Dealing With Doubt – Part 1

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The following is adapted from a message I gave on Sunday about faith and doubt. I should have the podcast available soon, but until then I thought I would adapt some of it into a couple of blog posts for those that don’t have the time to listen to the entire message. This part focuses on the church’s response to doubt. On Wednesday I’ll focus on those of us who doubt and offer some thoughts on how I think we should handle our struggle. 

 

Doubt.

It’s one of the last taboo subjects in the church.

We don’t like to talk about it, so we almost never do.

It makes us uncomfortable, exposes our weaknesses, and reveals our insecurities, but all of us, all of us struggle with doubt.

Doubt doesn’t respect age or gender. It doesn’t care about socio-economic status or education level. And it couldn’t care less if you’re clergy or lay. Doubt sneaks up us on all of us like a thief in the night to rob us of our faith.

And our hope.

And our joy.

The real problem we have in the church is not with doubt, but with our inability to make space for those who do have doubts about their faith, who are going through the exact same struggle the people of God have endured for as long as their have been a people of God.

Too often we don’t do a very good job of giving our brothers and sisters the freedom ask the question they need to ask and share the pain that’s ripping their faith apart. Too often we treat doubt as if it were some kind of sin or disease and doubters as if they were lepers to be shunned. As if any display of weakness will reveal the church’s imperfections to the world and anger God.

Contrary to the God of the Bible who listens to our questions and embraces our doubt, who even when we shout to the heavens “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” does not pour out his wrath, but showers us with love; contrary to the very God we claim to worship, we as a church too often dismiss doubts as “just a phase,” dishonor heartfelt questions by telling people “just to believe,” and compound the pain of the suffering by blaming those who suffer for “not having enough faith.”

We get so consumed by our need for surety and our obsession with showing the world that we’re strong and that we’ve got everything together that forget we worship a God whose power is made perfect in weakness, whose kingdom is made up of children, where the poor are blessed, the last made first, and all are redeemed not through power and might, but through one who, though God, humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

If anything it is weakness, not strength that is at the heart of the Christian faith for we worship a crucified Christ not a conquering Caesar.

But somewhere along the way, as we moved from the marginalized to the mainstream and began seeking power rather than giving it up, we forgot we are.

We forgot what it means to be the people of God.

We forgot our story.

This week as I was working on the message I preached at church yesterday, I asked my friends on Facebook and Twitter to share some of the things that cause them to doubt. I expected to get a handful of responses, maybe a few more, but it was like the floodgates opened up and not just from people I knew had struggles, but people who on the outside looked like their faith was unwavering were actually riddled with doubt and couldn’t wait to get it off their chest – especially as they saw others do the same.

And the stories.

Some of the stories they shared were unspeakably heartbreaking. Stories of abuse and oppression. Of trust broken and pain ignored. Of anger and sadness. Of confusion and doubt. Of lives torn apart and dreams shattered.

That they have the strength just to get out of bed every morning is incredible. That so many of them still have faith is nothing short of a miracle.

As I listened to their stories I was reminded of the fact the Bible is a book filled with the stories of people who doubted.

Adam and Eve snatched the fruit from the tree because they doubted God’s promise to watch over and provide for them, so they tried to take things into their own hands. Abraham doubted the promise of God constantly, most famously trying to fulfill God’s promise of a child on his own. Job doubted God’s goodness. Jonah doubted God’s calling. Israel doubted God’s faithfulness. And, of course, the apostle Thomas doubted the resurrected Christ even as he stood right before his eyes.

But the doubting doesn’t stop with the Bible.

The history of the church is filled with great men and women of God who had deep doubts about their faith.

The 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross experienced what he called the dark night of the soul. For the last 50 years of her life Mother Teresa said she felt absent from God. In 1953 she wrote “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil his work and that our Lord may show himself – for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything is dead.”

For 50 years one of the great saints of the church doubted God. Not for 5 minutes or for 5 days or even for 5 years. But 5 decades.

For more than half of her life Mother Teresa struggled with doubt.

And that’s ok.

Because the story of the people of God is the story of people who doubt. Who in their weakness wander in the wilderness in search of God.

Which means if you find yourself mired in doubt, you are not alone. Your story is part of much bigger story. It’s part of the story of God’s people throughout history and throughout the Bible who have wrestled with doubt and pain and unanswerable questions.

Which means if we do not make room for doubt in the church, then we have no right to claim to be a Biblical people. We have no right to claim to be the hands and feet of God if we push away those who struggle and kick out those that ask questions.

If we really believe in the truth of the gospel, if we really believe that the God of the Bible exists, if we believe this thing called Christianity is really worth living, then doubts and questions should not bother us because we should have nothing to fear.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

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  • Peter McCombs

    Do you know what robs us of faith and hope? Certainty does. Who needs faith where there is certainty? And who needs hope when the outcome is sure?

    Faith and hope are active things. They have to do with choice and desire, and doubt is the only medium in which those things can gain any traction.

    Perhaps it is good that people should have doubts. A great lady once said that character can’t be developed in ease and quiet. Without the obstacle of doubt to push against, how would we develop anything worth presenting for judgment? Doubt provides us with the possibility of expressing our true selves. It frees us from the determinism of certainty and from the necessity of living out the narratives that have been invented for us by others.

    • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

      can I ‘like’ this 100 times!?

