The uses and limits of doubt

“In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.” – G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to the Book of Job

My previous post addressed some typical objections to the truth seeking project, which really amounted to the completion of the first step of our journey… to have the motivation and commitment to “travel”… essentially to follow the arguments wherever they lead. It’s now time to put some “gas” in the tank; those gnawing questions and doubts… Yes, that’s right, doubts. Probably not what most people expect from someone who’s telegraphed his proposed destination by peppering posts with Bible citations, but there it is glowing on your screen. By the title of this post it can be inferred that what is meant is not an unbounded skepticism. It might be described as more of an “acknowledgement of mystery.” It’s believing there’s an answer we come to know though we are unable to grasp it fully. Having the proper attitude toward uncertainty is essential to gaining any traction at all on this “road.” Unfortunately, it’s often accepted that faith requires all questioning to be completely excised, and the intellect effectively jettisoned. Nothing could be further from the truth:

“Crede, ut intelligas – Believe, so that you may understand” – St Augustine of Hippo

So we need to dispense with the idea that authentic faith is “unquestioning” or “blind.” Rightly construed, faith should be open to all sorts of questioning. In fact, it’s often the case that the mere “scientistic” (as opposed to scientific) mindset just dismisses questions of meaning and purpose out of hand… effectively restricting the set of permissible questions! Scientism (excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge… especially to adjudicate questions alien to its nature,) tends towards this error due to adherents’ difficulty in tolerating its limitations.

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; What is man, that you are mindful of him? And the son of man, that you visit him?” (Psalm 8:4-5)

In fact there is an abundance of evidence in the Scriptures that not only point to the acceptance of questioning, but often the answering of questions with other questions! Which is often mysteriously more illuminating as it frames the problem rightly. Here we hit an obstacle though… when believers invoke “mystery,” skeptics tend to balk. They harbor a caricature of it as a “cop out” that’s designed to “obfuscate” the answer. But this is not what the word indicates. “Mystery” just means that there is so much “answer” to the question that we shouldn’t accept a flat, banal explanation. It actually invites more reasoning and contemplation… not less. As any fan of detective fiction has experienced, there is a bitter sweet tinge to the moment the crime is “solved.” Sweet because we get the solution, bitter because the story ends. Accepting a mystery here doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer, it means acknowledging that the Answer has us.

“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.” G.K. Chesterton – Orthodoxy

The level of questioning we seek is that of judging alternatives, which is indispensable for making the journey. Without some critique, crossroads become arbitrary and devoid of meaning… leading to aimless, circuitous travel. On the other hand paralysis occurs if doubt is radically overemphasized, becoming “certainty about uncertainty,” a kind of digging in your heels, even after a verdict that was beyond a reasonable doubt…

“But Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Genesis 19:26

So to summarize, it seems that skepticism (extreme doubt) and fideism (extreme credulity) lead to the same static paralysis. A productive conversation cannot be had either because (in the case of the skeptic,) there can’t be an answer, or (in the case of the fideist,) there can’t be a question. They each attack reason, the former making it into an idol, and the latter seeking to smash it because they can only see it as an idol. Though they imagine themselves to be opposites, the skeptic and fideist are really in an unconscious and fruitless “alliance” against the vibrant, living Truth itself.

“The real skeptic never thinks he is wrong; for the real skeptic does not think that there is any wrong. He sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe”. – G.K. Chesterton – Lunacy and Letters

How we might get unstuck from these extremes is really all about the proper balance of faith and reason that allows us to have unwavering faith in the object of our search, and the critical discernment necessary to verify progress towards it.

“Faith is finite reason obeying infinite reason, or the Word of God, in all things: What can be more just? What more worthy of us?” Fr. Nicholas J. Laforet – Unbelief, It’s causes and cures

In assessing all of this one might accept that there is value in the acknowledgment of doubt in religious discourse, but the question remains from both fideists and skeptics about whether any religious tradition (especially the one I seek to defend,) upholds this posture. Consulting the Holy Bible provides ample support as there are many instructive examples of how situations of uncertainty are treated in both the Old and New Testaments. We can point to Job, who’s questioning was preferred by God to the facile explanations of those around him. Or the refusal of Ahaz to ask for a sign when the Lord offered one. Also it was Our Blessed Mother, who asked “How will this be…?” (Luke 1:34) at the Annunciation, in contrast to Zechariah, who said “How shall I know this?…” (Luke 1:18) at the news of John the Baptist’s conception. The former demonstrates a faithful confidence that opens new horizons, and the latter a (thankfully) temporary lapse of belief that very literally impairs vision. From these examples one can intuit that there is a “holy ‘huh?’” It is something that is encouraged and seems to bespeak an intimacy and expectation that is not found in a kind of disinterested practice. It is fitting then that Our Lady would all but refer to herself as a magnifying glass:

