Engaging in Divine Doubt

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
–Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be
Aaron Ross Part 4 of 4

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Table of contents

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Introduction

Do you believe all of the orthodox beliefs of Christianity? Do you have good theology? Even better, are you “sure, that you are sure, that you are sure, that if you died today that you would be with God in heaven?” Undoubtedly, much of my young Christian life was spent focused on two areas, being in relationship with God through Jesus, and having the right beliefs and theology.

Although chronologically relationship comes first, many teach that having the right beliefs is the start point of relationship with Christ. Because of this, doctrine becomes the litmus test of one’s Christianity. You see, very often, there are those in Christianity who argue that in order to have a relationship with God, you must first believe certain things about him, be that simple ideas such as God exists, or more evangelical beliefs like this one: “all people are sinners, are condemned to eternal physical torment, but God provided a way through the death and resurrection of Christ, so that any who believe in God and what is claimed about Christ may have eternal life”. . . phew. To put it simply, many consciously or unconsciously believe that in order to be in relationship with Christ, to be saved, one has to believe the right things about God and the person of Jesus.

When salvation, relationship with Christ, is bound up by a salient list of beliefs, then doubt becomes conceived as sin, sickness, and disease which undoes our relationship with Christ. This system works out well for those who like to have a clear cut way to determine who is in and who is out of the Christian faith. Even more so, it provides a really powerful way to determine our own salvation. We go on denying doubt and never questioning what we have been taught or the beliefs we hold in order to maintain this false sense of security.

But if the rise of the internet age, social media, art and entertainment have taught us anything, there are a lot of people who struggle with doubt. In an age where doubting is more apparent, where it is easier to be confronted with various belief systems, a religion that argues for beliefs being the basis of relationship with the divine and personal salvation is bound to falter. We can no longer go on suppressing the apparent sin of doubt.

Bitter: Confronting Doubt

One of the most certain things I was confronted with in my theological educational journey was this, the more I learned, the more I doubted. Because the various Christian traditions I was a part of implicitly taught that correct beliefs were the way into a relationship with God, every time I doubted, I felt my relationship with God suffering. Most of those I looked to for help in this period of doubting told me the same thing, “Doubt is a disease. Just give it over to God. Have (better) faith!”

In learning to confront doubt, and even finding peace in seasons of doubt, it is important to recognize that not all doubt is the same. The difference between doubting God directly and doubting what we believe about God cannot be overstated.

For most who deal with doubt, doubting what we believe about God comes down to doubting what we have been taught about God. Statements claiming that God is loving, caring, able to affect change within our lives seem inherent enough, but are ultimately taught to us by our churches, communities, and interpretations of scriptures. When we begin to engage theological ideas like eschatology or christology, what was once simple becomes much more complicated, with many competing claims to truth. When we have doubts about these teachings or ideas, we are not having doubts about God’s self, but rather about what the church, teachers, theologians, colleges or universities, etc. . . . have taught us about God. Recognizing and defining the doubt we may feel is important to doubting, not only healthily, but divinely.

Sweet: Finding Peace in the Unknown

When we learn to differentiate between the doubt we have about our beliefs, taught or inherent, about God and doubt that exists as being closed off to God, we learn that our beliefs or our doubts do not bring us into relationship or cause our separation from God. This good news opens us up to the reality that doubting is not inherently bad, but itself can be both positive or negative depending on how we doubt.

We might all have examples of when doubt has been negative either in our lives or the lives of those we care about and love. Doubt that is ignored by fideism (faith that does not employ facts, logic, or arguments) is left to fester, to remain a nagging force in one’s life, consistently in the mind telling us something is amiss, without ever confronting it. Like a child who is afraid of the monster under the bed, ignoring doubt won’t help us find the truth and in turn only keeps us fearful of what the truth may be. Doubt engaged in poorly will erode our relationship with God, not because we are questioning what we believe about God, but because we are closing ourselves off to what could be true about Him.

The reality is that doubt takes courage. When it comes to a matter as important as faith, relationship with God, and eternal things, doubting can be a traumatic experience. This is what Paul Tillich, quoted at the beginning of this article, argued. Tillich compared the courage it takes to doubt with the courage displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In a terrifying moment, leading up to torture and crucifixion, Jesus displayed the “courage to be in light of non-existence.” Essentially, Tillich noted that Jesus was not just praying in the Garden as an example for Christians to follow for thousands of generations, Jesus was also praying in his time of fear, needing to find the courage to go through the passion event with the possibility that . . . he could be wrong. In Jesus’ humanness, according to Tillich, Jesus had to confront anxiety and fear, just as humans so often do. Confronting doubt, whatever belief we may be questioning, is not an act of sin or disease, but engaging in the divine courage of Jesus, to confront that which causes us anxiety.

Doubt becomes divine, and a positive force in our lives, when doubt pushes us to let go of the idols of our beliefs or our inaccurate or unhelpful beliefs about God. Divine doubt is doubt that pushes us to go beyond what we think we already know and asks us to seek yet again something we will never fully grasp, the mystery of God. As the saying goes, if we can fit God inside of our head, then that god is not really God at all.

Doubt will always be present in real faith, not as an enemy or disease of faith, but rather as the longsuffering friend of faith, pushing us to learn yet again who God is in our lives. Gregory of Nyssa gave us the idea of “going into darkness.” It seems Gregory implies that the further we find ourselves being grasped by God in faith, the further we will recognize how little we know, and can know, of God. Thus, darkness for Gregory is not a bad place, or one wrought with fear, but rather peace. We find peace the further we give ourselves back to God, even amidst our doubts, our beliefs, and what we think we know to be true. It is only within the presence, the surroundings of God, that all of our beliefs and doubts are wrapped up in the perfect peace of God’s infinite goodness.

No longer does doubt affect my relationship with God negatively. When I refused doubt, tried to hide it or ignore it, or held fast to my idyllic beliefs about God, I continually closed myself off to God­–my faith in God suffered. Yet, when I learned to doubt faithfully, doubt no longer was a struggle, but a helpful friend that has pushed me to learn, to grow, and to engage in the possibilities my beliefs have been lacking. Doubting no longer closes me off to God, but rather continues to radically open me to the God of infinite possibilities.

Suggested Reading

  • Paul Tillich. Dynamics of Faith
  • Ronald Rolheiser. Wrestling with God: Finding Hope and Meaning in our Daily Struggles to Be Human
  • Brian McClaren. Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It
  • A.J. Swoboda. After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It

Suggested Practices

  • Community. Find a community that is safe to open up about your doubts and questions. Safe communities hear your doubts, resist providing easy answers, and walk with you in your season of doubting without shame or pressure.
  • Resist Answers. Resist the urge to find an answer right away or accept the first answer that may seem to fit. Take some time to sit with your doubt. Ask good questions about your doubt such as: “why does this belief I am doubting matter to me? What would happen if I lost this belief?”
  • Spend time in prayer and solitude, not asking God for an answer, but living within the peace of God, one that passes all understanding. Peace should not be a reason to not seek truth amidst our doubt, but rather, peace helps us deeply engage truth, wherever it may be found.
Aaron Gabriel Ross is the Director of the Office of the President at Ashland University. Previously, Aaron was an Assistant Professor of Theology of a private university in Florida. Currently, he teaches at London School of Theology and Ashland University in theology and biblical studies. More thoughts from Aaron can be found on his podcast, Everyday Theology, or at his blog, everydaytheology.online.
Listen to all parts in this Bittersweet series