  • LRZ

    Amen and amen . . . wise words filled with compassion and truth Zack!
    IMHO, certainty’s parent is pride . . . doubt is a child of fear . . my trust in His character is the only way I know to hold onto my faith which is born and reborn of that trust.

  • Pam Manners

    Wow — I love Mother Theresa and have admired her for years. I had no idea, though, that she had such struggles. I feel in good company. A stellar post here, Zack, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. Thanks for what you do. I always leave your site with so much to think on.

  • Dan Jensen

    The problem with the emergent doctrine of doubt is not that it recognizes the reality of doubts in the Christian life, but that it seeks to glorify doubt and refuses to offer biblical solutions to doubt. Yes, all Christians struggle with doubt, and yes God deals with us gently as a loving Father over this issue along with all other struggles of the Christian faith. But the Bible never exalts doubt or treats it like its a virtue. The Bible everywhere praises a sturdy faith and persistent unrepentant doubt is always treated as a vice. Now we of course need to be very, very careful here. It is often very healthy to doubt many things. Many times in life there is a lack of evidence and so in such cases we are warranted in doubting such things. And when new believers first come to the faith we should be very patient and understanding as it is going to be very natural for them to have feelings of doubt as they have not drunk as deeply from the well of God’s word as those who have been walking with Christ for years.

    But with all of that said, doubt is something, through God’s help, that we are to try to overcome. As we walk with Christ and see Him change our lives and if we are willing to study the massive amount of evidence in favor of the Bible it becomes harder and harder to doubt the truths of God’s word. Does this mean we will never struggle? Of course not. However, we will struggle with all sorts of sins, but that in no way gives us the right to excuse those sins. It is no different with doubt. Certitude with regard to God and the Bible is not something to be mocked, it is commanded of us in the very Bible that Christians claim to follow and it makes common sense as how can a good God ask me or anyone else to follow Him if He has not given me adequate evidence to prove that He should in fact be followed?

    The emergent movement, including Mr. Hunt, are badly muddying the waters on this doctrine, and as opposed to helping people come to a stronger faith, they are encouraging people to remain in their skepticism as if that is somehow a pious thing, when the Bible everywhere regards it as the opposite. Is it not ironic that in almost every biblical instance of doubt that Mr. Hunt offers, the biblical character is committing a clear sin?

    • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

      “Certitude with regard to God and the Bible is not something to be mocked, it is commanded of us in the very Bible that Christians claim to follow and it makes common sense as how can a good God ask me or anyone else to follow Him if He has not given me adequate evidence to prove that He should in fact be followed?”

      Here is where I would challenge you- Certainty does not equal faith. I personally would argue that the quest for psychological certainty on matters of belief *substitutes* mental gimmicks (think “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I do!”) for true faith (think a commitment made to bind one’s self to Jesus). For example, I exercised true faith when I married my husband- when I put that ring on and said ‘I do’, NOT when I finally mentally convinced myself I was 100% sure and certain that this marriage would work or was ‘right’. In my opinion, God wants the kind of faith where we commit to Him, even in spite of our questions and doubts, not the kind of ‘faith’ where we finally convince ourselves we don’t have questions and doubts. I believe an honest look at ‘faith’ in the Bible shows this.

      I believe those (like Greg Boyd, Zack, and others) who are ‘encouraging’ doubt aren’t aiming to encourage perpetual skepticism or lukewarm faith. I think instead they are trying to encourage fearless and honest faith… which in my opinion is stronger than a faith that is striving to never have it’s boat rocked by tough questions or dark nights of the soul.

      • Dan Jensen

        It is of course true that the term “faith” can be used in many different senses, especially in modern English, and that often it does not connote a faith that includes an element of certainty. But biblical faith does include this element and so that is the theological problem with your doctrine, as well as Boyd’s and Mr. Hunt’s. Furthermore, marriage is not an adequate analogy here. Marriage is of course of the utmost seriousness, but at the end of the day the worst (and I’m not in any way making light of this fact, only trying to put it into its proper context) that can happen is extreme temporal harm. But with God we are talking about eternal consequences here. How can I follow God when my eternal destiny is at stake if He does not show Himself to be certainly true. To ask this of me is evil, plain and simple.

        I honestly don’t know any conservative evangelical that is seeking to never have his or her boat rocked or to never have dark nights of the soul. Emergents need to stop with the straw man arguments in this area. In my experience, even those who attend the extremely flawed self-help churches still understand the fact that God is sanctifying us and that this will include having our faith challenged, stretched, and will often result in dark nights of the soul. But the reason our faith is stretched and challenged is because it is weak. Now this is not something we should make people feel bad about, it is a part of the Christian life. But we should offer biblical solutions and not “encourage” doubt, but tell people how they can overcome doubt as this is what the Bible consistently commands.

        Boyd’s approach here is unbiblical at every point and this is not surprising as he is a very bad theologian. He may be a very nice man and I would be more than happy to sit down with him and discuss things, but his bold advocacy of open theism is overtly heretical. Hence, we should not being taking our cues from him.

        • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

          Not surprisingly, I disagree about nature of ‘Biblcal’ faith and about GB being a very bad theologian. I feel like I do see plenty of certainty seeking Christians looking to not have their boat rocked. It’s why so many try to come up with a pat (an often very weak and shallow) argument for everything.

