Thursday, 24 November 2011

Faith and Doubt

To make sure I don't just get trapped in a single viewpoint, I've been reading John Ortberg's Faith and Doubt.  Ortberg is an American Presbyterian pastor and also coincidentally a former clinical psychologist.  His overall outlook seems to be basically orthodox, conservative Protestantism but he is not really in the "fundamentalist" camp in that he is not a believer in the literal seven day creation, nor in premillenialism. 

He has written this book to deal with the question of doubt.  Why do Christians doubt, what should they do about it, and how does doubt relate to faith?  He deals with the issue in a chatty, anecdotal style, keeping it light and easy and leaping from story to story, topic to topic, with the agility of a grasshopper.  Although he doesn't say so, I suspect that the material in this book started out as a set of sermons, and it still sounds like something meant to be spoken, peppered with jokes that are often quite funny but also distracting and at times beside the point.  You can hear the congregation laughing, relieving the tension on what could otherwise be a rather stressful subject.

To my mind, he takes a while to get to the point, beginning with an outline of what he believes is important in the Christian faith and why it attracts him.  It's not until over half way through the book that he starts to get to grips with doubt.  He does so by summarising what he sees as the three main reasons for doubt.  The first is intellectual - why is there not more evidence for God?  Why does he not show himself clearly, if it is so important that we believe in him?  The second is moral - why are God's followers not better people?  Many former believers, or potential believers, are driven away by the poor behaviour of God's people and the church institution.  Then the third is the classic question of theodicy - why does a loving God allow so much suffering?  Although he discusses all three, it seems to be the last which affects him most personally and to which he returns a number of times. 

So what should we do when we doubt?  First of all, he makes it very clear that he doesn't think doubt is a bad thing.  In fact he sees it as essential and inevitable.  Doubt helps us to learn and grow (since it drives us to seek the truth) it makes us humble, and it drives us to trust.  He urges his readers to cultivate the gift of doubt.  However, he wants to keep this doubt within limits.  He urges us to avoid the traps of skepticism, which he sees as persistent failure to decide (Michael Shermer would certainly disagree with this definition!) and a negative force typified by the apostle Thomas; of cynicism, a constantly negative attitude driven by fear of loss; and of rebellion, a deliberately oppositional attitude to everything.  I found this part of the book perplexing, and his dismissals of these viewpoints a little too glib.

However, the weakest point of this book was its apologetic framework.  He identifies a number reasons to believe, but in the end they amount to variations on the same theme - our sense that the universe has meaning, that there is a standard of right and wrong, that individuals have significance, are sure pointers that there is a god.  His reasons for belief are heavily intuitive and emotional.  He believes because he feels things make sense.  Shermer would have a field day. 

The ease with which he slips into these arguments makes me wonder just how seriously he has doubted himself. His doubts seem to just scratch the surface, mere ripples on the still silent pool of his belief.  Because if his arguments are at all convincing (and I don't find them very strong myself) they only lead you to a general theism.  It is a long step from there to Christianity in any form, and an even longer one to Christian orthodoxy.  The rest he asks us to take on trust, like a trapeze artist letting go of the swing and relying on the catcher to arrest our fall at the right time.  For him the catcher is God, and Jesus points unambiguously to this God and gives us courage to believe.  He would get a big surprise if he looked up and found Brahma on the end of the trapeze, or perhaps the trickster Anansi pretending to drop him before snatching him by the hair at the last minute and laughing uproariously.

In a sense he's right about this.  Our belief is a choice, it is a free act in a universe which is not so determined that we have no options.  We choose to believe every day, relying on our trust in those around us or our intuition, on matters as mundane as whether it is safe to eat our dinner or as momentous as the guiding principles of our life.  Yet it is not a binary choice.  At each point, and on each issue, we need to choose over and over again.  And we have at least three choices, not two.  We can say "Yes, I believe, despite my doubts".  We can say "no, I don't believe that".  Or we can say "I'm just not sure, we'll have to wait and see".


Brad McCoy said...

I was excited when I started reading this post, because I thought this could just the sort of book I could use right now. But I soon became disheartened - it's a good apologetics framework that I need! Any suggestions?

Brad McCoy said...

By the way, been really busy lately. Still meaning to call you (some time in the new year)!

Jon said...

There are helpful things in some of the books I've reviewed here over the past year - Alister McGrath's "Twilight of Atheism", and some of his other books are good too, Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" although she may be a fair way from where you're at theologically, Marilynne Robinson's "Absence of Mind". I'm still looking for someone who puts it all together though. When I do you'll definitely see it reviewed here after all my whingeing about bad apologetics!

Happy to chat any time about that other stuff, no rush.