Being raised in a religious community, I was given a particular understanding of what faith was. Primarily, faith was the amount of certainty one placed in the supernatural. From my Protestant tradition, the most important form the supernatural took was the Bible. So, faith was often equated with how much certainty one placed on the inerrancy of the Bible. Faith was also defined by one’s certainty of “things unseen” — not simply stating that there were things unseen, but that they took a particular form derived from a particular reading of the Bible.
The consequence of measuring faith by one’s certainty is that it defines its opposite as doubt. The more someone doubts the Bible’s claims about the supernatural, the less faith they have — the fewer the doubts, the “stronger” the faith. This so-called strong faith was valued in my communities growing up. Those with strong faiths led in my churches, Christian schools, missionary trips, and social groups. They were role models to be praised and emulated.
An expression of doubt indicated that someone had a weaker faith, that they were “struggling.” And, because the Christian faith was the source of morality, a weak faith would lead to “backsliding” into immoral behavior. Doubts lead to sin, and so they were condemned as a sin. And, as such, doubts were seen as the work of Satan.
A person who expressed doubt was treated with the appearance of love and caring concern. But, despite claims of being in a safe community, voicing doubts was implicitly discouraged. The caring smiles of those with a stronger faith disguised what I eventually perceived was actually deep-seated fear. A doubt shared might cause others to doubt. A doubter was a threat to the community. A person of “weak” faith was a serious problem that needed to be solved. Doubts were constantly prayed against, cast out of people, and “defeated.” Their concerns were dealt with safely behind closed doors or in small groups — never on stage. And so doubts and doubters alike were often quickly minimized, sequestered, and silenced.
The clear message I received early in life was that doubt would push me to the outskirts of my community. If I doubted, I would be pitied, feared, and marginalized. I would fear myself as a conduit of the works of the evil one. To be spiritually safe, admired, and included in my community, I needed to shun doubt as much as sin.
The outcome of this understanding of faith is toxic. It has been a major source of spiritual trauma and abuse. People are taught that they are a problem to be solved. Doubts breed fear — fear of exclusion and damnation. Doubts breed shame — internally shamed about the state of one’s own soul and externally shamed by the community.
The degree of this fear and shame can span from a low-grade, chronic erosion of the soul to an explosive and violent destruction of a person’s psyche and self-worth. Viewing doubt as the opposition to faith is counterproductive to spiritual health, psychological well-being, and the creation of a truly supportive spiritual community.
The fatal flaw in this framework is equating faith with certainty and believing that the opposite of faith is doubt. This could not be more backwards. The opposite of faith is not doubt — it is certainty.
Why has American Christianity fallen into this counterintuitive concept of faith? I believe there are several factors at work:
- It prioritizes post-enlightenment approaches to understanding matters of faith.
Post-enlightenment rationalism is very effective for understanding the natural world. This type of thinking gave us the scientific process. If we break down a system into its component parts we gain knowledge that allows us to develop technologies that advance human flourishing. Post-enlightenment thinking relies on evidence in order to draw conclusions.
In the face of challenges to the Bible by scientific discovery, American Christianity has reacted by applying post-enlightenment methodologies to matters of faith. It has attempted to infuse the Christian faith with rationalism in order to develop evidence and proofs for things unseen (apologetics). It made faith the function of the brain’s left hemisphere, which applies a reductionist methodology to make the mystery of the Divine fully explicable. Unfortunately, this placed unattainable expectations on matters of faith, which, by definition, are not comprehensible in this manner.
- It makes mental professions of beliefs the linchpin of faith.
Applying post-enlightenment thinking in a systematic theological format, Arminian Christianity came to prioritize mental processes as critical to the faith. Salvation is dependent upon an individual mentally assenting to a set of propositions or else facing eternity in the fires of hell. Professing belief (which is a mental act) in the “Four Spiritual Laws” or praying “The Sinner’s Prayer” is the central function of conversion to the faith, escaping damnation, and entering into eternal life in heaven. Being a member of the eternal community of faith is dependent upon the functioning of neural networks in the human brain. Modern Western Christianity made the stakes very high that the brain gets it right.
