Doubt and the Cycle of Dynamic Faith
What is the role of doubt in the development of faith? Many Christians do not distinguish between faith and belief. To them faith is the unflinching acceptance and commitment to a set of beliefs that are for the most part static and immovable. In this case doubt is a threat to faith and is to be avoided and discouraged. Yet, for others, some of whom call themselves “progressives,” faith is not subscribing to a set of beliefs but is rather a model of reality that leads to a lifestyle underpinned by tentative assumptions and beliefs. Doubt is what leads to the molding and remolding of beliefs. In this case doubt is not a threat to faith but is indeed the very foundation out of which faith can grow and develop.
Not long ago I read an author who wrote that he wished our children’s Sunday schools would teach faith development in a manner such that the child would not have to spend the rest of their life unlearning what they had learned. I certainly subscribe to that idea. However, I am also a victim to that phenomenon. Much of my faith development has involved an approach to theology that theologians have called apophatic theology. It is a theology of negation. It occurs from the incursion of life and experience upon belief. Because I believe that telescopes do not lie, I not longer believe in a God that resides somewhere above the earth. Because virgin births are the preferred signatory of ancient authors for outstanding leaders and my understanding of the reproductive cycle I now read such claims for Jesus metaphorically rather than literally. Because I understand how Scripture has been influenced by culture, I now believe that Scripture is not the word of God, but rather the striving for humans to describe the divine. Inspired? Yes, some parts more so than others, but also authored in a cultural and historical context and always filtered through more and less imperfect minds. The role of doubt is to then develop a set of beliefs that are less doubtworthy, more robust and that can provide a centering for one’s life.
But faith also requires more than throwing out the old bathwater, it also requires positive affirming, but again tentative beliefs about the mystery of God. Thus, while an image of an ancient man with a long white beard sitting on a throne may no longer be satisfying, what God is, whether a being, the ground of all being, cosmic energy, the glue that binds all things, the spreader of seeds of potential throughout the expanding universe, or all of this can only be expressed in words and phrases of metaphor and allegory. While imperfect these understandings must continually evolve as our understanding of reality evolves.
In this framework faith becomes dynamic, not static and can be understood as a cyclical process. The figure below illustrates this. We start with a set of assumptions and beliefs about God that are taught or learned in some other manner. That leads to a faith model built on those beliefs and composed of attitudes and concepts that drives us to an understanding of how we are to behave and relate to creation. Then we meet life. Through experience and new insight, which may be direct or indirect, as for example though study, we are led to reflect on the consistencies and inconsistencies between our faith model, our actions to fulfill it, and the world we experience. Consistencies reinforce our faith model and hence our beliefs. Inconsistencies causes us to doubt our faith model and underlying beliefs and subsequently discard or modify them. Within the context of a loving Christian community this can lead to an ever more robust faith model. Long live doubt! Long live faith! Amen.