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.’” Luke 1:46–48

Mischaracterizing faithful questioning can lead to nurturing a false tension between “head” and “heart.” After all it would be an insult, (generally an unconscious one,) that would assume that God creates the mind to be jettisoned:

“It would be a strange God who could be loved better by being known less. Love of God is not the same as knowledge of God; love of God is immeasurably more important than knowledge of God; but if a man loves God knowing a little about Him, he should love God more from knowing more about him; for every new thing known about God is a new reason for loving Him.” – Frank Sheed – Theology and Sanity

In other words, while intellectual capacity doesn’t equate to “willing the good of the other”, one might call to account a “love” that wouldn’t want to learn more about the beloved.

Is there any direct guidance for this proposed balance then? Where could it be found? Some might be surprised, as I once was, that it might be found in Scripture. Specifically we might be enriched by comparing the parallel accounts of the disciples Nathanael and Thomas in John’s gospel (John 1:43-51 & John 20:24-29.) The pattern we see in both is: an assertion about Jesus of Nazareth, followed by doubt on the part of the hearer. Next there is an encounter with Jesus, and a confession about His divinity. The pattern ends with the Lord’s reaction to each confession. Outlines for these sequences appear below:

First Thomas…

  • Assertion – The other disciples claim Jesus had been resurrected.
  • Doubt – Thomas would not believe unless he could observe the Lord’s wounds from His crucifixion.
  • Encounter – Jesus appears 8 days later and invites Thomas to inspect His hands and side wound.
  • Confession – Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!”
  • Reaction – Jesus says: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Now Nathanael…

  • Assertion – Philip says, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth…”
  • Doubt – Nathanael responds “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
  • Encounter – Jesus sees Nathanael approaching and explains how he knows him: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you…”
  • Confession – Nathanael responds: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
  • Reaction – Jesus says: “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these…”

In examining these parallel sections, the Lord’s reactions seem to suggest both a speed limit and a speed minimum for doubt. In the case of Nathanael, (leaving aside for the moment some Old Testament typology involved with the text,) it appears that he may have been bordering on credulity as Jesus intends to show further signs. In the more well known case of Thomas, the time he had been with Jesus might have lead to a softening of his skepticism. Instead he formulated a very strict standard for the evidence he required for belief. But even though he demanded too much, he received his request, along with an outpouring of mercy. From this comparison we see the Biblical understanding that faith is primary, but reason is the navigator.

Logic is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic — for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth…Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it. G.K. Chesterton – The Maxims of Maxim

On this last point then, we arrive at the takeaways needed to set the stage for our next post. Having established the rules of the road (rooted in logic) and filled the tank with an attitude of seeking, we can now consider all the waypoints and chart a course by consulting “The Roadmap.”

3 thoughts on “The uses and limits of doubt

  1. Hi Grogalot. Thank you for your comment. I checked out your page and saw that you are currently a professing materialist. I admire you taking a stand for truth and and your passion for it. I understand the struggles involved in accepting a theistic worldview and this is one of the reasons why I started this blog… I am just as irked by those who would twist and use religion to suit nefarious ends but please keep in mind that counterfeit banknotes do not disprove the Bank of England… in fact they imply its existence. I have a few links for you about the irreducibility of the mind to physics (a lecture by an accomplished theoretical physicist,) some compelling near death experience studies catalogued in several respected medical journals, and a video that deals with Dawkins’ objections to the Thomistic arguments for God’s existence. I’ll be praying for you and would welcome future dialog… For now I’d like to leave you with this verse. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
    God bless.

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  2. Hello Jawbone. It is all so simple. the monotheists have been scammed. All religion is a scam of belief in the supernatural. It is the delusion of resurrection that feeds the scam of the God with a plan. The world would be a safer place without the crazies. GROG

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