A difficulty for many Arminians is wondering if they’ve thought the right thoughts (i.e. prayed the right words and understood the correct concepts). There is no proof that they’ve done it right. There is no receipt that the transaction occurred. They are left to rely only on the level of their certainty that they have done it correctly. As a result, doubts are seen as evidence against certainty. If one is not certain, then perhaps they don’t truly believe. If they don’t truly believe, then their mental profession of faith has failed, and they may be damned to hell. No wonder why doubts are feared!
It was for this reason that I was drawn to Calvinism in my early 20s (which I have since abandoned). I had difficulty with the concept that mental processes and neurologic functioning resulted in changing the mind of God regarding our eternal destiny. Calvinism teaches that God is sovereign, and that salvation is a work of God, not of man. We do not choose God, God chooses us. A mental profession of faith is a “work of man” and is not sufficient for salvation. Doubts concern Calvinists less since eternal destiny is not in their hands, but, for me at that time, doubts only made me fear that I was not one of the elect.
- It claims hell is the consequence of not having faith.
The doctrine of hell, defined as eternal conscious torment, is likely the driving force behind the need for certainty. We are naturally addicted to certainty, however, hell is one helluva motivator to be in the right tribe. Granted, if one believes in that kind of hell, then it is impossible not to fear doubts. They are indicative that either your profession of faith is potentially insincere (Arminianism) or that you are not one of God’s elect (Calvinism). I do not think I could assuage the fears of any Christian holding to this doctrine.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. The fact of the matter is that all people have doubts whether they are acknowledged or not. Those who claim certainty are simply not acknowledging their assumptions — and we all have assumptions.
Biblical scholar Peter Enns recommends that we understand faith not as certainty, but as trust (I highly recommend his book, The Sin of Certainty). William Paul Young (author of The Shack) said,
“We’re locked inside the narrowness of our paradigms, because frankly we want certainty, we don’t want trust. And trust is the big journey. We’re so stuck in our heads, that we’ve turned belief into the home that we’ve built inside of our own minds that have become prisons to us. And it’s all of this intellectual rationality rather than the mystery and the ambiguity of actual trust.”
One of the major problems with evangelical fundamentalism is the focus on doctrine over love — the need to be right over right living. It is trying to be certain in the wrong things. It has forgotten that the primary thrust of Jesus’s message was that love supplants the law, rules, doctrine, and even tribe.
The original purpose of the law was to give structure to a people for the best way to live. It was like a finger pointing to the moon. However, the law itself had become the point. The finger became the point, and they forgot about the moon.
Jesus criticized most those who adhered to doctrines at the expense of caring for their neighbor. But Western Christianity placed certainty in specific doctrines back on the pedestal. It took the message of Jesus and ironically created a new law — be in this religion (“faith”), think these thoughts to avoid hell, follow these moralistic rules, etc. The problem for most Christians today is that they confuse their doctrines for faith — confusing the finger for the moon.
It is much easier now for me to doubt these new laws and doctrines when their fruit is shame, fear, and exclusion. It is much harder to doubt love, care for our neighbor, and inclusive community. Jesus taught us to ignore religion when it contradicted love (e.g. the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath). In those situations, the best course is to trust in right living.
I picture a belief as a butterfly I hold in my hands. White-knuckled gripping squeezes the life out of it. Holding a belief with an open hand allows it to live, breathe, and move. Embracing uncertainty as a simple, unavoidable fact and holding beliefs with an open hand can bring surprising peace. I prefer to trust God — to trust that love is truly supreme, to trust that all humans are of equal inherent value, and to trust that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. That, to me, is faith, and it leaves room for doubt.
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
—Frederick Buechner, author and theologian
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
Photo via Stocksnap.
Jacob Turnquist is a physician specialized in allergy and pediatrics. He is an introverted Enneagram 5 with a penchant for craft beer who always needs more time for reading. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and children. His essays can be found at stilliamlearning.com.