          Personally, I don’t have much more to say.. I am just so glad to have been offered a model for faith that is not certainty seeking… because I almost never FEEL certain about anything, and the more I’m made to feel like my whole faith and eternal destiny hangs on convincing myself of how certain I feel, the more shaky and fearful I become… and my certainty meter falls still further. But a total all-out commitment to Jesus? This I can do.

          • Dan Jensen

            We can of course agree to disagree and I appreciate that you were very cordial throughout our discussion, I can’t tell you how often I don’t receive that from people from your camp. I agree that a lot of Christians do seek an “easy” faith far too much and that this is indeed extremely problematic, but I also believe this is grossly exaggerated and misinterpreted by emergents and the solutions offered to this problem are terribly unbiblical in my estimation.

            I am sorry that you rarely “FEEL” certain about anything, but the great thing about objectivity is that its not based on our ever changing feelings. When we fell uncertain about things, we can turn to the evidence and be reminded that these things are true whether we or anyone else wants them to be true or not. And I for one cannot give an all out commitment to Jesus unless I know that He really is real. This problem is especially acute when we take into account that there are so many conflicting versions of Jesus out there, so I have to ask to which one should I commit myself?

            I understand if you don’t have too much more to say and so if you don’t respond I completely understand. But I will leave you with this. Often I hear emergents talk constantly about doubt and it seems to me that you guys are quite certain about one thing, the absolute reality of doubt! But what if I have my doubts about the fact that people really struggle with doubt quite as much as is often portrayed. I could be wrong, but I do have my doubts. I could be wrong, but I think doubt has become a rallying cry among many because they don’t like the firm claims made by a more objective approach to truth. If I am wrong you have just taken a very hard line and certain stance in regard to your doctrine of doubt which seems to me to be very contradictory to the position that no doctrine is completely certain. And if I’m right it seems that more emergents should be more open to a more objective epistemology.

            This seems to me to be a real problem with the emergent doctrine of doubt. It seeks to doubt just about everything except for its doctrine of doubt, an approach that is self-defeating.

          • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

            I can’t speak for all other ‘emergents’ (a label I no longer even understand, I admit), but I can speak for myself and others I have heard and or talked to- we are not over exaggerating the level of doubt in our lives.

            In our culture we are bombarded with ‘issues’ that cause legitimate questions about our faith- biblical criticism, evolution and science, theological conundrums. You seem to feel all the objective evidence does away with these… I just strongly differ. To me, there are many questions unanswered or half answered. My model of faith allows room for this, allows room for continued processing. It allows me to no lose my relationship/commitment to Christ just because I become of convinced that Noah’s Ark isn’t a historical story or I wonder if Paul may not have written certain epistles.

            I would also add that some people’s personalities are particularly inclined to question. What you would say is objective, I might say is probably right but I’m still not certain.

            Let me ask you a question: how certain are you, on a scale of 1-10 that your version of Jesus is the right one? What does it mean if that number drops to 7? 4? Does it mean you are no longer committed to Him unless/until you can get that number back up to 10? Not sure how this will get answered, but my point is that that type of faith (one that relies on psychological certainty) doesn’t actually sound strong to me… For me at least, it would make my life a faith roller coaster at best or a faith destroyer at worst.

            One more question: What would your advice be for a doubting Christian who has questions and uncertainties they aren’t finding answers too (which they are satisfied with)?

          • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

            and please, don’t take from my questions that I’m getting snarky… my snark is very much tempered this afternoon. :)

            In my mind these are just very legitimate questions and get at what I see as the problem of certainty based faith.

          • Dan Jensen

            I admit that the term “emergent” is somewhat fuzzy, but there is clearly a trend among many professing Christians today towards certain doctrines and practices and this trend has been called the emergent church or movement and so in theological dialogue it is helpful to use that label as labels help to summarize certain camps. You may indeed not be exaggerating the doubts that you have, but my point is how can you be so certain that your doctrine of doubt is so correct. Perhaps you don’t need to always be so doubtful. How you answer that question poses real problems for your epistemological approach to theology.

            You are confusing categories when you include apologetic problems, that exist in any arena of truth, and the overarching conclusion that biblical Christianity is true. There are countless things that I do not know for sure about the faith, many of these things include the very things you talked about. My faith absolutely includes these struggles. But I do not question the overall validity of the Bible and the faith it proclaims. Often those questions get terribly exaggerated in the minds of Christians. They are terribly difficult questions to be sure, but at the end of the day whichever side we fall on with these questions actually affects major Christian doctrines very little despite the fact that far too often both conservatives and liberals exaggerate the importance of how we answer those conundrums as you put it.

            As far as my level of certainty it is deep down a 10. But it is not because it is my version of Jesus, it is because the evidence overwhelmingly supports the biblical portrait of Jesus. Now how do I feel about this certainty on the surface moment to moment? That of course changes. But it changes because my faith is weak and I am not using the means God has given me to strengthen my faith. This is true of any sin. Some days I really, really struggle with impatience even though I am usually a patient person. On those days I have to go to God for the strength to overcome my impatience. The same is true for doubt. And I would give the same advice to a Christian struggling with doubt and as a Christian teacher and pastor I have done this very thing many times. Often Christians are shocked at just how much evidence is in favor of the Bible and wish they had looked into these issues much sooner. It is hard work, but if we seek we will find. This is Christ’s promise to us and I have found it true time and again. This is also exactly what James tells us in James 1:5-6.

