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Monday, August 31, 2009

questions and doubts

Despite the name, Perl Monks is not a religious website. It's a computer programming forum; the monks' mission is to help novices grasp the mysterious complexities of the Perl programming language. But sometimes they teach a lot more.

For example, when an anonymous user posted a question with the title Regular Expression Doubt, monk Merlyn offered helpful grammatical advice:

I suspect you are not a native English speaker. I'm pretty sure you don't mean "doubt" there, which means "I understand, but I do not agree". You almost certainly want "question", which means "I do not understand".

For me, Merlyn's response is even more helpful, because it clarifies a larger issue I've been wrestling with for some time.

Some Christians are fond of saying that their faith contains elements of doubt. I've said it myself. For some, the doubts are a response to circumstances that make no sense; for others, the doubts are part of a long-term (possibly lifelong) struggle. Either way, it's an attempt to honestly assess the current state of our faith.

But there's something about that phrase that just isn't right.

It isn't that real Christians never have doubts. The gospels, in fact, record that even Jesus' disciples sometimes doubted:

Matthew 14:26-33
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

John 20:26-28

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

But in both cases, Jesus rebuked his followers for having doubts, and in both cases, apparently, the doubts immediately subsided.

Doubt is not an element of a healthy faith. If you read many atheist blogs, as I do, you'll see a fairly common pattern where doubts about the Christian message are the seeds that later blossom into "deconversion". You'll also see discussions on how to use doubt as an evangelization tool, to help move believers toward skepticism.

I've always thought these discussions miss the point, so far as my faith is concerned; but until now I haven't really been able to articulate why.

The difference between questions and doubts explains it, I think. I can't say I often reach the point in my faith where I understand but disagree (though I do disagree with some theologies); on the other hand, there are many things I'm unable to understand. (It may sound trite, but the more I learn, the less I think I understand.)

What I have are questions, not doubts. Maybe it's because I have a mystical or experiential faith. The God I know is beyond my ability to fully understand. I was not reasoned into my beliefs, and I will not be reasoned out of them. All I can do is dive deeper into the mystery, and questions often provide good entry points.

Questions can and do lead to a more mature faith. Genuine doubts do not. But why do some people have questions and others have doubts? That's another mystery.

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At 9/01/2009 7:38 AM, Blogger Blake said...

I would disagree with Perl Monks definition of doubt. What he described is disbelief. Doubt seems better defined as "I understand but am unsure or uncertain about the authority that information has for me."

At 9/01/2009 7:51 AM, Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

I don't think I'm buying this, Bruce. But, you've certainly got me thinking! I also appreciate Blake's point about "doubt" vs. "disbelief." I don't have a good reply to your post right now, but I did want to stop by and say thanks for the food for thought.

At 9/01/2009 11:46 AM, Blogger James Higham said...

Some Christians are fond of saying that their faith contains elements of doubt. I've said it myself.

If they had genuinely committed, then these Christians would have received the Holy Spirit and when that rush comes to you, doubts disappear.

The only doubts are in the lead up to the commitment.

At 1/02/2010 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been looking all over for this!



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