Doubter Believer


When I was a kid in our church’s youth group, one of our adult leaders played a record for us that pictured the church as a fortress under siege by the forces of Satan, and among the demonic elements attacking the true believers were battalions of doubters. I remember that one group was identified as “resurrection doubters.” Even then, by the way, I thought the record was awful and resented having to listen to it.

Biblical Christian faith is not belief that, but belief in. It is trust in the One who loves us. Faith is relational and responsive to the Other in whom we trust. Does belief in God not have beliefs about God? Of course it does, just as love for another human being has beliefs about that person and about the nature of the relationship I have with that person. I love this particular person, who . . . . After the word “who,” I may tell of things the person has done, qualities I appreciate and respect in that person, experiences we have shared, and what I currently think and feel the person means to me. What comes after “who” will change and grow as years pass and the relationship itself continues to develop. All the while, however, it will be the person I love.

Do I ever question my own love for that other person? Yes, of course. Do I ever have doubts about that person’s love for me? Yes, of course. Love reaffirms its commitment to loving in the face of those questions and doubts, and in a very real sense love needs them in order to reaffirm and strengthen its commitment to loving that person. The alternative would be love as a mere fact, untested, untried, un-conflicted, undeveloped, indeed quite dead.

Consider another analogy to faith: courage. What is the relation between courage and fear? Without fear, courage cannot exist. If I’m not afraid, I cannot be brave. I can be stupid, foolhardy, brash, heedless, insane, or just so powerful I am not threatened (in fact) by a danger that frightens other people, but I cannot be brave. Courage requires dealing with fears. No fear, no courage.

What is hope without acknowledgment of the possibility of disappointment? As the apostle Paul asks, “Who hopes for what s/he already sees?” Hope is confidence in the face of possible disappointment.

Current American Christianity has fallen in love with certitude, and certitude is not faith. Indeed, certitude is very nearly the opposite of faith. The “true believer” in certitude’s sense believes that . . . . What follows the word “that” is a list of certainties that are not certain (verifiably factual) at all but are declared certain by an authoritarian belief system. Such faith quickly becomes circular, meaning I believe these “facts” because I believe they are facts and refuse to question or doubt them in any way for any reason. Soon, I am patting myself on the back for being such a true believer, that is for having such uncompromising (and unreasoning) certitude.

Where is God in such certitude? For Christians, where is Christ in it? They are in their assigned places, captives of my system of certain beliefs. Christian fundamentalism subordinates even God to its unbiblical, literalist principles about the Bible. The Bible must not say anything that violates those principles, and God must not be or do anything that violates the restricted reading of the Bible. Faith, therefore, becomes an enforced absolutism of belief in one’s own beliefs – enforced upon science, history, other people (as judgment), the Bible itself, and even God. No doubter I.

Truly biblical faith is relational and responsive. It is faith in the One who loves us. For Christians, it is faith in the living Christ who was crucified. As Douglas John Hall writes, from the very context of the question of doubt’s relationship with faith (Bound and Free: a Theologian’s Journey), faith is a continuous decision to trust this God who loves us, and that decision becomes real and existential in the choices of trusting or not trusting God in life, day by day. Standing deliberately with Paul Tillich, Hall says the core of faith’s doubt is not intellectual but existential. Can I, will I, must I trust this God?

No fear, no courage. No acknowledgment of the possibility of disappointment, no hope. No questioning of the relationship and of my own commitment to it, no growth in love. And if I have no doubt that pushes me to question, to knock, to seek – no living faith. I have, instead, a deadly certitude circling itself.

And what if, one day, my certitude were to crack and I suddenly had to face the doubt I had so long denied access to my mind and my belief? Faith would be lost. No wonder such “true belief” sees itself as besieged in a fortress of authoritarian verities. No wonder it reacts fearfully and hostilely toward the person who asks questions or expresses doubts.