            And I have not found you snarky at any point. You have been very enjoyable to talk with and I appreciate that very much as I said earlier.

          • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

            I’m not so sure I have a ‘doctrine of doubt’… I have a doctrine of ‘you don’t need to rid yourself of all uncertainty in order to put all your eggs in the Jesus basket’. Am I certain my doctrine is right?? Of course not. Maybe I’m in deep trouble because I don’t think ridding myself of uncertainty is a worthy goal. But if I can judge a tree by it’s fruit, the ‘fruit’ in my life of exchanging a ‘certainty model of faith’ for a ‘commitment model of faith’ is peace, intellectual integrity and fearlessness, and the types of actions that go along with faith. Good stuff imo.

            I hear what you are saying as far as confusing apologetic problems with the overarching faith, but in my world they mix quite easily… many apologetic problems can compound to bring big questions to the whole thing.

            And look, I’m not saying people should commit to Jesus based on nothing- I think people need to look at Jesus and all the various reasons (and the reasons are very good!) for trusting Him, and make the decision from there… but I don’t think they need to feel the way of trusting Him is to achieve totally certainty. I think the way of trusting Him is to commit to Him their whole life, regardless of how they feel or what new questions or challenges present themselves. Basically, I get to ignore how I feel or what I fear and know that I am ‘married to Jesus’ regardless. It disarms the doubt actually, while still allowing for the acknowledgment of it and the wrestling of those questions.

            I wonder if perhaps we don’t disagree as much as it seems? Or maybe we do, lol, can’t be ‘certain’. ;)

          • Dan Jensen

            Yeah, I don’t think we disagree as sharply as I probably thought, but while I could be very wrong here, I am pretty sure that I still disagree very strongly with the emergent doctrine of doubt which I do believe to be unbiblical. Doubt almost becomes a badge of honor in that camp and I think that is terribly misleading. God bless!

          • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

            yeah, I would need to hear that ‘emergent doctrine of doubt’… perhaps I wouldn’t agree with it either. I’m comfortable with intellectual honesty and fearless honesty and willingness to wrestle being considered honorable… but the phrase ‘doubt as a badge of honor’ doesn’t resonate with me as healthy.

            I will say that I listen to and read Greg Boyd rather extensively and I think what I said here would say would match him quite well… Other ‘emegents’ I can’t speak for. http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon-topics/faith

          • Dan Jensen

            Cool. Definitely not a fan of Boyd, but I appreciate the link.

  • Karen

    There’s a difference, it seems to me, between doubt and skepticism. I think of the stubborn unbelief that was rebuked in the Scriptures as a willful skepticism that expresses doubt because there is a fundamental unwillingness to submit to a Reality greater than my own will.

    On the other hand, doubt and a questioning of God (such as that of Job or that of Abraham concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example) is necessary for a more solid faith to grow–especially when the “faith” we have is in an inadequate and immature understanding of Who God is, and has more the character of an “opinion” we hold as “right” than a personal trust born of a real encounter with the living God.

    Some of today’s “certainty” about God that comes across as brash arrogance is in reality a “strong opinion” masquerading as faith! The arrogance betrays that we are masking a fear that we might be “wrong.” The only “certainty” about God worth anything is the kind that results from a personal encounter with God. This kind of encounter produces a “gentleness and reverence” born of a childlike trust in God’s utter faithfulness and goodness and has not a shred of arrogance in its demeanor. Its humility attracts others to God and convinces them of His Reality even when few words and no arguments are exchanged, because He can be clearly seen in the face and actions of the one who has truly encountered Him.

    • Dan Jensen

      The problem with encounter theology is that almost all religious people claim to have had an encounter with God and yet the gods each of them describe are all contradictory to one another. Hence, there is no way for me or anyone else to know that they have in fact encountered God unless there are objective standards for establishing who the true God is and how we can experience and encounter Him. I have had many intense worshipful experiences with God, but at the end of the day I have no way of knowing that my experience is genuine apart from first knowing that my experience is in accord with the objective facts.
      This encounter theology has its roots in mysticism, pietism, and neo-orthodoxy, all movements that tried to shift the objectivity of theology towards a theology of subjectivism.
      There are of course people who try to use Christian certitude for arrogant purposes, but my overall experience with conservative evangelicals is that they are simply trying to use common sense and be obedient to Scripture. Just because you disagree with the doctrine of certitude does not mean that those who hold to it are engaging in a brash form of arrogance. In fact, the more I interact with the emergent movement the more I am struck by the absolute dogmatism and absolutism of the movement that is constantly cloaked by a garb of being open-minded and winsome. But which is more arrogant, to assert one’s position and say that no one can disagree because to do so would be inherently arrogant or to assert one’s position and say that the reason this is one’s position is because it is backed by the evidence and let’s discuss this evidence in a rational and professional manner. I, and many others, have tried this many times with the emergent movement and we are almost always met with name calling. How is that the humble approach?
      And there are certainly people who simply cannot stand to be wrong, but I have not found this to be the case among conservative evangelicals. I greatly appreciate when people prove me wrong. I have been rebutted many times over the years and I have changed my opinion many times as that is what it is all about. So the ad hominem arguments you presented are not convincing. Demonstrate why Christian certitude is wrong and I will not only listen, but I will recant gratefully.
      Finally, there is no question that love, humility, gentleness, etc., draws people to the truth, but at the end of the day the full truth must be asserted otherwise we are drawing people to a lie. And we cannot forget that the Gospel is fundamentally offensive to unbelievers and the emergent movement’s near obsession with trying to obliterate this offense is very, very dangerous. We must lovingly tell the truth, but tell the full truth we must.

