The importance of doubt in a spiritual life

While wrestling with this week’s scripture I found a series of pithy sayings online all of which were supposed to present the correct “Christian” view of doubt. My flat out favorite was the one that showed a picture similar to the one on the cover of today’s worship book. Underneath the text read: “Doubt for one minute and they never let you forget it.” The rest of the quotes which were supposed to present the correct “Christian” view of doubt fell into two different schools of thought which were diametrically opposed to each other.“Cast out doubt. Cultivate Faith” was an early winner from the ‘No Doubt allowed’ side. “Doubt you doubts before your doubt your faith” came in a close second.

The ‘Doubt-full’ side of this debate held that doubt is a good for your soul. “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith,” wrote Pail Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. I think American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamont hit it out of the proverbial park when she said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Preachers from the ‘No Doubt allowed’ school of thought sometimes speak of their “sure and certain knowledge” that God exists and moreover that God agrees with the pastor’s interpretation of the entire bible. But I am from the ‘Doubt-full’ side of the debate. I do not know that God exists, I believe that God exists.

Since the Age of Enlightenment began during the early 18th century, people have been debating whether God exists. Some philosophers crafted elaborate logical arguments to prove God’s existence. Some theologians developed arguments proving God’s existence which were as artful s they were circular. A few scientists entered the fry and attempted to use science to show why God must exist. Not one of these approaches won the battle. They all shared the same flaw: they sought to prove as a fact a truth that can only be believed thru faith.

If you have sure and certain knowledge something is true than you know that something is true. I have sure and certain knowledge that as I speak the chancel spotlights are now shining on the crucifix over the high altar. I can prove this to you by going over and asking you to watch the crucifix as I flip the lights on and off. Together we can agree in sure and certain terms that speak the chancel spotlights are now shining on the crucifix over the high altar. We can accept that as a fact – the kind of fact we can prove in scientific terms. I know this to be true, but I cannot accurately say I believe as a matter of faith the chancel spotlights are now shining on the crucifix. Because I don’t use faith to believe in scientific facts. I use faith to believe in truths I cannot prove; beliefs I can only hold through faith and beliefs which are more become facts the moment they can be scientifically proven to be true.

I do not believe as a matter of faith that E = MC2 – I know that Einstein’s theory of relativity has been proven to be the most accurate basic law of physics we currently have to understand part of the universe. I know that to be true as a matter of scientific fact.

By definition I cannot prove or know that God exists as a matter of scientific fact: God’s existence cannot be proven – if for no other reason than that’s not what God wants from us. We – you and I – are called to believe God exists; to have faith that God exists. Claiming sure and certain knowledge of God’s existence destroys our ability to have faith; makes it impossible for us to believe. You can’t believe through faith what you know as a sure and certain fact.

Doubt is the antidote to the virus that claims “sure and certain knowledge” of matters that can only be known through faith. Doubt is the medicine that cures us of the arrogance that says we know more than God. Doubt not and you will believe not.

As the poet Robert Browning wrote: “I show you doubt to prove that faith exists.” No doubt equals no faith. It is as simple as that.

Yesterday thousands of Americans marched in support of science. It is surreal to think we needed a March for Science in this the second decade of the 21st century. But we did. One of my favorite signs of the day was posted online by my friend Scott-Michael Pomerenk. Scott’s online sign read:

Today you and I are called to speak up and point out the difference between topics we can settle through scientific inquiry into the facts of the issue and matters of faith which can only be determined as a question of faith. Much of today’s conflict across America stems from confusing things which are best decided with science and things which are matters of faith – of what you believe.

In the end, Mother Earth will forcefully remind us that scientific findings linking human actions with climate change cannot be reversed by those who “don’t believe’ in man-made climate change. Science doesn’t care what you believe. Science describes what is happening and why. You can ignore the science. But if you do, if you revoke air quality standards the air you breathe will become more polluted. You can kill Obamacare, but if you do thousands of Americas will, over time, die deaths that medicine could have prevented. You can destroy America’s public schools, but if you do the next generation will be ignorant and unable to meet the challenges they face. These are not my personal predictions. These are the impacts science shows will come from actions now underway or under consideration in Washington, D.C.

As Christians, we are called to make clear what we see as facts and what we believe through faith. We are called to defend God’s Creation from degradation; to protect the sick from being without healthcare; and to protect our globe from the ravages of human-created climate change. This will require us to believe the legacy of a living hope for a better tomorrow which forms the foundation of our Easter Joy.

Let us pray:

Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection. May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that is imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit. May God’s people say: Amen.

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