When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would share my doubts. We were both members of an evangelical campus group, but we also had skeptical minds. My skepticism emerged particularly when I read the works of Christian apologists claiming to demonstrate the rationality of Christian faith. While some of my friends were encouraged by such arguments, my reaction tended to be “I doubt it.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t a Christian. It was just that I didn’t find the arguments convincing. My Christian friends accepted the arguments, it seemed to me, because they reinforced their beliefs, not because the arguments were good arguments. And so, when Brian and I would sit and talk together, I’d suggest that someday I’d write a book called, “I doubt it,” critiquing the ideas and arguments of Christian apologists.
It’s been over 30 years since my college days, and I haven’t written that book. But I’ve done a lot of thinking about doubt. and the discouragement and depression that can sometimes come with it. Through those years, God hasn’t let me go. I’m still a Christian, and I’m still a skeptic. My inner life doesn’t tend to be very peaceful. My mind raises lots of questions, especially about God, about the kinds of things that happen in the world, about the church, about all sorts of things that make me wonder about my faith. For good or for bad, my mind usually doesn’t come up with answers. Just troubling questions. In various ways, things that Christians say or do or believe don’t seem to make sense, or are just plain wrong. Things in the world don’t seem to suggest that God is in control, or that God even cares. Christians have used the Bible to support slavery, war, racism, violence against women and children, and all sorts of evil things. Sometimes churches seem to do more to support structures of evil than to promote justice and peace, shalom. All kinds of things make me skeptical of this faith I call my own. Can I really believe this? Do I really want to identify myself with that?
In short, I’ve been thinking about darkness, doubt, and skepticism for a long time. I’ve read books about the nature of skepticism and how to overcome it. I’ve read apologists and Christian philosophers. Sometimes, I’ve wondered if sin is the problem. If I could just overcome my favorite sins, I’d no longer doubt. Recently, I’ve been reading several books on living with experiential darkness, doubt and depression. And I think I’ve found some insights. One particularly helpful idea came to me from Addison Hodges Hart’s little book, Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God. Hart suggests that skepticism is not the opposite of faith, that it need not be viewed as the enemy of faith. Skepticism helps one remember the limitations of human reason and knowledge. It challenges one not to settle for easy answers. It holds out for truth. “Skepticism,” he writes, “within the context of Christian faith is, I believe, a good thing. . . . It is a faith open to questioning God, examining his ways, complaining to him, and even expressing exasperation at his silence. It is a faith that admits sorrow and sadness and mental darkness, one that places melancholy before God in a place of legitimacy, as well as a sense of humor. . . . this is the kind of faith we find in the Bible itself” (page 23). What these words have helped me see is that skepticism is part of my faith, not opposed to it. Perhaps I am a person for whom faith without doubt is impossible. Doubting (what Hart prefers to call skepticism) is an aspect of “how I do faith.”
And I don’t believe this is because of my sin. Yes, I am a sinner. I am well aware of that. But doubt is not a punishment for sin, nor it is just the natural outcome of sin. Certainty is not a reward I can expect once I get my life totally together. No, skepticism is a gift from God, a gift that can be used in many ways, to build up the body of Christ, to help discover truth, and to understand and love others. Skepticism reminds us that our limited ideas and concepts are never adequate to understand the God they point to. And while I sometimes find myself in the dark, whether intellectually or emotionally, I am coming to believe that God is still there, walking with me whether I am aware of the divine presence or not. “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Sometimes my mind yells out to God, “I doubt it;” sometimes my heart protests, “Where are you? I feel so cold!” Even in those times, I will look up at the street sign and remind myself, whether I feel it or not, that I am walking on Grace Street!