      • Peter McCombs

        Dan,

        I think you are correct in stating that there is no objective measure for the experience of spiritual things. But must we not “experience” and “encounter” objective facts as well? In the end, mustn’t everything be brought into the capacity of the subject, in order to observe and consider it? And by what measure do we interpret and assign meaning and value to these things? I have yet to find anything in my scientific unit converter for measures of truth, happiness, goodness, or meaning.

        I’m all in favor of epistemic reliabilism, but at some point there has to be a ground truth that is merely accepted, with no possibility of any proof for it. There is something that must be called “self evident.” For some people, it is that experience with the divine.

        If ground truth is that which is accepted as self-evident, it would be a contradiction to claim that one’s fundamental truth is superior to another’s on some objective grounds. Thus, uncertainty must exist at the most basic level and life lived as an act of faith. Any standards that arise are adhered to by common consent; there is no justified authority that may be exercised on human conscience.

        I do not say “doubt,” but rather “uncertainty.”

        • Dan Jensen

          Of course truth involves the subject. And of course the first principles of knowledge cannot be objectively proven like the objective truths that flow from them, they are of course “self-evident.” But that is precisely the point. They are indeed self-evident. To deny them is self-defeating because it is impossible to assert anything without them. It is not an act of faith in the way that you are using that term, we all simply know these truths to be true instinctively and any attempt to deny them is self-defeating. Everything you said in your attempt to articulate the fact that you believe that these first principles must be accepted by an act of faith presupposed these very first principles in an absolute sense. If this were not so I could turn around and say that I believe that you actually meant the opposite of everything you said simply because I feel like it. Of course on some level I could say this and no one could objectively and concretely disprove me, but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone would know that I was speaking nonsense.

          And the fact that the first principles of knowledge are self-evident in no way proves that we are therefore warranted in saying that any old thing gets to be a first principle because we want to believe it and we want to have the comfort of not having that belief challenged. It is, and I really mean this with the utmost respect, quite ridiculous to say that we can instinctively know which god or religion is true. I can with absolute certainty know that the law of non-contradiction is true because it is utterly self-defeating to deny it, but the idea that someone could come and tell me their religion or god and I could automatically and instinctively know that it is true is simply untenable. This is why when people talk about “experiencing” or “encountering” God they are not talking about believing in God because belief in God is properly basic, but because they have had an esoteric experience and they desperately want to justify this experience without having it challenged in any epistemological sense. But that just won’t work.

      • Karen

        Hi Dan,

        I see I should have made myself more clear (especially in view of the way Zack is allying himself with “emergent” views)–I am not an “emergent” Evangelical. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I have some sympathies with some of the concerns with the philosophical assumptions of modernity of those identifed as “emergent”, which I believe many traditional Evangelicals embrace too uncritically in their approach to faith and apologetics (e.g., many of the assumptions of Rationalism). As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I very much believe my experience of God (Who is the same, yesterday, today and forever), if it is real, will agree with and be subject to the revelation given in Christ to His “One Holy Apostolic Catholic Church” as we state in the Creed, of which that Divine-Human Body is the living witness to this day and of which the Scriptures (received and interpreted within that Community) are the written witness.

        When professing Christians appeal to their experience, yet it runs counter to the witness of the Church throughout the ages, I understand them to be in spiritual delusion. On the other hand, when professing Christians appeal to their logically coherent interpretations of Scripture (or their experiences) within their own particular theological tradition’s framework, and these also do not agree with the witness of the Church throughout the ages about the meaning of the Scriptures, I understand these also to be in spiritual delusion.

        I don’t think “objective” certainty about God on the personal level can be established apart from experience of Him by the Holy Spirit. This is not a denial that there exists a “reality” to God Himself independent of my own subjective experience (or reasoning about Him), but this is not established in quite the same way, it seems to me, that we establish the “objective” truth about the physical “objects” of creation that we can manipulate. God is not an Object among other objects that we can manipulate and discover the characteristics of, neither is Scripture an object we can analyze and understand using human reason and common sense alone. God is Personal and reveals Himself by the Holy Spirit within our hearts and within the corporate Community of His Church on the basis of the receptivity of our hearts. Knowledge of God is personal and spiritual. It is not anti-rational, but it is supra-rational. Human reason alone is insufficient to reveal either God or the meaning of His Message in the Scriptures. I’ve seen plenty of the kind of “certainty” in the “faith” of Christians who act and talk as if human reason is sufficient to know that many of us modern Christians (even the emergent kind) are more married to opinion than genuine personal trust in God than we realize.

