesting Rachel and Jason are not Christians. I'm wondering, in their mind, what "beliefs" one must concede to actually qualify them as Christian? Apparently, a belief in heaven isn't one of them.

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