        • Karen

          I could add the observation, going back to Zack’s last paragraph in particular, that there are different ways to talk about doubt and faith. It seems to me conservative Evangelicals have traditionally tended to emphasize “faith” as that body of teaching we embrace that defines us as orthodox believers–the faith, IOW. We can also talk about “faith” as that living dynamic growing (or regressing) process of putting active personal trust in Christ’s Person. This latter sense is the one identified in the NT (esp. James’ epistle) as the kind which “saves” us. Though he doesn’t explicitly address this in his post, this seems to be the main sense in which Zack is exploring the subject of doubt as a process of questioning and testing that is actually part of the process of growing in our faith.

          It is my conviction we can by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and conviction be exercising this latter kind of faith, even though our understanding of the first is very imperfect. If not, how could Jesus have taught what He did in Matthew 18:3 and Matthew 19:13, holding up little children as examples of the kind of humility and trustfulness that inherits the Kingdom?

          • Dan Jensen

            There is a ton that I could respond to from these two posts, so because I already tend to be long winded for blogs anyways, I will only hit a few things and you will have to forgive me as I am not trying to ignore the rest.

            Thank you for clarifying your Eastern Orthodox faith. I agree that you are not part of the Emergent movement, but as you admit you clearly have sympathies with some of their core concerns and that came out clearly in your first comment. I have very strong disagreements with your Church, which I would be happy to debate, but I don’t think in this comment it would be the right place.

            I have been studying theology for the past 13 years and I have often come across the phrase “supra-rational” and I still have no idea what it means. It is often used in my opinion as a fluff statement without any content behind it. If all that is meant by it is that there are things our reason cannot understand that do no contradict reason, fine. But what is all the fuss about with this statement. I don’t understand anything, even an ant, exhaustively and so in some sense ants are “supra-rational.” If all that is meant is that God is beyond our understanding but things like ants could hypothetically be understood by us exhaustively I would have to seriously object to this. Only God can understand anything exhaustively as all of creation is interrelated and so only He can fully understand any given item in His creation. So again, what does the phrase really convey at the end of the day that is not basic to common sense.

            Whatever understanding I do have of God must come through my reason, that is just how God has created us and to say otherwise is simply unintelligible. And there is nothing theologically problematic about saying that we can objectively prove the existence of God and the validity of His word in an absolutely certain sense. This in no way gives us the right or ability to manipulate God. We discover all sorts of knowledge about distance stars and yet we do not have the ability to manipulate them. Hence, your logic there is flawed.

            I understand that Mr. Hunt is not talking about faith in the sense of the doctrinal deposit given to the church. But faith in God is certain deep down and the Bible clearly teaches this. Our surface level feelings about this certainty wavers and that is because we are weak in our natural sinful selves. But we can overcome this by asking God to help us and by using the means He has given us to strengthen our faith.

            As far as Jesus’ teaching in regard to children, those passages strongly confirm my position. Once a parent has earned the trust of a young child the child almost always believes the parent no matter how much the circumstances seem to say that the parent is wrong. That is what faith is all about. We are certain that God is truthful and based on this certainty we obey His word even when everything about the circumstances of the moment seem to be saying that what God is saying cannot be correct. Here is the meritoriousness of faith that Hunt continually fails to understand.

          • Karen

            Dan, I can say supra-rational implies for me pretty much what you have thought it means, with the caveat that I don’t think what is revealed about God either in the Scriptures or in our experience will always seem reasonable to us. There is plenty of paradox, it seems to me, in the spiritual life as it has been revealed in Christ. These only become reasonable to us as our hearts and wills begin to become conformed to Christ through the experience of His love and grace. The Apostle Paul certainly doesn’t consider the gospel to be something that conforms to human expectations of the Divine nor to human philosophical reason, for example, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:16. Rather, he clearly says he did not rely on persuasive words of human wisdom, but on the power of God and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit to communicate it. Consider also Jesus’ teaching on the nature of his parables (Matthew 13:13) and how even his straightforward teaching often confounded even his own disciples (e.g., Matthew 19:3-12). What Jesus’ taught was often contrary to what was human “common sense” at the time and at the very least often enigmatic to his hearers.

            Finally, consider how the interpretations of Old Testament messianic prophecies given in the NT are rarely, given the actual context from which they are drawn in the OT, obvious to a modern human “common sense” reading of the “plain sense” of those Scriptures in their own context in the OT (especially if we assume the human author’s intended meaning is the only meaning to be gleaned from the inspired text). The Apostles in the NT on occasion unabashedly treat OT texts, not in a “plain sense” manner, but in terms of spiritual allegory as symbols and types (e.g., Galatians 5:21-31 and 1 Peter 3:20-22), which are only made evident in Christ. Their meaning on this level had to be revealed to the Apostles by Christ Himself (Luke 24:27).

            That said, I would be curious to see you give an example of the kind of “objective proof” you meant when you wrote that ” . . . there is nothing theologically problematic about saying that we can objectively prove the existence of God and the validity of His word in an absolutely certain sense.”

            You wrote, “Whatever understanding I do have of God must come through my reason, that is just how God has created us and to say otherwise is simply unintelligible.”

            Do you believe whatever “understanding” an infant has of its mother (or caregivers) must come through its reason? Can an infant truly “know” his mother? How is it St. John the Baptist could, in the womb of his mother, “leap for joy” at hearing the voice of the mother of his Lord? Was there some kind of “understanding” of God and of Mary in that response? If so, was that understanding the result of St. John’s capacity to reason? (Be careful how you answer that–I studied Piaget in college! :-))

            Just some things to consider when we look at the role of reason in our capacity to genuinely experience or commune with God . . .

          • Dan Jensen

            Hey Karen, thanks so much for the comment. I have really enjoyed discussing things with you and I appreciate that you do not hesitate to firmly state your Eastern Orthodox perspective while still being open to debate and dialogue. That is a very rare thing on many of these blogs and you should be highly commended for it. You will have to forgive me as I can only offer a very, very superficial response to your comment which is a major bummer for me as you touch on a number of very fascinating and important topics. But I’m swamped today and will be very busy throughout the weekend and so this will be all I can do and so you can of course respond to what I say so that other readers can see your perspective but I probably won’t be able to read it and I for sure won’t be able to respond.

            If by paradox you mean contradictory on some level then I simply cannot disagree more. If something is contradictory how can it be true. And if we try to embrace the contradictory everything one believes is subject to rejection because we might find out later that the exact opposite is also somehow true. So, for instance, if we say Jesus died for our sins, it may also be true in some paradoxical way that He did not die for our sins and therefore I shouldn’t believe anything you have to say. But if by paradox you mean two propositions that are not contradictory but live in great tension and mystery, I have no objection and fully embrace the fact that life and the Bible are chalk full of paradoxes. But at the end of the day that is eminently reasonable as I instinctively know and my experience everywhere confirms that this is how reality is.

            As far as I Corinthians and the parables of Christ are concerned, all Paul is saying there is that he was not a professional philosopher or orator and that the truth rarely can be squared with the “wisdom” of the day. But the reason that is the case is because the “wisdom” of the day doesn’t add up. The Bible repeatedly tells us to seek knowledge and wisdom and so to try to use Paul’s words here to contradict that won’t work. The parables of Christ were intentionally meant to confuse people because they were not open to His word. But that in no way makes them unreasonable. Once He explained the meaning to His disciples they become abundantly clear.

            As far as OT interpretation is concerned, there is no question that texts of the Bible can have multiple layers of meaning. But that in no way detracts from the common sense approach to hermeneutics. We are only given these deeper meanings through later revelation and the only way we can know these deeper meanings exist is because of a common sense reading of NT texts. If the Holy Spirit does not reveal to us a deeper meaning to any given text I have no warrant in trying to extrapolate one beyond the common sense meaning. The Apostles had an authority that no interpreter has today and we must never forget that.

            As far as infant psychology is concerned, of course infants are aware of all sorts of things that they cannot reason through. But that is also true of the animals. Until a child reaches an age of full reason (and it is terribly difficult to determine when this is, but we know that it does happen at some point in most cases) they are somewhat similar to animals although their capacity to reason and understand is much higher and they are of course far higher in dignity because they are created in the image of God. But once a full age of reason has been reached everything gets processed through our reason. Give me any experience that a human has and the only way they can understand it in any meaningful way is by processing it through our reason. This does not mean we can ever fully understand our experiences, but that fact is itself in accord with reason because our reason understands that it is limited. Again, I believe there is a great deal beyond the capacity of our reason, but I do not believe anything can ever be truly irrational. Hence, I still think the phrase “supra-rational” is misleading and is far too often used to justify the irrational which simply won’t work.

            Thanks so much again, you are a sharp cookie for sure and I wish we could dialogue more now, but hopefully we will come across each other again either here or somewhere else in the blogosphere. God bless!!

          • Karen

            Hi Dan,

            Thanks for responding, and, I appreciate you want to respond even though you are busy. You are great to hang in there with my tendency to be long-winded. You make a number of good points, and I would affirm that I do not believe that paradox = actual contradiction. Rather the contradiction is only apparent because of the limitations of our human reason. I would not argue that God or our experience of Him can be irrational (far from it), only that human reason (meaning our capacity for logic and abstract thinking) *alone* cannot connect us with God (even given His past acts in history and the existence of the Scriptures), nor explain the depths of our experience with Him, nor adequately address the very common experience of believers–those experiences of His apparent utter absence from our lives that is the inevitable result (if one lives long enough as a Christian) of the evil and suffering of this fallen world.

            Neither do I believe, as does the philosophy of rationalistic humanism, that our faculty for this kind of reason is the defining characteristic of what it means to be fully a person, fully human in God’s image. The capacity for common sense abstract reasoning is not the most important aspect for defining our humanity nor for making a meaningful (I don’t mean this in the sentimental or emotional sense, but in the sense of spiritually real/actual and spiritually transformative) connection with God. If it is, then not only those who persist to the end as sinful reprobates, but also every miscarried or aborted child, infants, young children up to the age of 7 or 12 depending on who you talk to, the cognitively impaired or those who become brain damaged are lost because there is no salvation apart from true union with Christ and a sharing in His nature. Are we really wanting to say such people cannot truly “know” Christ and have communion with Him in a meaningful/real (again, not sentimental) way through , personal trust (Gk. “pistus”), in Him through the grace and conviction of the Holy Spirit in the depths of their being, even if those “convictions” are inarticulate?

            It seems to me also when our first instinct in regard to “sharing our faith” is to default to a debate or persuasive (as in logically persuasive) speech mode for making our case, we betray the fact that we are more truly at heart rational humanists than genuinely Christian in our mindset (about how faith is taught and passed on and even about what constitutes a fully biblical Christian “faith”. We have begun to hold faith more as an ideology than as a way of life, a way of being that involves a real connection with Christ). I don’t here mean to deny that great Christians of all ages have sought to also vigorously martial their reason to defend and articulate their Christian faith (far from it), but having become Eastern Orthodox, it has become quite clear to me that true Christian faith is not merely a set of correct dogmas about God that we can (and must) logically defend as “orthodox” “from the Scriptures,” but a living dynamic experiential relationship and way of being in and with HIm whereby we are truly and really “from glory to glory” transformed into Christ’s very likeness, not only in our outward behavior, but also in the depths of the motivations and movements of our hearts through His taking up residence deeper and deeper within our whole being (body, soul and spirit). Adapting the words of the Apostle John in his first epistle, we begin to become “like Him” as more and more we “see Him as He is.” Spiritual perception is much more than common sense logical deduction from Scripture in classical Christian faith. It is also a way of being in Christ in which (in an ongoing way and not just in terms of His acts in human history) God’s grace and the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the human heart carries an infinitely greater weight than any capacity I may have for common sense reason about Him or the meaning of the Scriptures in terms of how I make a true experiential connection with HIm or gain any sense of “certainty” about His nature or existence. (Here, I’m not sure because you haven’t yet had a chance to answer that question, how you are defining “absolute certainty” in your statements above.) It is also a kind of spiritual perception in which the movements of the will in response to God’s Presence and the purity (openness/vulnerability) of the heart are the critical factors on the human side for the appropriation of God’s grace–not a person’s ability for abstract reason or to hold or articulate the “right opinions” about Him and what is taught in the Scriptures.

            In Orthodoxy, I have found the faith is held whole and entire as a kind of living organism and a way of life in Christ, and not reduced somehow to the sum of its various parts, which are then cobbled together again according to various constructs of (merely) human reason, but always seemingly not quite in all the right relationships (though sometimes many aspects are right or very close to it), so that the result, rather than a clear view of the face of God, the Father, in the face of Christ (because their nature is identical), looks a bit like a sort of “frankenJesus” or a God Who looks like the Jesus of the Gospels in some circumstances, and who looks like an arbitrary and capricious megalomaniac monster in others. Or in the case of some aspects of progressive or emergent identifying Evangelicals’ thought, like a perfectly good and sinless, but yet merely infinitely greater in wisdom and power version of us and whose perception of all points in time and space within his creation (i.e., what, from our vantage point in history is “the future” because it–for us–”hasn’t happened yet”) is limited somehow by virtue of some aspect of creation (i.e., human free will).

            After 40+ years as a devout and faithful participant within an Evangelical Protestant context, I could not find a theological framework within the various Protestantisms or the Roman Catholic Medieval theological traditions that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation that could fully accommodate my actual experience nor provide an adequately coherent framework for interpreting the Scriptures. No matter whose angle I tried–Methodist, Prebyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Baptist–always there were bits of the Scriptures that would fall out of those frameworks. I knew my Baptist pastor was right when he said that we can’t accept an interpretation of Scripture that conflicts with that which has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all” Christians of all ages (and I didn’t realize that some Baptist beliefs do exactly that). I honestly don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t been for the fact that at a very desperate stage in my searching, a couple of the most unexpected questions popped into my mind, What about the Eastern Orthodox? Am I on the wrong side of the Great Schism?. The rest, as they say, in my case is history.

            Please forgive the long-windedness and thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify and explain my understanding of Christian faith in greater depth.

            No need to hurry to respond or need to respond to all (or at all for that matter if other things are pressing).

  • daryl carpenter

    It’s funny, but I’ve always thought the characters in the Bible (Abraham, Jonah, Job, etc) had no excuse for lacking faith. These lucky individuals were in receipt of a veridical, direct relationship with the creator of the universe; an encounter with the divine that the stories describe as straightforward objective experiences. God even makes the odd physical appearance when he feels it necessary. What an incredibly privileged position those bible characters were in! Compare this to the crumbs the modern day believer has to live on and it’s no wonder why some people today have such trouble believing.

    I think Yahweh needs to get back to being the hands-on god depicted in the Old Testament. Perhaps he could orchestrate a competition similar to the one in 1 Kings 18. This, of course, is where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a sacrifice. After they abjectly fail at this endeavour, Yahweh consumes Elijah’s own burnt offering, thus proving he is the one true God, resulting in all around falling on their faces and believing in him.*

    What I’m saying is that Yahweh should totally do a modern-day reboot of this story. It’s the type of display that would really get people to start taking the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seriously.

    *I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t Elijah go on to murder 450 prophets of Baal? Yes, that is indeed true. But one must remember that this was typical behaviour of a godly and righteous holy man of the times, and was therefore entirely justified.

  • CKPS63

    I have really enjoyed reading this blog over
    the past few months as I’ve explored my own faith. I’ve finally decided to chime in and leave a
    comment because your views on this issue seem to resonate so strongly with the recent statements from the Pope. In his “America”
    interview, Francis observed that “in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is
    still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that
    he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty,
    then this is not good. . . . . The great leaders of the People of God, like Moses, have ALWAYS LEFT ROOM FOR DOUBT. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties . . . .” It seems to me like he’s saying
    that engaging and exploring ONES “doubts” is not only
    not something to be feared, but is a necessary driving force in our
    respective spiritual journeys.